S.M. storms around lower Manhattan remembering the trees at dusk, how they once looked caramel-dipped, during those months of light and merry, and how brightly the taffy clouds of morning glowed after he and his friends determined that nothing like parents or family mattered anymore; nothing; just candy. From that, what--frenzy? addiction? liberation? a decade earlier, he and Spiral Stairs, this guy, a friend from school, had begun the rock group Pavement.
They were united in the decision to not call themselves by real names. They tried to make their first recordings seem like vinyl accidents, willful and erroneous, unhelpfully titled Slay Tracks: 1933-1969 and Demolition Plot J-7 and Perfect Sound Forever.
S.M. supposes that people think he's a bit, well...pinched, because of how well he separates himself from his words, sees his songs as being sung in character and all that. He can't help it. His speech drones, cuts, dismisses, has all the life of a dial tone. He wants to believe that he possesses "a new openness," but just try to give hundreds of interviews a year without developing a similar chilliness of soul and feeling like your every movement is monitored.
The video cameras show that his dark hair remains cut in its usual conservative manner. S.M. passes through a series of sugarhouse stalls where Chinese dogs sniff the cuffs of his pants and mop the concrete with their blue-black tongues. Spat-out candies in crinkled-up balls of plastic litter his path, open wrappers everywhere. S.M. fidgets with a candy in his front pocket but doesn't unwrap anything. He knows that when people see this they think that he likes denying himself things. This is what the fans bicker about on the Web, about this once when S.M. appeared to a certain reporter as if he weighed all of 120 pounds and was overheard musing pleasantly about our ability to survive eating only air, and subsequently all this misinformation leaked out.
He's very familiar with this part of town, where the sugarhouse stalls are now. The neighborhood was torn up ten years before by riots; he was thoroughly kind on candy that night, and he saw the coppers on spooked steeds galloping down Saint Mark's and the Argentine who owned the big sugarhouses ordering his muscle boys to drive a truckful of candimonium packs over to the squatters (just like in some Damon Runyon story) so they had bottles to throw at the helicopters.
S.M. lived right near here back then, with percussionist Bob, who had this hellish job with the transit authority at the time, driving a bus. Bob'd come home in a vulgar mood, sink into the couch and glare like an abused monkey. They'd unwrap a few candies and gratefully watch hockey players beat one another on the television set. By then the first few Pavement things had appeared to zero sales. Still, a baffling number of folks began to hear of Pavement. Nobody knew how or why. They crept into the dialogue like a good piece of vandalism, exactly as S.M. had hoped--suddenly, anonymously, full of challenging implications. For a couple reasons--mainly ignorance and poverty--Pavement had left the studio with only recordings of accidents, first takes, wan distortions, scratch vocals. To distract reporters from the bad mikings, S.M. talked as though by intention these were anti-songs, said they were committed to releasing the things that rock bands were supposed to record over. A brilliant strategy: Pavement became just as difficult to listen to as they were difficult to discuss.
In the suburban outskirts, S.M. was satisfied to learn, Pavement attracted a host of word-of-mouth legends: it was said they were television stars recording under fake names, that they were a middle-aged academic performing a cultural survey via false identities and noise-collage experiments. Periodically someone would find Pavement quoted by some half-reliable source as speaking of the need for silence. Nobody knew where they belonged. There'd be this passed-out drummer in some smudgy zine above a caption that read, "If you were wondering what you missed when you missed last month's Pavement gig--here it is!" This was the sort of information that was getting out. For a time S.M. succeeded so well in covering their tracks it seemed his Pavemen could turn out to be anything or anybody. Some writer helped their cause when he wrote that they were building a band with the same surreptitiousness that insurgents made bombs; he went on to say that he half expected their identities to be revealed amid a predawn ATF raid, babies wailing in the background, shopkeepers telling TV crews they had no idea that their quiet, well-behaved neighbors could've been "Los Pavementos." S.M. dug that write-up.
At the time, the candimonium underground was in a disquieting state of free fall. All S.M.'s friends were throwing their papers into the air in disgust, their bodies heavy with hate. In small venues in, for example, Los Angeles, sugarbrains felt obligated to grab the stage, whether they deserved attention or not; out-of-tune Dylan rip-offs would get up there and the crowd'd boo and boo, unaware that one of these bald-stringed, big-eyed boys would soon turn into Beck. One's certainties were in turmoil; tastes were about to take a big turn; judgments changed hourly about what constituted a truly subversive lyric, a sincere rhythm. S.M.'s friends were easily moving 20 pounds of chocolate a day. The summoning of the "Alternative Demographic" was near.
It was convenient, in a sense, that when S.M. didn't fuck up, the band did on his behalf; the first and biggest fuckup being Liberty Lunch, 1993, when they mismanaged their hugely important, super-industry-attended, make-or-break gig, after which their live reputation was so utterly shredded it never thoroughly rebounded. Their drummer had gotten so nervous he'd candied himself into oblivion, rushed so that it took less than 20 minutes to complete the set, while the rest of the guys just stared at one another, unable to believe it, as this--the chance of a lifetime--blew up in their fucking faces.
Other conveniences and coincidences that followed helped to blur the precise meaning, point, sincerity of their music-making endeavor. For example, as someone had pointed out to S.M., Pavement's first full-length work arrived in stores the same week that Argentina captured its most-wanted assassin. The quotes attributed to the so-called "Candy Killer" and the leaked details of the Argentinian operation segued seamlessly with statements attributed to the band on its press release. The impression was that, with Slanted and Enchanted, elusive figures were coming aboveground, emerging from the fog as a hard frost lay upon the fields like spun sugar.
