Pavement is a 65-point word

Our writer challenges rock's biggest brainiacs to a sharky game of Scrabble.

Published June 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus shakes a stranger's hand he intercepts the incoming palm, raises his eyebrows and emits a quick, nasal, "Stephen." Then he releases and turns to the next stranger. Amid the potted palm trees of a New York Holiday Inn, Malkmus looked as if the handshakes were wearing him out. He and bandmate Bob Nastanovich had spent the afternoon in the hotel lounge meeting journalists, sipping Coke and Perrier and answering questions about their new album, "Terror Twilight." I spent it memorizing a list of words containing the letters Q, X and Z.

That's because instead of interrogating the famously tight-lipped Malkmus about his songs and the state of one of indie rock's most beloved bands, I was challenging him to a game of Scrabble. I'd heard that Pavement plays the game on the road to kill time, just like other bands blow bongs or boff groupies. The intellectual pastime isn't unusual for Pavement, or for Malkmus. Of all the rock singers who emerged in the early '90s, Malkmus is the most unlikely. He's an acerbic observer, a well-read wit and the kind of brainy oddball who actively shuns attention. In one new song he describes himself as "a cold, cold boy with an American heart." Until I met him, I hadn't realized he was singing about the way he plays Scrabble.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

In hindsight, I should have realized I was in trouble during Pavement's first play. My partner, Brian Blanchfield, and I opened with UPSIDE for a respectable 22 points. "Well played," Malkmus and Nastanovich murmured.

They looked at the board for about a half-second, and then dumped all of their tiles, forfeiting their opening turn for seven new letters. Toward the end of a game, when you're stacked up with vowels and the board is tight, dumping tiles is a standard move. But early in the game, when the board is ripe with double-word scores, giving up a turn is a gutsy move that only pros would make. We were frightened.

The score was 38-zip when Pavement started dropping violent single syllables. JAB and BRUNT went down and soon we held the lead by only 10 points. The Pavement brain trust huddled over its rack, whispering and nodding before laying out FAY, the first Scrabble word of the game, on a triple-word square for 34 points.

My partner looked at me imploringly. "Fay?"

"No clue," I said. "What's fay?"

"Well, there's F-E-Y, we know what that is," Malkmus said. "But F-A-Y, I don't know."

"It's up to you," he continued, a note of faux innocence in his voice. "You could challenge it. If you do, you could lose your turn. If you don't, it's 34 points ..."

I was sure that fay was a proper name, like Baby Fay, the infant who got the baboon heart transplant when I was in eighth grade. We took the bait.

According to "Official Scrabble Players Dictionary," fay means "to join closely." We lost the lead, and our turn.

Nasty Nastanovich tried conciliation. "We weren't sure," he said before admitting the truth. "Well, Steve was 90 percent sure. Anyway, we go again."

"I haven't played in a while," Malkmus said. Of course he told us this after he'd already suckered us into the challenge. My head felt hot. What kind of person knows the word fay, anyway?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Malkmus is well-known for his ambiguity. He doesn't say much about himself, and he says even less about his intriguing songs, which are full of oblique asides and non-linear reminiscences. In "Elevate Me Later," a song off "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" (1994) about avoiding stardom, Malkmus' money line is, "Because there's 40 different shades of black/So many fortresses and ways to attack."

"Making a song is about trying to create a mood, or make some sort of a game, but not so much a tricking game," Malkmus told me when I asked him about songwriting. "The lyrics aren't planned. Whatever comes out comes out."

Yeah, right, I thought. As if "Summer Babe" and "Silent Kid" -- two early, off-kilter pop gems that perfectly express suburban disaffection -- were written by accident. As if lines like "You're the kinda girl I like/'Cause you're empty and I'm empty/And you can never quarantine the past" doesn't purposefully evoke a young man on permanent rebound.

Some critics still call his lyrics hard to read, neither here nor there. But Malkmus blurted out his worldview on Pavement's first album, "Slanted and Enchanted (1992)," when he shouted, "Between here and there is better than either here or there!"

Pavement's next multiple-word-creating play was OGLE and GAT, a word that I didn't expect to see from a couple of suburban California rockers. "Gat?" I asked. "Like the gun?"

"Uh, I don't know," said Malkmus.

For a guy who didn't know the meaning of any words, he was doing quite well, winning 110-70. Forty points! I decided to break his concentration with silly questions.

"So," I ask, "why'd you name the band Pavement?"

"That was Scott's doing," he answered, crediting Scott Kannberg, Pavement's other guitarist. "I didn't think twice about the name. I figured we'd make one single, it'd be sold at obscure single auctions and we'd disappear."

