Being Steve Malkmus



261 Driggs Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11222

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Greenpoint

Something like ten years ago, I was walking with a friend of mine down Westnedge Avenue, in Kalamazoo, MI. We were talking about rock music, and my friend, who’s about as brainy as they come, got onto the subject of the band Pavement. More specifically, he began deconstructing what he perceived to be the average Pavement fan. “College student,” he said, “sensitive, liberal politics, probably with an interest in literature or some other academic pursuit. Someone just like me, in other words.”

I didn’t understand or really care what he was getting at until many years later, when, standing in a crowd at a Pavement show, waiting for the band to come on, I took a good long look around from my usual position near the front of the stage, left side, and saw in the crowd my own face reflected a thousand times. That is, the room was filled largely with young white gentlemen, many of them bespectacled, with vaguely unkempt brown hair, faces either blank or fixed in portraits of smirking cool, seemingly unaware that a band they enjoyed enough to spend twenty dollars to see was at any moment going to take the stage. This was at Irving Plaza, in June of 1999, the first show of a three-night stand. Pavement was touring in support of Terror Twilight, its most highly polished album. It was also rumored, even then, even that night, to be their last, but I was not prepared to accept that. I was having difficulty enough accepting the mere fact of my fandom.

It’s always a bit of a crusher to realize one is not unique – or should I say, when I realize, as I often do, that I am not unique? – but it hit me particularly hard that night, as I stood ensconced in all those me’s. And it hit me the next night, too, at the second show, when I looked around and saw all the same faces. Well, different but the same.

Recently, Stephen Malkmus’s new band, the Jicks, played at the Warsaw, a relatively new venue only about five blocks from my apartment. Despite the novelty of having one of my favorite musical artists play so near me – Greenpoint, I’ve been told by every friend who’s visited me here, is a pain in the ass to get to – I was fully prepared not to go. I had anticipated the crowd’s sameness and was willing to forego the probability of pleasure in order to escape its diminishing effects. But a friend offered me a free ticket and then another friend signed on to the deal and the next thing I knew we were sitting in my living room, waiting to go to the Warsaw.

I explained my theory – is it worthy of even being called a theory? – on the homogeneity of the average indie rock crowd. And my friend Al said, “It can be tough to take, but it’s especially hard at a Steve Malkmus show, when you realize that, not only are you like everyone else there, you’re also not Steve Malkmus.”

It is often said of a certain kind of male figure: “Women want to be with him, and men want to be him.” This statement could not be truer of Stephen Malkmus. I saw Pavement four times and I’ve seen the Jicks twice now, and if there is a factor that unifies the crowds at these shows even more than whiteness, it’s the outpouring of love and envy Malkmus is able to evoke with the slightest grin or flip of his skater bangs. Although perhaps I am projecting; perhaps I sense that love and envy most strongly in my own head.

Woody Allen wrote, in the About the Author section of his book Side Effects, that “his one regret in life is that he is not someone else.” I understand this completely, and have regretted more than once, more than a dozen times, that I am not Steve Malkmus. Malkmus envy, for me, began on a very basic, fundamental level: with the songs.

The first of his songs that I wished I’d written was “Here,” from Slanted and Enchanted. It had that quality – simplicity – that causes would-be songwriters to go, “Fuck, why didn’t I think of that?” (“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” if you’ll recall, was a thunderingly simple riff, with the same four notes repeated throughout the verses and the chorus.) Most of “Here” (at least the way I learned it) is just A, E and D, a variation on the “Back in Black” chords. But that’s only half of it. There’s the melody, which pretty much makes the song, and the lyrics – particularly that famous first line (“I was dressed for success/But success, it never comes”) – which still have the power, under the right circumstances, to cause to me to doubt every decision I’ve ever made.

