By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The next afternoon I arrive again on Malkmus’ porch, where his copy of The New York Review of Books is also waiting for him. He won’t have time to read this issue, though, for aside from having to deal with me, in the space of 24 hours he has to record two b-sides and come up with some artwork for the new album’s second single, “Jenny and the Ess-Dog,” a tuneful, humorous but disconcerting narrative about a doomed romance between a 31-year-old guitarist in a cover band and an 18-year-old hippie chick with toe rings. By the end of the song, S-Dog (“Sean if you wish”) has sold his ax and Jennifer is in pre-law at Boulder. Almost unbearably, with evil glee, Malkmus twice repeats the final line: “And off came those awful toe rings.”
It’s that wicked way with words (“I felt up your feelings,” he sings elsewhere on the new LP) that has brought me here and that I find intimidating. The guy is gifted (rhyming “Doric arch” with “Pyrrhic march”!), and I have no intention of going toe–to–toe ring with him about music, let alone writing. (It didn’t help that the following lines from “Embassy Row,” on Pavement’s Brighten the Corners, kept swirling through my head: “I need to get born/I need to get dead/I’m sick of the forms/I’m sick of being misread/By men in dashikis/With their leftist weeklies.”) Rather than bust out my dashiki, I figured it best to just wade into any weightier thoughts regarding his new record, the future, and this concerted image change from Big Prig and Thug of Smug to elegant if not eligible bachelor. So as we drive into the hip Burnside neighborhood of downtown Portland, where we will eat at a lunch counter Robin co-owns called Crowsenberg’s Half & Half, I begin at the beginning, sweating him on standard bio stuff and relevant vital signs.
Name: Malkmus, Stephen Joseph. Born:30 May 1966, Santa Monica Hospital. Sign: Gemini. Father: Stephen Malkmus, born Westwood, CA, educated Harvard High School, University of Virginia (major: partying), retired insurance agent. Mother: Mary Newcomer, born Bakersfield, CA, educated UC Berkeley (major: art). Siblings: One sister, Victoria. Moved: Stockton, CA, circa 1974. Attended: Davis Elementary School. Expelled: The Cate School, Carpinteria, CA, circa 1981; just like David Crosby, expelled circa early ’60s. Reason for Expulsion: Unauthorized consumption of alcohol. Graduated:Tokay High School, named after grapes used in Thunderbird wine. Member: Communist punk rock band Straw Dogs. College:University of Virginia. Major: History. Extracurricular Activities:Performs solo local open-mic nights, Richmond, VA; plays one concert with instrumental band Bag of Bones, San Francisco, CA. Employed: Whitney Museum, NYC, circa 1988–90. Height:Almost 6’1”. Weight: 153. Waist: 32 or 33, 34 in jeans. Shoe Size: 11. Suit Size: 40 long. Size:“Hard, I’m about 8 inches.” Tattoos: None. Piercings: None. Why right middle finger crooked: “Broke it long time ago as a kid.”
Eventually we decamp to a bobo retro-futuro furniturismo showroom, kick back on a couple of couches, and since I only succumbed to Pavement on their last two, more eclectic, ambitious records, touch on those hipper souls who insist that the band’s earlier material is superior, that they were better when they “couldn’t play their instruments” and drummer Gary Young entertained audiences with his drunken antics.
“He’s a great musician,” Malkmus admits, “but I wasn’t gonna put up with that for, like, ‘rock & roll.’ There’s something to be said for primitivism, but once you know, you know. Most people you end up liking, they’ve spent time practicing. Even if they don’t have great chops, they think about it conceptually. That should always come through.”
One band that wasn’t practicing very much by the end was Pavement. The thing that made them so charming (living in scattered locales) led to their undoing. By contrast, nowhere is the new Malkmus solo chemistry more apparent than on “The Hook,” a Creedence-caliber c(r)ock-rocker complete with cowbell and shitkicker licks.
“Yeah,” he drawls, “I tried that song with Pavement, but we couldn’t play much of anything without going ã over it a billion times.” In addition to a well-rehearsed self-assuredness that shines through in the simple ensemble sound, the farcical nautical lyrics to “The Hook,” which fall somewhere between Chris Elliott’s Cabin Boyand Melville’s Billy Budd, lend credibility to my Dylan comparison. But is the song really only about pirates?
“It’s a coming-of-age story that could have been about anything. I tried a dentist, but it seemed too much like Cake and They Might Be Giants with the humor stuff, which you have to avoid. Of course, people have read in it a metaphor of my life in the band. But honestly, it was just, first verse: He’s young; second verse: He becomes one of them; third verse: He’s on his own.”
In this, the third verse of Malkmus’ career, it’s easier to take him at his word, if only because he swears his days of Dylanesque dicking around with us hapless media hacks are temporarily on hold. Hence a warmer, fuzzier singer-songwriter who actually explains the origins, even to a certain extent the meanings, of some of his notoriously enigmatic works.