Saturday, June 10, 2017

Excerpt From a Rejected 33 1/3 Book on Silver Jews' American Water (2010)

The Fall of 1992: From Watery Domestic to American Water

“I was listening to rock radio and I heard “Aqualung” into “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I almost crashed the car.”. Jesse Luscious

The first thing I want to say: we didn’t win. After the cold war ended, the wound of confusion that allowed Ross Perot to have the most viable 3rd party presidential run in decades, despite being sabotaged by the Bush campaign, also manifested itself in what later became filed away in Time/Life anthologies as “the year punk broke.” Many who had given up hope on mainstream mass-cultural music media were at least somewhat drawn back into ‘the fold’ by the sonic force of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” By 1992, Kurt Cobain was bringing soulful guitar oriented rock back to the singles and album charts and Bill & Hillary Clinton were promising universal health coverage. A new day had begun.

The early 1990s passed itself off as an expansive economy as Clinton waxed about a post-cold-war “peace dividend” and embraced the loss of manufacturing jobs as but the flipside of a new white-collar technocracy that would propel America into the 21st century. The economy wasn’t really better, but just driven on debt, and the promise of futurity more than it had been: a bubble lie like the “tomorrow” in Clinton’s 1977 Fleetwood Mac theme song. We heard Ross Perot’s great sucking sound, but many voted for Clinton anyway. In hindsight, Perot’s policies would have done much more to sustain and even grow an environment in which punk, and independent hip hop, could thrive more, not less, than during the 80s.[1]

As America seemed to be liberated from the Madonna/ Michael Jackson, or Reagan/Bush 80s, Nirvana was able to sneak in under the radar, or was tolerated by the RIAA as a way to bring back some disenfranchised consumers. Pearl Jam, for instance, would never have renewed my interest in the possibility of commercial radio the way Nirvana did. Nirvana built a new coalition by meshing and merging two divergent trends in white 1980s guitar-based rock; the line of rock called punk and the line of rock called heavy metal, both roughly parallel, and usually not touching. The former is placed below, underground; hell even the singers usually had lower voices. The latter above, commercial, corporate, mainstream even, longhaired, dry ice glam and higher voices.[2]

As Cobain was cast in the role of high priest presiding over a marriage of heavy-
metal heaven and punk hell,[3] for many there was a great sense of relief and even hope for the music industry after Nevermind just as there was a great hope for a national healthcare plan between ’92 and ’94.  For a while, it even seemed that the music was getting better, at least for those who had a stake in radio, without losing what made it great in the 80s. Some criticized Nevermind’s lack of oppositional politics, as if that was what allowed it to get on the radio.[4] Sure enough, It didn’t take long for many male hair bands to trade in their dry-ice machines for flannel, and rape Kurt Cobain’s grunge riffs in an attempt to milk the ‘cash cow’ of the sounds now sanctioned, however reluctantly, by Casey Kasem and his ilk (Offspring’s “Self-Esteem,” is one example of this formula-song).

Across the pond, however, PJ Harvey turned the wave Cobain rode into a tsunami. The sonic similarities Harvey’s “Sheela Na Gig” shares with Cobain’s ultimately raised the ante for ‘grunge’ or ‘alternative’ in the best spirit of competitive co-operation—for “Sheela Na Gig” is simultaneously more complex (in both musical structure and lyrical content), more raw, and presents a stronger personality than “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”[5] It gave me hope. Maybe “post-Cobain alt-rock” isn’t doomed to become all Pearl Jam (and maybe the poetry world ain’t gonna be all Brown/ Bard/ Buffalo, and Iowa).

Even in the early 90s, the role of The British music scene in supporting bands that the American music industry ignored should not be under-estimated. The UK had a fluid musical economy open to experimentation alongside of mainstream pop & rock. Mainstream music tabloids, and regular music-related segments on the news, made music as central to culture as professional sports or even Hollywood in America. The kind of economy that guarantees national healthcare also made more room for musicians, because there was a national pride in “swinging London” as a cultural export—but they gave back too.

Historically, the UK was the primary catalyst in the rise of the underground American punk/hardcore network when Last released “California Uber Alles.”[6] A decade later, in 1990, a self-released debut recording by another band from California took a one-stop flight, via New York City avant-rock bassist Mark Ibold, to the UK. When The Wedding Present performed “Box Elder” on John Peel’s radio show, it changed everything for Pavement. Up to that point, Pavement had been a strictly closet affair, as the band avoided press or live performances, both out of choice and necessity.

The 90s: Pavement As Metonymy

Like many of our generation (x), most of the members of Pavement experienced punk and underground noise music first as recorded music, much more passionately connected to a bedroom community of radio orphans than the 80s basis in the pit.[7] The band members had been raised on radio. Malkmus and Kannenberg were fans of Kiss before they discovered punk. Malkmus and Nastanovich were DJs on UVA’s WTJU and an active part in the scene from which Homestead’s Honor Roll, and others, emerged. Stockton is the kind of cultural desert one had to get the fuck out of if one wants to make music, but, if you really try, and have a $20,000 loan from your dad, there still seemed to be many “ways to attack” these fortresses, and thank God for John Peel.

