Pavement, Trying Not to Try by Jeff T. Johnson


I. The ABC’s of PVMNT

a.  Pavement may or may not be late for its own party. In a 2001 Revolver interview, two years after the band’s breakup (depending who you talk to), Stephen Malkmus quipped, “I’m not saying that we won’t reunite for a ‘Monsters of Indie Rock’ stadium tour in 10 years.”[1] It’s been 11 since 1999, nine since the quip, and Pavement gave us a heads up a year ago (—you do the math).

b. Which was exciting—an announcement that Pavement would reunite. But the thought of purchasing tickets one year in advance was an immediate comedown. I don’t know if I’ll still be human by then, I told a friend who asked if I was buying a ticket.[2]

c.  SM, ca. 2000, via Indiepit: “The vibe of the band at the end felt melancholy in some ways. But we had great times as a band. I don’t really regret much about it. It felt like a perfect time to end it, because everything was pointing towards it. It’s been 10 years, it’s perfect. The century’s ending. I’ve got these songs that won’t translate as well with this band that’s impossible to get together and organize.”

d. A friend[3] working on a book about the Silver Jews asked me what my favorite three SJ albums are. I replied:

This is a question that has always vexed me re: Pavement.

—Forgive me for the inevitable comparison, but I do think of these two bands together (though I recognize that the Silver Jews predate Pavement and are not a side project, unless you define side project as a less well known band featuring someone from a better known band, even if the scales might have tipped a little toward the Silver Jews, because of their relative longevity).—

Not only do I have trouble deciding on my favorite Pavement album—or, more accurately, I continually change my mind—, but there are three contenders, and any of them might hold any of the three positions at any time. Furthermore, those three albums—Slanted & Enchanted, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and Wowee Zowee, might be joined by a pseudo-album, Westing (By Musket and Sextant), which is a comp of early singles and EPs. Also, in addition to being in the running as best Silver Jews album, Starlite Walker deserves consideration as one of the best Pavement albums, both because it’s a brother to a sister of Slanted & Enchanted, and because most of the players in that version of the Silver Jews are Pavement personnel (which is or could be to say that Pavement outnumbers Silver Jews on that album, as it does on the last good Silver Jews album, Tanglewood Numbers).

e.  From the same reply, Re: The Silver Jews, American Water (1998) as final Pavement album (via memory of first hearing the Silver Jews, on the radio):

sj smaller

I first heard the Joos on KALX Berkeley, in 1998, when someone played “People.” My initial response was, Wow, what a Pavement rip-off. The song stuck with me enough that I looked it up, and figured out that one of the singers didn’t just sound like Stephen Malkmus. I remember I saw the vinyl at Amoeba in Berkeley, propped above the indie-rock section (I’m pretty sure this was before Amoeba combined its rock and indie-rock records). I went crazy for the album and told several friends about it. My friend Kate Mercier listened to the album and remarked, “I’m afraid the next Pavement album won’t be this good.” She was right: I liked Terror Twilight, which is a remarkable final album, but it was no American Water. The glee and abandon of Malkmus’ contributions as a Silver Jew circa American Water seemed to come from the early ’90s, compared to the strained and restrained efforts on Pavement’s last testament.[4]

f.  In its initial run, Pavement was known as a shambolic live band. The messiness seemed to be part of the point, if there was a point. Pavement was a band that didn’t take itself too seriously. After assembling its first LP (Slanted & Enchanted) and a follow-up EP (Watery Domestic), Pavement became a different band when it shed its 40-something drummer, the wobbly but steady Gary Young. Or maybe the band changed, then got rid of its original drummer and enabler.[5] Pavement was reaching for stability, or some addled sense of consistency, and its next LP, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, was the band’s best shot at mainstream crossover success. It featured songs like “Cut Your Hair,” “Range Life” and “Gold Soundz,” which were about as close to radio ready as Pavement would get.

