Sites of Formation 1966

On Steven Malkmus

I do not know if Louis Althusser, the French Marxist theoretician, is genuinely to be held liable for the observation that “work is neurotic,” but it is the kind of sentiment that people I knew, theoretically engaged people, might have uttered, in the ’80s, attributing it to Althusser or to other writers of a similar perspective. As a notion, it’s affirming and astringent, or so it seemed in the ’80s, the kind of notion that, were it to be said in certain market-driven redoubts of that era, could stir up keen disagreement.1

The “lo-fi” music of the late ’80s and early ’90s appeared to me to enshrine this idea of Althusser in musical form, the “work is neurotic” idea, to create an idealized performance of the neurosis of work. Punk had performed similarly in the ’70s, had intended a critique of work, but perhaps the message didn’t take. The Clash occasionally proved that work was neurotic (on Sandinista !) but were otherwise hard workers. Public Image Ltd definitely proved work was neurotic on The Flowers of Romance, but then shaped up quite a bit and hired session musicians.2

But if you listen to the lo-fi period closely (and I’m imagining, for this discussion, that this period runs from the late ’80s to the mid or late ’90s), if you listen to, for example, Weed Forestin’ by Sebadoh/Sentridoh, Vampire on Titus by Guided by Voices, Forgotten Foundation by Smog, or Hi, How Are You by Daniel Johnston, or almost anything by Jandek (who was an outlier but consistent with lo-fi principles), it’s hard to avoid the idea that work is being critiqued in the output of these bands, that the music is meant to celebrate a lack of concern, or even a contempt, about the value of labor, and specifically labor in music.

This was my impression of the band Pavement. I believe I heard an early version of Slanted and Enchanted somewhat before their reputation began to gather form. It was through my brother. My brother had a band in New York City, and sort of played on the fringe of a scene, and the scene was typified by bands like Uncle Wiggly and Fly Ashtray, both from Fordham University and with personnel overlap. I sort of associate these Fordham kids with Jesuitical thinking, with being resistant to cant and tradition in the same way that Jesuits were generally intellectually engaged. These Fordham bands had a really firm grasp on other things that were of interest—they would be called “influencers” now—and so my brother heard about Slanted and Enchanted from the Jesuitical bands (they also really liked Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and, later, The Olivia Tremor Control). My brother made me a cassette. And thus, at an early point, I was in possession of Slanted and Enchanted.3

I had been in the psychiatric hospital in 1987, and when I was released and set adrift upon the reconstruction of a self (and it’s perhaps useful here to note that Althusser said that he had no “I,” that history had stripped from him this sense of a volitional subject), this author for a time was a consumer of somewhat canonical music. I can remember the early days of reconstruction featuring, for example, a long, deep engagement with Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, which was a very worthy engagement, and likewise a beginning of wrestling with A Love Supreme by Coltrane and In a Silent Way by Miles Davis. I was interested in things that were big and deep and whose feelings were right at hand, things that exceeded compromise, and this sense of what was important was inversely correlated to my floundering as a person. I was understanding music on its own terms and rejecting ideas about music that were marketing ideas or that were too postmodern. I just wanted to feel.

But I had also been a punk, or perhaps I imagined that my personhood, my “I” contingently related to punk, or at least I was a post-punk-punk in the early ’80s, and then a devoted consumer of hardcore during the middle ’80s, anything from the SST label, and it was inevitable, therefore, that I was going to be attracted to loud, sloppy music, or at least loud electric guitars and disaffected young men, if they appeared, with a set of ideas, in a palatable and anti-establishment subgenre. When I heard Slanted and Enchanted, I began to put away more accessible things.

It did not take immediately. Because I had been listening to a lot of quiet music, for a while I had to adjust to the sloppiness of recordings, and I couldn’t tell entirely what was happening. I had to search for the melody. And because I liked, for example, the rigor, the contempt for the whimsical that one found in early Gang of Four or in X or in the Rollins period of Black Flag, I was somewhat resistant to the throwaway, or what appeared to be a throwaway, song, as a career gesture. For example, “Two States” or “Conduit for Sale !,” even though a throwaway is a staple of the lo-fi form. Maybe these early songs by Pavement don’t seem like throwaways at all now, more like carefully crafted manifestos. But they seemed that way at first.

Out of the murk of Pavement’s guitar noise, then, I started to find things that called to me, which called to a self in a state of uncertainty or mutability. The first earworm was “Loretta’s Scars.” There are many virtues to be found in this song, for example Stephen Malkmus appears not to know at what point the singing is meant to begin. They left this mistake in, his false entry. Also the solo at the end lurches out of the home key and ends abruptly—it has an impressionistic relationship to the ordinary pop song material from which the song is constructed. Not recorded while listening to the backing tracks? Maybe, but maybe that is also just how he played it at the time, according to a first thought/best thought aesthetic model, which means that work is neurotic, or, perhaps, a clean recording is neurotic, or that a resistance to a clean sound is consistent with a whole history of recordings that goes back, for example, to Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night.

