Thursday, April 03, 2014

Everybody's Rocking

Pavement - "Unfair" (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, 1994)

I didn't get into Pavement until a few years after the band broke up. When Pavement were at their height I was as far away from indie rock as possible, and it's only in hindsight that I've been able to go back and reconstruct genealogies for the period. It doesn't help that the only people I knew who listened to Pavement when Pavement were popular were rural California coke dealers, which is the most bust-ass type of coke dealer you can possibly imagine.

So by the time I first heard Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain the album had already been elevated to it's lofty position in the canon, where it has perched comfortably ever since. While Slanted & Enchanted may take pride of place for being first, and in recent years Wowee Zowee may have superseded Crooked Rain in parts of the critical cognoscenti (because, of course, it's the difficult third album, not the accessible commercial breakthrough attempt), I still believe I can say that Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is the band's finest moment. It's one of those albums that appears precision engineered to be a classic, without any of the calculation that label implies. It just works from the opening salvo of detuned guitars and drum thwacks, to the way Malkmus' voice trails off at the end of "FIllmore Jive," mid-sentence ("their throats . . . are filled . . . with . . ."), every moment seems completely indispensable while somehow at the same time completely contingent. All the normal slacker cliches apply: they sound lazy, unmotivated, sometimes willfully obscure - but that's a lie the band tells to cover for the fact that everything is firmly in its right place. Every snarl of clumsy feedback and offbeat drum fill sounds exactly the way it needs to sound, chaos very precisely marshaled to maximum effect.

Malkmus had a plan, and that plan was partly to strip-mine R.E.M.'s Reckoning. He admitted as much in a 2001 essay on R.E.M.'s second album for Q magazine, and even without his own words it's not hard to see the family resemblance. Pavement recorded a cover of "Camera" for the "Cut Your Hair" single, as well as a weird track called "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence" for 1993's famous No Alternative compilation that is literally about how much Malkmus loves Reckoning:
Flashback to 1983, /
"Chronic Town" was their first EP, /
Later on came "Reckoning," /
Finster's art... /
Titles to match: "So. Central Rain," /
"(Don't Go Back To) Rockville," /
"Harborcoat," /
"Pretty Persuasion," /
"You're born to be a Camera."
You don't have to be a detective to see the traces of Reckoning in Crooked Rain. Listen to "Range Life next to "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville." Listen to "Stop Breathing" next to "Time After Time" - hell, listen to "Fillmore Jive" next to "Camera." It's obviously not a 1-to-1 correspondence throughout the album, but you'd be hard pressed not to see the kinship. In the aforementioned Q essay Malkmus states that he never felt the same connection to the band's material after Reckoning. Perhaps he didn't need to: he got everything he needed from that one album. The shaky, sort-of-not-quite amateurism used to cover up a tight band who could rock in post-punk lockstep when the need arose; the abstruse approach to vocals; even the ominous abstract hand-crafted cover art.

This isn't meant to take anything away from Pavement. As the saying goes (and one I tell my students every quarter, even if I'm always worried they'll misinterpret it) - good artists borrow, great artists steal. But another attribute Pavement shares with REM is that they are both at their core regional bands. Although they eventually outgrew the sound, REM in their IRS years were definitely a Southern concern. Sure, there was the post-punk rhythm section and the New Wave artiness and the Byrds-y jangle, but there were also strong hints of good old Southern rock lurking under the skin of the Georgia band. Reckoning has a few subtle Skynrdisms for those who care to listen. Fables of the Reconstruction is full-on Southern Gothic, all creeping vines and decaying plantation houses - straight-up Faulkner shit on "Life and How to Live It" and "Old Man Kensey." But there were enough other influences and plenty of novel wrinkles to ensure that REM were unique enough to never be pigeonholed as a regional band in quite the same way as, say, the Drive-By Truckers, also hailing from Athens a couple decades later, and unapologetically so. (Yes, that kind of regionalism makes bands great, but can also limit their appeal to a wider audience unwilling to bother deciphering regional codes.) But the Southern roots can't be effaced.

Pavement are in their heart a California band, but they're a California band in the same way that REM is a Georgia band: it's there if you know what to listen for, but if you aren't intimately familiar with California mythology it's easy to pass over or dismiss. I mentioned above that I didn't get into Pavement until a few years after they broke up. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was the first album I heard, and even before I knew much else about the band I knew they were from California. I just knew. Listening to the album made me nostalgic for California at a time when I had been away from California for years and it would be many more years before I was able to return in a permanent capacity.

I'm fascinated by the image of California that non-Californians have. California is one of those places that people who aren't from here think about and form opinions on in a way they don't about, say, Kentucky or Montana or Arizona. We have it drilled into our heads from a very young age - pretty much the first moment we enter the public school system - that California isn't just geography, it's aspirational real estate: we are (or so the impeccable logic of my fourth grade history pageant reinforced) the westernmost edge of the westernmost country on the planet, Hy-Brasil for the country and the world. We have every climate and ecosystem on the planet, from scorching desert to snowy mountain peaks and everything in between. Living outside California for eleven years - and in Massachusetts for eight of those - it always amused me that whenever it came up that I hailed from California, the other party would usually chuckle, maybe even wink, before asking me, knowingly, "well, how do you like the cold here?" And I would say, it's not bad, but I grew up in the Lake Tahoe area, Truckee is the fifth snowiest city in the United States, and my elementary school was literally 500 yards away from the Donner Party monument where we honor a group of people who resorted to cannibalism because they were stuck and starving amidst twenty-foot-tall snow drifts on Donner Pass. So yeah, your "Nor'easters" are pretty cute.

