Sidetrack: Pavement and California Anti-Geography

As a thirty-something white person who wears glasses and has been to grad school, I love the band Pavement. I’m taking a quick break from my California Excursion updates (I have a massive entry coming soon for Part III) to bring back up one of my favorite Geography 101 assignments. I had the opportunity last night to see Spiral Stairs (aka Scott Kannberg) play a great set of songs with his current band that mixed Pavement classics on which he sang lead like “Date with Ikea,” “Two States,” and “Kennel District” with songs off his two solo albums. It had been a little while since I’d properly geeked out over Pavement, and last night’s show gave me a perfect excuse to, so thanks to Jason Boardman and the Pilot Light crew for that.

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As I alluded to in my entry two years ago, Pavement were hard to pin down geographically. The two founding members of the band, Kannberg and Stephen Malkmus, grew up together in Stockton, a Central Valley city that has become infamous over the past few decades for blight and poor urban planning around its social issues.  The other three members who rounded out the classic lineup of the band came from scattered points on the East Coast, which ultimately spelled the end of the band in 1999 when distance between them all made it unsustainable to keep going.

I just found this relatively new lyric video somebody made for their song “Unfair,” an album track on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador, 1994) which runs through points on the California map similar to how Damon Albarn sang Blur’s way around England on “This is a Low.” I’ll embed it here for your enjoyment.

As I was telling my friend last night, one thing I really have grown to appreciate about Pavement over the years is just how overwhelmingly ordinary the five of them are. None of them really look like you’d expect them to be in a band, much less one of the most genre-defining of their era. To this day, I still get skeptical when I see a band who look like a band; take that for what it’s worth. Either way, my friend asked me which album to start out with, so I had to be honest and just rank their five studio albums for him rather than single one out in particular…

  1. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
  2. Brighten the Corners (1997)
  3. Slanted & Enchanted (1992)
  4. Wowee Zowee (1995)
  5. Terror Twilight (1999)

Outside of Terror Twilight (which is still very good, don’t get me wrong) being last, I feel like a lot of indie rock fans would disagree with me on that order, which is encouraged here. Also, some of the band’s non-album tracks like “Frontwards” and “Debris Slide!” (which may be directly inspired by CA… hard to know) are essential as well. And though it isn’t one of my favorites, Pavement also contributed a single “Painted Soldiers” to the Kids in the Hall movie ‘Brain Candy,’ which leads me to end this entry and tease my upcoming one on the California trip: Scott Thompson will make an appearance.

Musical Geography 101: Pavement (Stockton, CA)

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

The best band of the 90s (I wrote an essay about this for an old website, which I’m happy to share if you disagree… and I’d expect that you would) did originate in Stockton, California (by many metrics, one of the worst cities in the Western United States), but have had very little to say about it in their songs. Here, Stephen Malkmus’ lyrics jump around through countless overlooked and/or overrated sites in the Golden State, not stopping anywhere long enough to wax nostalgic about any of them. He ends the song screaming a memorable line about “Bakersfield trash.” Malkmus has always been one of rock’s most cryptic lyricists, but from what I imagine, this song either indicts the misallocation of the state’s resources, or it ridicules how most outsiders don’t even consider the state outside of the big three cities real. But I consistently failed poetry-interpretation in high school, because there is no right answer, I suppose.

While I’ve still got you reading this and in case you’re more interested in musical opinions then cultural geography, ‘Crooked Rain Crooked Rain’ is one of the greatest American rock records since the Minutemen’s ‘Double Nickels on the Dime.’ I’m just full of opinions today.

If you have access to Morgan Spurlock’s “Inside Man” series, do watch his episode where he moves to spend time on a citizen’s patrol in Stockton. It’s downright depressing, but it does draw some fascinating arrows between civic processes and hollowing and blighting of a mid-size city. Here’s a hint: do not blow money on a civic center if you’re only going to use it four times a year.

Michael Seman on Music Geography

From UNT website.

