Pavement was playing Lollapalooza in Austin on the day that Jerry Garcia didn't wake up. A reporter, sent to do a reaction piece, asked guitarist Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannenberg to comment on the passing of the hippie icon. "One thing about Jerry Garcia was that he made the audience listen really hard," Kannenberg said. "Dead-heads listen to everything--the bad stuff as well as the good--and accept it all." Asked if Pavement, with its crowd of tape traders and set-list aficionados, was a Grateful Dead for the '90s, Kannenberg drew back as if the reporter had gurgled out his backside. "We're nothing like the Grateful Dead," he said. That wouldn't be cool, or else Pavement would've been on the H.O.R.D.E. tour instead of Courtney's caravan, but there's some truth in that question.
Pavement's similarity to the Grateful Dead goes much further than both bands having two drummers. (To paraphrase the old joke, Pavement has two drummers in case one of them doesn't fall asleep.) Like the Dead, Pavement is a vocally challenged band that you have to "get." They have a distaste for the corporate-rock world and seem to record with absolutely no regard for how the music will sell. They screw around with the normal rock-and-roll dynamics and are rewarded by a devoted fan base because, after all, what's normal got to do with rock and roll, man?
Where the Grateful Dead played stadia up until the big man's passing, however, Pavement is relegated to the club circuit, returning to the Galaxy Club on Thursday. Though they've been termed "slacker rock" and "lo-fi," Pavement doesn't tap into any sort of lifestyle movement, plus they blew their big breakout moment by releasing the lethargic Wowee Zowee last year, and so this journey from Stockton to the East Village back to Stockton remains in cult type. The players are aloof, or is it that they just want to be left alone? At any rate, without the promise of kinship or at least camaraderie, Pavement's insular musical viewpoints are merely a hard listen without the fuzzy payoff. These are not warm times in America or even in Europe, where Pavement is regaled as if they were an old black bebop legend, and all the great bands reflect the current moods.
That makes Pavement an infinitely more important band than the Grateful Dead, who trafficked in fantasies as ridiculous as those of Jimmy Buffett's Parrotheads. Songs like "Gold Soundz" from '93's brilliant Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and "Summer Babe" from '92's Slanted and Enchanted ride gorgeous pop melodies, but they won't let you hold them, and singing along just makes you feel ridiculous: Eddie Vedder may sing, "This is not for you!," but Pavement means it. Theirs is a wonderful, creative expression, but it's only music, asshole. You can't crawl inside it and pretend that everything's OK.
Pavement performs February 8 at the Galaxy Club. Spoon opens.