PRINT September 1994



Chaque époque rêve la suivante . . . consciousness or unconsciousness cannot simply depict it as a dream, but responds to it in equal measure with desire and fear.
—Theodor Adorno, letter to Walter Benjamin, 1935, in Aesthetics and Politics

Out on tour with Smashing Pumpkins/Nature kids, they don’t have a function/I don’t get what they mean/And I could really give a fuck./Stone Temple Pilots, they’re elegant bachelors/They’re foxy to me/are they foxy to you. . . .
—Pavement, “Range Life,” on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, 1994

THE ERA IN QUESTION IS MERELY a moment after all—1994, months after Kurt Cobain’s death, just about three years after punk rock finally broke big in America—just about three years after punk finally moved out of the half-hour ghetto of Postmodern MTV and into heavy rotation. All alternative, all the time, a Renaissance in American music. Socrates was the first to notice that there might be a problem with this sort of thing—don’t write it down, he told his students. “Once a thing is put into writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands of not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it” (Plato’s Republic). Or, (more) alternatively: “Songs mean a lot/when songs are bought/and so are you” (“Cut Your Hair,” from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain). Popular music is always exactly that—popular—and it always insists on taking the commodity form, variously fetishized or not (i.e., fetishized and then forgotten, nothing really escapes), another undialectical opiate. Of course the thing with opium dreams (which is what Pavement makes, music alternately drifting and jumping along, following the lines of an invisible map from coast to coast, Stockton, Calif., to New York, N.Y.) is that they feel great. Even if there is, seemingly, no control. So no one listened to Socrates—not Plato, nor Pavement either. They nodded their heads in rapt and enraptured agreement, then scrawled it all down anyway, giving little heed to the legions of more or less interesting misinterpretations that would result. Gnostics and neo-Platonists and wild-eyed German Romantics, rock-critical response and the Fall and High Sex Goddess Kim Gordon: books and record collections stretching out toward infinity.

Denial didn’t solve the problem. Plato wrote the dialogues, filled with sound and fury, poetry and myth-understanding in equal measure, signifying, for a while anyway, everything. And Pavement made those seven early singles, “Slay Tracks” et al. (later released in one package as Westing by Musket and Sextant, no one was hip enough to own them all), equally filled with sounds and little tempests, almost-poetry and horrible staticky guitar myth. Signifying, for a while anyway, too much, sounding very much like the next big thing. All this despite themselves, and all their very best intentions. Which in those days took the form of tiny little CDs barely released by a band so unassuming that, for a while there, they didn’t seem to exist at all. Least of all for themselves. At first, even geography conspired with them—S.M. moved to New York while Gary Young, the original drummer, and Spiral Stairs lived in Stockton—so of course it was impossible to rehearse. Or even be in a band really. Consequently those first singles have the feeling of a happy accident, a head-on collision between suburban boredom and a basement full of junk: maybe those were drums, or maybe they weren’t—maybe they were the garbage can in the corner. And that guitar sure sounds lousy when you run it through that J. C. Penney amp, it goes right with those Dada-poetry-meets–Michael Stipe lyrics. The results sure sound awful, but awful in the old sense, as in terrible and full of awe, all at once. (S.M., the front man, probably looked it up in his Book-of-the-Month-Club Special Membership Offer OED, he’s that kind of guy, Pavement’s that kind of band.)

Of course the best way out is, as always, the way in. Affirmation: embracing the contingent, loving the clinamen, the magic Lucretian swerve. Baudelaire knew it, Nietzsche knew it, and now Pavement does too. Love your spleen, embrace the wreckage of your boredom, take it home and make beautiful things out of its ruin, and it will not prevail against you. So now Pavement makes noisy poetry out of what’s closest to hand—out of reruns on Fox, out of the albums that have haunted you since high school (think Fall, Morrissey, REM, Sonic Youth, Dave Brubeck, and Frampton Comes Alive; remember those bits of old pop hooks and melodies and lame-ass rock anthems), out of summer love and summer songs, pseudo-intellectualism and willful stupidity. All this while keeping one eye on the critical response, nudging it one way or the other with noisy (or quiet) guitars, pop (or punk) licks, and alternately unintelligible/endlessly intelligible lyrics.

If independence and youthful rebellion were getting to look like a rigged game to all of us—no dice, except for the fuzzy dice in your brand-new-used Chevy Nova, rolling along the suburban strip—Pavement made it seem possible to warp the system just a little, with just the right kind of sound. If only you could find a speaker that was lo-fi enough, if only your pop hooks sounded exactly wrong in exactly the right way. If only you could make perfect music for a post-capitalist cargo cult, sad and joyful songs for ecstatic bricoleurs, tunes for dancing aimlessly around a bonfire of old albums and young college theory-texts, you just might succeed at not succeeding, on your own terms. And thereby survive your own success. So when S.M. sings “I was dressed for success/but success it never comes . . . /Come join us in a prayer/we’ll be waiting, waiting there/Everything’s empty here,” over a gently noodling guitar, it sounds like the benediction it really is (“Here,” from Slanted and Enchanted). And not a moan of despair.

That’s the real secret here, the one that Pavement may even have been the first to discover: the suburbs—strip malls, fuzzy dice, and all—are strength. This country is one giant suburb, a vast matrix of junk/junked culture and secret lives enacted behind closed doors, the whole of it linked together by a network of anonymous streets and an ocean of rolling green lawns. In A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe a program for becoming a body without organs, for extending desire indefinitely and making it something other than lack. Pavement have copped to the suburban secret, the one Walt Whitman told us long ago in Leaves of Grass, another hymn to American life: the lawns are grass, the grass is rhizome, it goes everywhere, it’s always moving, always sending out shoots, the secret is to be like the lawns, barely noticed underfoot, but everywhere all at once just the same. Just like the band, just like sidewalks and streets. And Pavement—the band—have understood this, creating a body without organs out of a handful of CDs and assorted debris; there’s no sell-out because their desire is strength, it wants for nothing.

Mark Van de Walle is the media/culture editor of THE magazine and lives in Santa Fe. Currently at work on a book with Wes Mills, he writes reviews for Artforum.