The sad truth is that most reunion tours are little more than a depressing reminder of your own mortality. The band members stand up there like harbingers of your inevitable decline. They are bloated, less attractive versions of their former selves (your former self). Do they seem tired? They seem tired. Something you once loved has been reduced to a symbol of how, in the fullness of time, we all become kind of lame.
But Pavement, much to my delight and surprise, was exponentially better than the last time I saw them ten years ago. Granted, it’s impossible to say if their super-awesome show in the year 2010 is more indicative of my own oblivious embrace of mediocrity (a phenomenon my friend C calls “slouching towards Applebee’s”) or of Pavement’s late-blooming ability to rock out, but one of the benefits of aging is that such questions no longer matter.
It’s hard to explain exactly what Pavement means to me. Because, first of all, Stephen Malkmus’s whole purpose in life is to not mean a whole lot. You know how grammar nerds parse can parse gibberish sentences because they vaguely sound like English language? That is sort of like Pavement’s relationship to human feelings.
(Malkmus’s lyrics, at their best, sound like something Morrissey might pen after a stroke. I mean that in the best possible way. Like Morrissey, Malkmus is full of sass, cleverness, complexity, and calculated distance. The difference is that he shellacs the emotional core of his songs with nonsense instead of ego. He’s also a lot more laid back, but that’s just a product of geography.)
And yet, for all their resistance to meaning, Pavement has meant so very much to me. Westing (By Musket and Sextant), along with Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes, are the two albums that have most shaped my life. On the surface, I guess they’re an unlikely pair, but the more I think about it, the more similar they seem. Both taught me something about having a sense of humor under duress. Both cut through the crippling solipsism of teenage angst and revealed the possibility of belonging to a dissatisfied community.
Above all, every song on those albums was like a little love letter to being weird. As a very unhappy young lady growing up in a Tennessee cow town, those songs helped me dream of a life worth living. They gave me perspective. They helped me grow up.
It’s a little weird to love a band like that and find their live shows totally lackluster. They toured a lot when I was in college, and it was a major letdown every time I went to see them. You know your favorite band must really suck live if the highlight of their show is a Velvet Underground cover. Still, I went to see them often, because Pavement on a bad day is still more awesome than most things.
Fast-forward to the present day (well, last night), to their outdoor concert in downtown Chicago. First of all, Millennium Park is just a great place to see a band. Usually, at an outdoor venue, I stand around thinking things like is that actually a dead animal, or is that what pot smells like now? or are those short-shorts ironic, or is that an honest-to-pete sex pervert? But listening to Pavement at Millennium Park last night, I could have closed my eyes and sworn I was 16, night-driving with all my windows down and the radio all the way up.
Secondly, not having any new material meant there wasn’t some new nightmare reunion album they had to focus on. The band played a nice cross-section of their catalog with gusto, including fully three-fourths of Watery, Domestic. What a treat!
Finally, there was the band itself, who remain, for the most part, untouched by the ravages of time. They all look like they’ve been bathing in the blood of virgins except for poor old Scott Kannberg, who, on top of the indignity of being a poor man’s Lee Ranaldo, has aged into a poor man’s Stephin Merritt.
I think it took the advent of the Jicks for me to appreciate how everyone in Pavement has an important job. The almost unbearable cool of Stephen Malkmus is perfectly balanced by the unbridled enthusiasm of Bob Nastanovich, who is either awesomeness incarnate or a high-functioning autistic, depending on how you look at it. Watching Bob jump up and down for a solid hour, playing everyman “instruments” like the tambourine, the cowbell, and the glockenspiel, I liked pretending he was a Pavement superfan who got to join the band for one night. (He tuckered himself out so thoroughly that he had to sit through the last few songs.) And the pothead vibes you get from Mark Ibold are exactly the right answer to the misery radiating off of poor old Kannberg, who, to give him his due, is probably the one who keeps the band from sounding too frivolous.
(Mark Ibold, incidentally, is my top celebrity pick for who I’d want to hang out with if the world were ending. I drove to Winston-Salem to interview him when I was a manager at my college radio station, and I’m a little surprised the universe didn’t implode then and there due to me, the most nervous person on earth, trying to have a discussion with someone who couldn’t have given less of a flying bahooey in the nicest possible way. I love you, Mark Ibold! I hope you never cut your hair.)
Funny how Pavement is still teaching me lessons after all these years. They helped me come of age, and now they’re showing me it might be okay to get old. Or, at the very least, that even as it becomes more familiar, this world of ours still holds some nice surprises.