After the loose network of 80s underground college radio that Biafra had helped put together had fragmented, in the early 90s, college radio reverted to its pre-punk format, primarily as a showcase for the DJ to show off his eclecticism, with less of a cultural present to keep it in check. Many thought---okay, so we don’t have a present like the other generations did…at least not yet…but in the meantime we got the whole wealth of recorded music history, and a few contemporary acts, and we can learn a lot from the cultural detritus while we might seem to “pretend that we’re dead!” (L7) While this liberates the record/radio listener from the possible tyranny of the live scene, it also mirrors the corporate agenda of decreased promotion of new material--—precisely at a time when more bands were starting up each and every day.

Yet it also encourages the musician the freedom to come out of the gates more like The White Album than the recognizable singular style of Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash. For those rockers or rappers who felt hemmed in by the taboo against fiercely introspective ballads in the underground 80s, this was another door Nirvana seemed to open. Pavement’s eclectic confusion of influences was perfect for this climate. The avant-garde noise rock consistency of early EPs on the new upstart Drag City label, were hailed as the a “more soulful Sonic Youth” by some. As they pondered an episode of Beavis & Butthead in a skate park freaking out to the Troggs-like sing-along chorus of “Debris Slide,” other critics overplayed the influence of The Fall, especially in England. But Slanted & Enchanted surpassed critic’s expectations when it was evident they could write pop-melodies with depth. “Maybe it could even fit in with grunge?” echoed across the RIAA boardrooms,

When Matador took the reins, the word “indie” has become a genre, and, musically, the Pavement sound was at the center of it; they defied categories at exactly the same time corporate industry was de-defining them, and throwing both producers and consumers of music into a state of confusion. There’s still not even a critical consensus on what to call Pavement. They’ve been called “alternative rock,” “indie rock,” “post-punk,” “college rock,” and even “modern rock”---phrases with very different aesthetic connotations, as well as business models.[8] At the dawn of a new era of “niche marketing,” violating a niche can be a niche. Atlantic’s industry muscle marketed an “indie-culture,” in which Pavement could be seen as somehow complimentary to Liz Phair---but Pavement never quite played along with the corporate agenda.

A glance at Billboard’s charts reveals just how irrelevant chart positions had become during the great fragmentation. Pavement’s only “single” to chart in America, was 1994’s “Cut Your Hair,” reaching number 10 on the Modern Rock Chart. By the 90s, the “single” primarily meant “song from an album that was a video,” at least in the states. [i]Their albums charted on Billboard’s Top 200[9] but surprisingly none charted on the “Indie” chart until the posthumous 10th year anniversary edition of Slanted And Enchanted, which only reached 152 on the Top 200, but reached #5 on the Indie charts! This tells you a lot about the pressures the industry was putting on bands during the early 90s, as it tried to harness this wave of a new generation of troublemakers. After all, Pavement was such a staple of cassette culture that was cresting in the early 90s, before Nafta had to beget Napster.

I often put Pavement on mix tapes alongside of my favorite 80s stuff. It fit right in. In a way, their style was like an ad for college radio;[10] their classic early 90s material sounded less like a (barren) band and more like a mix-tape of the best moments in 80s college radio. Malkmus and Company could combine all these influences in ways that don’t get sued for intellectual property, digest the cultural glut, and throw it back out, with miles and miles of style. They even invited punk (that had been killed by a lot of what was then passing for ‘punk’) back to the party.

I didn’t know about Pavement until after the Watery Domesitc EP came out. In the fall of 1992, David Berman hyped them to me, and I was immediately hooked by “Frontwards,” which got played on the college stations, and made further inroads into the British charts. They weren’t that different from what I loved about Nirvana or The Pixies. It didn’t take too long to get into the edgier sounds of Slanted & Enchanted[11]and the earlier EPS, even as the band was changing, growing and trying, trying, trying. This EP introduced the band that made its full-length debut on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: a much more sonically unified album than its predecessor. They were working for Atlantic now, and made good on the opportunity while jelling as a band, and creating an artwork almost everyone who heard it knew it lived up to its boast.

While Slanted & Enchanted had been released on 4/20, Crooked Rain was released on Valentine’s Day; this is no more coincidence. A few alleged purists feared Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain edged Pavement closer to corporate “modern rock,” but the arena-rock bombast that was predominate in the post-Nirvana Lollapallooza 90s is balanced, on Crooked Rain, by intimate mid-tempo soulful ballads like “Newark Wilder” and “Heaven Is A Truck” that have much more in common with early REM and The Replacements.[12] The way its strategically constructed to be a rock album, while containing a higher-percentage of ballads than most rock albums, recalls Axis: Bold As Love if you must use Classic Rock analogies.[13]

“Unfair,” the angriest song, is more punk than metal, even in its subject matter: a Northern California anthem about southern California stealing its water; a song whose passion I didn’t really get until I moved to the Bay Area, but Crooked Rain was placeless enough that, even back east, it was a perfect album for the summer of 1994, as plaintively-delivered lyrics like, ”It’s a brand-new era, it feels great/ it’s a brand new era, but it came too late,” and “goodbye to the rock and roll era; they don’t need you anymore” were cradled in spacious avant-angsty guitar soundz. It even went Top 15 in England’s pop charts, right up there with The Fall’s Infotainment Scam and all across America blared from boom boxes not long after Cobain killed himself, and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract On America” was trickling down to defeat whatever was hopeful about the cultural opening Clinton had signified for many.

In 1994, Crooked Rain came close to approaching perfection, but it may have been more important as a launching pad. After creating a critically hailed album that is also your biggest commercial success, some bands implode, like My Bloody Valentine, unable or unwilling to do a follow up, but why even try to create Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain II, when you’re beginning to really jell as a live unit, especially in small and medium sized venues.

