On “Grounded” by Pavement by Joseph S. Pete
As a young enlisted soldier at Fort Lewis, Washington, I had an evening routine when training permitted. I would head to the chow hall to dine on a bland nursing home-like meal of rubber chicken, starchy mashed potatoes, and a mushy vegetable, usually one with a lot of butter and marginal nutritional benefits like green beans or corn. It was institutional feeding for cannon fodder instructed to tie a dog tag into your boot laces so they could identify your corpse. After filling up on the overcooked cafeteria fare at the dining facility at the end of a long day, I’d hit the pull-up bars just outside the barracks before heading off to the gym.
As a bookish nerd and anomalous recruit, I worked hard to bulk up and build up my upper body strength in particular. But I found exercise to be dull. Seeking out some mental stimulation while lifting dumbbells or hoisting myself up on the wooden pull-up bars that had a makeshift, primitive quality, I made sure I had headphones at all times. Often I listened to audiobooks. But I was young and enraptured by my roiling internal sea of emotions, drifting me like the tide to sad, serious, thoughtful music. I listened to a lot of Wilco, Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, anything with a literary sensibility and dazzling lyrics. Stephen Malkmus was the Shakespeare of lyrics, the patron saint of all English majors and bookish sorts. Pavement played on repeat, especially “Summer Babe (Winter Version)” off the album Slanted and Enchanted.
Rolling Stone Magazine named the jangly melodic song as one of the top 500 songs of all time, even though it never trended on any chart.
“We didn’t know how to record,” Malkmus told the magazine. “We used reverb on the drums–the cheapest, worst reverb ever.”
He confessed he was trying to ape Lou Reed and sing about “sad boy stuff.”
Wistful lyrics like “she waits there in the levee wash/mixin’ cocktails with a plastic tipped cigar” and “in an abandoned house but I will wait there/I’ll be waiting forever” appealed to my youthful sense of isolation and loneliness. The hook wormed its way into my eardrums and stayed there, overriding whatever basic cadence we sung during our PT runs. The initial crash of the fuzzy, lo-fi guitar riff primed me like a young pup waiting for a sonic treat.
When Malkmus’s highfalutin but opaque lyrics came in, I was completely transported to another place. His lyrics were so notoriously cryptic yet so permanently inscribed on one’s memory I laughed out loud years later at a YouTube comment that “all I want is a man who will treat me like an oil well.”
And yet, I thought of the song as lesser Pavement. The term “babe” struck me as somewhat cretinous at the time, even though I now use it as a term of endearment for my fiancee. Though catchy, the lyrics just weren’t as well-crafted. It’s not even the most relatable song on the album when Malkmus is spitting heart-rending truth on Here like “I was dressed for success,/a success that never comes/and I’m the only one who laughs at your jokes when they are so bad/and your jokes are always bad.” Lacking the emotional resonance of Pavement’s better cuts, “Summer Babe (Winter Version)” also was poppy and maudlin in a way that seemed more coarse than anything else.
The more experimental and avant-garde Pavement record Wowee Zowee was the one that truly captivated me during my high school years. Like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, it’s an artistic triumph from beginning to end, a masterpiece best appreciated by listening all the way through. Wowee Zowee, which has been commemorated by a 33 ⅓ book and was re-released in a re-mastered format by Matador Records, features a variety of genres and a requisite streak of rebellion, including the song “Fight This Generation” and lyrics dumping on the then-popular Smashing Pumpkins for not being relevant and not saying anything the singer understands, or would even care enough to understand.
Nearly every song on the album is perfect: poetic and freighted with resonant emotion. But the one I probably listened to most on repeat was “Grounded,” 4 minutes and 14 seconds of profound sadness and withering class warfare. Having grown up in the highly segregated Chicagoland metropolitan area, I could relate to lyrics like “he foaled a swollen daughter in the sauna playing contract bridge/They’re soaking up the fun or doing blotters, I don’t know which… which… which… /Boys are dying on these streets.”
The social justice dudgeon is high, the tone is romantically, wallowingly melancholic, and the lyrics are some of the most exquisitely lapidary ones ever recorded. “He spoke of latent causes, sterile gauzes, and the bedside morale” rolls off Malkmus’s tongue as a feat of high art.
It’s just a song an alienated suburban teenager can relate to, as he wails “pariah!” as it winds down. “Grounded” spoke to me in the red-hot emotional cauldron of my teenage years, when a standard romantic rejection had me melodramatically contemplating the extreme finality of self-inflicted death, and it still speaks to me today, when I devote more of my attention to mundane things like automotive maintenance and life insurance. It’s a gorgeous song, the aural equivalent of a impressionist painting of a lush countryside. It’s packed with profundity and a cri de coeur against pampered comfort disconnected from what really matters in life. I had it on repeat for years because, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, it’s a lovely, lachrymose song that makes you feel something.
About the Author:
Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran, an Indiana University graduate, a book reviewer, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio in Indiana. He was named the poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest 2016, a feat that Geoffrey Chaucer chump never accomplished. His literary work and photography have appeared or is forthcoming in The High Window, Synesthesia Literary Journal, Steep Street Journal, Beautiful Losers, New Pop Lit, The Grief Diaries, Gravel, The Perch Magazine, Rising Phoenix Review, Chicago Literati, Dogzplot, Bull Men’s Fiction, shufPoetry, The Roaring Muse, Prairie Winds, Blue Collar Review, Lumpen, The Rat’s Ass Review, Stoneboat, The Tipton Poetry Journal, Euphemism, Jenny Magazine, Vending Machine Press and elsewhere. He once wrote an author bio that would have put James Boswell to shame, but accidentally deleted it and attached this rubbish instead.