A couple years ago, “Here” was described in the New York Times as Malkmus’s “crowning sad-sack song,” but I think that’s doing it a disservice. (The article, in fact, was tinged with condescension, devoting columns of unnecessary ink to the tired concept of Malkmus as an “ironic” “slacker” and ending with the line, “The longing for the genuine, musically or otherwise, calls for brighter corners.”) True, the song is a downer, but it’s also about as exhilarating as recorded music gets in terms of sheer evocative power. The passing decade may have dulled the memories of certain rock critics now busy praising the White Stripes, but it’s all still there, the power and beauty and energy of Pavement. Pick up the Slanted and Enchanted reissue if you don’t believe me. Put on disc one and pretend that you haven’t read a thousand articles about how the Strokes are saving rock and you’ll see what I mean. I like the Strokes well enough, but a dude in a leather jacket with greasy hair singing about fun in the sun will never have the same resonance as the wordless chorus of “In the Mouth a Desert.”

I could go on all day praising my favorite Malkmus tunes and quoting my favorite lines from, say, Brighten the Corners; I could relate at least two memorable anecdotes from my life that had “Grounded,” my all-time favorite Pavement song, as the soundtrack; I could tell you about riding the Lexington Avenue subway with the Jicks record playing on my headphones, on my way to end a weird emotional stand-off I had going with an ex-girlfriend.

Then there’s the period, approximately one month in duration, where I played “Vague Space” every morning as I walked from the subway to my job in the World Trade Center. (The song lasted exactly as long as the walk from the Cortland Street subway platform to the elevator banks.) And then there’s this morning, when I stood alone in my kitchen, guitar strapped on, and played a cover of “Jenny and the Ess-Dog” for no one.

But Malkmus envy is about more than music. It’s about attitude.

For the purposes of writing this, I’ve tried to trace the origins of my fixation on Stephen Malkmus as something other than a songwriting entity, and believe it struck first in late 1997, at a club in Grand Rapids, MI, called the Intersection. It was the first time I’d seen Pavement and also, because I was largely oblivious to much of the band’s press over the years, my first encounter with the Stephen Malkmus persona. It happened like this: The band took the stage to great fanfare before a crowd of mostly young white males. Malkmus, after rubbing his nose and acknowledging his allergies, said something like, “It’s great to be here in central Michigan.” Some kid to my left, distraught by the geographic inaccuracy of the statement, yelled, “It’s Western! Western Michigan!” Malkmus looked the kid in the eye, with apparent borderline disdain, and said casually, “Whatever.”

Yes, I thought, and felt the vague first stirrings of infatuation.

Flash forward to the Irving Plaza shows. There’s a guy in the front row shouting intermittent requests for “Harness Your Hopes.” (This is a B-side from the U.K. “Carrot Rope” single and presumably a cooler song to request than “Cut Your Hair,” Pavement’s one and only near-hit.) Finally, about mid-set, after maybe the fifth or sixth exhortation, Malkmus stares the guy down, flashes the old index-and-thumb okay sign, and says, “Yeah, that’s one of our songs. Congratulations.”

I’m fairly high-strung and in general envy people whose inner monologues I perceive to be smoother than my own (whether they actually are or not), and those kinds of breezily dismissive comments from a person so talented and handsome, so seemingly self-assured, were something I felt irrational glee at having witnessed.

I also noticed during that show Malkmus’s tendency to alter slightly his delivery of certain lyrics, as if to squash potential sing-alongs on purpose. The chorus of “Shady Lane,” for instance, became a staccato “Ev-ry-body. Wants. One.” And the “Range Life” diss of the Smashing Pumpkins which supposedly kept Pavement out of Lollapalooza ’94 became something else entirely: “Out on tour with the Smashing Shitheads/Nature kids, they don’t have no shit in their heads.”

Critics of Pavement – and later, Malkmus’s solo work and even the man himself – claimed this alleged detachment was exactly the thing they disliked about the band. But I never quite saw it as detachment, just as I never bought into the myth of Pavement as a group of self-consciously ironic slackers (no band makes it to the Tonight Show by virtue of a half-hearted try). My own interpretation of Malkmus’s sarcasm is that it’s a form of resistance or confrontation: Fuck you if you get it, fuck you if you don’t. Sort of like Kurt Cobain flipping off the world on the inside of the Nevermind album, only more subtle, possibly even more interesting.

Speaking of Kurt Cobain, there’s a bit in Heavier Than Heaven, the recent biography by Charles R. Cross, where Kurt’s walking through the MoMA – this is at the height of his fame and drug addiction – and is approached by a young black fan. “Kurt had been asked for his autograph a hundred times that day,” Cross writes, “but this was the only time he responded with a smile. Kurt told (Amy) Finnerty, ‘No one black has ever said they liked my record before.’”

