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Stud on the Tracks 

The freewheeling Steve Malkmus, when hard, is about 8 inches

Wednesday, Mar 7 2001
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By Moses Berkson

Recently I went to Portland, Oregon, and met with Stephen Malkmus, formerly head honcho of Pavement, currently the subject of too many articles ballyhooing his eponymous solo debut. And although the great philosopher William Drayton once said, “Don’t believe the hype,” in this one instance, by all means, please do.

For Malkmus, who is to pimping irony what Arnold Schwarzenegger was to pumping iron and who in the past has made Chevy Chase seem as sincere as Gerald Ford, has finally put the wise into wisenheimer and emerged as nothing less than the coolest cucumber since Bob Dylan. Surely, à la ex–UCLA basketball great turned Clippers broadcaster Bill Walton, I exaggerate? Not really. I mean, if Walton (and UCLA basketball is integral to understanding Malkmus) has become the closest thing we have to Howard Cosell, then why not? The guy is not only good and funny (the country/Western Civ. lament “Trojan Curfew”) but fun now, too (the groovy gringo-calypso “Vague Space”). And as you can hear on these and other peppy, hep but also heartbreaking tracks or see from the beef-/cheesecake photo on the cover of the new album, he’s tanned, rested and ready.

And if the current grumblings about Malkmus are somewhat justified (said cover art shows a grown man who is nobody’s underdog wearing an Underdog T-shirt), they also have that distinctly bitter taste of sour grapes. Player-hating. Not that the man himself could give two shits — about Jedediah Purdey or anyone else. “I don’t feel bad about being ironic. To me it’s the least I can do to keep a straight face. That is keeping a straight face!”

Malkmus rents an old, cold house for $1,200 a month. At one point, he says he was interested in buying a home, but his heart isn’t into settling down. This is the guy who sang, “I want a range life” (or maybe “I won’t arrange life”) and “I would settle down . . . If I could settle down.” The guy who, while others in Pavement married and bred, questioned “the mental energy you wasted on this wedding invitation” in the song “We Are Underused,” going so far as to equate betrothal with the Big Sleep: “Simply put I want to grow old/Dying does not meet my expectations.”

Nevertheless, he has a steady 28-year-old girlfriend, Heather, and “I think she wants to,” he allows, when asked whether tying the knot is one of her priorities. “I’m ambivalent. It’s like buying a house or going to the dentist. All that stuff is something to delay.”

Luckily it wasn’t like pulling teeth to get Malkmus to show me around his place, which, not unlike his appearance (501s, Nikes, windbreaker) is mussed-up but hardly a mess. In the front room, on a wooden schoolteacher’s desk, is his gear: Roland VS1880 24-Bit Digital Studio Work Station, Akai S3000XL, two Line 6 effects pedals, a tambourine and other percussion instruments, a microphone with yellow foam, and an acoustic guitar.

A stereo (with an Australian band, Coloured Balls, spinning on the turntable) is hooked up, but his records remain in boxes. Books, however, are in a bookcase. My eye falls on Jernigan by David Gates, The Apes of God by Wyndham Lewis and The Wizard of Westwood, a bio of former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, whose weeklong summer camp Malkmus attended as a kid. Indeed, though I inquire about author Richard Yates, whom Malkmus recommended to Vanity Fair readers (he graciously gives me his copy of Yates’ Revolutionary Road), it’s the Wooden bio that broke the ice (I went to the camp, too) and hints at another side to this otherwise scrupulously nerdy artiste. One which may go undetected by his indie-rock demographic — a human touch that sets him apart from peers like Spencer, Sonics, Beck, Beasties, etc. Because Malkmus, if not exactly a jock, can play and talk sports with a natural grace that you just can’t buy like a courtside seat at Staples Center.

At any rate, after listening to a CD of his mother singing Mozart’s Requiem with the Sun Valley Episcopal Church choir, we hop in the dirty black Acura he inherited from his granny and, after he dons a battered Atlanta Braves baseball cap and nondescript prescription lenses, pick up his friend Robin (female, platonic) then continue on to a nearby restaurant. Yes, he’s a good driver.

At dinner, we all split tapas while Steve and Robin sip red wine and discuss Pavement’s DVD, which Malkmus doesn’t want to get involved with. I do not run the tape recorder, as he appears to suffer from nervous exhaustion, often yawning and running his hands through his hair or cupping them to his face. It’s as if he’s kicking, and he is. Cigarettes, that is. Even so, his fidgety squirming is not impolite, and I feel guilty for bugging this guy only a day after he’s returned to an empty home (Heather’s away) from a European tour. Gigs and jet lag aside, he has also endured countless interviews with creeps much more qualified than my grinning, idiotic “Hey dude, have you checked out the XFL yet?” ass. So table talk turns to the ubiquity of Benicio Del Toro, whose popularity with women (and presumed sexual prowess) Malkmus explains as a function of the actor’s “humble machismo.” He can’t help adding, “But then again, I’m not humble — and I’m good in bed!”

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