By Barry Divola
Pavement in the 1990s.Credit:Marcus Roth
I remember the first time I heard Pavement. It was early 1992. I was broke after a life-changing 10-week pilgrimage circumnavigating the US in late 1991, where I’d soaked up everything popular culture had to offer in that long-ago era – I carried Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture in my backpack; I saw Richard Linklater’s film Slacker; I watched Nirvana play in Los Angeles just weeks after Nevermind was released.
And then, on my return, sitting in my home office juggling story deadlines, I heard a song with the intriguingly contradictory title Summer Babe (Winter Version). The guitars were a frazzled avalanche of fuzz. The singer veered from a droll drawl to a barely contained howl. And he intoned cryptic lyrics that made absolutely no sense but sounded drop-dead cool. He even laughed to himself at one point, as if he was in on some sort of joke. I’d discovered Pavement. And I was smitten.
Almost a quarter-century since they broke up, it seems a lot more people are becoming smitten. Director Alex Ross Perry (Her Smell, Listen Up Philip), who is making a film about the band, told me “they tell the definitive story of the ’90s and all it encapsulated. With a fraction of the record sales, somehow Pavement are the best vessel for this story, as opposed to Nirvana or Weezer or Green Day.”
Formed in Stockton, California, in 1989, by Stephen Malkmus (who initially went by SM) and Scott Kannberg (who took the pseudonym Spiral Stairs), the band perfectly bookended the ‘90s. They also typified – you could even say pioneered – so much that alternative culture of the decade represented, from the gnarly sound of indie rock, to do-it-yourself recording, to cut-and-paste artwork, to a shrugged-off “whatever” attitude, and being smarter and caring more than you were letting on.
The rediscovered Pavement, from left, Mark Ibold, Stephen Malkmus, Steve West, Bob Nastanovich and Scott Kannberg.Credit:Tarina Westlund
But they were never a big commercial proposition. None of their records went gold in the US, let alone platinum. And it all ended badly. At Pavement’s final show in London in November 1999, Malkmus had a pair of handcuffs attached to his microphone stand and told the audience they represented “what it’s like being in a band all these years”.
The chances of Pavement ever reforming? Less than zero. And despite a short – and according to some reports, not-so-sweet – reformation tour in 2010, it seemed that was that.
And then, quite recently, it wasn’t. Because, alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, in the past few years Pavement have gone viral. It started with something out of left field. In 2017, Harness Your Hopes, a half-forgotten B-side from 1999, became the band’s most streamed song, surpassing their better-known songs such as Cut Your Hair, Gold Soundz and Range Life.
Why? Because around that time Spotify switched the autoplay preset in listeners’ preferences to “on” instead of “off”, which meant that after you finished listening to an album or playlist, the streaming service would offer up other music in the same ballpark. Apparently Harness Your Hopes sat at the intersection of a lot of listeners’ tastes and was one of those songs that often showed up in the queue.
Then, in 2020, as the song rose in popularity, kids started filming themselves dancing to it, posting videos on TikTok and opening the song up to people who weren’t even born during Pavement’s heyday. By the time Perry made a new video for the song last year, featuring Sophie Thatcher (of the TV series Yellowjackets) playing a girl obsessed with Pavement’s old videos, this obscure song was no longer obscure.
On May 23, 2022, Pavement played their first show in 12 years, at the beginning of a world tour that is currently in Australia. This is no hour-long greatest hits package. The band re-learned 80 songs from their back catalogue, some of which they’d never played live before, and they regularly perform 28 songs a night, varying the setlist for each show.
Alex Ross Perry’s Slanted! Enchanted!: A Pavement Musical was set in a suburban basement in the ’90s.Credit:
But this strange fairytale doesn’t end there. Perry developed a stage musical called Slanted! Enchanted!: A Pavement Musical, that had a limited initial run in New York in December, filming it for the documentary. It was set in a suburban basement room in the ’90s, built around Pavement songs, and included a chorus line of dancers in Santa suits and a choreographed routine in IKEA shopping trolleys.
“The story of the musical is a guy who moves from his hometown to New York to become a famous musician,” says Perry. “But once he does, he loses the girl who moved with him and falls into a love triangle with a fellow musician.”
The film will also contain footage from a pop-up Pavement museum Perry curated in TriBeCa, when the band’s world tour got to New York in September last year. Although it contained genuine band artefacts, there were many fake exhibits in there – an Absolut Pavement vodka ad never existed; the legendary handcuffs from that last show were not the real thing; the toenail purportedly belonging to original drummer Gary Young was not actually his.
“It’s funny to me to imagine that Pavement are as important as David Bowie or Bob Dylan, musical figures with their own museums or touring exhibits,” says Perry. “The joke is that nobody found this funny. They found it logical, emotional, narratively succinct and informative about the 30-year arc of Pavement.”
In truth, the band has always been an enigmatic construct, even when they were just two young guys calling themselves SM and Spiral Stairs, making lo-fi recordings with intriguing collaged artwork and mysterious phrases written on the covers.
The band I fell in love with back in 1992 has become something bigger and more significant after lying dormant for so long. But here’s the thing. They’ve done it by being exactly what they were in the first place – untamed and whip-smart guys who dressed like janitors and shrugged like slackers but had ambitions to do great things. And, ultimately, that’s what makes this late-life success story so unexpected, so delicious, so slanted and enchanted.
Pavement play Sydney’s Enmore Theatre on March 2 and Melbourne’s Palais Theatre on March 3.
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