Five things I know about the rock band Pavement and their (to me) penultimate album, Wowee Zowee:
My friend G called me at 4pm at the book and record store where we both worked. I was on shift at the back counter, pricing out bad blues records by the stackful and fending off a fast forming headache thanks to the drum circle echoing in from the farmer’s market in the parking lot out back.
Working the 1-5pm/6-10pm swing shift sucked, because even though you got an hour lunch break you were still, in effect, at work for 9 hours that ate up the entire afternoon and most of the evening. In a mid-size town like Santa Cruz, a lot of life is closed after 10pm. You could go to the Red Room and drink if you were over 21, or go to the Saturn Café and eat if you weren’t, or if you were me and you were still in high school you could go to Denny’s and wait for a loosely connected group of cute ex-surfer musician boys to pass through between surely glamorous social engagements in search of fries, ranch dressing, and bottomless cups of coffee.
Except I wasn’t in high school anymore. I was years out, a real proper grownup, technically, who’d already done time in the big bad city of New York and was moving back West to save my soul, or some money, or my wandering ass. It was the year 2000, I think. Or else it was the year 1995. I really can’t recall, now.
It was one of those several years I spent a summer in Santa Cruz, working at the bookstore, readying my constantly in-movement young self for another transplantation. From city to city I took an assortment of backpacks, purses, and duffle bags filled with the essentials of my searching life: a few books, some music (mostly mix tapes), favorite cardigan sweaters and baggy work pants and sexy-librarian pencil skirt, sneakers, sheaves of paper with things I wrote on them. This was one of those times. Touching home plate for a minute in this grounded and flighty place it is always good to be from but also, always, nice to be leaving.
G had invited us over in advance, something that didn’t often happen in our small circle of old friends. He had called out the invitation a few days ago, to me and B and our friend J, whom he was dating. Invited us over to his new apartment right downtown, only a block or two from the store. He had said, “You’re invited to a concert” and left it at that.
He called again on the store telephone that afternoon while I was at work, to remind me to come over after my closing shift.
“Don’t forget about the concert. Bring refreshments of any nature.”
I said, “Yeah dude, sure, whatever,” and that was the most fascinating dialogue I’d had all day.
G didn’t play any musical instruments.
B and I arrived together after I left the empty, darkened store to my coworkers, wishing I could stay behind with them after closing and drink beers while sitting on the counters and blaring the store’s stereo system. Sometimes we did that and I listened, joked, swung my sneakers against the counter, felt like a center of something stationary.
We walked up the concrete path leading to the large Victorian house G had just moved to. The vaguely gothic mansion was split up into individually rented rooms, some without kitchens, in the style of a boarding house. G ushered us in to a dimly lit bedroom that smelled of hormones and controlled substances. J was there already, and there was whiskey and perhaps popcorn procured from the kitchen of a “housemate” in the connecting studio. It was dark and I felt like I should be stoned. I probably was.
There was not a lot of small talk, only speakers, arranged to face us on either side in a perfect triangle of sonic planning. We lay on the futon on the floor, all three of us, small young women with one slightly older tall man. We all had loved each other variously over the years, and made up a small “band” of our own when we were all together in the same place, sharing a common allegiance to music and literature and other certain cultural/physical artifacts, such as the redwood forests that vein in and out of our town.
The concert began with a voice, a man’s voice uttering a sexy, casual salutation almost thrown away in the mix of the recording. But when listened to in a custom programmed full-album experience on your old friend’s floor, the voice slid breathlessly close to your neck hairs:
“Come on in.”
G’s concert consisted of hitting play on a pre-programmed CD player and having us listen to the Pavement album Wowee Zowee. We were surrounded in the small dark apartment by these songs we knew already and adored. But this time, the album was “live” in concert, somehow transformed: G had spent painstaking days and nights re-arranging the track order of the songs into what he termed a perfect album arc. This is a great album, he was fond of proclaiming, but the order is all wrong. So he did something about it.
Because why would you not begin your album with “Grave Architecture,” clearly one of the best and most fully formed songs on the album? (Although: starting an album with the lyric “there is no castration fear” is pretty fucking bold.)
And because this was the kind of band we thought we owned, thought we were in, they spoke so well to us. And because there in the dim futon rearrangement of musical works and friends’ bodies, I felt at home.
Pavement is the kind of band you want to throw a customized concert of in your tiny weird first-floor studio apartment with no kitchen, in an old house across the street from a grass-covered empty lot where a much younger me was once almost kissed in an empty lot by a boy with one leg.
“Grounded” is the kind of song you put on a mix tape for a different boy, a friend-only guitar-playing poet boy, and send it across the country and notate the song listing (which you typewrote out on magazine cutouts and folded into the shape of the cassette cover yourself) with only “Best. Guitar. Hook. Ever: after dying on these streets.”
Wowee Zowee marked a career-summing-up blast of maturity for a band that often ruled its indie slackerdom with the “whatever”-chorused sloppiness of songs like “AT&T.” It flows as such, even in its original order, and it is all the Pavement trademarks of angry and sad and loud and sprawling and funny and sexy and rocking, all in turn. It is less raw and punk than Slanted and Enchanted, less listenably perfect than Crooked Rain Crooked Rain. It is sometimes more annoying than these albums. But it still has it all, including the vague lyrics that fluctuate between profound and ridiculous as heard on the first track, “We Dance,” or, here, from “Grounded” again:
they’re soaking up the fauna
i don’t know which
boys are dying on these streets.
The lyrics are always backed by a musical adherence to silliness that counterplays the skilled guitar sounds spiraling out of these snarky boys wearing corduroys and sneakers. (Witness the juvenile glee of “Brinx Job” versus the drawn-out Western licks in “Father to a Sister of Thought.”) This is an album, not a collection of songs strung together. There are movements – moments of ups and downs, gentle meandering slides into thoughtfulness later buoyed by ribald anthems. It ain’t perfect, but it’s complex, yo.
Stephen Malkmus is a poet and a prince-faced scoundrel, and probably a bigger artistic and literary influence on me than any lyricist since Lou Reed and any visual artist since Jean-Michel Basquiat. There is a dreamlike consistency to his words that might be laziness and might be mistaken for chance. I call it dreamlike because the only time I get close to the kind of meaning-without-elaboration writing that hallmarks Malkmus’ lyrics is when I wake up from a dream and write in the dark while still half asleep. Usually, it turns out good. Or, better still, I allow myself to fall asleep, pen in hand on paper, and try the next morning to transcribe what I scrawled into a weak approximation of the glory deep inside us all. Like the band’s patchwork collage scribble of album art, it’s cheeky, but it’s beautiful, too.