Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I used to hate Pavement. Or rather, more precisely, I hated what I thought Pavement was. When Pavement was an actual going concern, I didn't have a lot of time for most indie rock. I was into electronic music and all that accompanying, vaguely European utopian futurism. There was something really appealing about the sleek, gleaming, worldly cosmopolitanism communicated by bands like Underworld, Massive Attack and the Chemical Brothers that excited me in a similar manner to how superhero comics and science fiction had done once upon a time. It was an alternate universe predicated on different aesthetic principles than those of mid-90s post-Nirvana grunge - and best of all, it was the future. It was where we were going to spend the rest of our lives. At the time even Radiohead's Meeting People Is Easy seemed glamorous, a vision of the future as dense confusion and dystopian signal-to-noise ratios.

But then a funny thing happened: that future did not arrive, or at least, it didn't arrive in the same way we thought it would. You can buy a PC that fits in the palm of your hand and fit a thousand CDs into a little box the size of your wallet, but things are still shabby around the edges. Most of us still live our lives in those edges.

The people I knew who listened to Pavement when the band was first around were, well, I don't know the polite way to say this - burn-outs. They did coke and worked at grocery stores, and the whole vaguely polite smirking indifference and lack of ambition could not have been further apart from my life and experiences. I guess I didn't fit with Gen X. (I never actually sat down and watched My So-Called Life until earlier this year!) Anyway, looking back I realize that I misunderstood the whole thing. I was on some whole other trip. Eventually I learned to stop seeing things in binaries - futurist vs. revanchist, for instance. There was nothing revanchist in Pavement. It took me a while to "get" lo-fi - and I'm not even trying to say that Pavement were lo-fi, except maybe the earliest tracks on Westing By Musket and Sextant - but that whole Sebadoh / Guided By Voices scrappy shambling thing was something I needed to grow older to appreciate.

And now Pavement is one of my favorite bands. The thing that strikes me most about them now is just how quintessentially Californian they are. Of course they're one of the most popular indie bands of all time and not all the people who ever liked them were Californian or even American - but all the same, if you are actually from California, it seems as if there's a whole 'nother layer of inference and meaning that reveals itself. I don't just mean the songs that are obviously about California, like "Unfair" - but damn, if you had any idea how funny that song is for anyone who actually grew up in Northern California!* - but there's this washed out, sprawling enervation of spirit that comes from living anywhere in the state that isn't either the Bay Area or greater Los Angeles. There's a whole lot of nothing from San Bernadino County to Siskyou, and the older I get and the longer it's been since I've lived in California that I am drawn to Pavement for the vicarious thrill of driving through the sun-saturated desert byways of my home state.

I couldn't recognize what was so intrinsically Californian about them until I'd been away from the state for long enough to recognize it as something slightly removed from myself. But now that attitude makes perfect sense. Forget for a moment that all the people who listened to Pavement in the 90s are all aging hipster yuppies by now, and that their forthcoming reunion tour will probably look like American Apparel mugged an iPhone commercial. There's something irreducibly sloppy and aggressively banal about the whole enterprise. California is big - California is huge. Something people who just see the state on a map probably don't realize is just how diverse it is: you've got the hottest spot on the surface of the earth within a couple hours of high ski mountains that stay snow-capped all summer long; you've got rain forest and desolation wilderness; you've got the Sierra Nevada mountains and the San Joaquin Valley. But living in the middle of all this natural splendor sort of makes you jaded. It wasn't until I lived in Oklahoma for a few years that I realized just how awesome it is to actually have mountains on the horizon everywhere you looked. It wasn't until I lived in New England for all these years that I realized how nice it is to have nice wide-open spaces that aren't claustrophobically penned in by midget foothills.

And that's California: sure, there's a small percentage at the top who live Hotel California or even Ritual de lo Habitual, but for most everyone else it's life on the margins of cartoonishly large splendor. You take it for granted, which sounds obscene to anyone else but that's the truth. It's enervating, slightly used, but yet pretty irreplaceable all the same. And that's Pavement.

* Briefly: you can understand in theory that Bakersfield is the pits in the same way that, say, Newark is the pits, but until you've actually spent time in the area Bakersfield you have no idea how funny "I'm not your neighbor, you Bakersfield trash" actually is. Likewise, the constant references to just how much Southern California exploits the North is just one of those things that everyone who lives north of Sacramento knows on a cellular basis (Pavement is from Stockton, yes).

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