Spin’s review of Slanted and Enchanted listed the Minutemen as a reference. If I strained my ears, I could hear the connection. Pavement shared none of their musical wizardry, but lyrical non-sequiturs gestured rather than pointed in a similar quizzical fashion; songs like “Two States” were influenced by punk, but unfurled at their own pace.
I saw Pavement play Providence on July 31, 1992, a month before I went to college. It’s no exaggeration to say I’d listened to Slanted every day since I bought the cassette in May, based on Spin’s Minutemen namecheck. But I’d never seen a photo of the band. Nor could I suss out their size and shape from the album notes: the review mentioned five guys, the insert ‘SM, Stairs, Young.’
The latter, it turned out, played drums—if he didn’t stop the show to do a headstand. He became more tired as the evening went on, each song an addition to the years on his face, the visible difference in age between himself and the rest of the band.
And I bought T-shirts from the guy who played a solitary snare drum in the middle of the stage, who yelled choruses with gleeful abandon. He was one of the five guys in the band, though not one of the three listed: Bob Nastanovich, second drummer.
I wrote the band a long letter afterwards, full of questions about their names and origins and a promise to set up a show for them at the University of New Hampshire (even though I had never done such a thing).
Months later, a postcard arrived:
“No gravel to spare at this hour. Keep the pastoral growth under control. –SM”
The Minutemen, yes. Skate video soundtracks steeped in SST’s catalogue.
But the Fall, Swell Maps, Giant Sand, Pere Ubu, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282?
I had never heard of a single one of these bands Erik Davis used as points of comparison to Pavement.
The references intrigued me.
College will change things, I decided. I’d heard about college radio playing the best bands, the ones who weren’t on MTV or Rock 101.
I wore a Pavement shirt to my first day of college, a flag unfurled to spark conversation. One of the two I bought from Nastanovich.
No one had heard of them.
Instead of reading about the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys in the library, I wanted to be part of something happening in the present.
My hometown had bands. I checked them all out. A guy I knew from jewelry class and a bunch of the school’s best skateboarders sang Minor Threat covers at the miniramp; my best friend played trombone in a sloppy five-piece boasting songs about mailbox baseball and Taco Bell. A girl one grade below me sang in a group with a bunch of older, sophisticated guys. They played “I Wanna Be Your Dog” at her pool party.
I thought college would provide me with local bands to follow. But it was 1992 in New Hampshire: the acts playing outdoor quads or the union or coffeehouses either sounded like Pearl Jam or the Grateful Dead, or both. The closest thing to a connections was with the horn-laden skacore act that covered Public Enemy. I’d stand up front and wait for the signer to notice I knew all the words to “She Watch Channel Zero?!” Every show, he was there with the mic.
But even this didn’t scratch the itch.
Minor surgery right before college turned out to be major—complications turned day surgery into two weeks of bedridden hospital misery. I lost thirty pounds. My stomach shrank.
I walked post-discharge laps around my parents’ house on the hour to get my strength back. Even still, a half-mile walk across campus during orientation left me whooping for breath.
After some so-called minor exertion kicked my ass I lay on my bed, arm across my eyes.
A guy who lived in a forced triple a few doors down was deep in the throes of Nirvana—he’d affected the striped shirt, the cardigan, the long stringy hair. And the guitar, of course. Every day he’d play Nirvana songs through his small but noisy amp. I was put off. I thought he was trying too hard. In retrospect, he reminded me of myself.
I’d met one of the guy’s friends briefly, this red-haired dude who struck me as a real weirdo, abrasive and jagged. I didn’t see him come in because of my arm.
“Got any music?”
I pushed up from my bed. I hadn’t brought many of my CDs with me—no room in my dad’s car. But I had brought a few tapes. I played Pavement.
A few seconds into “Summer Babe,” the red-haired guy grimaced and asked if I had anything else.
I played him “Skip Steps One and Three.”
A few seconds in, he nodded.
“That’s much better,” he said, and left my room.
A single with B-sides: “Sue Me Jack” and “So Stark (You’re a Skyscraper).” I dubbed these songs onto a cassette which I listened to on my Walkman.
Watery, Domestic was next. Deep in the throes of straightedge, I chose to live in the chem-free dorm and missed the obvious joke. The EP was killer, the first recording as a five-piece. “Shoot The Singer” leapt to the top of the mix-tape hit parade.
I made mix tapes for anyone who showed the slightest interest in my music. I thought of this almost like a service requirement. Some popular music was fine—it was the grunge 90s, after all—but finding music better than Pearl Jam was easy with a little digging. I’d follow up on these tapes, and the recipient would shrug or say something vaguely polite but noncommittal.
I was trying a little too hard.
Over Christmas break, former high school classmates reconvened in odd configurations. The strict caste system which scared me a year prior dissolved, or just ceased to matter.
I grew my hair after graduation, was issued a mandatory goatee. I lost my telescope-thick glasses in favor of contacts.