Once I had “Loretta’s Scars” in hand, I started to see the light elsewhere, shining forth in its slanted way, and numerous other songs on Slanted and Enchanted began to emerge and to appear as refractions of pop concision and elegance, elegies to a crisis in the matter of identity. “Summer Babe,” in all its various recordings, is pop craft of the highest order ; likewise, “Here,” with its sly genius: “I was dressed for success/but success it never comes.” The last song, “Our Singer,” in 6/8, with a slightly detuned drone string, “sun comes up, the blisters burn my soul,” is very, very strong.

Malkmus, I suppose, was what was immediately great about Pavement—at least, the lyrics were mainly his lyrics (though maybe some of them had to do with the influence of David Berman, too, who after being a sort of shadow member of Pavement went on to be a lyricist of uncommon accomplishment in the Silver Jews, often including members of Pavement among his collaborators), and Malk­mus was mostly the singer, though he more mumbled than sang, and he was often the guitar soloist. This reasoning, which wrongly minimizes Spiral Stairs, a.k.a. Scott Kannberg, and the truly essential relationship of the two guitar players in the band—which was later, it seems to me, the site of all the trouble—also overlooks a lot of what I really loved about Slanted and Enchanted, namely the insurrectionary drumming. Who was this Gary Young, the early drummer for Pavement? Apparently, he was a studio rat, and well older than the other participants on Slanted and Enchanted, and I have heard it said that he once told Thurston Moore that Sonic Youth sounded like Yes. According to the lore, this Gary Young was not terribly reliable in a band setting—too idiosyncratic, too performative, violator of the sacred contract between performer and audience, too individuated, which means that even at the outset Pavement was not really a band, because it already had trouble integrating its participants. Perhaps bands are neurotic. Maybe bands are the only thing more neurotic than work. But Young’s light, syncopated touch, slippery, open-ended and maybe insufficient pre­occupation with timekeeping is part of what made Slanted and Enchanted not sound like everyone else. Indeed, if you take a broad listen to the lo-fi period, it is not noted for its markedly innovative drummers (maybe George Hurley), and I can remember my brother’s drummer indicating a profound distaste for fills of any kind, which he considered excessively ornamental. Gary Young, whatever else he was, was the catalytic feature in the early Pavement, a lead instrument, a sloppy mess, a guy who liked to roam. Now he makes and sells recording gear, or so it says on Wikipedia. He’s 65 years old. His solo albums make Slanted and Enchanted sound like Pet Sounds.

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain came next in the Pavement oeuvre, and it’s everything you might want and nothing that you want at the same time: beautiful, majestic, snide, bitter, tight, loveable, singable, half-hearted even at the moment of greatest success. I personally had a long passionate relationship with it. It’s a really important and masterful album and an essential marker for the era in which it was produced. Crooked Rain, while not slanted like Slanted and Enchanted, caused me never to like without reservation any other recording by Pavement ever again. It has no Gary Young on it, which means that Pavement realized what they needed to do: abandon the human embodiment of the “work is neurotic” theoretical proposition and give his position away to totally reasonable and well-equipped musicians. Crooked Rain sounds, yes, like this was the way to go, but it also sounds like something dying, like an era coming to an end. Maybe what makes it so great is that there is already grief built into it. Maybe that is what crooked rain refers to, and that’s why the last song has the “I need to sleep” refrain over and over again—depression-related insomnia ! The album, while very funny in spots, describes a surfeiting of feeling, the culmination of feeling, and finds a grandiosity here, at the moment of dispensing with the “work is neurotic” proposition, and replacing it with ideas of success. (Apparently that line “success it never comes” is not entirely accurate.)4

There were good songs later by Pavement,5 but there was a progressive dissolution of the band, a prying loose of Stephen Malk­mus from the collaborative apparatus, a diminishment of Spiral Stairs as a presence, as a singer, and as a sort of antagonist or foil in the matter of guitar playing. Instead of youth and heedlessness and neurotic self-sabotage, as in early Pavement, later we got seasoned professionals in crisis. Or, maybe we got a lot of songs written while on cannabis. I found it hard to like the middle-period albums, and I suspect I am not entirely alone. The Pavement song that touched me later, however, is “Spit on a Stranger” from Terror Twilight, an album that almost no one seems to feel good about having made and whose tour sounds dreadful from beginning to end. Malkmus appeared at one show with handcuffs wound around his microphone stand and indicated that this symbol related to his feelings about performing with the band. He would refuse to talk to the rest of the band on the tour bus, or so I have read. No doubt the stories are exaggerated. Is “Spit on a Stranger” a kind of allegory for this? Where the word “stranger” is to be understood to mean “bandmate”? I don’t know. But I know that “Spit on a Stranger” causes waves of feeling in me, which means that something complex is happening, something lasting.