It seems that Kurt, in addition to numerous other troubles, was plagued by at least a touch of white guilt. (Think, also, of the Incesticide liner notes and his somewhat misguided attack on white corporate America.) So what is it about punk and indie rock that prevents large-scale acceptance across the color lines? Hip-hop, though still largely the domain of black artists, has crossed over so thoroughly that the majority of rap records is now purchased by white suburban teenagers. I’m not suggesting the reverse could ever be true for indie rock, but aren’t there at least a few black people out there who get turned on by songs about Yul Brynner with lyrics that go, “I’ll tie you to a chair/the house music will blare/and turn your ears into a medicinal jelly”? If so, they were not in attendance at the Warsaw on the night of the Jicks show. Instead it was the typical assemblage of unemployed, hopelessly aspiring writer grad students, teetering on the edge of spectacular personal failure. But I suppose I shouldn’t speak for everyone.

The Warsaw, which looks from the outside like just another dingy Greenpoint bar, is actually a terrific place to see a show. Bands play in an adjoining space resembling a large high school gym with a stage at the end, similar to the Bowery Ballroom, only larger. I arrived with friends but the group splintered after the opening band and I wandered through the crowd until I was standing a few feet from the stage. Again I glanced casually around and took stock, but the sameness of the crowd didn’t trouble me as it had in years past, though I admit I briefly tried to force the issue. I was heartened to see some younger faces. Indie rock has evolved considerably since Pavement’s heyday, and I was unsure if the kids had pledged allegiance entirely to Bright Eyes or any of a host of newer bands competing for time on their iPods.

I’d like to report that the intervening years helped put my Malkmus infatuation into perspective as well, but that’s just not the case. The moment he took the stage and began tuning his guitars – what, no more guitar techs? – the old feelings of inadequacy came rushing to the fore. I’ll never have a sound or vision that recognizably my own, I thought, and my hair could never look that cool.

The band was in fine form, far tighter and more confident than the first time I’d seen them, shortly after the record was released. And while the band was tighter, Stephen Malkmus himself seemed far looser and less icy than at three of the four Pavement shows I saw. (The last was the Matador tenth-anniversary show – the band’s final appearance in New York – in September of 1999, and he seemed happier to be up there, maybe because he knew the end was near. Or here.)

Listen to all five Pavement records and the Jicks record back to back and you can trace Malkmus’s prodigious growth, not only as a songwriter, but also a guitar player. The turning point, I think, from indie guy with a penchant for writing beautiful drop-D-tuned melodies, to potential guitar hero, is the solo in “Rattled by the Rush,” which I’ve never bothered trying to figure out because I don’t want to deconstruct, and therefore diminish, its greatness. The flurry of guitar brilliance at the Warsaw reached an obvious zenith during the show’s closing number, which I think is called “One Percent of One.” I swear it lasted twenty minutes, and though I usually hate a monster jam (I once walked out of a Built to Spill show in a near-rage), the sheer fine guitar playing was enough to carry the day.

Photo by Rahav Segev

Not only that, but my crush on Malkmus was eclipsed suddenly by a crush I developed on Joanna Bolme, the Jicks’ bass player. The indie rock trail is littered with foxy female bassists, but Bolme has something that elevates her above, say, Kim Deal or D’arcy Wretsky, and it could either be the way she looks when exhaling cigarette smoke or the bass line from “Church on White.”

The show that night was a holiday benefit, complete with a raffle, and between the end of the set and the encore, Malkmus came out with a piece of paper and announced he was going to read the winning numbers. It seemed perfectly reasonable at first, but as the process wore on – there was an unusually long list of prizes, from T-shirts to DVD’s – and he dutifully recited row after row of digits, I had an odd perception, confirmed moments later by Malkmus himself. “I feel like I revealed myself more just now,” he said, “than any time during the whole show.” Then he threw down the paper and picked up his guitar.

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§ One Response to “Being Steve Malkmus”

  • Papa says:

    Grounded ftw! I pointed to the screen and yelled (under my breath at work) YES! Great read, although get in line for Joanna Bolme.


    Black Malkmus devotee

§ Leave a Reply

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