if I could settle down

July 21st, 2010 by Phil Leave a reply »

When I was in college, I legitimately thought that I would “grow up” surrounded by peers who were from all kinds of different backgrounds from me but who all had similar tastes as me. I thought my musical opinions said more about who I was than pretty much anything else I could think of. Look: I’d spent pretty much my entire life surrounded by Midwestern white kids my age. They were almost all Protestant. They were almost all from wealthier families – especially when I was in grade school, and then again when I got to college. And since I went to a rural high school, and then I went to a small college, I never got any kind of urban studies education or anything like that. I didn’t think in terms of my whiteness, or in terms of my protestantness, or anything like that. By the time I was 20, what was pretty clear was that what distinguished me the most from most of the people I knew was my music, and what created connections between me and other people was mostly music (and computer-geekdom a close second.)

For reasons which will be immediately obvious and understandable to some of you, and completely obscure to most, the band which I most closely identified with at the age of 18 was Pavement. Either you know what I mean or you don’t, and if you don’t, it’s hard to explain it. But there are literally tens of thousands of people who know exactly what I mean. There’s a broader connection there than maybe any other connection I’ve ever really felt, and I say that fully conscious of the inherent outlandishness of the idea.

The 1960s – by which I really men about 1963-1975 – were a reaction against the 1950s, and the 1980s were, sociopolitically, a reaction against the 1960s. The 1990s were not really reactionary in that sense. I went to a college in 1996 where there was no organized College Democrats group, let alone anything to the left of that. But there was real change afoot, and I was part of it, it’s just that it wasn’t really discernible as change then and it’s still hard to discern that change now. Toward the end of the decade irony became hip. The reactions people were making against the dominant paradigm that surrounded them were more subtle. In some ways it was all like a really pleasant nihilism, everybody watching Seinfeld, a show supposedly about nothing, and then in turn Friends, which actually was, in retrospect, the show that was about nothing. And yet profound meaning was gleaned from this nothingness. The nothingness, of course, had this amazing political undertone that was semi-corporate but also profoundly liberal, so in reality, even the most vapid nothingness was still about something. We were groomed to embrace the vapidity and find the delicious irony in it.

Pavement was, I guess, ahead of the curve, though it’s hard to say how conscious this ever was. The touchstones which supposedly explained Pavement’s appeal don’t objectively sound remotely appealing: their lyrics didn’t make a lot of sense; some of the songs didn’t sound like they were completely constructed from start to finish; their original drummer was maybe a burnt-out hippie; their album titles rhymed; the music didn’t sound super-professionally recorded; one of their members didn’t exactly play instruments so much; the list could go on and on. All of these things are of course among the reasons why they were such a great, amazing, important, influential band. But I can’t really expect most people to understand that.

The word most closely associated with Pavement was the word “slack”. I think people were and would still be remiss to simply conflate slack with laziness or with some sort of laid-back California mentality. This is the best way I can explain it: I believe that I grew up with very strong senses of symmetry, of completeness, of geometric order. Taken to a clinical extreme, that might be seen as obsessive-compulsive. Taken to a societal extreme, I think it explains a lot about the world of the 1980s. I was very interested in collecting things. I collected collections at one point, and I was very keen on completing sets whenever possible. I was imbued with a very strong sense of order, which was naturally reinforced by all of my WASP surroundings, and which probably reached its zenith when Van Halen released “Right Now” and we got to hear pieces of the song every morning in school while watching Channel One since it was the theme song for Crystal Pepsi. Van Halen, Channel One, and Crystal Pepsi had a lot of things in common, after all. They were all supposedly about change and freedom and individuality at some level (“Hey! It’s your tomorrow!” “Hey! Anderson Cooper is in Cambodia!” “Hey! This cola is clear!”) and yet of course all were really primarily about conformity (and no, I’m not claiming that David Lee Roth era Van Halen was conformist, at least not yet.)

Slack, see, was all about throwing off that sense of symmetry, that sense of completeness. The idea wasn’t that you accept imperfections, but rather that you embrace imperfections, without passing judgment on the perfect or the imperfect. “Forklift” is no “Hallelujah”, but it doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be expected to be. But more importantly, “Forklift” is no “Right Now”. And it’s no Crystal Pepsi. And it’s sure as hell no Channel One. What’s most interesting in retrospect is to understand that slack culture was really a reaction against not only the Republicans but also the Democrats, but it was a very antipolitical reaction, and as such, it was powerless in the face of a political entity like Bill Clinton. What I find in retrospect is that slack culture was sort of a cultural gateway to a more profound sort of anti-corporate critique; it’s not a coincidence that my own journey into anti-corporate political ideology went through music.

Everything I’ve written up to this point is an attempt to provide some sort of tremendously profound context for having seen Pavement at Pitchfork on Sunday night, so I suppose I should get on with it.

