Nostalgia is a difficult feeling to manage in pop music. It is arguably the dominant feeling in pop music. We play or listen to songs and albums for the memories they conjure about our earlier selves, the places we’ve been to, the people we have lost—friends, lovers, the specifics don’t really matter. This predisposition for nostalgia is established almost immediately. For recorded music, it is by technological design. After you hear a song for the first time, there is nothing but memory and the replay of memory left, no matter how new the release might be. The original gloss of a first listen is gone, and we are left searching for it, revising it, or even enhancing it through newfound appreciation by repeated relistening.
Yet, for songwriters, musical acts, and fans alike, a longing for certain songs and albums can pose a set of limitations: a concession that past work represents the best work, that the new material is not up to a specific set standard, and therefore a sense of decline has been established. On the other hand, to actively work against nostalgia—to avoid performing or listening to the tracks that established a songwriter’s or band’s identity—also possesses certain risks. Musical performers can alienate an audience’s support and goodwill. Listeners can equally underappreciate and mismeasure musicians’ artistic taste, progression, and personal growth, to the detriment of both sides. This tension between familiarity and novelty, the desire for the past at odds with aspirations of the present and future, rests at the heart of the creative process.
This tension also characterizes reunion tours—a fraught and often disparaged choice for musical acts to pursue. A sense of dated vitality, even past grandeur, is inescapable. The expression “cash grab” typically lurks in latent (and not so latent) ways. Sidestepping this unsavory impression is a task. Bob Dylan doesn’t do reunion tours but simply continues his self-declared Never Ending Tour, begun in 1988 and, while punctuated with breaks, has ultimately been true to its name. Good luck catching “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Visions of Johanna”, though.
A far more crass example—a paradigm of anemic nostalgia and selling out—is the recent incarnation of the Beach Boys led by Mike Love, with the conspicuous absence of their crucial figure and visionary, Brian Wilson. Having a complete roster of the original members is essential and often not possible with the passing of time. Led Zeppelin honorably broke up following the death of John Bonham in 1980 and has respected that absence, even when they have regrouped in different configurations for one-off performances.
Two examples that fall in between these cases are the Velvet Underground during the early 1990s and the Pixies today. The former’s reformation and brief tour felt like long-due validation, given the debt many 1990s indie bands owed to the Velvets. The death of guitarist Sterling Morrison soon after in 1995 cut short the possibility of future outings with the classic lineup of Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen (Moe) Tucker, and Morrison. The Pixies’ reunion also felt like validation for similar reasons—at least initially. The departure of original member Kim Deal and the release of a string of critically unfavorable albums have since diminished that enthusiastic welcome back.
The return of Pavement this past year has raised this issue once more. Originally scheduled to regroup in 2020 and, like so many things, delayed by Covid for two years, Pavement’s entrance has been greeted with a sense of euphoria among fans, starting with a warm-up rehearsal in Los Angeles followed by a headline slot at the Barcelona’s Primavera Sound festival in June and a string of sold-out shows in the US since then, coast to coast from San Diego to Brooklyn. Like the Velvets and Pixies, there is a sense of a victory lap for an indie rock act whose reputation has only grown since their dissolution at the end of 1999. Furthermore, any accusation that there is primarily a profit motive at work largely misses the mark, given that this is only the second time Pavement have hit the road since their breakup—the first occasion being in 2010.
Bassist Mark Ibold has commented that financial considerations are always a factor for musicians who do not have the surnames of Jagger or McCartney. Even so, this tour’s dominant feeling is aimed at posterity. Unlike their make-or-break period during the mid to late 1990s, Pavement’s members—Ibold, Steve West, Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs), Bob Nastanovich, and especially head singer-songwriter Stephen Malkmus—appear unburdened by the need to prove anything. The success that never comes, as Malkmus once relayed in “Here” from Slanted and Enchanted (1992), has fully arrived.
I’ve seen Pavement twice on this tour, with two nights at their four-night stand at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn. I have seen them five times total—the first three in Austin (1996), San Francisco (1997), and Portland, Oregon (1999)—which may come across as humble bragging, but that’s not my point. Rather, Pavement have always been a spirited touring band despite their lo-fi recording studio origins. During their heyday, they worked to build an audience, and though their shows could be inconsistent, it has always been better to see them live. When I first saw them at the late Liberty Lunch (RIP) in Austin, they were on tour for their third album Wowee Zowee (1995), a show that was a ramshackle affair fueled by considerable drink but nonetheless graced by that album’s swaggering eclecticism, as well as the introduction of a song that would be part of Brighten the Corners (1997). When a version of “Stereo” began, seemingly improvised by Malkmus, I thought, “What the fuck is this?” albeit in a good way. I paid $8 for that show.
