Rock n Roll, characterised as youth culture/Pop culture, is pretty much dead right now. It’s still twitching corpse convulses & releases gas from time to time but, as a serious proposition, Rock n Roll has been dead for a long time. In 1994, on their excellent sophomore album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Indie Rock royalty Pavement wrote & recorded the excellent Fillmore Jive, a wonky, fuzzy tribute to the (even then) dying genre. Eschewing the usual verse-chorus-verse structures of Rock n Roll, Fillmore Jive weaves together various… I’m going to call them stanzas unique, separate sections of music. These stanzas are connected by Malkmus’ wilfully off-kilter guitar playing. The backing track is exciting, spontaneous & jam-like. If you’re going to tell a story never told, you’ll be needing a new way to tell it. There are sections of Fillmore Jive which would form epic choruses, in their own right, in the hands of lesser bands. Malkmus’ ear for dissonant melodicism can write enough of these beautifully lazy melodies that Pavement don’t need to write a whole song around each one.
Fillmore Jive tells the story of the dying days of Rock n Roll from a particularly unique viewpoint: Rock n Roll itself. When Stephen Malkmus sings “I need to sleep, why won’t you let me?” he’s singing in character as Rock n Roll itself. In the first verse, Rock n Roll is feeling sad, despondent, laying in the sofa (couch). Rock n Roll’s voice is quiet & contemplative. Whispering in someone’s ear. Rock n Roll needs some company: “Hey lady, what do you need?/Do you think you’d like to come and bleed with me?” Bleeding out on hotrock burn pocked carpet of a mid-‘90’s stoner bedroom. To sweeten the deal, Rock n Roll proffers a chalice, “It’s a special one, it’s made of gold.” I used to be something, used to be special. I’ve still got it. Still got what made me special in the first place. Rock n Roll is stronger than ever.
I’m interpreting it as the company, the “lady,” that Rock n Roll is asking for is in fact 90’s youth culture. This will become clearer later in the song, but for now I think that Rock n Roll is begging for attention in a landscape of other things that teenagers could be paying attention to. Rock n Roll in 1994 is beset on all sides by things which are vying for the attention of young people. Hip-Hop, Techno, House, Jungle, Trip-Hop, Ambient etc. There are countless new, innovative genres of music to excite young people before we even get to the popular, chart, radio stuff. Videogaming is in ascendant, approaching the end of the fourth generation of consoles, some would argue is the height of videogaming. SNES & Megadrive (Genesis in the US), Game Gear & Game Boy. Early days of PC gaming.
“Passed out on your couch/You left me there (thanks),” I interpret as thanking young people for still giving Rock n Roll a chance, still finding it relevant. But there’s also a sense of fatigue. Rock n Roll is exhausted, tired. Every combination has been done to death. No originality is left. Self-loathing sets in. Rock n Roll needed to be left alone & is grateful that it was. Malkmus’ soft whisper sounds full of defeat, of weariness: “I need to sleep to sleep it off.” It’s a heartbreaking moment & when the big “I need to sleep” over the heavy riffing kicks in, there is a palpable sense of relief & release.
After the explosive release of that section, we enter a downcast, melancholic section which, to me, seems to eulogise the subgenres & subcultures which Rock n Roll birthed, as they’re dying out: “The jam kids on the Vespas/And glum looks on their faces/The street is full of punks/They got spikes/See those rockers with their long curly locks.” The music here is minimal & loose, Malkmus’ vocal almost speaking. “Goodnight to the Rock n Roll era,” he finishes before another dive into distorted, wonky jamming. Lead guitars as dissonant as they are melodic. This is another section which feels like a release. Euphoric. The drunken dancing of a wake, perhaps.
The following section seems to address the outside influences which contribute towards the suffering of Rock n Roll. “Jazz buffs’ skinny arms,” “the dance faction, a little too loose for me.” Rock n Roll (or maybe this is Malkmus’ voice speaking now) finds these things boring (“every night it’s straight and narrow”) or dangerous, scary (“laws are broken, amusing era”). The final stanza almost dismissed these distractions due to their association with drugs: “Pull out their plugs and they snort up their drugs.”
The song breaks off with an unfinished line, “their throats are filled with…” This could be the declaration that Rock n Roll is not quite ready to die, or that it may be resurrected. 26 years later & I don’t think we’re there yet.
Another interesting thing about Fillmore Jive, a piece of trivia is that the Fillmore was a big Rock n Roll venue in San Francisco, associated with psychedelic music. The Fillmore closed in 1989 following the Loma Prieta earthquake & the death by helicopter crash of manager Bill Graham. Pavement played in San Francisco ten days before it was due to open, in April of ’94, at The Great American Music Hall. However, the first band to play in the newly opened Fillmore, on the 27th April 1994, were the Smashing Pumpkins, who Pavement had snarkily insulted on the Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain single Range Life.
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