The following album, Wowee Zowee, was a shaggy-headed, 3-sided, stoned and dethroned retreat from the edge of the spotlight, and a different kind of triumph—a return to ragged glory.

pavement building

g. The story I’m trying to tell with “I” is of the band I saw live in the mid-to-late ’90s. I recall seeing it a few times on the Terror Twilight tour, and I probably caught it on the Brighten the Corners tour as well. Pavement was not the sublimely sloppy band I’d eventually see in early ’90s footage from The Slow Century DVD. By the late ’90s, it was a more controlled, even finicky outfit. Malkmus and Kannberg played on opposite wings of the stage,[6] and percussionist Bob Nastanovich—who joined during the Slanted and Enchanted era to brace the band during Young’s shakier sets—would run up to a third mic to do the screaming bits from songs like “Conduit for Sale!” (Nastanovich jumped around like a fan who’d joined the band, which he kind of was, hollering “I’m trying! I’m trying! I’m trying! I’m trying!”).[7] Malkmus often looked bored or reserved, and Kannberg looked dejected, but it came off like raw-nerved friendship drama on a stage that might collapse[8] at any moment. There were moments of guitar dialogue and howling, lyrical pathos, but there was also a coolness that threatened to freeze over.

h. Malkmus’ hair: In the earlier days of Pavement, SM’s hair was bratty-length in front. He’d hang his head while he noodled, hiding whatever expression might be on his face. He neatened up above the ears for his Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain close-up, then grew it out like a good neo-hesher for Wowee Zowee. The minuscule band photos from Brighten the Corners show the band striking aging suburban poses, and Malkmus looks like a study in uncool, with an office-job Supercut and all-weather weekender jacket. He may or may not be wearing dad-ish wire-frame glasses. At one of the short-hair shows, I remember thinking he couldn’t rock as well without the face-curtain. He grew it out a little for at least part of the Terror Twilight tour, but he was hiding a different face, sadder or more frustrated, eventually an I’m-out-of-here face.[9]

i.   My first Pavement album was Wowee Zowee, so it’s usually my favorite.

The first Pavement album I bought was Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, but the vinyl was warped, so I took it back to Amoeba. There wasn’t another copy, so I exchanged it for Wowee Zowee. I fretted over whether to keep the bonus 7” from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and opted to be a good shopper and return the whole package. Years later, reading the detailed discography notes in the Pavement bio Perfect Sound Forever, I realized that the 7” only came with the first pressing of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which is to say I had the last copy in Berkeley and returned it because it wasn’t perfect.

j.   Favorite Pavement albums:

1.   Wowee Zowee

2.   Slanted and Enchanted

3.   Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

4.   Brighten the Corners

5. Terror Twilight

k.  Brighten the Corners was the first Pavement album I bought after waiting for it to come out. The first time I listened to it, I had a house guest and had to keep the volume down. Until recently (around the time of its deluxe reissue), it was my least favorite Pavement album, the least Pavement-like.[10] The Brighten the Corner B-sides—“No Tan Lines,” “Wanna Mess You Around,” “Cherry Area,” “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence,” etc.—sounded like the real Pavement, and I was disappointed to find out that most of them predated the BTC sessions. They were relics from a gone Pavement. The Pacific Trim EP, released one year before Brighten the Corners, sounded feral in comparison to that album (even with its cheeky, genteel pop opener, “Give It a Day”; it’s a sign of both Pavement past and Pavement future.[11] Now I can hear the struggle with getting older, with feeling older, in Brighten the Corners. I can hear the fight in it. And I can hear Malkmus rapping his lyrics over music that sounds looser and more complicated than it used to sound. I hear a better, more vital, more unique album. In a recent interview, Malkmus mentioned an earlier track sequence, less front-loaded, that was much “cooler.” Imagine what that secret order would sound like—cool kids on restriction, locked away in their suburban bedrooms, fingering their guitars with headphones on.


l.    I didn’t buy tickets for the 2010 NYC reunion. Either I was resigned to missing it, or I figured I’d end up seeing Pavement one way or another. Surely there’d be another show. Maybe Pavement was just gauging interest, or telling a year-long joke.

