Stud on the Tracks
|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, Dont 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 exUCLA 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, hes tanned, rested and ready.
And if the current grumblings about Malkmus are somewhat justified (said cover art shows a grown man who is nobodys 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 dont feel bad about being ironic. To me its 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 isnt into settling down. This is the guy who sang, I want a range life (or maybe I wont 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. Im ambivalent. Its like buying a house or going to the dentist. All that stuff is something to delay.
Luckily it wasnt 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 schoolteachers 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), its 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 cant buy like a courtside seat at Staples Center.
At any rate, after listening to a CD of his mother singing Mozarts 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, hes a good driver.
At dinner, we all split tapas while Steve and Robin sip red wine and discuss Pavements DVD, which Malkmus doesnt 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. Its as if hes 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 hes returned to an empty home (Heathers 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 actors humble machismo. He cant help adding, But then again, Im not humble and Im good in bed!
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 wont 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 albums 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.
Its 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 toetotoe ring with him about music, let alone writing. (It didnt help that the following lines from Embassy Row, on Pavements Brighten the Corners, kept swirling through my head: I need to get born/I need to get dead/Im sick of the forms/Im 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 Crowsenbergs 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 198890. Height: Almost 61. Weight: 153. Waist: 32 or 33, 34 in jeans. Shoe Size: 11. Suit Size: 40 long. Size: Hard, Im 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 bands earlier material is superior, that they were better when they couldnt play their instruments and drummer Gary Young entertained audiences with his drunken antics.
Hes a great musician, Malkmus admits, but I wasnt gonna put up with that for, like, rock & roll. Theres something to be said for primitivism, but once you know, you know. Most people you end up liking, theyve spent time practicing. Even if they dont have great chops, they think about it conceptually. That should always come through.
One band that wasnt 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 couldnt 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 Elliotts Cabin Boy and Melvilles Billy Budd, lend credibility to my Dylan comparison. But is the song really only about pirates?
Its 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: Hes young; second verse: He becomes one of them; third verse: Hes on his own.
In this, the third verse of Malkmus career, its 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.
I dont have time to think of evasive answers or make it into a prank right now, he insists. Its a young mans game, unless you play stadiums like AC/DC or Beastie Boys. Im just running through it one more time, and thats why Im doing all this press and everything Matador wants me to.
To give you an idea what all this press means: Following my intrusion, he had requests for 40 more phoners. This after already doing all the majors here in the States, overseas, Japan, the Net, what have you. I dont like to spread myself too thin, he worries. But right now, Im like Gwyneth Paltrow. Laughing, he adds in the mock rock voice of a Brat Pack actor singing in his punk side project: Im overexposed, man!
But he might as well overdo it, especially if, as he says a couple of times to me, In a month nobodys gonna care anyway and especially if he follows through on those hints at semiretirement he keeps dropping. Im gonna take a vacation for two months once the present tour is complete, he mentions. Then hes recording another album, again in Portland, with this same group, the so-called Jicks. And thats gonna be it for me on the big stage. Ill make more obscure albums I can sell on my own label and get that out of my system before I turn 40. Then, I dont know what will happen. But Im not gonna tour around like this so viciously. I mean, this is vicious.
Speaking of vicious! I ask if Jo Jos Jacket, with its intro sample of and first-verse reference to Yul Brynner, is actually (Youre such monumental slime/Let the punishment fit the crime/Tie you to a chair/And house music will blare) about his perennial chrome-domed whipping boy, Billy Corgan, or, as many believe, Moby. Yeah, its not him, he smiles. Yes, we have no bananas.
Once the interview winds down, we walk through Powells bookstore, where I buy him Bulgakovs Heart of a Dog and he urges me to try Dennis Cooper, but I puss out.
Back at his pad, he puts on the 1969 album Hemat by the Swedish band Harvester, who grew organic food and made organic music but ended up fighting with each other. Meanwhile, he does the dishes and starts tidying up, a sure sign that visiting hours are over. He isnt rude, but still, I feel like A.J. Weberman pestering Robert Zimmerman.
Even so, I help him clean the living room, take more notes (50th Anniversaryedition Scrabble board piled into corner, 7-inch single with pic sleeve of Ornette Colemans The Blessing b/w Chippie propped up on molding-over entryway to front room) and dutifully listen to him spin Thin Lizzys first and some Icelandic metal madness called Jesus Christ Bobby.
Theres a guy in Iceland who wants Heather and me to come live there, but I dont really want to go, he says. This other guy said hes got a place in Berlin. Its weird there. Cheap. I get the feeling hes not going to be staying in Portland much longer than I am. Its fine for now. I got a big basement. But if I was to grow old and die here, then Id feel like I wasted something.
On the way to the airport I feel guilty again, because Malkmus curses traffic, clearly eager to get this over with. Its the only time hes sworn all weekend. But then he pops in a tape. Of himself. A live recording from a few nights ago. The new albums first single, a perfect power-pop number named Discretion Grove, sounds hard. Whats this song about? I ask. Not much, he says. For a split second you could cut it with a knife. And then a wonderful thing happens. Another song comes on, one I dont recognize, and he both lights and lightens up. He tells me its a new tune for the next album and eagerly walks me through it, noting how it still sounds too much like Led Zeppelin (not just the obvious Hey baby trademark fake falsetto, but even the talky verses eerily recall Robert Plant, a frightening gift for mimicry Malkmus has hitherto kept to himself). But best of all, he giggles over his own allegedly improvised lyrics, repeating them for me after they go by to make sure I get it: They call me Johnny One Take/With my vocal cords of gold/I can cover 13 octaves/Improvisations no big deal/I can bring you to tears with these vocal cords.
The song ends, he rewinds and plays it again. It makes me laugh. I can bring you to tears with these vocal cords!
Stephen Malkmus appears at El Rey, Tuesday, March 13.
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