I love Pavement.
My love of Pavement started in a very specific place and is almost entirely tied to that place and time.
I used to teach at a camp in Emporia Kansas about 1992 and I drove a really tiny little Honda with no air conditioning...I would leave my parents house in Tulsa Oklahoma, gas up, and head for Emporia (I kind of think it took maybe 6 or 7 hours). My car had very little in the way of amenities but it did have a tape deck.
This was during the bizarre period between the dominance of Vinyl and CD’s…..As hard as it is for me to believe now, I owned hundreds of cassette tapes. I carried them around in cases. I had my car filled with these cases for the trip. I am sure I started out listening to some Public Enemy or Nirvana...maybe Jesus Lizard (we were kind of into the Jesus Lizard at this time if I recall correctly).
You have to remember Oklahoma and Kansas are brutally hot and humid in the summer and I was driving my 6’3 self in a tiny un-air-conditioned car. We did not have portable phones to call and chat with people through bluetooth over the long drive. The ONLY things I had to keep my mind off of how badly I was sweating were the wind coming through the open window and my cassettes playing on my, at best, mediocre Honda speakers. Obviously, I would crank the volume, but the speakers just sucked.
Anyway, at some point, I decided to drive with one hand while I tried to peel the shrink wrap off this new cassette I had just picked up...Something called "Slanted and Enchanted" by some band called Pavement.
At first, I struggled, but eventually I got it open...took the cassette out and put it in the mouth of my car cassette player...I had never heard Pavement before (or heard of them) but I liked the name and the cover art (in my experience a pretty good indicator of if it would be a good band).
So, as I was waiting for the music to start pouring forth from my mediocre (at best) speakers...you should probably know that the drive from Oklahoma to Emporia is kind of like driving through every small town with little to see and barely visible highway signs you can't always make out.
Think dust, isolation, and long-long stretches of nothing but highway and corn fields.
The drive was so sparsely populated you had to pay very close attention to your gas to make sure you did not pass any possible gas station at the risk being stranded in the middle of absolute nowhere (remember, no cell phones).
So, I am in the middle of nowhere, a huge man in a tiny car, in the blistering heat and humidity, hoping for literally anything to take my mind off of my discomfort….and then….in a lo-fi style perfect for my shitty car speakers….came the following discernable lyrics:
Ice Baby, I Saw Your Girlfriend, and she was eating her fingers like they’re just another meal But she waits there, In the levee, washes Mixin’ cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar.
To this day, I am waiting waiting waiting to meet a girl mixin cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar.
The song in question ‘Summer Babe’ is still one of my all-time favorite songs. And you cannot understand how perfect Pavement sounded on this trip.
A band like Nirvana, for instance, sounds its most amazing on a really great stereo system where you can get all the power of the songs. Pavement seemed to write songs to be played on a bad stereo.
That is not to say that the songs are bad..in fact, all of them are great...I am just not sure anything EVER sounded as good on that tinny car stereo...and certainly nothing ever sounded that good off of a cassette tape on a terrible stereo.
I am virtually 100% certain that I listened to Slanted and Enchanted the entire rest of my trip (my car’s cassette player had one of those crazy systems that auto-flipped the tape when you were done with a side)....Summer Babe is a great song, but so is Trigger Cut/Wounded Kite at :17 and No Life Singed Her, and holy shit - In the Mouth of A Desert…Chelsey’s Little Wrist, Loretta’s Scars….and the extra tracks like Baptist Backtick and Nothing Ever Happens.
It was just a journey of pure joy….I mean even the slow songs like Here are great….so full of pain and longing…”everything's empty here”...so sad and at the same time hopeful. Oh, and Perfume-V…”she’s got the radio-active and it makes me feel okay...I feel okay….
And beyond that all the songs sound great, they represented something really different, it was lo-fi...and Pavement seemed very much a garage band that were playing very experimentally, but the thing that was really really different was the lyrics.
I mean it was word soup but really interesting and provocative word soup. Somehow, you knew when listening that the lyrics made no coherent sense but they still seemed entirely coherent...I am not even sure how that is possible.
There are times when one part of our lived experience can dominate all of the other feelings we have. The rest of this trip was entirely dominated by how much I loved Slanted and Enchanted, how much it sounded like nothing else I had ever heard. How much the lyrics seemed totally nonsensical but still, for some reason, really interesting.
I mean in Pixies songs you would get the feeling it was intentionally nonsensical and silly….But, with Pavement songs you felt like there was a method to the madness that felt like it worked to mean something...even if what it meant was more like feeling something than it was about understanding it. Coherent incoherence.
I still can recite whole swaths of Pavement babble…it hit me on some other deeper or subconscious level.
Often, during that drive and many others, I felt like the music and the wind through my windows, and the lyrics all meshed together into some crazy pastiche...like they were all meant to be together. As crazy as that sounds (and I was sober). I never hear the album without thinking of that crazy drive.
Stephen Malkmus has somehow become a guitar hero now, I have kind of lost track of Spiral Stairs….I should have hated every second of that drive, but somehow it became one of the most hard-wired memories I have of that period of my life. I remember that drive much more than I remember anything that happened at the camp...or anything I did in Emporia (actually, I have probably spent more time in Emporia Kansas than just about anyone who never lived there now that I think about it).
There is this song by The Hold Steady called ‘Certain Songs’ that I love (they play it at the end of their concerts) because it has this line:
“certain songs...they get scratched into our souls.”
Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted is scratched into my soul. And it got scratched in my soul on a long and hot journey in the mouth of a desert called Kansas in a tiny Honda.
Why The All-Time Albums Series
Part of the joy of the discovery of music is that we all come to the music that defines us at different times and through different locations (in physical and emotional geographies).
How we got to the music we connect with can be as interesting as the music and/or the actual ‘facts’ about what really defines that music (the origin stories etc.)
My goal, with this series, is to discuss my personal musical journey. I plan to tell the story of at least 50 albums that matter the most to me.
How did you find Pavement? Or how did the music you love get Scratched Into Your Soul? I would love to hear your stories...Leave a comment!