“There was a playfulness,” Bryan Charles writes, describing the Pavement record that changed his life. “[A] humor, a skillful balance of light and dark that I found lacking in most things – literature as well as rock music.” It’s a lovely thesis and, considering his subject matter, appropriately indirect: the plaudits are aimed at late minor masterpiece Brighten the Corners (Matador, 1997), more an LP-length post-script to 1995’s roiling pop collage Wowee Zowee (Matador/Warner Bros., 1995) than anything. In fact, for its first few chapters, Charles’ 33-1/3 series entry about Wowee Zowee feels like a bizarre bait-and-switch, resisting the pull of its central album via personal essay, meta-criticism, and (as noted) an almost fanatical devotion to Corners. Charles’ prose, memoirish and blunt, chafes against whatever quotable, glossable lyrics he lifts from the band’s songs. Early on, he even appears to sell Zowee down the river:
The funny thing was I never played Wowee Zowee. It was there on the shelf with the other records, untouched. I still had dim memories of that first time I’d heard it, the lack of excitement I felt. I had a sense too that the record was a failure somehow, not as good as the rest.
But somehow, about 50 pages in, the whole thing – the head fakes, the autobio coyness, all of it – starts to resonate. For Charles, accretion begets form and, directness aside, his real talents lie in creating a structureless structure that fits Pavement as snugly as Lester Bangs’ fried takes on Lou Reed or Camden Joy’s encyclopedic wonder at Frank Black. The music demands a geography of evasive rhetoric, a certain quota of sidelong glances, seeming nonsequiturs, and bold turnarounds; by kissing his pop history with anecdotes and the overcast emotions of his mid-twenties, Charles nails the band’s gift for tucking profundity into simple songs. Each incidental line about a crush or party or day job feeds into his greater idea: a belief that Zowee’s White Album-like sprawl was a wild, perhaps poor decision with unforeseen implications, a temporary chain-breaker that may have scraped away much of the band’s potential for growth. The band acts as a metaphor for adulthood, lost opportunity, burnout, Gen X, you name it, and Wowee Zowee, in Charles’ hands, contains both the world and the hard work of living in it.
It’s heady stuff and, a fiction writer by trade – his first novel, Grab On To Me Tightly As If I Knew the Way, dropped in 2006 (Harper Perennial) – Charles leans hard on the Pavement-as-philosophical-guidepost stuff. But this is a book about a record, too, and he does a solid job of amassing relevant players and kicking up new dust. Bandleader Steve Malkmus gets outed as a small-time Billy Corgan/Kevin Shields type, the architect of and sole player on any number of songs; we find out he left the band over a very unpunk gentleman’s complaint (i.e. the other members couldn’t play their instruments). We learn of drummer Steve West’s yen for painting wooden soldiers in-studio. Recording engineers backbite each other, Matador Records head honcho Gerard Cosloy gives a hostile e-mail interview, and action painter/LP cover artist Steve Keene gets airtime to parse Wowee Zowee’s effect on the band’s career, thoughtfully noting that “it made them another band to critique instead of a band to worship.” Even better, Charles’ book bares much of the telling minutiae missing from Rob Jovanovic’s 2004 clearinghouse Perfect Sound Forever (Justin, Charles & Co.), walking the reader through musty NYC loft apartments and music shops and college campuses. Given the air of mystery Malkmus and co. have cultivated over the years, Zowee can feel revelatory simply because it’s so concrete.
For all its illuminating dirt, though, Zowee lives and dies on its view of Pavement as a lit match in a cellar that keeps accumulating new trash, an ironical companion with enough sense to accept the world without capitulating to it. “Pavement made fucking good records and they didn’t compromise,” Matador founder Chris Lombardi says late in the book, adding, “It felt good to like them.” If Charles’ Wowee Zowee succeeds – and, flawed as it is, it would be hard to argue otherwise – it’s because the author clearly agrees. While his style tends towards over-sincerity, he has the good judgment to let Pavement’s humor and balance shoot through his work; he trusts the album itself to keep things from capsizing. In the process, Zowee pulls a trick most 33 1/3 titles never manage: it clarifies not just the details of the album, but the reader’s own, quite personal relationship with it. Maybe it’s too messy, not a command performance, whatever. But, for a 150-page breakdown and souvenir of a 15-year-old indie rock LP, it’s an inspiring, unexpected tightrope act.Visit: Bryan Charles | 33 1/3 Series | Continuum
Purchase: Powell’s Books | Amazon