"The Pavement Tapes"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, May 26, 1997
At least one long and winding road to hell is paved with interpretations of rock lyrics. Writing on the subject tends to fall apart because lyrics make less sense to the eye than to the ear. Words are blurred and bent by the music that swirls around them. “A song doesn’t exist to convey the meaning of the words,” the critic Simon Frith has written. “Rather, the words exist to convey the meaning of the song.” A Cambridge psychologist once found that if a singer deliberately switches from ordinary words to nonsense syllables in the middle of a song only a few people hear anything amiss. Any singer who has suffered a memory lapse can corroborate this observation. When singers write the songs themselves, the proportion of obscure lyrics naturally creeps up; the same nonsense syllables that cover memory lapse can cover writer’s block. In any case, rock loves nonsense, and it has evolved new dialects outside everyday language. There’s vacant, joyous nonsense (“Doo-wah-diddy,” “Gabba gabba hey”), vacant, shadowy nonsense (“I am the walrus,” “Here come the warm jets”), and nonsense that declares war on reality (“The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”).
Nonsense needles the ear with possible meanings. Sometimes there’s really nothing there: random syllables are prized purely for their rhythmic pounce. Rock songs tend to be written backwards, in terms of the old Tin Pan Alley production line: a guitar riff dictates the shape of the words to come. And since the voice competes against guitars, lyrics may amount to little more than a few strong phrases that are pitched to the audience through the blur. Michael Stipe, of R.E.M., whose lyrics have caused trouble for fans who listen too closely, sticks words into structures that are already half worked out by Peter Buck and the rest of the band: often he simply strings together sonorous phrases that he’s collected here and there. Listening at home, fans pick out details that disappear in live shows; they also add words of their own invention. In 1965, Bob Dylan’s already obscure warning about the “mystery tramp . . . not selling any alibis” was misheard as “mystery trend,” and a San Francisco band started up under that name.
The best rock riddles echo the eerie image-making of blues and folk, ancient evangelical ramblings, and other traces of what the critic Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America.” In his book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Marcus searches for the origins of the topsy-turvy folk-rock songs that Dylan recorded with the Band in 1967. One of his examples is this Appalachian lyric as sung by Clarence Ashley: “Gonna build me a log cabin on a mountain so high / So I can see Willie when he goes on by.” It’s one of those familiar-seeming lyrics that turn strange at second glance. Why a log cabin? Who is Willie? You see some devilish scene and jerk back with a start.
Nonsense is a tricky game on a public stage; it risks misunderstanding, and also understanding. After a million revolutions of the turntable, fans may trade in mysteries for dull meanings. When the commercial machinery of music is so lethally quick at labeling and packaging anything spontaneous or inexplicable, it may not be surprising that one gifted band of the nineties has retreated farther up the mountain of nonsense that almost any before it. What kind of rock stars could go on MTV singing, “I’m an island of such great complexity”?
Mysterious vinyl records marked “Pavement” began showing up at a few offbeat stores, radio stations, and magazines at the end of the nineteen-eighties. Pavement was evidently the name of a band from Stockton, California; nothing else was known. Collegiate and postcollegiate music fanatics were fascinated by every feature of the band’s makeshift promotion: the hard, enigmatic name, the record jackets à la Anselm Kiefer, the Edison-cylinder scratchiness of the sound. (The title of their first EP, Perfect Sound Forever, made ironic reference to the early hype for compact disks.) The music burrowed through the dense, dissonant textures that were fashionable in eighties underground rock, then took flight in stately melodies that smacked of a sunbaked suburb and a refined pop-record collection. A flat-toned voice sang lyrics that sometimes touched on suburban discontent but more often drifted into unanalyzable abstraction. “Life is a forklift,” went the song “Forklift.” “Now my mouth is a forklift. This I ask, that you serve as a forklift too.” What did it mean? No one had any idea. That was the beauty of it. Pavement was credited to “SM, Spiral Stairs, and G. Young”; it looked to be some kind of dangerous Dadaist cult.
When the band first toured the East Coast, in 1991, I went along with a crowd of indie-rock obscurantists to find out who SM, Spiral Stairs, and G. Young might be. One friend of mine had heard that G. Young was a reclusive Pynchonesque genius who had hired teen-agers to play his rock compositions. We looked around for this mastermind but saw only a drunken hippie drummer—Gary—throwing cabbage at the audience and flailing on all sides of the beat. Handsome-nondescript California guys in their twenties turned out to be the real agents of Pavement. They were obviously pleased with he hubbub they had created, yet they refused to play anything like the detached, driven music on the records. Thanks in part to Gary, they essentially murdered their songs. The effect was comic but also confrontational: the band seemed to be trying to drive its new audience away.
Pavement entered the scene during the “grunge hype” that followed the success of Nirvana; major labels were signing every kind of guitar band. Pavement turned down big-money offers and remained with the independent label Matador. From that perch, it began taunting bigger bands and feeding gibberish to the press. Several magazines printed a tale about Pavement auditioning to appear on Beverly Hills 90210 and getting into a fistfight with the teen idol Jason Priestley. Scott Kannberg, the band’s rhythm guitarist and manager, continued to give his name as Spiral Stairs. Stephen Malkmus, the lead singer and lead guitarist, was asked to explain lyrics and made them twice as obscure. Pavement had a small hit in 1994 with the song “Cut Your Hair,” which seemed to be about the rock business and its emphasis on “career, career.” Malkmus insisted to one critic that he was actually singing “Korea! Korea!” and foresaw a nuclear conflict with that nation.
