Sunday, August 10, 2008

My Crush on Stephen Malkmus

Don't get me wrong. I love my partner, but I have had a crush on Stephen Malkmus for something like 15 years. It's nothing sexual...except who isn't turned on by dudes with guitars? It's nothing obsessive...except that I have a blog dedicated to his former band, Pavement. It's just a simple crush.

It all started 15 or 16 years ago when I first heard a special new band called Pavement. Almost instantly, I was drawn to the California drawl of the singer and his rather clever lyrical take on haircuts and heaven. I wore that dubbed copy of Crooked Rain Crooked Rain out by the time Wowee Zowee was released and I had my first opportunity to see Pavement live at the Agora in Cleveland.

A Malkmus live performance was something else. He'd intentionally reword lyrics and mess around with a song's phrasing as if he was bored, making each song distinct from the one the band recorded. His guitar playing could be described as sloppy punk virtuoso, but it always used classic blues riffs as its base. Once in a while, SM Jenkins, as he was also known, would make a sarcastic remark about a local venue or show Steve West how to play his drum part. The California slacker in him never allowed a Pavement set to be uninteresting.

SM was Pavement's primary songwriter. He entered every recording session with several nearly-finished songs in tow. Lyrically, SM teetered on the side of absurd with obscure cultural references and pot-headed wordplay. Pavement lyrics are profoundly poetic and amusing at the same time. SM is the one we can thank for this.

Vocally, SM is not what you'd call "classically trained," but the fact that he did sing, record, and sell out venues with such a pedestrian voice means something. It was punk that taught us you didn't have to have a great voice to sing rock songs, and Malkmus showed us you didn't have to have a great voice to sound good. The real draw of his voice was actually his off-kilter phrasing and spoken-word delivery. The California skater kid in his voice was just a bonus.

As a guitarist, SM has turned into somewhat of a showman, but it was the experimentation with Pavement for which he'll always be known. Back in the day, no one sounded like Pavement (unless you listened to Sonic Youth or The Fall). They had a perfect sound forever that is often copied, never duplicated. The guitar play between SM and co-founder Scott Kannberg was sloppy, ear-piercing, and a strange mix of equal parts jam band, punk noise, and 80's Brit jangle. Malk has begun to overdue it on recent albums with the classic rock guitar solos, but he still remains a top-notch indie guitarist in much the same way he is a valued vocalist.

There is something in how Stephen Malkmus writes and performs music that makes you feel like you could do it, but it also reminds you that you didn't. And he generally is a likable guy. My sister talked his ear off once. Malk didn't seem to mind. Plus, he's a father now, riding his bike around Portland, recording Dylan covers and being as cryptic as ever. He even has those school-boy good-looks that make all the girls (and more boys than will admit) swoon with indie rock delight. What is there not to like about Stephen Malkmus?

So, there you have it. I have a crush on Stephen J. Malkmus and I'm not afraid to say it. It's a long way off, but SM and the Jicks are set to play the Note on November 2nd. I will be there, front and center, yelling for "Summer Babe" or "Jo Jo's Jacket" and video-taping the whole so that my kid can see who invented early nineties slacker rock.

(Hopefully Stephen Malkmus doesn't Google himself and finds this post disturbing enough to cancel their COMO date.)


Zach said...

The "Pavement" episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast is on Adult Swim's website this week (

And I just bought Wowee Zowee last week (taking it chronologically, one per summer). It only further complicated my inability to choose my favorite Pavement album.

douglas said...

SM back in those Perfect Sound days was a master @ feedback. Impressive as hell to watch old footage of him w/ Fender against amp.