Their 1997 performance in San Francisco was a grander event—a celebratory homecoming for a band with NorCal roots—in the beautiful, gilded, vaulted ceiling cavern that is the Warfield. Brighten the Corners was deemed by the press as a return to the form established by Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), even though longtime fans had adored the fickle, contrarian energy of its predecessor. The final show I saw at the Crystal Ballroom, by virtue of a batch of late-released tickets, was far more somber. Rumors had already circulated—and this was still the proto-Internet era where information was not as easy to come by—that Pavement might break up. The title of their swan song album, Terror Twilight (1999), indicated as much, despite the high-end production by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead) and the corporate backing involved. Malkmus, always surly and a barometer of the band’s mood, was memorably remote. He played a perfunctory guitar entrance to Kannberg’s “Date with Ikea”. Their breakup later that year felt preordained.
This time has felt far different. I missed their 2010 reunion due to contingent personal geography—I was living in South Africa at the time—so the anticipation for this tour was at a high pitch. As chance would have it, I first saw them again not on stage but in person, milling about at the popup Pavement Museum in Lower Manhattan, a briefly held event from 29 September to 2 October while the band was in town. The exhibition “Pavements: 1933-2022″—the dates alluding to their first EP Slay Tracks: 1933-1969 (1989)—will move on to London, Tokyo, and eventually, Stockton, California, where Malkmus, Kannberg, and Gary Young, their first drummer, started out.
Pavement had art rock pretensions early on—their first recordings referenced in part a primitive No Wave noise pedigree—so the announcement of an exhibition of this kind did not come across as a complete surprise. It also seemed tongue in cheek, with some artifacts, like a presumed toenail of Young’s from an unnamed private collection, imparting an apocryphal and playfully ironic quality to the proceedings. Still, as seen in the deluxe editions of their albums released over the past two decades, Pavement have always maintained a curatorial attitude toward their archival materials, whether photos, cover artwork, demos, or concert recordings, and that attention could be witnessed here. True to form, Malkmus et al. were being documented by a film crew headed by Alex Ross Perry, who directed their recent music video for their unexpected Spotify hit “Harness Your Hopes”, originally a dispensed with B-side from Brighten the Corners.
The scene was palpable. Amid the hubbub of their unannounced appearance, suddenly, there was drummer Steve West in front of a camera, casually pondering a glass case containing club posters publicizing performances by Pavement during the 1990s. Across the room, Bob Nastanovich navigated friends and onlookers among displays of Pavement t-shirts and fanzines, still recognizable despite wearing a Covid mask. Co-founder Scott Kannberg walked around gazing at excerpted pages from the notebooks of Malkmus with a child who appeared to be his daughter. At one point, Malkmus was being interviewed by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who towered above everyone else. Gerard Cosloy—a key figure of Matador Records, Pavement’s label, and a legend of the indie rock scene since the 1980s—was taking everything in.
Punctuating the gathering was a series of performances by an honor roll of esteemed musicians currently active: Speedy Ortiz, Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, and Bully, who covered a set of songs across Pavement’s entire career from “Here” (Slanted), mentioned earlier, to “Cream of Gold” (Terror). Especially welcome was Speedy Ortiz, headed by Sadie Dupuis, who once led a regretfully short-lived, all-female Pavement cover band called Babement (check out their live performances on YouTube). You can never quarantine the past, it seemed.
As for their live performances at the Kings Theatre, I communicated three attributes that stood out for me to a college friend and a former radio DJ, like me, who cut his teeth on 1990s indie rock. The first is how loud Pavement sounded. That may appear like a self-evident observation for any live performance, but given the smaller venues I had seen them at—Liberty Lunch, the Crystal Ballroom—they filled this enormous space in a way I hadn’t experienced before. The second is the added element of a light show—an antithetical prop to the stripped-down, lo-fi ethos of Pavement during the 1990s, but in this instance a surprisingly effective enhancement for such classics as “In the Mouth a Desert” (Slanted). Third was the inclusion of multi-instrumentalist Rebecca Cole, previously of the Portland-based group Wild Flag, who filled in an essential layer of sound but, more crucially, worked against the bro-ish dynamic that has long animated the band’s mien. Combined, Pavement assumed a more fully formed and complete incarnation of itself. They came across as professionals, even elegant bachelors (to reverse a snarky remark once made about another musical act), who knew their time was now. The present but unspoken lyric in the air from “We Dance” (Wowee): check that expiration date, man; it’s later than you think.