Meanwhile, the classic rock stations started playing Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction and Creed alongside of Van Halen and Zeppelin---anything to split that coalition that had briefly manifested itself in the success of Nirvana (and the threat of Flipper!). George Hurchalla, Michael Azerrad and others account for this split in terms of socio-economic class. As the “proletarian sounds of the Seattle grunge scene (Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden) conquer[ed] the masses,” according to Azerrad:

indie rock became increasingly the preserve of the more privileged strata of American youth, who favored cerebral, ironic musicians like Liz Phair, Pavement and Palace Brothers. Perhaps to make up for the seeming elitism, such musicians placed even less of a premium on musical technique than ever. But maybe that was just a flip of the bird to the traditionally working-class emphasis on artisanal values like chops, speed, and power.

As a fan of music on both sides of the class-lines Azerrad draws, I heard the difference between Alice And Chains and Pernice, Palace, or Chemical Brothers primarily to be one of moods. Most people I know who are called ‘cerebral and ironic’ are among the least privileged strata of society. The only real ‘privilege’ was that of access; the grunge bands were now being played on the working class classic rock stations. There wasn’t a popular vote. It took more work to find the indie bands, and luck.

You don’t have to be rich to leave your town in search of a good college station and indie scene. I was broke, but privileged enough to find Joe Pernice and David Berman on one of those detours, so now I had the choice between Pearl Jam and Pavement that many ‘bluecollar’ folk didn’t. It doesn’t mean they would have chosen Pavement over Stone Temple Pilots, but at least they could’ve made the choice. Interestingly, the acts he calls “cerebral and ironic” tend to have a larger female audience than the “mainstream” ones. Azerrad clearly has a problem with Pavement, which is fine; no one’s wrong or right about taste, though I would like to ask him how he defines the technique he claims Pavement lacks?

Punk confrontation was largely gone from the indie world; in its place was a suffocating insularity whether it was Cat Power’s depressive mutterings or Pavement’s indie rock about indie rock, however beautiful or evocative they might have been. Sticking your neck out too far was verboten. There was a distinct sense of tactical retreat, of lying low until the storm passed. Many musicians sought refuge in irony, where nothing was revealed and all could be denied.

Though Azerrad’s spot on about the sense of tactical retreat during the 90,[14] the “suffocating insularity” was primarily felt in the temp-office cubicle, and the ‘virtual reality’ of the web. Mere survival lead anybody with even a smidgeon of sensitivity to feel “so out of touch with my own body,” as Berman puts it in “The New Idea:” I was in high school/When I realized that not doing anything/was categorically different from deciding to do nothing,/ but beauty blew a fuse, the hold music put me in a trance,/ and what was black and heading toward me” can lead even the most stoic of us to a temp job in an “office park,”  like the one on the cover of Actual Air, “whose walls/ are strange mathematical mountains.”[15] 

Punk confrontation had left the indie world way before Pavement or Cat Power hit the scene. In 2004/05 Pavement tried to bring some of it back, despite the restrictions of the arena setting. And, fuck you, they made me smile, and laugh, and dance, and help get over the untimely death of my mother.

“So many fortresses and ways to attack, so why you complainin’….cha”

As the RIAA labels pushed the music industry from a small venue, community based music economy to an CDOR/Arena/internet economy, it felt like the 90s were scripted to be to the 80s what the 70s were to the 60s, like Cracker was to Camper Beethoven what The Faces were to the Small Faces, for instance—more alienating: at least to those of us who came from an 80s underground perspective. Nowhere was this Woodstock, Jr. vibe more manifest than at the Lollapalooza tours.

In 1994/5, I had been invited to perform my poetry for the Lollapalooza tour. I, too, was trying to form a coalition between page-based intensity (Ashbery et al) and a beat/black arts performative populism. I was told I’d have a backstage pass, but the poets were ghettoized in a poet’s tent, so any hope of luring a rock band to let me perform with them was pretty much thwarted. Although I liked many of the bands that performed, the whole culture felt much more alien than I hoped. I watched as people crowd surfed to The Breeders’ “Divine Hammer,” but looked puzzled as Nick Cave played. Many of the new bands were really more like Boston, Joe Cocker or The Steve Miller Band than they were like The Sex Pistols; larger than life, but still claiming some connection to 80s punk, and taking themselves way too seriously.

Other bands found themselves making fun of the event just to inject some humanity into it. The Flaming Lips[16] hilariously heckled the audience who just wanted to hear “Vaseline” (which wasn’t even called that) as Ronald Jones ripped into some distort madness. “He’s just tuning.” L7 threw tampons at the crowd, and The Beastie Boys yelled at these “sensitive kids of the 90s” when they caught them trying to dorkily grope crowd surfing grrrls. Meanwhile, Pavement refused to back-down from the tongue and cheek lines about The Smashing Pumpkins and The Stone Temple Pilots, and Billy Corgan played right into it, threatening to drop his band from the top-slot.[17]

Pavement had just enough of that big flannel grunge sound so crucial for the arena mandate to subvert it from within, and fight this generation over more than just the meaning of alternative. Those who say Pavement sucked enough to deserve being pelted with chunks of Lollapalooza mud are easily refuted by many who experienced these shows. Downplaying their recorded material for extended charming and sloppy covers like The Replacements, and glorious noise grooves, like a cross between The Fall, and Guru Guru, Syd’s Floyd and White Light, White Heat shook audience complacency. More fun than the headliners, they were almost an alien, our alien, taking up where Cobain left off championing the 80s culture that Lollapalooza had ridden in on, but was now trying to erase!