m.  Early this year, I fell into a tentative plan to get into the NYC show. A friend with a portable pizza oven told me he’d be cooking at the Central Park date, and said I could help out and get into the show.[12]

n.   Tickets popped up this July, in the worst way. A friend from California bought three tickets when the reunion was announced, then her mom got seriously ill, so she stayed in L.A. to take care of her. I bought two of the tickets, one for me and one for C., so we could join Kate, who had the third ticket (she of concern about Pavement measuring up to American Water). Kate and I talked to Malkmus at the schwag table during the last leg of Pavement’s final American Terror Twilight tour. I was shocked that he was hawking merch and signing T-shirts, though I bought both shirt designs, and the one he signed is currently in a frame leaning against the wall in my hallway. What are you doing here? I asked him. Meeting and greeting, he sighed, with a sort of bashful but also shameless grin. Kate asked, What do you think of Chan Marshall?[13] After a beat, he said, She’s got a great voice, but she’s a real heartbreaker. We walked away a-swoon.


o.  Most of my best Pavement memories are of listening to records, and the best of those best are associated with side three of Wowee Zowee, cued up in my best friend’s apartment[14] in the late-’90s San Francisco Mission district. I’d go over to his place to enact our version of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’s last track, “Fillmore Jive” (“Passed out on your couch / You left me there / Thank you”). At the most fraternal stage of our drunkenness, Jonathan would cue up “Half a Canyon,” and we’d lose our minds as Malkmus found and lost and found his voice.

o 2


p.   is for Pavement.

II. Notes on watching video of Pavement playing “Gold Soundz” on The Colbert Report, 9/20/10

pvmt buffy smaller

III. Why Don’t You Let Me: Notes on Central Park, Manhattan reunion show, 9/23/10

1.  Woo! Soundcheck. —prereq. self-consc. aud. snark, sequentially carried away and wise to the first appearance of people on stage

2.  “Grounded” and “Gold Soundz” and songs that make

3.  Grown boys coo and ooh along in falsetto… Ahhh Ah!

4.  So, I had a lobotomy today… I feel great. —Stephen Malkmus, between songs

5.  Bob Nastanovich, second drummer and utility man, may have once felt like the odd man out (particularly when unkind interviewers and critics puzzled over his role in the band). He could come off as a cheerleader (or fan) onstage, but on this night he’s the most important member of Pavement. True, there’s no reunion without Malkmus, but without Bob’s energy, the band wouldn’t’ be Pavement. Drummer Steve West—who looked around 40 in the ’90s, and still looks around 40; some people plan ahead—is a vital part of the stage presence and not-ready-for-primetime spirit of Pavement, but like fans-cum rhythm section Bob N and Mark Ibold, he was not in the earliest lineup—if you can call it that. Pavement began as a self-mythologizing recording project: Scott Kannberg was Spiral Stairs when Stephen Malkmus was SM; Gary Young, who really was around 40, was the default drummer, it wasn’t quite the ’90s, and no one really cared. This classic, retarded version of Pavement ambled its way through several EPs, blasting static while Malkmus warbled lines like “I told her I was free of disease and she believed in me.” With the help of Bob and Mark, and the moral support of drinking buddies like Berman (who’d alternately recruit and dismiss Pavement members for The Sliver Jews), Pavement fashioned the holy grail of proto-’90s indie rock. Kannberg circulated a tape-only version of what would crawl a couple yards out of the hiss as Pavement’s first proper album, Slanted & Enchanted, and the rest is a history you already know or can read about elsewhere. Anyway, Bob grew on Pavement, and his role became more pivotal as the band lurched toward its Terror Twilight. By that time he was screaming the screaming parts at shows, and running around stage emoting so Malkmus wouldn’t have to if he didn’t feel like it. Bob’s been called the heart of Pavement, but he’s also its id, and its conscience, and its pud. Malkmus has been touched by the same devil that granted Thurston Moore eternal youth, so he’s still lank and limber in body and voice. Kannberg has thickened noticeably, and has trouble reaching the sublimely caterwauling, everyguy-singing-his-guts-out peaks he used to pursue, so he flattens and speak-sings most of his lines (though he pushed it on a lovely “Kennel District” encore, and his rounds of “Why didn’t I ask?”, accompanied by Malkmus, were an emotional highlight of the show). Mark Ibold, who joined the band on grins and bass once Pavement became a touring outfit, still supplies bounce and goodwill, and his interim-acquired belly suits him well. Bob looks and sounds the same, and the band now seems to plug directly into him.

