Magazine article The New Yorker

Major Leagues

Magazine article The New Yorker

Major Leagues

Article excerpt

&Pavement, the elegant, knotty rock band fronted by the guitarist and singer Stephen Malkmus, has just completed an extremely successful reunion tour that included a week of shows in New York. The band hadn't played live since 1999, and although this tour has generated the kind of excitement that could justify another year of shows, the members insist that their "time limit" is real: there will be no new Pavement songs. The Web site Pitchfork named the band's single "Gold Soundz" the best song of the nineties, and Robert Christgau, a critic naturally averse to consensus but patient enough to know when it's meaningful, has called Pavement "the finest rock band of the nineties." In a decade as varied as the nineties, that's a hard call to make, but if we're going to make that call I would choose Nirvana. So why do so many people choose Pavement?

Malkmus has made a career of writing songs that are as much puzzles as songs, but he can also be direct. In a recent interview, he talked about his band's casual approach onstage. "If people think that we're lackadaisical or anti-rock-star or something, our fans don't expect that," he explained. "That would just be what a normal person would do if they were in a band. It's not like some statement to be this way. It's just the way people are, from our age, that have seen us play." The band's demeanor--equally indifferent to accuracy and visible effort--has shaped an entire generation's expectations of what is supposed to happen onstage. Pavement has done a brilliant job of both reflecting and creating its own audience. Calling this fan base "normal" is a coded way of saying "people like us," the eternal rallying cry of exclusion.

If you sense that I'm ambivalent about the canonization of Pavement, you're right, but I do really like the band. I first saw the group live in 1991, in Coney Island, at a freak-show venue on the boardwalk. The act's first drummer, Gary Young, was standing near the entry, handing out small pieces of fabric. Several people told me that he was a homeless man who had glommed on to the event. Eventually, Young wandered back into the club and sat behind the drum kit. In front of a crowd of several hundred, Pavement played a set that was somewhere between thought-out and random, to band members and audience alike. Young stood up between many songs, sometimes on his stool. At one point, someone shouted from the stands, "Gary, sit down!" He did, and played precisely and with unerring time, utterly at odds with his appearance. Largely plangent and calm, like classic rock that had been spliced and rearranged, the songs we heard were punctuated by brief squalls of noise. Malkmus had already chosen the stage position that he would hold for twenty years: extreme stage right, as far from the band as possible. He didn't seem very interested in us, or in his bandmates, and he mumbled two jokes, neither of which I understood.

Pavement played songs from an upcoming record that had been anticipated for months, "Slanted and Enchanted." It would be the band's first full-length album, after several EPs, and its first release on Matador Records, an increasingly important New York indie label. When it came out, in April, 1992, the record was pretty much what I wanted. The album was noisy but not obscure, used melody without being predictable, and was weirdly confident. Malkmus had developed a style of singing that alternated between articulating notes and just speaking, as if maybe he had forgotten how the song went. His lyrics have been tied to a variety of literary sources, sometimes because Malkmus has named an inspiration, such as the poet John Ashbery, but Malkmus was always writing lyrics, words meant to be sung. …

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