The InsiderOne Daily Report

  Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Stephen Malkmus Revisited

InsiderOne's Michael Goldberg writes: On his recent solo album, Stephen Malkmus, Stephen Malkmus sings about a "black book." We all have one — what's in yours? The phone numbers of friends near and dear? A diary of your most secret, precious thoughts? The dirt that could bring ruin to those who betray you, or won't do your bidding? Or is it a journal filled with ideas and possibilities? Just reading the words "Black Book" on the back cover of Malkmus's wonderful post-Pavement debut summons up these and other thoughts. Even if Malkmus were to sit down and explain to us what his "black book" is, or what he meant when he wrote his lyrics, it's a mystery and will remain one. I thought about all this as I sat at my computer; I'd just finished an article in my favorite newspaper, The New York Times, called "A Thinking Slacker's Rock Hero, Slightly Aged." The article, which ran Sunday, March 25, was written by younger-than-yesterday Joe Hagan, who currently works as a staff writer for the post-dotcom media magazine Inside. Hagan's thesis is, essentially, that Malkmus is now passé, somewhat bloated intellectually and creatively ("... he has grown comfortable with his sound and with his coterie of critic-fans who reflexively buy and praise his music"). Hagan writes "With a Holden Caulfield syndrome infecting a whole generation, Pavement's music, like J.D. Salinger's book ["The Catcher in the Rye"], came to have a hip-pocket literary appeal that captured the melancholy of the pre-dotcom '90s. Fans formed a clique around the band's idiosyncrasies...." Or, to put it differently, Hagan (who says he's listened to Malkmus's music — both as leader of Pavement and now solo artist — for the past 10 years) appears to have graduated from college and gotten himself a job in the cynical media world. Like the members of generation upon generation before him, he's now rationalizing his own current existence (malaise?) by dismissing and dissing his previous life as, perhaps, an idealistic and ambitious twentysomething hiding within the persona of a sarcastic seen-it-all slacker. As Bob Dylan put it, probably before Hagan was born, "I was so much older then/ I'm younger than that now." I don't know Mr. Hagan, and I've just conjured this up based on assumptions from what he wrote in his essay. I mean him no harm — in fact, I'm glad I read his piece this morning. But he reminds me of those smart twentysomething dot-com executives who, never having experienced a bear market, put all their money in tech stocks and then were surprised when the bubble burst. Or who preached of a "new economy," only to discover belatedly that the "new economy" is really just the same old economy in a new suit. As Hagan himself notes, "Mr. Malkmus's themes of generational angst and, later, relationship anxiety weren't entirely new. In fact, they were classic...." Well, of course! And any of us who've read coming-of-age novels, from "Catcher in the Rye" to Michael Chaban's "The Mysteries of Pittsburg," know that. I don't presume to think the way I felt in college at age 19 was the way you felt (or feel) at that age. But I can tell you that the work of Lou Reed, Roxy Music, Frank Zappa, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman and others seems to have represented, for some of us, what the work of grunge and post-grunge artists (including Pavement) did for Hagan's generation. Time passes; we grow older. We discover that the world can be a hard and unforgiving place. Does that mean, then, that in our "maturity," we discover that what we thought was meaningful and deep is really shallow? Should we write off the Velvet Underground's Loaded? Or The Mother of Invention's Freak Out? Or Captain Beefheart's "Clear Spot"? If an artist such as Malkmus continues to work in the areas where he's worked before (in terms of sound, in terms of an approach to writing) does that signify an "...inability to break new ground"? "Pavement records — each with its gorgeous moments of elegance and depth — were once milestones for me and the many wounded-ironic people I know," writes Hagan. It's as if it's some kind of failing on the artist's part that Hagan is now older and, like members of countless generations, doesn't get the emotional resonance or pop from Stephen Malkmus that he did from "crooked rain, crooked rain." No! The artist has not failed, just because once-passionate music fans grow up, get jobs, get married, and get complacent. Stephen Malkmus, the artist, has taken his first tentative steps into a solo career. I applaud him for recognizing that he could no longer work within a situation that had begun to limit him creatively. It's all on his shoulders now. Whether, in years to come, we'll come to recognize Stephen Malkmus as a classic, or as a transitional work, I certainly don't know. But to dismiss it with faint praise, as Hagan does, and to write, "But the next generation of listeners, young Holden Caulfields seeking a liberating sound of discovery and candor, will very likely sense the whiff of vacancy in what's left of indie rock's [vocabulary], which Mr. Malkmus epitomizes," is just wrong. There's nothing has-been about Malkmus. He just delivered an amazing album that many people, older and younger, love. In his essay, Hagan comes off as just as naïve, in this current post-college, workin'-in-the-media-world phase of his life, as he thinks he was a few years ago. As for me, I'm gonna go write something in my black book.

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Michael Goldberg is the president of He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

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