I felt a good return to music on this blog was in order, mainly because I’ve got some more antique postcard news in the works. I was very fortunate to meet and work with Michael Seman, a musical geographer based in Denton, TX (we did talk briefly about the Mountain Goats song and the Marked Men, don’t worry), at the AAG Meeting in Los Angeles last year. This morning, I got an email from a collaborator saying that Mike had been interviewed for the Washington Post! Not a bad spot to land.

You can read the whole interview here, or check in on writer Danielle Paquette‘s story about Omaha’s use of indie rock to revitalize it’s urban neighborhoods right here, but here are a couple of Seman’s quotes that I thought were pretty to-the-point about what Music Geography does, and why it’s important.

[Music Geography is] the examination of music and how it interacts with the people, economy, built environment, and technology that comprises a certain space or place.

Music, like food, offers a lot of insight into how landscapes develop and how they might continue to do so in the future… Music scenes can act as branding agents, spur urban redevelopment and emerge as industries in their own right. I’ve also found that music scene participants are civic-minded and often become involved in philanthropic pursuits, run for political office, and seek employment in city departments.

More updates coming soon. Check out Michael’s work for more background on the interaction between music and public places. I’m no doubt going to be citing a lot of them in the future.

For now, time to dive back into teaching and formulating my own papers to present this year. It’s been so busy that I feel like first I have to…. well, The Marked Men can probably say it better than I could.

“Loro” by Pinback (San Diego)

Video

Pall Jenkins of The Black Heart Procession (a bandmate of Pinback’s Zach Smith in Three Mile Pilot) once told me that 3MP wound up on a Geffen Records (however briefly) due to a major label bidding-tornado that set in on San Diego in the mid-90’s. Their scene nor the greater public saw any major fruit from that, but the bands did have a laugh at the whole thing.

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I’m not sure whether or how that strange series of events fed into the union of Smith with oft-bearded musical genius/sci-fi geek Rob Crow to birth Pinback, but we can all be glad it happened. I’m also not sure what it is about San Diego per se that influenced the duo’s unique sound, either. The other 3MP spin-off, The Black Heart Procession, don’t sound anything like San Diego looks, but I guess that isn’t the point. Night falls, hearts get broken, and people get wronged everywhere.

Anyway, I’ve been busy with some end-of-semester responsibilities, lit review and writing work, but here’s “Loro,” a highlight from Pinback’s debut album (which they just reissued in a limited run for Record Store Day this year) that will form the best three and a half minutes of your Monday.

I’ve just started a new Vimeo account for this page, and I’ll be sharing a few anticipated choice items in the next few days, so stay tuned.

DC Will Do That To You (Part 1)

The sunrise over Mt. Pleasant.

Sunrise over Mt. Pleasant, Thursday March 20.

Prior to last week, I had not been in Washington, D.C. (for more than a layover) since August of 2012. I have always thought hard about what to write on this site about the DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia, for the outsiders), but the right words have never really come to mind. I’ve gone on record repeatedly in several contexts that I’m a firm believer that “D.C. makes; the world takes.” Take a look at the last three decades of punk and alternative music history.

In the past few days since returning to Knoxville, my conversations about the city with people who’ve clearly spent little time there begs the question of how the Capital City has inspired so many different and divergent public perceptions of it. Many (way too many) people associate it with the Federal Government for obvious reasons. The Reagan-overlorded crack era of the 1980’s and the District’s difficult reputation simply won’t go away. In each of my conversations about it, the other person has admitted having misconceptions about it.

This photo has no real bearing to this post, but I wanted to take this opportunity to plug my favorite bookstore in the world.

This photo has no real bearing on this post, but I wanted to take the opportunity to plug my favorite bookstore in the world.

Despite having lived there for six pivotal years, my own opinions about DC are equally fueled by public (mis)conceptions and (sub)cultural ideals as they were from my actual days wandering up 18th Street to Smash! and Crooked Beat Records on payday, sitting on my Arlington front porch watching an early summer storm roll across the sky, and squeezing my way through the city’s overcrowded Metro.

I’ve got a few mammoth posts in the pipeline about D.C. I’m sure, but this will have to do for now. It’s been that kind of a week, and the afterglow of being back in such a hyper-inflated city that I gave so much of my life to has left me in such a strange state of introspection. But then again….

