My relationship with Stephen Malkmus started out a little rocky. His band, Pavement, was one of about twenty alternative bands included on a compilation called No Alternative that I bought in my junior year of high school. And I kind of hated them.
Now, the primacy of the music compilation may have run its course. Even before the advent of the paradigm-exploding Internet, independent film soundtracks had become the primary vehicle used by independent music to circumvent the flaccid and facile world of FM radio. At the time I discovered No Alternative in a record store an hour’s drive from my country home, though, spending $15 on a sampler of songs was the best economic decision I could make. I knew two bands on the compilation: Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. The rest, I was sure, couldn’t be half bad. I was right. In fact, the bands on that comp were the coolest bands to emerge from the early-‘90s alternative swarm. Uncle Tupelo, Jonathan Richman, the Breeders, Buffalo Tom, even Soul Asylum; these were the bands that would lay the groundwork for my understanding of music.
“Unseen Power of the Picket Fence,” the song contributed by Pavement, was all so much noise to me then. Over what I would later come to describe as a dirge of groaning guitars, an aloof singer delivered clipped lines about Athens, Georgia’s R.E.M. The words to the song were reverent. “There's some bands I'd like to name-check,” he sang. “And one of them is R.E.M./ Classic songs with a long history/ Southern boys just like you and me.” The delivery, though, was completely irreverent. Later I would learn that Stephen Malkmus – a child of Stockton, California – was no Southern boy, but back then I already knew. And I wasn’t interested.
I wanted something real and honest. And I thought I had found it with Urge Overkill’s track, “View of the Rain.” This song, with its excessive pathos, aligned perfectly with my teenage self. It was both earnest and tragic, which made it beautiful. This, I thought, was my life. I liked it so much that I planned to perform the song during a spaghetti dinner talent show fundraiser for my high school show choir. I didn’t play piano, so I asked my friend Carrie to transcribe the seemingly simple song and play it while I sang.
I imagined standing in front of the gymnasium full of choir boosters and parents and delivering a devastating performance. “I don't try anymore,” I would sing, “‘cause only booze improves with age/ I don't fight anymore, but sometimes my fists clench up in rage.” The world, I thought, would know my pain. And whatever piece of pap my fellow show choir members could dredge up after – be it “The Rose,” or “The Sound of Silence,” – well, they might as well have been whistling Dixie.
But Carrie never learned the song and the highlight of the spaghetti dinner talent show instead came from Scotty, the monotone foreign exchange student from Korea, who took his shirt off and breakdanced to the dumbfound silence of the assembled townsfolk.
Sixteen years later, I have more respect for Scotty than I do for Urge Overkill. And Pavement too. While I still stop for a heartfelt ballad, pathos has long since revealed itself as pathetic, a ugly side-effect of a juvenile mind that thinks the world is against him. Pavement, as I would learn after listening to them throughout my young adulthood, was a band that played as if there was no way the world could be against them.
Even if their reality was confusing, at best, it was a reality delivered with full – if sometimes frustrated – conviction. Like a foreign exchange student twirling to pre-programmed synthesized beats in front of a group of people who likely could not locate his country on a map, I learned to worry a little less and live a little more.
Read more essays on the "Pavement-effect" written by Gretchen Bennett, Ryan Molenkamp and Matt Olsen when you pick up your copy of the May issue of City Arts Seattle.