And even when they sucked, sometimes that’s the best way to reach people--turn ‘em on to something they don’t get on their “modern rock” stations, or what had become of MRR. It was almost a badge of honor to dub yourself, “The Band That Ruined Lollapallooza.” At least if you’re into the Westerbergian Sublime, and the other “Nevermind”--a song off the Replacements Pleased To Meet Me, with lines like “I suppose your guess, is more of less as bad as mine.”  Torn between the gutter and the door, not because they were “afraid of success” as the corporate press put it, but because that’s where the best music is.

With the labels clamouring for a follow-up, Malkmus, Nostanovich and West took a slight detour, recording the first full-length Silver Jews album, Starlite Walker, with David Berman at Memphis’s Eisley studio. Silver Jews may have been cerebral, but they were anything but ironic. Berman’s straightforward, intimate songs helped keep the members of Pavement honest, as its slower, quieter living-room vibe brought them back to their low-fi roots, and they helped promote this gifted young songwriter who didn’t believe in playing live. Despite the publicists’ erroneous, however expedient, marketing of Silver Jews as a “Pavement Side Project,” The Silver Jews slowly started reaching an audience in its own right.

College radio was starting to play Silver Jews more than Pavement. Continuous Peasant’s lead guitarist, Pete Nochisaki, who later played drums with The Jix before Janet Weiss joined, told me that the first Silver Jews song he ever heard was “Famous Eyes,” off the Hey Drag City compilation, a dark, unhinged number that’s much more like Daniel Johnston than Pavement.[18] Other favorites include “Advice To A Graduate,” “New Orleans,” and “Tides To The Ocean” (co-written with Steve). The country-rock “Rebel Jew” is like an answer song to Cracker’s “Euro-Trash Girl,” and some claim it’s one of the first “alt-country songs” before that genre had become reified. The experience of recording Starlite Walker so refueled the members of Pavement for the studio, and this, along with the sonic experimentation of a heavy tour schedule, came into play in the creation of Wowie Zowie, also recorded at Eisley.

Taking full advantage of the slightly longer leash the label was willing to give them, Wowie Zowie reflects the glorious chaos of Pavement’s live sound at its best, but also showcases what a band can do when they have much more time to record, to stretch out and woodshed at a studio that treats its bands like extended family.  Apparently many fans of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain were disappointed with Wowie Zowie, yet I distinctly remember a reviewer who criticized the bandwagon Crooked Rain followers; “the real fans of Pavement, the Slanted and Enchanted fans, will understand Wowie Zowie.” This critic definitely had a point. Wowie Zowie was more ambitious, and shaggy.[19]

Had it been a single album, it probably would have been judged better than Crooked Rain by Crooked Rain fans, but it would also have been more boring. Instead, it was the synthesis between CR and S&E, minus the “crazy drummer.” In England, it went top 20, a pretty amazing feat for a double-album--- In retrospect, a culmination, or as Steve himself said, “the last classic Pavement album.” Indeed, had they broken up then; their legacy would be cemented.

Beneath The Radio

I agree with SM that his choice of singles “sounded like hits.” “Rattled To The Rush,” and “Father To A Sister Of Thought,” are my favorite two Pavement singles; the former clearly influenced by playing on the big stages and the latter takes up where Starlite Walker left off in the country rock vein.[20] If SM knows anything about me, aside from being one of the “wordy nightmare people,” he knows that I’m very picky about piano in rock, but the interweaving between the piano and Eisley’s pedal steel guitar, in a rock context, rivals the interplay between those two instruments on Steely Dan’s “Fire In The Hole.”

I probably thought these songs were bigger hits than they were, but the culture clash that was played out at Lollapalooza was also being played out on the radio.
Things were changing in mass culture faster than the Reagan-Bush years, for better and worse. During Clinton’s first term (92-96), I divided most of my radio time between WRPI and WEQX. Like most college radio in the 90s, WRPI was becoming less connected to a local scene and more eclectic, as the “record collector rock” aesthetic became more fashionable among the hobbyist DJS.
WEQX, by contrast, was one of the new “contemporary alternative” stations that sprung up during this time, experimented with a high-rotation, Top 40 contemporary indie-rock format—a fairly eclectic gamut from was starting to be called “Modern Rock” to Mary Lou Lord’s “His Indie World,” trying to occupy the middle ground.

The stations weren’t really in competition with each other; between the two of them one could at least piece together a sense of the best contemporary music— The commercial station played Pavement (“Rattled By The Rush”) but not Silver Jews, although it played Mary Lou Lord’s song, which mentioned The Silver Jews; The Silver Jews were played much more on college radio than Pavement was, by 1994. I don’t know if the Silver Jews were at the forefront of the parallel acoustic revival that occurred around this time, or if the elevation of the “girl with the acoustic guitar” in the early 90s was designed to split the excitingly subversive “foxcore” movement, but the fact that these stations would push the bombast as well as the mumblecore still held promise for a greater alliance.