"Unfair" is one of my favorite songs because its one of the few California songs I've ever heard that isn't about either LA or San Francisco. Most of the state is invisible to the rest of the world, to whom California is always palm trees, sunshine, and then maybe fog moving in over the Golden Gate. California, when taken as a whole, is actually fairly boring: the bulk of the state is a flat valley resting between coastal mountains on the west and the Sierra Nevada range on the east, and it is in that flat valley that the agricultural engine of California's export economy operates. (Another staple of the California public school education: we all know practically from first grade that California is the sixth largest economy in the world, even if we have no idea what that actually means.) Most of the middle of the state is banal as fuck: flat agricultural land and one-horse towns strung clumped across the plains at intervals convenient for the bathroom breaks of long-haul truckers heading north and south on Highways 5 and 99. Stephen Malkmus isn't just from California, he's from Stockton, one of the most depressingly uninteresting places on the planet, all rusty industry (including, incongruously, a massive inland port connecting the central valley's agricultural output with the Bay Area and larger world), faceless suburbs and dissolving urban spaces. Of course he's going to appear flat and affectless and terminally ironic: there's nothing to do in Stockton but be vaguely amused at the emptiness on display on every corner. ("Because you're empty / And I'm empty.")

I grew up around Lake Tahoe, but we moved to the vicinity of Mount Shasta when I was a bit older. People are often confused to hear that there are hundreds of miles left in California between San Francisco and Oregon. Sure, it's mostly empty space and conservative Republicans, but it's also vitally important because the north provides the water that the south needs for agriculture:
Up to the top of Shasta Gulch, /
And to the bottom of the Tahoe Lakes, /
Manmade deltas and concrete rivers /
The south takes what the north delivers.
If you're not from California you can't understand how important water is to state politics. Sure, you've seen Chinatown, but you probably didn't understand that the plot's fixation on water rights wasn't a quaint historical curio, but a mirror for ongoing and very pressing struggles over water distribution that split the state to this day. If you've never lived here you can't understand how much mental real estate this conflict occupies in the state's collective psyche. And since I've lived in Northern California - which, remember, represents only a small percentage of the state's population - the idea that the south steals the north's God-given water resources has been hardwired into my brain. That's one of the core grievances behind the desire to split off from California and form the State of Jefferson: the populous and wealthy south would have to pay a fair-market price for the water that Sacramento sucks from the Shasta basin. The proposed State of Jefferson flag even has two X's on it to indicate the ways in which Northern California has been double-crossed by Sacramento and Salem. (Incidentally: the "State of Jefferson" barn pictured on the Wikipedia page is a barn I used to pass on the highway every day on my way to high school. It's a weird place.)

If you're not from California, you probably don't know how funny "I'm not your neighbor you Bakersfield trash" actually is. And if you're not from California you probably don't get why Malkmus referring to Stockton as "Central Northern Cal" is hilarious. (That's a joke only someone from Northern California would make because to LA, everything north of Valencia is "Northern California," and people who actually live in Northern California are constantly annoyed by the fact that the rest of the state refuses to acknowledge our existence. Stockton is pretty much in the center of the state but it isn't Northern California by any stretch unless you lop the top the top third off the state.) There are references to California peppered throughout the album, and throughout the rest of the Pavement catalog (most prominently "Two States" off Slanted and Enchanted, which is also about water rights.), but "Unfair" is their California opus. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a California album - an album about California as (in REM's words) the end of the continent, of the nineties as the end of the century, and of the end of rock and roll. Not long after Pavement's heyday - after the group definitively rejected the possibilities of stardom revealed by the success of "Cut Your Hair," and retreated to their positions as (rightly or wrongly) standard-bearers for the ambition-challenged, rock began to recede from its position at the forefront of the cultural conversation. The mythology we built around the idea of rock & roll was just as profoundly misguided as the mythology erected around California as the apotheosis of American exceptionalism.

I keep coming back to Malkmus' words from the end of the album, "Fillmore Jive": "See those rockers with their long curly locks, / Goodnight to the rock and roll era / 'Cause they don't need you anymore." If teaching a class based around music writing and eliciting the musical tastes and preferences of late teen- and twenty-something on my campus has taught me anything, it's that the "rock and roll era," if there ever was such a thing, has passed. Rock isn't dead, but it's slowly assuming a cultural position similar to jazz and contemporary classical: something mainly produced by and for cultural and economic elites, without much purchase on the popular imagination in all but its most blatantly populist forms. For listeners who grew up with the implicit understanding that rock was the default genre of popular music, it's a strange sensation to realize that there are kids in your classroom - functioning adults, really - who don't know who U2 are. Not that I'm particularly a fan of U2, but it puts the supposed ubiquity of rock stardom into perspective. With the mythology gone, rock is simply another cultural signifier (which it always was, even if your parents may have taught you otherwise), and it signifies something increasingly remote from the lives of a large percentage of American youth. It's no longer the counter-culture, it's the establishment in every way that matters.

And that's OK: California's a great place to live, but it's hard to reconcile the self-aggrandizing legend with the riven reality. Rock and roll is great, but it's no longer the center of the universe. That era's done, for better or for worse. And there's something freeing about that.

1 comment :

MarkAndrew said...

Holy shit dude, this was great.