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Pavement at the Launchpad

By Kevin Klein

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  A long and winding road to hell is paved with interpretations to rock lyrics. A Cambridge psychologist once noticed that if a singer deliberately switched from ordinary lyrics to nonsense syllables in the middle of a song, nobody noticed. It explains most people's difficulty in definitively understanding most R.E.M. songs and also elevates "gabba gabba hey," "I am the walrus, goo-goo-ga-joob" and most pop songs from the 1970s: "Cheer up, sleepy jean, oh what can it mean to a daydream believer and a homecoming queen?"

Oh, what can it mean. As a former guitar player for a small scad of bands, it's not hard to see that words are written backward. Dave of Scared of Chaka, for example, sings new songs with "blah yamma you," (until they get in the studio and have to clear them up for matter of finality). All of their, and most band's songs, are based on a cool riff.

There is no problem with this. Until rock crits like to dissect the lyrics and place them on the written page in the hope of conveying the emotional tone (impossible). Such is the case with Pavement, who--like Bob Dylan, Michael Stipe and others--fire off some tangible parts, glossy pieces with a literary feel on top of hopelessly infectious and crafted musical blankets. Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus is the heir in a long line of obfuscators and musical riddlers. To take his words out of the musical context of a song would be like trying to discern functions of separate lobes of the brain: You'd have to kill the living owner of the brain to do it.

Pavement and their meaning scoot around like a chimera in peripheral vision: Its dance is discernable, but the moment one looks directly at it, it is not visible. Their records started showing up in the obsessive vinyl singles racks in the late-'80s. No notes, no pictures, nothing to discern the people making the music except the very Pynchonesque "Spiral Stairs," "S.M." and and oldster named "Gary Young." Young and band played the Golden West in 1992 to a whopping 25 people, few who cared about their show (which was the most memorable show of my life). Drummer Young looked like an escapee of Las Vegas' mental ward. He covered his head in duct tape and, after every song, walked up to the audience and stared at into nothing short of hungry wolf eyes. "Debris Slide," on the "Perfect Sound Forever" 10-inch, had the comfortably confusing lyrics: "Maybe she is, maybe she is ... not/Maybe I'm/Maybe I'm a rocket, and I'm gonna stop it ... bop bop badda bop/Debris Slide." Like a fiction paragraphed in verses and choruses, it is suggestively based on the lives of the members. A wrecked romance? Dinner fallen over? Lesbianism? Confrontation? Nice gold sounds?

Who the hell can know--except Malkmus.

"I don't really speak about the meanings of the songs," says Malkmus from his phone in Portland, Ore. Smartly so. Malkmus, who looks a bit like Blue Velvet's Kyle MacLauchlan dressed up for the rain, for a cup of joe or to hide out in a batch of indie rockers, is the kind of kid that chooses to excel in a world that looks to make him a star.

"The only impediment is inspiration itself," he says. "It's not that tough." Malkmus is comfortably jobless, playing rock and making records. He gives more or less the same interview to everyone he speaks to, and his music makes no apologies for dumbing itself down. Their records always appear on the top 10, end-of-year lists, and they are doing little to further their name, besides touring about half of what other bands schedule for themselves. Among critics, you would think they were the only musicians capable of thinking in three dimensions. It's as if they are hawks, and the rest of the bands in the world are pigeons with clipped wings. Rockstars aren't supposed to read Ashbery, avoid interest sincerely and try to have their own lives. They certainly aren't supposed to be smart--Liam Gallagher of Oasis, Courtney Love, Elton John, Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins, yadda yadda yadda. Rock is about sex. Most rockstars look like porn stars, while Pavement has the dignity and air of a musical Grace Kelly.

--Kevin Klein

Pavement plays with the Geraldine Fibbers at Launchpad, Thursday, Sept. 25. Tickets available in advance from Natural Sound, 255-8295.


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