I remember being very excited by hearing Dionne Faris’ soulful voice and slide guitar regularly on WEQX alongside of The Cranberries, Veruca Salt, and Sebadoh, and I even believed that this commercial indie could turn the tide on the re-segregation of the music business that had been noticeable for at least 20 years, but these stations hardly even played A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul or Digital Underground, the hip-hop band most analogous to Pavement. Increasingly, there was something self-conscious, self-righteous, and smug, and just plain wrong about their “alternative” and “indie” genre-marketing scheme, as they lumped very fine pop musicians like Alanis Morrisette into this category, while giving away Honk If You Hate Freebird bumper-stickers.[21] However much an improvement over 80s contemporary commercial rock, these stations were now less interactive and more “trickle down” than college radio had been.

In retrospect, 1995 was the watershed year for this eclectic alliance that was called “indie,” as these stations further fragmented very much as FM had done in the 70s, though on a smaller scale. Falling through the cracks between college and commercial radio, Pavement was Beneath The Radio, as the name of the compilation on which  “Motion Suggests” appeared. By 1996, Modern Rock had become a much more rigid format. In Hip Hop, the beats were also slowing down and cleaning up as LA’s car-centric culture got more play than NYC’s walking culture. The great purge of “conscious hip hop” from the major labels, which went somewhat beneath the radar as the media made more ado about the murders of 2Pac and Biggie Smalls, and the corporate push for gangsta rap is uncannily parallel to the rise of grunge and the crushing of the punk infrastructure.[22] While critics championed that gender parity had been achieved for the first time ever on the Billboard pop charts in 1996, the transitional regime’s Riot Girl had morphed into the Spice Girls almost overnight.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996

What happened in ‘96 has less to do with Steve turning 30 or Elastica getting sued by Wire than it does with a new law that ostensibly had nothing to do with indie rock. The Telecommunications Act was passed by the Republican congress on January 3, 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton on February 8, 1996. The Telecommunications Act eliminated all national caps on the number of stations that a radio broadcaster could own (from previous caps of 20 AM and 20 FM stations), and raised from 4 to 8 the number of radio stations that an owner could have in the largest markets.  

Reed Hundt, the FCC chair at the time, said that the FCC imposed the act to encourage “diversity in programming and diversity in the viewpoints expressed on this powerful medium that so shapes our culture,” but the Act led to “less competition, fewer viewpoints, and less diversity in programming.”[23] When “Uncle Sam paid the Reagan debt by selling off the broadcast spectrum to the highest contract,” it continued the industry consolidation reducing the number of major media companies from around 50 in 1983 to 10 in 1996 and 6 in 2005.[24] An FCC study found that the Act had led to a drastic decline in the number of radio station owners, even as the actual number of commercial stations in the United States had increased.

The Telecom Act focused most of its regulatory attention onto “intramodal competition,” and thus neglected to regulate intermodal competition (between, for example, radio and the internet). This allowed the monopolies to engage in the dubious practice of cross-subsidization, in which they could take over local markets with radio stations that didn’t turn a profit, while engaging in a “vertical price squeeze” that drove independents to their knees.[25] Information services no longer fell under the category of “telecommunication,” thus subtly politicizing the truth and adding more fuel for Rupert Murdoch’s Infotainment Scam. Much has been written in the very self-reflexive blogosphere about how this was the final nail in the coffin of the traditional concept of news, but it also changed the traditional concept of music, even if musicians are publicly less self-reflective about it (gotta keep the mystique?).[26]

As long as such “taxation without representation” is the norm on the corporately owned media, radio becomes mystified to the point where people forget that it is a public space. Media Attorney David Oxenford suggests that the requirement that radio serve the public interest is obsolete in the post-Telecom Act era: “Given that services with which radio competes (like Pandora or Sirius XM) can have unlimited channels, proponents of a loosening of the rules submit that these artificial limitations are outdated.” Yet, these privatized and more expensive “services” are no substitute for what radio can provide.

Oxenford cites the “explosion of new electronic media since 1996,” as a reason why we don’t need more ownership regulation, when it was precisely the lack of ownership regulation that created the climate in which Sirius XM and Pandora and itunes could grow, while pushing more new music (of any genre) from the radio waves.[27] Not surprisingly, it also delivered a fatal blow to cassette culture.

In 1996, as in England in 1596, one had to be very crafty to venture any attempt at direct political statement—even in “indie” culture. You could write screeds attacking computers, and especially the web; those who love your poetry won’t publish them, but you can get them into the local weekly.[ii] You could write a “vulgar Marxist” critique of post-modern race theory, but the so-called Marxist journals won’t publish it because they’re post-modern too. Or you could write a song that is a highly personal curse song directed to a specific other, like the blues---but it also summons every last drop of moral outrage in the invisible world toward the entire Washington DC lobbyist establishment mostly responsible for running things into the ground in our time.

Pavement’s version of “No More Kings” seems, on first listen, to just be having a little fun with the same Schoolhouse Rock that brought us “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Only A Bill,” a throwaway for a benefit album, but it’s a subversive put-down of both the historical distortion in the lyrics and the benign mid-70s soft-rock of the original song. Not only does the original version edit out anything about the indigenous people already living in what’s now called North America, but it also makes it seem like the Revolutionary War was fought to establish anti-government anarchy rather than a representative democracy.

