Oct. 07, 2009 - Issue #729: The Secretaries
Patience is a virtue: Time heals all wounds--and brings new fans--for old bands
When the news broke that Pavement was getting back together, I nearly fell off a chair.
Not so much because one of the most seminal acts of the 1990s is reuniting for a bunch of tour dates, but because a band that broke up under such acrimonious circumstances—the band's unfortunate final album, Terror Twilight, was basically a solo project from Stephen Malkmus—was going to let bygones be bygones.
Of course, the fact that the band will likely play to bigger venues and more people than it played to in the height of its critical popularity has something to do with things. Someone needs to get paid—the Pavement players may as well cash in on the fact that they've never gone away from being darlings of the Pitchfork set.
That's the thing: we in the media tend to fawn over the bands we think the world should hear, even if the world as a whole isn't that interested. The same critical darlings keep getting in the press, and it gives you the idea that some of these bands are a lot more widely followed than they actually are.
The indie-rock heyday of the 1990s was a prime example; acts like Pavement sure got a lot of headlines—I wrote a massive feature on the band in 1994 after it made a stop at Calgary's Republik and found Malkmus to be elusive or maybe simply bored with the media attention focused on the band—but that didn't necessarily translate into large ticket or album sales. That trend only grew as we moved into the 21st century, as the Internet overtook radio as the place to discover new music, and created a world where people pick and choose songs they like from a variety of obscure and unlike bands and throw them together on iPod playlists.
Just like painters need to die before their work skyrockets in value, it looks like seminal indie bands need to break up before they realize just how lasting their music will be. And, when they get back together, all the kids who follow bands that namecheck Pavement want to see the originals in action. Pavement will open the tour at a 5000-seat venue in New York City. I can't recall the band ever playing to that kind of venue supporting Slanted and Enchanted or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
There's no doubt that people who go through old, archived rock articles decades from now will have mistaken ideas of what was actually popular or not. Read any rock criticism, and you'd think the Velvet Underground were as popular as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Heck, the only time Lou Reed and co. actually played to arenas is when they held a reunion tour decades after they broke up. Same goes with the Stooges and the MC5—somehow, people now have a twisted idea that these bands were household names in 1969, when in fact they were obscure. Their critical acclaim keeps them in the music press, but they never played arenas.
The Pixies played sold-out shows when the band reunited. And, as much as we'll talk about Doolittle as one of the great American rock albums, it never got the group out of the club circuit when it came out.
Joy Division? Played clubs in Europe. Small clubs. Didn't score commercial success until the New Order days. And yet I've lost count of the Ian Curtis shirts I have seen on hipsters.
So, can we blame Pavement for cashing in? No way. Fifteen years ago, Pavement drummer Bob Nastanovich said the band wasn't going to apologize for not being commercially accessible. "You just hope for the best once you're finished," he said. "We're not consciously trying to make records to put people off. We want to entertain ourselves first—and hope it will entertain others, as well."
Fast forward to 2009. We are ready to be entertained, and hoping for the best? Well, looks like it's going to work out, after all. All an indie-rock critical darling needs is, to quote Axl Rose, a little patience. V
Steven Sandor is a former editor-in-chief of Vue Weekly, now an editor and author living in Toronto.
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