“D.C. Will Do That To You”

Postcards from Tampa Bay, 1938 (Part One)

Last week was even more of a mess than the week prior to it. This week? Plenty to do, but I do have a few minutes to post a quick update on some recent activity over here.

(mush records)

First, for those who missed it, I recently contributed a column to ZME Music commemorating the tenth anniversary of the release of my favorite hip-hop album of all time, Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth. Hip-hop had never cast such an anti-establishment love letter to any city as Ian Bavitz did to New York in a moment when that town desperately needed it. While what I wrote skewed heavier toward media studies and sociology than geography, there is plenty of place-based thought crammed into there. I hope you enjoy it and would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you haven’t endured the positive brain-numbing of this record yet.

Last weekend, I inherited a massive stash of postcards mailed to Brooklyn from around North America over the course of the Great Depression and the onset World War II. I am not adequately prepared to explain the significance and context of these cards here, but I am happy to provide a teaser.

In honor of the upcoming 2014 Association of American Geographers meeting in Tampa, Florida, here are a few wonderful postcards from the region in 1938, with brief descriptions. Taken as a whole, they represent a fine cross-section of the pre-Disney Florida tourism industry imagery. (h/t to Derek Alderman for this observation). All scans are mine.

St. Pete's Green BenchesMany American cities have unfortunately done away with benches like these for class and urban blight-related reasons, but the ones in St. Pete have gone through a bizarre history, now lending their heritage to the city’s finest craft brewery. Read more about the green benches here.

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Until I saw this one, all I could really tell you about Bradenton was that it was the subject of a Hot Water Music song. When I saw this archival photo on the postcard, flanked by these cool 30s-Hollywood decorations on the side, I discovered Bradenton had quite the fancy landmark back in the day. The city tore the building down in 1974. You can read more about that here.

DavidIslandsTampa_1938About eight decades before Dubai had everyone in the developed world talking about man-made islands, the enigmatic D.P. Davis (one of the kings of the Florida land boom of the 1920s; read about him and the boom in this masters thesis here) pumped a bunch of mud onto a pair of small grassy atolls and created one of Tampa Bay’s first upper class residential communities. More background can be found here.

hotelfloridian_tampa_1938Of course what better place to stop than the Hotel Floridian? It has a fairly common story: built at the height of the Jazz Age in 1926, fallen into disrepair, and restored to a modicum of its glory, and available for those who can afford rooms today. The ribbon was actually re-cut last year, so looks like it was just in time for the hordes of Geographers who probably can’t afford to stay there but will definitely pass through and take a look.

There’s more where this came from, so don’t worry. Here’s a quote from John Blacking (and a music video by a Tampa band that pretty much proves his point) to tide you all over until next time:

The value of music is, I believe, to be found in terms of the human experiences involved in its creation. There is a difference between music that is occasional and music that enhances human consciousness, music that is simply for having and music that is for being. I submit that the former may be good craftsmanship, but that the latter is art, no matter how simple or complex it sounds, and no matter under what circumstances it is produced.

– John Blacking, 1973 How Musical is Man?, University of Washington Press, (2000 Edition), p. 50.

Merchandise – Time from Id House Vid. Group on Vimeo.

Innovation through Isolation: The Pacific NW

I’m going to have a spiel prepared about Amtrak by the end of this trip, but the long and short of it is, if you have an opportunity to ride the Amtrak Cascades in the Northwest, do it. Let’s leave it at that.

Try to find the tiny donut bakery stall somewhere in here.

Try to find the tiny donut bakery stall somewhere in here.

I just had the opportunity to spend a day in Portland and then a day in Seattle, both cities that absolutely live up to the hype. Both cities have proven and continue to prove the adage of innovation through isolation, well after the ostensible isolation became redundant through space-time compression (cf. Doreen Massey).