In retrospect, the original “No More Kings” misinterprets the point of the Boston Tea Party exactly the same way the Dick Armey “Tea Party” of 2009 does. The song fails to mention that the Boston Tea Party was primarily a revolt against a corporation who was given a tax write off to rob domestic jobs and keep wages low. Seeing how the corporations were running things into the ground, especially in the wake of the Telecom Act, might almost make one nostalgic for the tyranny of the cartoon king in Pavement’s version. Maybe a foreign king would have freed the slaves much earlier, and provided healthcare! Maybe there’d be no trail of tears or New Orleans would never have been bought so that the puritans could dominate the continent; maybe the Mexicans would not have had to “cede” Utah to the Mormons. This goes way beyond a “cerebral and ironic” po-mo gesture of a smart-ass ivy-league history major, and maybe it got some dancers thinking, and some thinkers dancing.

No Depression and Brain Candy

Pavement began the year 2006 with the Pacific Trim EP on January 23rd. Featuring “Give It A Day,” which is melodically like an early version of “Shady Lane,” Pacific Trim might really be the last “classic Pavement” recordings, though it’s recorded with only Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich and Steve West. It died a quick death. They had released a wealth of material in the previous 24 months, a glut by 90s industry standards, which may explain the apologetic nature of the backstory publicity. They just needed to have new merch to sell on their Australian tour; besides, “their studio time was originally reserved for a Silver Jews recording, but front-man David Berman walked out in frustration and the trio decided not to waste prepaid recording time.”

That this fact is even part of the EP’s publicity kit is less a public jab at DCB for abandoning them than it is Matador/Atlantic apologizing for this EP’s quintessential “indie” quality, pulling the plug on such further releases.[28] Others, such as critic Chris Nelson, claim the split between David and Steve was “amicable.” Douglass Wolk argues that Berman had a point to make, by making The Natural Bridge “entirely Pavement-free,” and it wasn’t a mere ego-battle nor a personal fear of being swallowed up by Pavement’s reputation. Berman’s songs were just too dark, introspective, direct and personal to jell with where Steve, Bob, and Steve were musically at the time.[29]

However, “amicable” the split, the proof is in the pudding: David’s decision to record with piano player Michael Demming and New Radiant Storm King resulted in one of the best song-cycles of the 90s, and possibly during the reign of the LP/CD. By 1996, “Alt-country” coalesced as the most publicized post-punk reaction to Modern Rock. Music magazines like No Depression and acts like Wilco, The Palace Brothers, The Jayhawks as well Fellow U-Mass Alumni Joe Pernice’s Scud Mountain Boys,[30] were becoming well-known in the college and indie-circuits. Yet most of this “alt-country” had far less in common with “classic country” than it did with folk/pop singer songwriters of the late 60s/ early 70s at its best. At its worst, it was more like the kind of “soft rock” you’d hear in salad bars, as mislabeled as Alanis Morrisette or Live were “alternative” rock.

Living up to its name, The Natural Bridge is more primordial than the artificial split between mainstream and “alt” country.”[31] DCB felt acutely a “responsibility in folk and country traditions to add to that tradition. I think most people that play country music have dropped the ball just by fetishizing it." The refusal to fetishize might explain why I didn’t even hear it until David called me up in April 1998 to ask me to work with him on an album called The Late Great Silver Jews.

Some natural kind of poet might slow it But she sells more my speed”---Bryan Ferry
“that leaves me with a twisted view of the whole wide world as I know it,
and I guess I got no choice but to be a poet”-- Aceyalone

I had met David in James Tate’s creative writing class at U-Mass in The Fall of 1992. He turned me onto Pavement and I became a fan of Starlite Walker and other SJ singles, but in 1996 I wasn’t living in “time” the way Pavement and The Joos were. I was living in “poet time.” in which a book that comes out in 1995 is still considered new in 1998, and 1950s products that are ‘oldies’ in music are ‘contemporary’ in poetry.”[32] To the extent the poetry scene admitted of direct politics, like the kind elder statesman Baraka engaged in, it was one/off anthologies like “On Your Knees Citizens,” which confronted the Newt clampdown, but was primarily directed against social issues. At least it was a start.

By the spring of 98, it was becoming increasingly evident that populism, politics and even music were verboten in the literary world. Had I known that, I don’t think I would have wasted my time in the poetry coalmine. I finished my dissertation and started making the NYC mod-dancing scene, getting back a little of that lust for life I lost when my mom died and went to build my house deep in a cultural desert. I don’t know if David knew that there was suddenly this big void in my life in 1998 (where there hadn’t been so much in 1996, partially because I’d come to identify with a void), but I was ashamed to tell him I didn’t even know The Natural Bridge.

Like any good student with a chip on his shoulder, I felt I needed to cram, and quick! I was so broke though. I couldn’t even afford to buy the album, and didn’t know crap about Napster yet. In Washington, DC, during a poetry reading at Rod Smith’s Bridge Street books, I asked Rod if I could make a cassette of his copy; Natural Bridge had already achieved a cult status as an underground classic in the literary scene. I quickly discovered what I had been missing. I must have played it 4 times straight through on that cloudy early spring bus ride from a DC Afternoon to a Manhattan twilight, as its unified signature sound, which I had at first heard as a kind of monotony, opened up to reveal its infinite variety, beyond the algebra of a poetry church in a cul-de-sac.