My classmates, in their amorphous constellations, began talking about this new thing. Email.
I spent time in the computer cluster when I got back to school. It didn’t take me long to find Pavement usegroups, to start trading tapes with strangers.
The red-haired guy showed up at my door after break.
“Man,” he said. “I got that Pavement record for Christmas. It’s amazing.”
The local record store kept a list of upcoming releases. I’d seen a new Pavement record titled “Westing” on there, which I pre-ordered. We both waited for it to arrive.
When it did, the song titles and album art—in the same spindly handwriting from the postcard and Watery, Domestic—ingrained into our growing lexicon of shared in-jokes.
Like the Minutemen, the cryptic references seemed a series of directions with no key, which, once decoded, turned into a map to be followed. Some of the Westing gags were too impenetrable to be anything but non-sequitur, but I got one of them: a picture likely clipped from a fashion magazine bearing the caption “Long Cool Woman In A (Big) Black Dress.” I knew the Hollies because one of my summer camp friends played their record; I had discovered Steve Albini’s caustic three-piece during my freshman year. Did the juxtaposition have meaning? It jammed two disparate elements against each other—maybe for the sake of it. But it cracked me up, made me feel like I was somehow in on the joke, rather than the butt of it.
If it was a joke.
Which maybe it wasn’t.
Trying to figure it all out was part of the fun. So much headspace occupied by a band, even when no music played.
Westing had its moments, a great salve. But it didn’t cohere like Slanted.
The online grapevine buzzed about a proper long-player titled Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
A few months later, a pen pal sent me a cassette dub of the album.
Its arrival coincided my most concentrated attempt to learn guitar—which is to say not very concentrated. I got A through G, but never had the attention span to learn minors, sevenths. Just major and power chords.
But “Cut Your Hair” was easy enough.
My wife and I are still sometimes in situations where people play acoustic guitars, cookouts or whatever. She finds my reaction to these times hilarious, because I’m always reminded how for a year (okay, more) I was The Guy With The Guitar in college. I lacked metacognition and demanded attention by bogarting the party with Pavement covers. She was there when I was The Guy, and I was The Guy by playing “Cut Your Hair” every. Single. Time.
So now I hate The Guy because he was me and I am him.
Portsmouth’s punk scene grew small but intense. A coffeeshop called the Elvis Room started booking shows, hosting any number of local bands happy to play a gig between Boston and Montreal. A guy from the A.G’s booked gigs there and started Ringing Ear Records to release stuff by his new band Sinkhole, along with the drummer’s band Doc Hopper.
I finally felt involved.
The scene wars were in full swing: Tim Yohannon of Maximum Rock N’ Roll’s editorial decision to limit the definition of “punk” following the explosion of first Nirvana then Green Day and finally the Offspring caused the formation of Punk Planet and HeartattaCk zines, each an umbrella over a specific swath of the scene, such as it was. I read all these, went to as many shows as possible, and tried to make sense of everything.
The ideologies each magazine provided were wildly different from each other, but they all agreed that MTV sucked.
In high school I’d taped 120 Minutes every Sunday night to watch on Monday afternoons. My dorm didn’t have exposure to the channel. The odd flip past the MTV in a friend’s apartment never yielded a music video, anyway, like when I had watched in the 80s—it was all reality shows and games.
So I was caught by surprise when friends told me they’d seen “Cut Your Hair” on MTV.
Friends who hadn’t previously dug Pavement, despite all the mix tapes and shitty covers.
The video’s conceit is easy enough: all five members of Pavement take a turn in the barber’s chair, where gags ensue. One turns into a frog, one is a shaggy ape who cleans up real nice.
(Years later, Brendan [by then my roommate] mentioned the videos were collected on a DVD. We bought it at Newbury Comics, then spent the rest of the evening howling in laughter at what dicks Pavement were. Their gags walked the micron thin line between clever and asshole, like when, in “Cut Your Hair,” the barber gives Malkmus a martini, then a mitre and finally a throne—The King!—and the camera hangs on his face as a solitary tear slowly descends his pout.)
It wasn’t just friends telling me about MTV, though. I’d be at a coffeehouse or a bar and “Cut Your Hair” would come on. Hey, someone, would say, isn’t this that band that you like?
And I wasn’t sure how to feel.
The dorm TV connected to a VCR. It was easy enough to change its coaxial cable from ‘output’ to ‘input’ to record.
I have since lost the VHS tape, but I remember the night Pavement played Jay Leno.
“Cut Your Hair” started with a nonsensical jam, camera eye on Malkmus and his gibberish vocals.
Eventually the nonsense stopped and the song started.
Pretension and fame’s a career, Korea.
I watched the tape over and over when it was done. I knew what I had seen, but needed confirmation regardless.
On their late night television debut, Bob Nastanovich wore a Minutemen T-shirt.
—Michael T. Fournier