Current DJ: Jenny Lizak
Aesop Rock Drums on the Wheel from Music from the Game Freedom Finger (Rhymesayer) Add to Collection
None of us get to choose when we turn 19 years old, that magical year when we're free from mandatory schooling, (hopefully) out of the house, and unburdened from the requirement to ask permission for the opportunity to enter the difficult matrix of actions and consequences. Nineteen hundred and ninety-one, I guess, was as good a time as any. That was "the year that punk broke", as some still call it, a major before-after landmark in the history of rock.I was attending journalism school out in Oregon when I first saw the anarchic pep rally of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video on MTV one afternoon -- it came on right after C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)," for good measure! -- and we all just looked at each other in our cramped three-room apartment, struck and stunned. We weren't sure what had just happened, but we knew that everything was different now. The underground and the mainstream were unifying, and there was no going back.
For some of us, even those in grunge's target demographic who lived directly in the shadow of the genre's emerging capital of Seattle, Nirvana's Nevermind album didn't make the kind of profound sense that it perhaps should have. For my part, I was too blank and burned out to be angry enough for it. I'd spent all of high school dreaming of being a journalist, editing the student newspaper for two years, but by late 1991 the Gulf War and its military press manipulation had me disillusioned. By the end of the year, I'd temporarily dropped out of school to reset my bearings and started working at a print shop. In May 1992, one of my co-workers gave me a Maxell UR90 cassette, cryptically hand-labeled "S+E", and told me to give it a listen. "I think you'll really like this, Kyle," he said.
Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted was the sound of self-sabotage with a purpose. More than some of us had handed in papers for creative writing classes that read like the spoken vocal in "Conduit For Sale!", exhibiting much more command of the language than structural sense. Pavement was a revelation to kids who could have and should have earned A's in class but didn't, due to any mixture of disinterest, insecurity, awkwardness or even sanguine entitlement ("I was dressed for success/But success it never comes"). Slacker life, membership in Generation Whatever, implied a maximum potential effort that was well within possibility's realm, but not being met. I spent almost as much time contemplating the "Expectations/Rewards" scrawled across the piano staircase on the album's cover as I spent trying to decode the music inside.
When I returned to school in the autumn, the schism between Neverminders and Slanteds was evident, even palpable. Grunge had its own standard uniform: flannel shirts, or the Nirvana yellow-on-black X'ed out smiley face t-shirt that was available at any suburban mall by then. Instead, we communicated via a shared code. We experimented with mixing cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar, just to see what they would taste like (not good at all). Pavement songs, we agreed, defied academic or critical study, and just felt right. Some were really two songs spliced into each other -- or, in the case of "Fame Throwa", three songs -- populated by female protagonists (Chelsea and Loretta, namely) whose stories were just as oblique and mysterious as any in the Velvet Underground's "____ Says" series.
Brian Eno (or was it Peter Buck?) once said that everybody who bought one of the 30,000 sold copies of the first V.U. album ended up starting a band. If that's true, then every one of the 150,000 purchasers of "Slanted and Enchanted" went on to start a music blog, as evidenced by the endless digital admiration and retroactive 10.0 reviews for it. Three years ago, I finally got a chance to see the temporarily reformed band live, in New York City. It was like a reunion of pre-Internet Pavement kids who'd never met, along with thousands of current twenty-somethings who'd had the albums passed down to them as classics. There were t-shirts for sale this time. And everyone knew every word to "Two States" and shouted along, even if none of us had really ever figured out exactly what "forty million daggers" was supposed to signify.
Listening to Slanted and Enchanted now, on a Chicago rooftop in chilly early autumn, streaming at a variable bit rate from a music subscription service, my mind scrapes off the old tape hiss and the intentional layer of sludge. I hear the brilliant pop album underneath, the one that's always been there. I hear the melodies of "Perfume-V" and "Zurich is Stained", hidden underneath Stephen Malkmus' off-key singing and Spiral Stairs' bass blast. I imagine the Pavement "MTV Unplugged" episode that never happened, with beautiful women in black dresses playing violins and cellos behind a gorgeous reworked arrangement of "Here". And I finally notice, after two decades, that the vocal in "Trigger Cut/Wounded-Kite at :17" really does come in at exactly 17 seconds. There's a logical order underneath all that chaos, there has to be... we'll be spending the next 21 years, like the last 21 years, going back every so often for another crack at the code.
Next entry: Friday iPod/MP3 Shuffle—Happy Birthday Jody Stephens Edition
Previous entry: Weekly Voyages: Friday 10/04 to Thursday 10/10