Obviously, deflecting questions is reflexive for Malkmus. He didn't mean to start a band. He didn't mean to write those lyrics. He didn't know what FAY or GAT meant. I had to find a way to penetrate his defenses.

Just after Blanchfield and I narrowed the score to 148-138, the P-boys dropped OUTLINE, playing all seven of their letters -- an automatic 50-point bonus -- and running up their total to 219. I busted out my meanest question.

"Now that alternative rock is sort of off the map, indie rockers like yourselves aren't being paid much attention. How does that feel?"

Even with a massive lead, Pavement begged off answering; they needed to concentrate on their game. Later on, Malkmus was more forthcoming. "We've always been disappointed by mainstream culture," he said. "Things slip through, like 'The Simpsons' or Nirvana, but you're always making the best of a bad situation."

"Before we were in this band we all worked tedious, harsh jobs," added Nastanovich. "It's like, what's your choice? Throw in the towel or keep doing something that has a lot of appealing features?"

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It's a fine thing for a band to be the darlings of underground rock, for a time anyway. But eventually, the very things that made people love you -- effusive guitars sitting pretty over rickety beats, sweet la-la-las beside nerdy verbiage -- actually start to bother people. You hit your 30s and suddenly New York magazine is calling you "eternally sarcastic college rockers" and "laughably passi." Of course, anybody who earnestly la-la-las across five consecutive records should be granted a lifetime free pass from being dismissed as too sarcastic, but music journalists are like Greco-Roman wrestlers, always aiming for the quick pin.

"Terror Twilight" isn't that easy. The five band members haven't lived near each other for years, and had to regularly deny rumors that they were breaking up. Although they made it through the album without losing a single member, the finished product does have the feel of a well-crafted Malkmus solo project. Young superproducer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck, R.E.M.) recorded the band and got the guitars to boldly chime, chug, twang and bruise, but for the first time, every song belongs to Malkmus and he alone sings.

The lyrics, especially the words about romance, bruise like the guitars. Before cooing the gentle chorus line in "You Are a Light," Malkmus proposes, "Let's lethalize our slingshots and swallow propane."

I asked him if his new songs were born of relationship trouble. "No, I've had a fair shake with the ladies," he said. "There is some male posturing on the record, 'cause we're not going to do the total 'Johnny Sensitive look at me I'm so miserable.' But I'm not mad at the female race or anything."

Another deflection? Perhaps, but who cares? This is Pavement's most coherent bunch of songs since "Crooked Rain." The novice instrumental quirks have disappeared from their arrangements, but Pavement is made up of smart, stable and competent adults now, and their record sounds like it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

We were down, but we weren't giving up. Blanchfield, my partner, set down COCKY for 32 points. Pavement was impressed. They responded with QUINCE, which is an apple-like fruit that exists only in Scrabble games. Blanchfield and I buckled under a rack full of vowels while our opponents placed HEX on a triple word score, earning 51 points and putting the game out of reach for good.

Their play reminded me of "The Hexx," the darkest cut on "Terror Twilight." The song is about feeling "stalled out an escalator" and wondering, "which way to return, up or down?" That sense of uncertainty has always been present in Pavement's songs, and I'd even go so far to argue that it's the ennui that, um, fays the band with its audience. But for five guys who keep making records and hitting the road, it begs the question, why keep doing it if you're feeling so stalled?

"We're the kind of people who've never felt like we were born to rock," Nastanovich said. "At no point until we started to tour did we think we were going to spend any significant period of our lives in a rock band."

"We didn't think people would support what we wanted to do," said Malkmus, "If there was no Matador, no Sonic Youth to show us the ropes ..." He paused and I sensed another deflection. "There's always the chance to do creative writing, but that's very competitive, too."

Nastanovich picked up the thread. "We have friends our age who are writers just getting started on little publishing deals and we've seen what rambling wrecks they've turned into," he laughed. "Being in a band means being able to hide behind a wall of noise ..."

"Johnny Thunders and Sid Vicious, they were all stupid," continued Malkmus, taking a sip of Perrier between ideas. "But writers are smart and they're also getting wasted. To be a good writer, like Hemingway or Robert Stone, you have to get all wasted. And that's even more lonely than being in a band."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Pavement finished the game with AM and AD, one final double-word play. The score-pad looked bad: 406-266. They kicked our ass.

Standing over the victory board, we all shook hands and chatted about fans and the recording process while the other band members filtered down to the lobby.

As his band gathered for dinner, and the meal-time crowd filled the lounge with growing noise, Malkmus, without being asked, began peeling tiles from my Scrabble board and dropping them in their little red bag.

By Rodd McLeod

Rodd McLeod is a freelance writer in New York.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------