Pavement broke up at the end of 1999. I saw their then-final show in North America, at Bogart’s in Cincinnati. It was the fifth time I’d seen them, in five different cities: Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, and, of course, Camden, New Jersey. That Milwaukee show, in June 1995, was the first club show I’d ever gone to, where by “club show” I mean a) a rock show held in a rock club as opposed to an arena or whatever and b) that I hadn’t seen with my father. It remains one of the five best shows I’ve ever seen, from the early Wowee Zowee tour, with the Dirty Three opening. In a lot of ways it set the parameters for what I thought a real rock show ought to be: minor chaos on stage, a crowd of people packed in looking like they were all on heroin, swapping instruments in the encore, driving to Milwaukee… that was rock and roll.

Sunday night I found myself half-assedly waiting until near the beginning of the set and then squeezing in as close to the middle front as I could. Most of the people I squeezed past were notably younger than me; contrast this with the Milwaukee show, where most people there were older than me. I swear that I can not remember seeing a single black person in the crowd. These were, by and large, young white people, probably mostly raised Protestant, probably mostly from the Chicago area… basically the same people I spent the first 21 years of my life surrounded by, except that now I was older, and… well, just older, mostly.

Since that Pavement show in Milwaukee in 1995, I’ve long since lost count of the number of rock shows I’ve seen. I know people who have seen a lot more than I have (especially my father), but I’d say that in the last 15 years, I’ve probably seen 200+ concerts, which is way more than most people. I’ve seen phenomenal performances and I’ve seen some absolute crap. I’ve been to shows where I was the youngest person in the audience, and I’ve been to shows where I figure I must have been one of the oldest people. I’ve been to shows where there were only white people, and I’ve been to shows where I was in the racial minority.

This was the first show I’d ever been to where, when the band took the stage, I thought to myself, these guys don’t look like a band, they look like a bunch of uncles goofing around. Then I thought about it later and thought that what they really looked like was a pickup basketball team. Then I thought about it some more and figured that what they really looked like was a bunch of guys who played basketball together at some rural high school (like my own) and maybe won some games because they had a tall guy but in general weren’t that good overall but all got along real well. They certainly did not look like any kind of rock heroes.

About halfway through the show it dawned on me that it’d been 16 years since I’d been at a concert where I was so well-versed in the songs that were being played. The last show like that, for me, was seeing Pink Floyd in 1994. I still don’t know what to make of that.

The crowd around me seemed to be at least fairly familiar with most of the songs, but clearly nobody else in my immediate vicinity was as pumped up as I was about all of the songs. I was actually a lot more excited than I thought I’d be. Where else could I be in the middle of a park and be screaming “FORTY MILLION DAGGERS!” and have it be considered reasonable?

I didn’t really feel like anything especially profound was happening, and I’m still undecided as to whether that was me just reacting strangely, or whether that meant it was some kind of let down, or whether it just is what it is and means pretty much nothing at all. Unlike 1995, when I had to drive two hours to some place in Milwaukee I’d never been, on Sunday night, I rode my bike to a park four miles from my house, after having spent a chunk of the afternoon using the Social Security Death Index to try and see if people whose names were on some list has passed away in the last two years. I suppose that as much as anything I miss that sense of momentousness that used to come with seeing a concert. Or maybe I’m just saying that.

I don’t know what place Pavement has today, for me, for society a a whole… it seems weird to think that they should, or that they would, or that they wouldn’t. What seems profoundly odd to me, though, is how my life today seems to be so distracted from what I thought it would be when I was 18. The person I hung out with before the set used to be my girlfriend… in 1997. I did see a couple of other people there, but the only other person who texted me back and forth was my assistant music director… in 1997. Most of the people I see on a regular basis outside of work – they weren’t there, and they wouldn’t have been there. I mean: shouldn’t my 50 best friends or so have all been in that crowd somewhere on Sunday night? I’ve given a lot of myself over the last 10 years to trying to build a political alternative for this country, but my real connections, aren’t they with the people who were there on Sunday? Isn’t that how I always thought it would be? And if not, then who were those people there on Sunday, and what were they doing there?

Am I just a character on Friends too?

For a lot of reasons, over the last few years, I’ve increasingly lost touch with what’s happening in new music. I managed to hold on during grad school, and then hold on after grad school when I got a show again at my old college radio station. But as I got more involved in politics, and started seeing less shows, it kind of slipped. And then I didn’t do the show anymore. And I saw even less shows. And I got more consumed by politics. And every so often I would think to myself, gosh, have I lost part of who I am? Is it possible to get that back? Have I screwed up?

Back in 1995, on a Saturday, I think, a couple of guys were with me, and I went to the front desk of our dorm, and checked out one of the games, and went outside with it. And instead of participating with me, those two guys just stood there and watched as I lobbed horseshoes at the street sign pole at the corner of East and University. In retrospect, that’s got to be one of the most slack things I’ve ever done. And I hope that that’s still how I am. And I hope that the people I’ve surrounded myself with are like that too.

I think I need to make even more of an effort to simply be me. And if that’s what I have somehow gotten out of seeing a bunch of guys who look like basketball playing uncles crank out intimately familiar songs in a park in the middle of the City on the Make, then thank god I was there.


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