He actually got much cooler-looking as he got older. (baseball-almanac.com)

In other words, the Pacific Northwest developed its iconography organically over the decades while most of North America (whose key media markets were located incredibly far away to the South and East) largely ignored it for a variety of reasons. Until the 1990s, only a privileged minority owned personal computers, and only a small subset of music nerds were aware of Seattle’s musical progeny (Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones notwithstanding, though both left the Northwest in search of bigger things in their day).  In fact, one of the best hitters of his era, Edgar Martinez, toiled in relative obscurity on an overlooked Mariners franchise. It wasn’t really until Ken Griffey Jr. and an amazing playoff victory over the Yankees in 1995 (and the Yankees bought Jeff Nelson, the pitcher who had embarrassed them in the subsequent year… I guess Randy Johnson wouldn’t budge initially) that America started taking notice.

By about two decades ago, though, Seattle became an overindulged exporter of technology, “unwashed” music, and overpriced coffee (see below), and an importer of ambitious yuppies and bohemians.

Some Seattle natives no doubt complain about the past two decades as an era of overindulgence and cultural appropriation, but in reality, the city (as my friend, who moved there a few years back, was telling me) has always been defined by a degree of entrepreneurship and yuppie interest. Seattle (like Portland, not to exclude that wonderful place) has succeeded in maintaining a strong native balance between a time of rapid change and development, and a tribute to the city’s longstanding history as an industrial center, a core of Asian-American legacy, seafood Mecca, and icon of progress. The biggest surprise about Seattle (particularly for somebody who’s only been there twice now) is how hilly it is. I don’t remember Eddie Vedder singing about that. Actually, he could have been… (get it? Okay, moving on…)

Anyway, I’m in Vancouver now (this city is great but dear god is it expen$ive), so I need to get going. Enjoy a brief Pacific Northwest Soundtrack, everyone.

The Sonics – “Psycho” (1964)
It wasn’t until NPR or Pitchfork or some other tastemakers decided to shine a light on this long-forgotten Tacoma punk band that their classic LPs were reissued and the old guys decided to give these jams another whirl. Once, a middle-aged couple from Seattle approached me in Florence and asked me about my Kung Fu Records hoodie (quiet, it was on sale). I mentioned it was a punk label, and he brought up a band he remembered from his youth who had recently decided to reform. I asked if it was the Sonics and we wound up having an amazing twenty-minute conversation about the band. At a hotel in Italy. The morals of this story are: don’t be afraid to embrace potential conversation pieces, and the Sonics rule. BAAA-BAYUH!

Sunny Day Real Estate – “Guitar and Video Games” (1999)
Even well after Kurt Cobain died in 1994, Seattle was still the most overplayed city on American radio, largely due to record companies’ insistence that “the kids” were mad and wanted musicians equally pissed off that they could relate to, giving us a solid decade of discordant bands who did Black Flag’s post-1983 output proud. Sunny Day Real Estate, the Kings of Northwest Emo, began along similar lines, but gradually got beautiful, then got influential, then got Jesus, then got eventually reunited to bask in the spoils. This is my favorite song from their 1999 masterpiece, “How It Feels to Be Something On,” but if you really want to know what people REALLY mean when they use the term “emo,” enjoy their ’94 LP Diary.

Sleater Kinney – “One More Hour” (1997)
I didn’t get a chance to return to Olympia on this trip, which is a shame, since I had such a good time there during the APCG Conference last fall. It was great being able to present my paper on masculinized and feminized spaces at punk shows down the street from where Riot Grrrl began, the movement that actively smashed bore holes in the patriarchy, so to speak. The political in-fighting and tension aside, the bands associated with Riot Grrrl did produce a spate of pretty great music, particularly the survivors Sleater-Kinney (named after a road off the highway between Seattle and Oly). Today, Carrie Brownstein is doing for Portland what MTV did for the Jersey Shore (just more artistically), but back in the 90’s she rocked the hell out on the regular and this was my favorite song by her old band. (Also, Wikipedia told me that Jeremy Enigk of SDRE taught her the guitar… how about that).

And because why not…
MxPx – “Move to Bremerton” (1997)
Bremerton is a small town across the sound from Seattle. MxPx for years, functioned as an excellent Tyco My-First-Punk-Band. This was their best song off of their best album, and it still sounds great, sappy lyrics and all.