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!”


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 Boy and 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.

“I don’t have time to think of evasive answers or make it into a prank right now,” he insists. “It’s a young man’s game, unless you play stadiums like AC/DC or Beastie Boys. I’m just running through it one more time, and that’s why I’m 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 don’t like to spread myself too thin,” he worries. “But right now, I’m like Gwyneth Paltrow.” Laughing, he adds in the mock rock voice of a Brat Pack actor singing in his punk side project: “I’m overexposed, man!

But he might as well overdo it, especially if, as he says a couple of times to me, “In a month nobody’s gonna care anyway” — and especially if he follows through on those hints at semiretirement he keeps dropping. “I’m gonna take a vacation for two months” once the present tour is complete, he mentions. Then he’s recording another album, again in Portland, with this same group, the so-called “Jicks.” “And that’s gonna be it for me on the big stage. I’ll make more obscure albums I can sell on my own label and get that out of my system before I turn 40. Then, I don’t know what will happen. But I’m not gonna tour around like this so viciously. I mean, this is vicious.”

Speaking of vicious! I ask if “Jo Jo’s Jacket,” with its intro sample of and first-verse reference to Yul Brynner, is actually (“You’re 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, it’s not him,” he smiles. Yes, we have no bananas.

Once the interview winds down, we walk through Powell’s bookstore, where I buy him Bulgakov’s 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 isn’t 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 Anniversary–edition Scrabble board piled into corner, 7-inch single with pic sleeve of Ornette Coleman’s “The Blessing” b/w “Chippie” propped up on molding-over entryway to front room) and dutifully listen to him spin Thin Lizzy’s first and some Icelandic metal madness called Jesus Christ Bobby.

“There’s a guy in Iceland who wants Heather and me to come live there, but I don’t really want to go,” he says. “This other guy said he’s got a place in Berlin. It’s weird there. Cheap.” I get the feeling he’s not going to be staying in Portland much longer than I am. “It’s fine for now. I got a big basement. But if I was to grow old and die here, then I’d 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. It’s the only time he’s sworn all weekend. But then he pops in a tape. Of himself. A live recording from a few nights ago. The new album’s first single, a perfect power-pop number named “Discretion Grove,” sounds hard. “What’s 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 don’t recognize, and he both lights and lightens up. He tells me it’s 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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