In the last few years, Pavement has eased up on its provocations. Gary is gone. Steve West is the drummer, with Bob Nastanovich switching between percussion and background noises. Mark Ibold plays athletic bass lines. The three guitars race every which way and then balletically intersect. Over four albums, Pavement’s sound has become more tuneful and playful, cruising through thirty years of rock history and wandering into country and jazz. Its latest album, Brighten the Corners, was produced by Bryce Goggin and Mitch Easter, and sounds uncharacteristically crisp. Its live act has become more focused and extroverted. Rock critics adore the band; unruly novelists like Dennis Cooper and Bret Easton Ellis admire it; cultists catalogue it on the Internet. Yet Pavement still had a relatively low commercial profile. The question always hanging over this band is whether it should be “bigger”—and, not coincidentally, whether its lyrics should be simpler.
Malkmus writes most of the sublime nonsense that gives Pavement its slacker-genius aura. He’s about thirty and looks a bit like Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet. I don’t know him, but I know people who resemble him—people who are strikingly intelligent but make a point of avoiding career paths that reward intelligence as a matter of course. Malkmus has chosen a line of work in which intelligence can become a liability. Lead singers are supposed to be dumb and woozy, like Liam Gallagher, of Oasis. Malkmus aims at writing rock songs with history and poetry in them. He has a gift for coining phrases that sound like points in a missing manifesto or like slogans for a movement yet to be named: “The South takes what the North delivers”; “Between here and there is better than either here or there”; “Praise the grammar police.” But no phrase really connects with the next, and Malkmus’s little orations turn cryptic or comic.
Malkmus found his voice as a songwriter in “Summer Babe,” the first track on the 1992 album Slanted and Enchanted. This song has exactly the swaggering, classic-rock sound that the title leads you to expect: Kannberg’s guitar strides forward, Malkmus’s voice lilts up and down, everyone’s having fun. It’s such a grand come-on that the words probably register only in the corner of your ear: something about waiting for a summer babe. Listening again, you find that the clichés you thought you heard aren’t there. “She waits there in the levee wash, mixing cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar,” Malkmus has been singing. “Minerals, ice deposits daily drop off your first shiny robe. . . . Yooouuu’re my summer babe.” Your classic-rock song has been hijacked by surrealists. Malkmus sings it with such cool passion that the irrational lyrics somehow flow as nostalgically as the conventional lyrics they seem to have replaced.
Despite its surface beauty, Brighten the Corners is even more manic in its mind games. Malkmus’s voice is closely recorded, and in several songs he half sings, half speaks in a style that falls somewhere between jazzy rap and talking blues. So you can’t overlook the fact that that the first track, “Stereo,” begins with the inscrutable words “Pigs they tend to wiggle when they walk; the infrastructure rots, and the owners hate the jocks, with their agents and their dates.” A few moments later, the topic, so to speak, has switched to the falsetto croon of the lead singer of Rush—”What about the voice of Geddy Lee? How did it get so high? I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy?” A band mate chimes in, “I know him, and he does!” Malkmus answers, “Well, you’re my fact-checking cuz.” The idea that such a song could have its own fact-checking department is Pavement’s best joke since the Jason Priestley hoax. “Stereo” culminates in the amped-up, delirious refrain “Listen to me! I’m on the stereo! Stereo!” Heard on the radio, the song seems to be celebrating its unexpected arrival there, on wings of nonsense.
Sometimes Malkmus is apparently seeking out words that can’t have appeared together in rock songs before. In “Type Slowly” he sings the phrases “excruciatingly gray,” “leather terrarium,” and “Lady, I am no futurist.” More often, his choices have musical logic behind them. He pins his lines to classic rhythms—for example, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” pattern, with the “Goode” falling between beats two and three. Malkmus invents ever odder combinations of words to fire up this old syncopation. “Shady Lane,” the catchiest song on the new album, has a gentle, hypnotic melody that keeps slipping off the beat and then falling back into line. Two Johnny B. Goode-like phrases that cause slippage are “emery board” and “worlds collide.” In another song Malkmus sings, “I vent my spleen at the Lord / He is abstract and bored”; this has the same rhythmic contour as, say, Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American band.” Even if the words don’t cohere, meanings emerge. “Shady Lane” suggests a calm refuge in a crazy world, with the meaning really taking shape in the texture of the music—losing the beat, finding it again.
A Pavement album is a series of small labyrinths. The pleasure of the maze matters more than finding a way out. After many repetitions, the strangeness of the language remains; at the same time, the lyrics mesh with the music in ways that make nearly every word sound natural and exact. The band plays the same trick over and over, so far without exhaustion: weird words decay into infectious music. Pavement has found its place in the pop landscape and has refused to move an inch. It protects its core of mystery, which is also a kind of blazing innocence.