The feelings of hatred or exhaustion that go with working with someone for years and having to travel with them every day, we’re used to this story—the Ramones driving to the gig in separate vehicles so that Johnny and Joey wouldn’t have to talk to each other. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend not able to bear being in the studio together. The difference here is that the “work is neurotic” aesthetic was meant to build in an understanding about professionalism in music, that professionalism was the enemy of meaningful accomplishment. (Meaningful implying deeply felt.) The practitioners of lo-fi knew about the pitfalls already, and they weren’t going to care, weren’t going to romanticize.

Malkmus went off to record with The Jicks, his band after Pavement, which is no band at all. The Jicks were a rotating cast of musicians with whom he played live, and who occasionally appeared on studio recordings in reduced circumstances, as if to muddy the proposition that these were solo recordings. Is this a problem? It was a problem that was perhaps built in, right at the beginning, because it suggests a rigorous plan in the matter of aesthetic decision-making.

I am not a person who can listen to an entire album by Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks. There is often to be found there, however, remarkably good guitar playing. This is the case wherever Malkmus hangs his hat now. At the end of the day, Stephen Malkmus is just a really great guitar player. But the combination of an aesthetic, which insists on self-generation of all the musical ideas and then simultaneously asks you not to care too much, indeed thrives on the idea that caring too much about the results is to be avoided—implying you’re an idiot if you want to love these songs. This bricolage of disparate ideas becomes very difficult to hold in one’s head in a fully engaged way. It is possible, in fact, to stop wanting to try. Malkmus, according to available sources, really likes tennis and golf. He is obviously well-read, well-informed. He is by all observable criteria, a normal guy. He is normcore, the rock star who is not a rock star, who is exactly like the audience. And this is admirable. It is possible that we are holding him to standards that are unreasonable, and disallowing him to grow as an artist, to grow in his own direction, and to follow the work where the work leads.

Which brings us to Groove Denied, a new album of “electronica”or so it has been said in the media, though this is inaccurate to some degree. This is a sales handle in reverse. The album has electronic elements, specifically, it often features an electronically generated rhythm section, or, more accurately, it often features a drum machine. I think there is bass playing by Malkmus, and there is some electric guitar. It actually sounds a lot, to me, like a certain period of post-punk that I associate with The Cure, like the albums Faith or Pornography. As if the legendary relationship of Pavement to The Fall has been replaced by a different, more downmarket flavor. There is nothing, in my view, terribly new about Groove Denied, with respect to earlier Malkmus, except that it mostly doesn’t require interfacing with a drum kit, and the guitar parts can be more rudimentary and locked in, in a fashion that does not exactly recall Pavement, or even The Jicks. Here and there one encounters a weirdly primitive (not very good) synth solo in the spot where the guitar solo might have gone. There is also a sense that it is impossible to consume Groove Denied quickly, that its slacker grace is deceptive, or reverse calibrated. There are many ways that Groove Denied is unlistenable, this is true, but the chief way it is unlistenable is that it doesn’t have Gary Young on it.

If you are interested in Malkmus’s denials and prevarications, his antithesis of forthrightness even when being forthright, he listens to Can more than anything else, and so maybe an album of mannered post-punk is well within his sweet spot. His struggle with credibility—is he having you on, or is this slapdash thing a critique—his defiance disorder is still essential to who he is. Work is still neurotic on Groove Denied, and, at the same time, he’s being professional in that he is interested in textures and timbres that, in an era of disregard for guitar-based rock and roll, are more popular. The album was turned down by his label once, and he claims he has been working on it for twelve years. And thus the album raises the stakes on lo-fi principles. It mechanizes these principles, machines them.

Once, to know that work was neurotic was to cast yourself into a void outside of capitalism, into a spot where your prospects were vague, and in which what was valuable was harder to determine. This inert and conflicted state was associated with the genuine. Art was one good way to put your finger on the open fields of self-determination. All of the bands who were noteworthy in the original lo-fi period have in one way or another become professional, or else expended their fuel entirely, and perhaps that was the paradox of the approach. It was unstable. Guided By Voices made a really slick album produced by Ric Ocasek, among their other professional gestures ; Lou Barlow, of Sebadoh, is once again the bass player in the noteworthy Dinosaur Jr., and even when he does his own songwriting, it feels very close to an orthodox singer-songwriter approach, like Poco or Loggins and Messina. Bill Callahan (of Smog) is a sort of giant of strangely enigmatic but fascinating and carefully calibrated songs. Jandek plays the festival circuit. As has Pavement itself, in 2010.