6.  Fantastic life! says Malkmus, riffing on Bob’s dedication to a 30-year-old birthday girl in the crowd, and referencing an early single by Mancunian evergrey band The Fall, whose singer, Mark E. Smith, is Darth Vader to SM’s Luke Skywalker.


[Mark E. Smith being all, I AM YOUR FATHER!]

7.  I’ve been here before. I’ve always already missed the real thing. By the time I saw Pavement live, the good old days were gone. Of course, the good old days are always gone. But I recognize Pavement 2010. They’re a lot like late ’90s Pavement: Something already happened, and we’re all still here because whatever that was, we thought we could do it again, on a good night.

8.  It’s not a great song or anything, but we haven’t played it yet. —Stephen Malkmus, introducing _________ _____.

[1] In 2008, The Daily Swarm ran an oral history of Pavement reunionology, which does not include the money shot, but does include gems like this 2004 Malkmus palliative: “[W]e all get along; no one is like a lawyer with a huge caseload or has lost an arm.”

[2] “I got a lot of things to do / Lot of places to go.” —Stephen Malkmus, singing “Box Elder,” an early Pavement song about which he once quipped, live, “can’t beat the old ones.”

[3] Cheers to Chris Stroffolino.

[4] It should be noted that Terror Twilight is the least democratic Pavement album. It’s the only one with no Scott Kannberg songs, and Malkmus purportedly recorded most of it on his own. It might properly be considered Malkmus’ first solo album, rather than Pavement’s last album.

[5] Young had a home-recording studio, and joined the band as an expedient to recording Malkmus’ and Scott Kannberg’s (aka Spiral Stairs) early songs.

[6] Malkmus stage left, Kannberg stage right—islands in the same storm.

[7] Effectively, Nastanovich was filling in at Malkmus’ abdicated center mic as he re-enacted the lead singer’s recorded outrages, tantrums Malkmus couldn’t get up for live.

[8] or sink

[9] See Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic for more on the uses of the rock, etc. mask.

[10] As outlined above, Terror Twilight is, in retrospect, technically the least Pavementy.

[11] Pacific Trim was recorded without Kannberg. In one version of Pavement Internet lore, Malkmus, Nastanovich and drummer Steve West were scheduled for a Silver Jews recording, when head Jew David Berman stormed out. As this was an SJ – Berman = most of Pavement lineup, the prepaid studio time remaindered to Pavement. (Other versions of the story say that Berman had to cancel on a Silver Jews session, so Malkmus took over and called in Pavement minus Kannberg, and in one of those versions, Kannberg is off playing golf during the session.)

[12] Thanks to Dave of PizzzaMoto, who makes a mean pie from his trailer rig.

[13] Who, as Cat Power, made the talismanic Moon Pix, the well-titled and sometimes rocking, always awesome What Would the Community Think, the authoritative Covers Record,  among other marvels, and also covered Pavement’s “We Dance” in 1999.

[14] Please note potential extraction of “Best Friend’s Arm.” Thank you, etc.


This Week in Weather

Well, we were nearly on time.
To be taken seriously one would don even
the disguise of mediocrity. That’s
how much we wanted it.

A friendly tension develops at the next table
after the counterman is turned down
on a bid to accompany his favorite customer
Wednesday night to—did he say the Chinese circus?
Were there acrobats? Surely there were acrobats.

Meanwhile you left us buried
in paperwork carrying the marks
of our patrons, who shine brightly
the light of their benevolence. What bounty
awaits us in every store, the welcoming
arms of customer service!

The language of business will keep us
in the back valleys still colored by kindness
where all is always well.

Our bus is approaching and none too soon:
This goes out to wherever you are.


[Image by Bill Hayward]

Jeff T. Johnson lives in Brooklyn, NY. His poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in 1913 a journal of forms, Slope, VOLT, Caketrain and Cannibal, and his essays have appeared in Fanzine and Kitchen Sink, among other publications. He collaborates on The Intimacies Project, and has contributed to The Tolerance Project. He attends the graduate program in creative writing at The New School, and is on the editorial staff at LIT and Dewclaw.

Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.  Check out previous POP essays here: