I first heard Pavement, my favorite rock band, when I was 13 years old. Unlike the vast majority of music I knew at the time, Pavement were not on a major label and had virtually no presence on MTV and commercial radio. My introduction to Pavement came via the No Alternative compilation, which I bought with Christmas money on the strength of Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins selections that had made it into rotation on the local alt-rock radio station. I was dimly aware of “college radio” at the time, and this tape - I only bought cassettes up until midway through 1995 - was my first exposure to the canon of that subculture. It’s how I first heard icons like Bob Mould, Patti Smith and Jonathan Richman, and bands like The Verlaines and Straitjacket Fits, who I would later learn were fairly obscure acts from an early Eighties rock scene in New Zealand that was kinda like a Galapagos Island version of American and British DIY punk culture. Pavement’s song, “The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence,” was a strange tribute to R.E.M., a band I loved, but the lyrics focused on their second album, Reckoning, which I hadn’t yet heard in its entirety. When I did get around to hearing Reckoning for the first time a few months later, I came into it fully aware that “Time After Time” was the singer from Pavement’s least favorite song, because he makes that very, very clear at the end of the second verse.
I immediately loved a lot of the songs on No Alternative, but something about the sound of “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence” resonated very deeply with me, and I rewound and played it over and over, and made a point of getting whatever else by Pavement I could find the next time I was at the mall. I bought their first album, Slanted and Enchanted, and was pretty much blown away to realize that they had at least ten other songs as good or much better than “Unseen Power.” Their second record, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, came out a few weeks later, and with that, I was hooked for life. I did not want to be alone in feeling that way, so I went out of my way to get as many people at my small high school into the band by dubbing cassettes with Slanted on one side and Crooked on the other and handing them out to anyone who might care.
Up until that point, all of the music I liked a lot was very well known, and as a kid who spent many Sunday mornings throughout childhood listening to the Top 40 in its entirety, I thought of that popularity as a virtue. Everything in pop culture, particularly in the late Eighties and early Nineties, affirmed the notion that massive popularity was a form of validation, particularly for oddball superstars like R.E.M. and Nirvana. This was 1994, and there was a genuinely adventurous spirit to rock music in the wake of grunge and alt-rock becoming big business. It seemed like any cool band with a catchy song could become huge, and so I was pretty sure Pavement was the next to break through. Some people in the record industry thought so too. Crooked Rain got a big push from the music press, and the record’s first single “Cut Your Hair” became a minor hit on alt-rock radio and MTV’s late night alt-centric programming.
The funny thing about all of this is that it’s basically crazy to think of Pavement as a band with broad mainstream appeal. Yes, they had a lot of catchy songs, but Stephen Malkmus rarely sang in tune, and the loose, lackadaisical tone of their music just sounded sloppy and lazy to most people. Malkmus’s lyrics, though overflowing with evocative images and obscure words, were not the sort of things normal teens could scrawl on binders to express something deep about their wounded souls. The two most famous cuts from Crooked Rain, “Cut Your Hair” and “Range Life,” had relatively straightforward lyrics, but were basically sarcastic songs about the alt-rock boom from the perspective of a guy who was way too cool to like any of it. (Billy Corgan still hasn’t gotten over Malkmus’s bitchy slam on the Smashing Pumpkins in the latter tune.)
The album’s other single, “Gold Soundz,” was at least partly the band’s argument in favor of obscurity. “We need secrets,” Malkmus sang, making a seductive case for a culture in which people share wonderful things with one another in a way that is intimate rather than communal. This is the world that Pavement and most of the other No Alternative bands came out of - college radio, zines, small clubs, independent record stores. It was snobby, but built on the best of intentions and a yearning for meaningful connections just like the sort of one-on-one evangelism I was doing at my school. Finding out about songs on television and the radio was a passive experience; putting in the legwork to find amazing things and pass them along to other people was active and rewarding, and not just in the sense that you can build up a lot of social capital by being that person with a reputation for knowing all the cool music.
I was successful in turning enough people on to Pavement that the impulse to share the music I liked became a big part of my identity from that point onward. I made countless tapes through the Nineties, and then transitioned to CD-Rs around 1999. In 2002, I started sharing mp3s on my website, Fluxblog, and doing that totally transformed my life and inadvertently put me at the forefront of a wave of mp3 blogs that changed the way music was covered online. Putting mp3s on blogs seems almost as quaint as mix tapes these days, but sharing songs online through other means - YouTube, streaming services, whatever - is now the engine that drives music culture, essentially turning even casual listeners into the modern equivalent of weird teenage boys handing out dubbed cassettes to classmates. In the Nineties, mass popularity and the small scale indie philosophy were totally at odds, but the world we’re in now is like a compromise between those two extremes, and we’re probably better off for it.