Was this an impracticable set of musical ideas? This lo-fi set of ideas? Doomed from the outset? That Stephen Malkmus is continuing to labor (or not to labor, depending on how you look at it) in a direction of music that challenges and flirts with its own repellant qualities and with its desire to frustrate auteurism and our own high professional regard of him and his work, that he refuses to be a rock and roll personality but traffics (mostly) in rock and roll while doing so, causes me, the formerly broken fan from the ’80s, to admire his allegiance to his ideals or to admire his non-allegiance to professionalism and its corporate veneer. Even if I don’t voluntarily turn on his new music in the way I did when younger, when I was still feeling the stormfront of difficulty surging in, I can still feel the intense relevance of the questions Malkmus asks, to which one might quote back in reply, “Come join us in a prayer/we’ll be waiting, waiting where/Everything’s ending here.”

1 Around the time I may or may not have heard this Althusserian sentiment, or invented it, Althusser murdered his wife, though manslaughter might be the preferred term by reason of diminished responsibility, as Althusser was ill at the time, and before and after ; this event was not yet well understood, at all, Althusser’s mental impairment and the circumstances surrounding the events, if indeed these are understood now. And so it was possible then to quote Althusser, or to consider his writing, at least temporarily, without getting into unwarranted or dangerous terrain. This is not so easy now. 

2 A critique of work would have been contrary to a counterculture idea of work as romantic activity as play, that had been apparent in psychedelic or album-oriented music of the early ’70, in the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane, before this play gave way to a kind of procedural inertia in, for example, the bloated prog rock tours of the mid ’70 or in the 1974 tour of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It was all tune up, snort a line. Punk aimed to replace that notion of play with something free of self-indulgence or self-satisfaction. 

3 A very interesting idea, worthy of pursuit, would be whether the idea that “work is neurotic,” at least in a lo-fi musical context, had particular Jesuitical origins or, at least, whether this idea shared legitimate terrain with Jesuitical thinking. 

4 I have failed to describe this album adequately, and in a way it’s because the album has already built in my critique of it, preordained my critique, which is part of its canniness. In listening to “Cut Your Hair” again, which I have not done closely for some years, I felt the old ramshackle acuity washing in, over the transom, in the way the composition moves through its verses, as though Malkmus is discovering what he wants to say as he goes—the first verse always reminds me of Brian Wilson’s “Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long” : “Darlin’ don’t you go and cut your hair/Do you think it’s gonna make him change ?,” but then the words pivot away from this Wilsonian preference for the “natural,” as Spiral Stairs gets in a line, “I’m just a boy with a new haircut,” and then Malkmus, “That’s a pretty nice haircut,” after which this fluffy essentialism turns to a discussion of the pressure of the music business : “Hesitate you die, look around, look around, the second drummer drowned, his telephone was found.” Is the second drummer, Gary Young, who was drowning in alcoholism at the time ? Possibly, but even that riddle is only a temporary resting place, as verse two goes into “Music scene is crazy/Bands start up/Each and every day/I saw another one, just the other day/A special new band,” which already sends up the idea that Pavement is somehow commenting on the scene, considering this a kind of worthless activity (and remember, e.g., that the incredibly funny and cutting lines on “Range Life,” “The Stone Temple Pilots/They’re elegant bachelors/They’re foxy to me/Are they foxy to you ?”), a gesture of futility, of anti-confessionality, but also very funny, and this is followed by a middle eight where the whole thing winds up into a big Sonic Youth-style guitar solo, a spot where all the futility and neurosis gives way to a moment of genuine application of talent (the drumming is also great in the bridge), which carries us into the third verse where the normally disaffected Malkmus sounds anything but disaffected, “Bitch right down to the practice room/The attention and fame/a career, a career, a career . . .” “Attention” could be “tension” here, and the lyrics in general have such an ad-libbed quality that it’s hard to tell, but the movement of the song, as a whole, from baby, don’t cut your hair to hair bands, cut your hair, to career, career, career, it’s not a straightforward movement, a linear movement, it’s a bricolage of intentions, of tensions, ending with a big howl of anxiety about the meaning of all of it, a flailing in the face of career, career, career, all packaged in a great rock and roll song, with a little blues leftover in it, and a falsetto melody on the verse intros, the perfection designed to be disassembled, and no wonder that Wowee Zowee, the next album, does exactly that, it disassembles the whole thing. 

5 In fact, there are a bunch of good songs on Brighten the Corners : “Stereo,” “Date w/IKEA,” and “Old to Begin,” which reprises some of the moods and styles of “Cut Your Hair,” maybe in a way that was slightly studied, but which still has some of the same powerful effect. Brighten the Corners employs a much more forthright approach to the job of recording a Pavement album, excepting perhaps the lyrics, which are still hilarious and resistant to interpretation, but the question is if making a more straightforward album was a thing that caused Malkmus to hate being in the band.