Recounting what Pavement played over two nights is mere bookkeeping, but suffice to say, they covered a lot of ground precisely because they could—from their 1991 EP Perfect Sound Forever (“Heckler Spray”, “Home”, and “Debris Slide”) to their recent hit “Harness Your Hopes”. They began the first night I saw them—their third night out of four at Kings—with “Major Leagues” (Terror), their second single from that album, which at the time seemed like a too obvious bid for mainstream success, as suggested by the title, in addition to sounding overly sentimental from a melodic standpoint. It hit home this time. If its 1999 release came across packaged as a slightly veiled corporate maneuver, this time it evoked that distant moment as an accepted missed opportunity, a concession to an unfulfilled dream, but one that had accrued a warmth and value for that very reason. Who still needs that future of the past? So much for destiny, a pinprick on my knee. Kannberg’s “Kennel District” (Wowee) similarly invoked a twinge of longing through its repeated refrain of “Why didn’t I ask?” Yet, if overt sentimentality was an emotion to be modulated, Nastanovich was on call. He assisted by pacing the stage, microphone tightly held in a two-handed clutch, yelling with tremendous effect through songs like “Two States” (Slanted) and “Unfair” (Crooked), bringing his unparalleled hype man energy to the proceedings, which has been a distinguishing feature of Pavement’s live charisma.
Yet, I concede a feeling of emotional whiplash during the second night. If the first evening felt thrilling, even magical, the second harbored a different set of emotions that were at times more wistful and, yes, nostalgic. The set couldn’t have been better—by my unscientific estimation, it was entirely different, except for “Range Life” and “Cut Your Hair” from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Yet despite the charm of singing these songs with several thousand strangers (“Worry, no hurry! School’s out, what did you expect?”), there was also enough time and space to recognize the ephemeral qualities at hand, moments intrinsic to live performances, that left me wondering if I would experience such an atmosphere again with this band. Would I ever hear “Summer Babe” or “Zurich Is Stained” from Slanted and Enchanted again, let alone favorite B-sides like “Greenlander”, “Ed Ames”, or “Soiled Little Filly” for the first time live, which have been absent from the tour thus far? It is frequently difficult to explain in writing why one loves a band, but a word that comes to mind when defining Pavement is fun. Unlike their ’90s peers, whether Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., or Sonic Youth, Pavement never indulged a dark angst or emo attitude as part of their core repertoire. Nastanovich again is symbolic of this: he is the band’s hardcore jester; he is Pavement’s id. Pavement always had a good time, which dovetails with Malkmus’s explanation as to why the band dissolved in 1999. The fun had stopped.
In Brooklyn, Malkmus demonstrated the fun was back. Over two nights, Pavement made the argument that reunion tours could be more than nostalgia, that nostalgia could be liberating by creating a new emotional space divested of the pressure to promote new material. Celebrating what you have already accomplished provided the sole reason for being and for a justifiable reason, without apology. As mentioned earlier, Pavement have been attentive to their archival material and the myths that can accrue, even for an indie rock band. Pavement have also frequently referenced the past in their music—Malkmus as a songwriter has always been attentive to preceding traditions—whether the jangle pop of R.E.M., the post-punk sounds of Echo and the Bunnymen, or the antipode folk-rock of the Clean. Slanted and Enchanted was famously dismissed by Mark E. Smith as a derivative Fall album.
Yet, as he matured as a songwriter, Malkmus footnoted other pop citations, whether the Hendrix-like guitar solo in “Rattled by the Rush” (Wowee), the Warren Zevon-inspired backing vocals in “Starlings of the Slipstream” (Brighten), or the Beatles-esque intro to “Spit on a Stranger” (Terror). Malkmus could be cerebral, even academic, in his songcraft, but that also meant that he was, and remains, a respectful student of the past. A glimmer of nostalgia pervades his work. “Gold Soundz” (Crooked), arguably his finest song, is essentially a blissed-out memory of one distant August, with Malkmus urging a return—to go back—to that undated time and unnamed place. For what it isn’t entirely clear. Except that there is value in return, to feel the feelings that might still be there once more. Indeed, if Malkmus has been prone to guiding his audience away from emotional terrain through cryptic lyrics, he often wore his heart on his sleeve melodically. Keep your heart open under glass, as he once sang-remarked.
Reunion tours can unintentionally reinforce the notion that rock music favors the young. But the return of Pavement has proven that nostalgia can also be a positive source of community, friendship, and momentary self-understanding. Reunion tours can provide a salve for the passage of time—a reminder that music has always looked forward and backward, that nothing in pop music is ever entirely lost.
Christopher J. Lee is a historian who has published seven books on different aspects of 20th-century global history. His popular writing has appeared previously in PopMatters, as well as Boston Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and elsewhere. He can be found online at christopherjlee.org and on Twitter at @joonhai.
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