What would have been mere witty one-liners on the page became horrific invocations of post-industrial American isolation. By the time I got to “The Frontier Index” and “Pretty Eyes,” I was a definite convert. The bus was coming around that Hoboken loop, our headlights on as we approached the tunnel....”I believe the stars are headlights of angels...coming to save us...”David was singing his great big troubled heart out about lonely trapped kings, pretty eyes and wicked lobbyists, while I had been half under (so-called Ashberian) erasure,” arguing how to “deploy texts” and writing a 50 page defense of Shylock, the man with no music in him, as the second most ethical character in his play. Meanwhile at the poet parties, the chorus trafficked in hollow-witticisms:

“Yeah, dude, I thought he sang, “Paterno wants Batman Religious,” the first time I heard “Abermarle Station.”

Oh yeah, and don’t you love the way he references Lacan’s Mirror Stage when he sings, “The shattered glass cussed and when it broke it spoke to us/ It said “Hey...I know you...what’s your name?”

By the time the bus pulled into the monoxide Port Authority, I was crying---and excited as all fuck; in awe, and humbled. It woke me as if from a spell. I’d met my match! David had much more faith in the power of the single-song, not only compared to most of his generation’s musicians, but even more so compared to the “publish or perish” (“quantity over quality”) culture of the poetry scene that conditionally championed my work.

Because he made room for music (and didn’t let him beat end rhyme out of him) David had edited out all the linguistic dross (or “play’) I felt I had to put in in order to pass for poetry in a scene that tabooed direct politics, direct male love poems, and music. I had already vowed that I would never do that as a teacher, that I would just tell my students that it was the fashion if they wanted to get published, but I would also encourage their rhyming poetry. I felt closer to David than I ever did in our small talk. Fuck small talk. I welcomed the formal challenge of the definitive object, as if it could help reprogram my over process-oriented post-modern poet busker indulgences: what can I create in the studio that simply can’t be done live?

While Natural Bridge features some of the best “indie-rock” acoustic piano, beautiful elegant lighter touches, without ever lapsing into tinkly yacht rock or country cliché,[33] David was going for a different keyboard sound this time around to complement or beef up Steve Malkmus ‘noise pop’ guitar soundz: a synthesis between the two previous albums---more straight-ahead rock, more pop. He wanted piano, but not as much as The Natural Bridge. Yes, Steve would be working with us, and so would Mike Fellows, who played in Guy Pizzicotti’s pre-Fugazi Rites Of Spring. Fuck Lollapalooza.

American Ice, American Steam

When I met them for the first rehearsal, I had just put my name on an anthology of “younger American” writers, in which David Berman, and many other of my favorite contemporaries, were conspicuously absent. Titling this narrow range of New York-[34]based poetry-scene work with the metonymy American reeked of such New York-centric snobbery to me. I’m proud of the fact that we achieved gender parity, as the music industry had done so in 1996, but they rejected anything remotely beat or populist—even as they championed Ginsberg in the past. Was this what I had become? I begged and pleaded with the others not to use the name, but it fell on deaf ears. I managed to at least get the word “American” put in parenthesis, but this anthology starting to brand me, box me in, and misrepresent what I was about much more than my own published books and performances were. I immediately regretted signing my name to it. 

The barbed aesthetic/ethical arguments over the anthology got especially nasty, as will happen when there’s no shared standard of excellence anymore and everyone can think they’re the best poet in the room, but in the studio we each had a clearer role: Malkmus was the best lead guitarist in the room, Mike Fellows (ex-Rites of Spring) the best bassist, etc.  And I craved that formality at least as much as the beautiful formality of David’s songs. The SJ may have been a concept, or ad hoc Brill Building more than a band, but it was less barren and more collaborative than the poetry world, one at least a little more centered in the body.

So, while Pitchfork raves that American Water reclaims the word "poetry" as part of the “musical vocabulary,” for me it reclaimed the word music as part of the poetic vocabulary (the kind of music that can only be real if performed collaboratively, even if only for the sake of recording). Its wounded patriotism also helped me reclaim the word American. The word was popular in movie-titles during the 90s, even as globalization and privatization was sucking the soul and the jobs out of America. American water was increasingly bottled water. Public water fountains were getting harder to find.[35] The parallels between the privatization of water and music are frightening, but compared to the literary world that flaunts its irrelevance as a virtue, American Water made me feel part of a community more like a public water-fountain than the new weird American water being pushed by David’s dad, nor did it preclude poetry or patriotism the way many who spoke for either did.[36]

