“You shrugged it off initially,” novelist Bryan Charles writes about his selection for the 33 1/3 series. “Returned to it later. When you did it blew your mind. You think probably other share this experience. Early resistance followed by rabid embrace.”
Wowee Zowee (1995) was the third album by the band Pavement, mostly recorded at Easley in Memphis, a near double LP’s worth of amorphous satire, sarcastic punk buzz, pedal steel emotional padding, and a stoner’s sideways held middle finger to the cops of the commercial rock marketplace. The band’s original drummer Gary Young would blurt Wowee Zowee when excited, which became the cannabis-fumed Vedanta-mantra inspiration for Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg, Bob Nastanovich, Steve West, and Mark Ibold to name their follow up the nearly 200,000-selling “Crooked Rain Crooked Rain” after.
Charles (author of “Grab On To Me Tightly As if I Knew The Way”) worked out his outline for his take on Wowee Zowee on yellow legal pads stolen from the supply closet at his last suffering day as a proofreader of financial marketing brochures. He put down his ideas of his relationship to this difficult semi-popular band and this particularly absorbing album as he set out to write his fiction as well. It was an act of liberation, but also an attempt to understand the past few years, including his relationship with a young druggie named Elise, when he truly starts to get into Pavement, while living with friends in Kalamazoo and banging around in a Jawbreakr-style group called Fletcher that toured a bit. By the end of this catharsis, he gets into it thick with the musicians in Pavement, who all give great stories of the recording of this slack motherfucker-period Exile On Main St. (I said it, Charles didn’t).
Wowee Zowee has a probing mid-section about the psychic implosion of the alternative scene and how things led to Jared Leto, as provoking as Alan Licht’s wonderful Drag City pamphlet “An Emotional Memoir Of Martha Quinn” was for an earlier half-generation of music fans (find it, it’s golden). “From a fan’s perspective, Pavement’s rise during the ‘Crooked Rain’ era -- and the ascent of indie bands generally -- was somewhat disorienting. There was a sense of being happy on one hand and quite protective and bitter on the other,” Charles describes this ambivalent blossoming of the indie rock era, with his emotionally hallowed Pavement at the center of it.
Gerald Cosloy, the head of Pavement’s label, won’t humor any theories about he or others who worked with him being any part of a milieu or zeitgeist though. “We were somewhat successful in helping a handful of bands scale new heights,” he answers in their uncomfortable Q&A about Matador’s work on Wowee Zowee. “But our interest was in those specific bands. We’ve never been advocates for a new kind of music.”
Their intense exchange goes on for a while, and though knocked off balance Charles doesn’t flinch from wanting to know more about the forces behind promoting such an enjoyable fuck-you of a record. It’s part of this excellent assessment of what was going on in the boom period after “Crooked Rain,” and shows how indie rock was becoming different from the original goals of indie rock. The people who began it all simply weren’t going to take responsibility for what it was becoming. Turning into its own genre, but not in any self-aware way, as Charles is suggesting. A band that he had loved for its imagistic lyrical antagonism and caustic DIY roots was now commenting on that sinking feeling of his generation missing the point. His job at Virgin Records, working for a middle aged woman who dressed like a 16 year old, in a period in which selling 30 Seconds to Mars ringtones were most of his day’s preoccupations.
The assured, eighteen-track flux-opus of abhorrent assimilation Wowee Zowee helped give Charles hope to be a writer while suffering out of his early adulthood and finding a proper relationship with someone who didn’t live with the speed freak who worked at Subway. The payoff in struggling with Charles through those days comes in the questions that are answered by the band in the rest of this excellent new 33 1/3.