What bugged S.M. back then was how, despite critics' newfound ability to solve the mysteries posed by the band, these same critics failed to notice the sudden coherence of his songs, the band's sound, that, yes, they could sustain a full song for the requisite number of verses and melodies and knew how to alternate disconcerting ballads with droning narratives. Some half-baked critic S.M. never really liked much ran this small thing about how Pavement was into noise in this charmingly approachable way, but what particularly irked S.M. was that he didn't elaborate--it wasn't thick off-putting buckets of ratt box racket that he described but Sonic Youth's open tunings tentatively plucked on trebly toy guitars. Live, S.M. tried to turn Pavement into the quietest loud band around (it helped that they couldn't afford big amps and effects pedals). He was imagining as his musical model the scared silence a Syrian man might experience when an agent of the Mossad lunges toward his left ear with a small lead-colored protuberance.
Well, soon enough it was widely acknowledged that they'd developed into songwriters. Young sugarbrains, purchasing Pavement's Watery, Domestic, praised S.M. for his irresistible melodies.
Everyone thankfully put aside the thought puzzle that'd been Pavement's enigmatic partnership between 1990 and 1992. Reporters started treating S.M. like a spokesman, inquiring about his hair rinse and emotional well-being instead of pop subversion and the goddamn situationists. On their subsequent record, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, one of his songs coyly did its best to make the case that Pavement should be allowed to have their secrets back ("Right now!") but by then S.M. knew it was too late. They scored a hit, they mounted the big stages of the world. They even showed up on a late-night talk show, where S.M., thoroughly kind on candy, refused to shake the host's hand before an audience of many millions. The secrets were out. Reporters no longer had to wonder what they looked like or who they really were. Some of the purists were livid. A few bitterly denounced how the band's names were published along with their pictures--not taped as Wanted posters in the post office but profiled as celebrities in glossy magazines.
It felt like the greatest prank ever...
A light drizzle begins to fall and S.M. realizes, with an anguished pang, that for these last ten years he's only been able to hear the music of others as competition.
The rain smells of peppermint.
Big butterscotch leaves are knocked off the dying trees.
We won the revolution, S.M. suspects he'll say to a reporter someday, but we may've been wrong. Transcendence cannot be found on a diet of junk.
All S.M.'s friends are going snowblind, driving around in blizzards looking for the stuff or chasing down distant glows on the southwest horizon. He knows more and more people who have angrily protested the oppressive order of things by buying solid-fuel rockets on the black market, attaching them to Chevy Impalas, and blasting off; they leave behind only three-foot-deep craters in cliffs and smoldering metal. No letters of protest ever survive the crash.
S.M. is aware that he hasn't any surprises left. Hundreds of interviews each year will leave pretty much no internal stone unturned. All Pavement can do is to keep making records. But at the very least S.M. wishes they didn't sound so spent as they settled into being rock stars. It's like, onstage, he's suddenly surrounded by old farts. The face of his bassist carries so many wrinkles he's begun to resemble the father on The Waltons. Spiral, that guy from before, is married, losing his hair, becoming withdrawn.
Percussionist Bob is fat now and owns a house. This whole project has turned into a real drag. Consciences dissolve like confectioner's sugar, S.M. thinks: everyone is a liar, no one tells the truth, and nobody cares about anything but candy.
Under his umbrella just then pops the head of somebody passing by whose face he can't place, who reminds him to show up later at a bluegrass show. "I probably won't like it," S.M. mutters, as if to himself. "But I'll go."
He doesn't go. He's on the floor of an apartment in Astor Place instead, later, with his head propped against a table leg, eating take-out pizza and, at long last, unwrapping a candy. There's this hovering reporter in the room who's clearly dead set on mischaracterizing his prepared remarks.
But S.M. feels fairly accepting of it and takes it all OK because his good friend Bingo is also there, and Bingo is the the only guy S.M. feels can aright him lately. Bingo; wonderful, incapacitated Bingo; reckless, unrefined, and worldly, with his every response hurtling skyward, with nothing balled up inside him or clenched or self-conscious; Bingo, with his immediate exclamations and denunciations and his exceptional gift for fiction (see the short story collection Pure Slaughter Value by Robert Bingham [Doubleday, 1997]). Yes, Bingo is very near, yes indeed, joking with the reporter about how S.M.'s voice is so flat you can nail legs onto it, string it with a net, and play Ping-Pong on it, ha ha ha, and then shouting about how much he wants to finish that goddamn novel, his first, handsomely berating himself and singing knowledgeably of his most intimate failings--the novel having been sold and everything and now the agents and editors are pissed off over his incessant sloth.
Music from childhood plays on a turntable across the room. S.M. can't keep from dreaming about the past, the better long-ago times when he possessed Bingo's insane lusts, when S.M. and his friends would lie on piles of dirty laundry dreaming big lucid futures, utterly candied, thoroughly kind, as they dribbled their brains like basketballs and bounced ideas on trampolines...
He wakes to find that he's telling the reporter about the first record and about how badly it was recorded, how they first had sought a dry record with no effects, like Surfer Rosa, but then decided to drench "Here" in reverb, as if that one feat would give the record variety.
Bingo looks up from the backgammon game he's playing with his girlfriend.
"Hey! Live, when you play 'Here,' you gotta not rush it, man. It's a beautiful song! Slow it down!"
S.M. rolls his eyes behind small, rimless glasses, sighs. "OK."
Bingo glances back at the game board in time to see his girlfriend roll doubles. He howls bloody murder. He hates to lose. In a few months, Bingo will marry this woman; a few months after that, his heart will seize up after being administered too much sugar at once, and Bingo will be dead. He'll leave behind the novel (just completed), the wife, and S.M.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Archer Prewitt.