[1] Perot was against both Nafta and the Telecom Act, which drove the final nails into a self-sustaining indie culture by the late 90s. Had Bush & Clinton not sided against Perot as a common enemy, and he would have won, odds are Newt et al wouldn’t have been able to co-opt the Perot swing voters in 94.
[2] Some even say the former was more “political” and the latter more “hedonist.”butThe Sex Pistols, Flipper, Minutemen and even The Clash were pretty hedonist, and many metal lyrics in the 80s were pretty damn political…
[3] Sure, there was a commercial trend of which he could be seen as a kind of culmination, The Red Hot Chile Peppers, Guns and Roses, Jane’s Addiction, even the lesser known Pixies (and some elements of The Beastie Boys, though their primary status as rap complicates it). Then there were bands like ACDC, which kind of preceded the punk/heavy-metal split in the 80s, who could be liked by both. This increasingly became true of Sabbath.
[4] just as The Clash’s only top ten USA hit could either be seen as politically benign, or even, with its anti-Arab sentiments, conservative., Taylor, for instance
[5] analogies are of limited value, but if “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is analogous to “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Sheela Na Gig” is more like The Kinks’s “You Really Got Me” while Pearl Jam and the others would be more like The Dave Clark Five or Herman’s Hermits. See my piece on Harvey in The Bigtakeover…
[6] After the DK scraped together the money to self-release their first single in NY, met Bob Last and he wanted to release it in the U.K....Last was about the hottest, most trendy label of its time: “So here we were beating our heads against the wall trying to get rid of a thousand copies of that damn single, and Last said on the phone, “Yeah, we’ll probably sell 30, 000 in the first day.” So obviously that vaulted us into a much higher bracket, especially outside the Bay Area. And we got to make an album.”(71)  2008, Bridez tour
[7] that taylor quote—if not already used in 80s chapter
[8] Although Matador was a new independent label, co-owned by Gerald Cosloy who was well-respected for his Homestead label in the 80s underground, it was distributed by Atlantic, and later, Capitol.
[9] (none getting any higher than #70, Brighten The Corners),
[10] As college radio was the only place you’d hear most of their influences, even Zal Yanovsky, who was top of the charts the year SM was born.
[11] (“Perfume V,” “Trigger Cut,” and “Loretta’s Scars,” but “Frontwards” was better than S&E’s one mainstream attempt: “Summer Babe.”
[12] Even the phonemes and goofy obscure words owes as much to the early REM and The Pixies as to the Fall
[13] not that Zeppelin isn’t romantic, but Crooked Rain was even more
[14] Dan Bejar also asks, “why did you spend the 90s cowering?”    Streethawk: A Seduction (Destroyer, 2001)
[15] Actual Air, 71-74; Silver Jews, however, are at least spared from this criticism. If anything, like Jonathan Richman, Silver Jews could be called “post-cerebral and ironic.”
[16] (the more stripped down early 90s incarnation, which like the late 80s incarnation, just rocks more than the more celebrated version they’ve been since the late 90s…
[17] I dug some early SPs myself, but the sides were being drawn. It seemed like it was “professional and slick” vs “regular guy and fun” with not much in between.  
[18] It made me happy when he told me how he discovered sJ through non-Malkmusian channels
[19] Hal Hartley, who had used S&E’s “Here” in his recent Amateur, had also come out of the gates with two independent cinematic classics, was starting to experiment with more ambitious structures: better to create an ambitious “failure” over the formulaic “success” of another Trust.
[20] Though this is the first Pavement album DCB didn’t title, his influence is definitely in the mix
[21] a song the college stations now played more than in the 80s, if only for “camp value.” to appeal to people’s sense of being different just for liking, or playing, a guitar.
[22] Commercial hip hop was redesigned to reflect the image of its corporate backers, so “Fight The Power” could be called ‘wimpy’ and punk now had to fly even more under the radar while “indie” bands could play hockey arenas. See Caples, and Too Short:
[23] [14][15]  the public spectrum  which the FCC itself valued at $11–$70 billion.[25][27]
[24] [24][23] [22] [24]
[25] In ways that parallel the destruction of the firewall between investment and savings banking with the repeal of Glass Steigal,; cf. the demise of Lookout Records
[26] Ralph Nader argued the act was an example of corporate welfare that gave away to incumbent broadcasters valuable licenses for broadcasting digital signals on the public airwaves.[25][26] and “allowed a bevy of elite media corporations to ravage the airwaves with impunity, sweeping aside the remnants of local radio culture and replacing it with an endless stream of scientifically manufactured drivel to befuddle and distract the American people from their duties as citizens. In 1998, FCC Chairman Michael Powell snidely flaunted his disregard for the democratic process when he said, no one has issued me my public interest crystal ball.”[26]  In fact, lobbyists for the large corporations stormed into the FCC offices, stole the crystal ball and shattered it, at our expense, just as in healthcare.
[28] I don’t mean to suggest that the head of Atlantic sat Mr. Malkmus down and said, “boy, I wanna talk to you about that line, “I don’t need no corporation” in Serpentine Pod, [28]
[29] Just as Paul Simon erased Garfunkel’s vocals on his worst-selling album, Hearts & Bones, yet NB is a better album.
[30] who DCB considered working with for NB, but they themselves imploding when Joe rejected an opening slot for Bob Dylan in the wake of their critically acclaimed Massachusetts album
[31] On The Natural Bridge, however, Berman uses “the forms and conventions of country and folk music without sinking into a stylized retro mire.” It excels because, at a time when so many musicians rely on older forms of music to authenticate and window dress their increasingly tired art form, Silver Jews use traditional music as a canvas on which to paint their own unique impressions.Dazed & Confused’s review of American Water 48 November 1998also is more descriptive of NB
[32] (or you could call it “Lateness”) –so tempted to quote David Shapiro or Laura Riding
[33] More than a decade later, I still love the piano playing on Natural Bridge more than on any other Silver Jews album, American Water included. Steve’s absence certainly made much more room for my instrument, the piano (which made the album feel more blue than green to me, whereas Steve’s guitar usually splashed a lot of red, orange and yellow into the picture).
[34] (and Brown/Bard/Buffalo)/ Go, Girl, Go
[35] Privatization had already destroyed the water supply of countries like Peru, and grassroots organizations formed in America with the slogan “Water Is The Oil of The 21st century,” but they didn’t have much of a chance against the billionaires who fund Berman & Company.
[36] (nor does it act like poetry meant words like “palanquin” like the Death Cab, Decemberists school…

[i] 90s single stuff from wiki (In SJ file….
[ii] Metroland excerpt---

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