Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus has no obvious connections to Baltimore, and yet the city has appeared in his lyrics three times. He did it first in “Transport is Arranged” on Pavement’s fourth album, 1997’s “Brighten the Corners,” and then twice with his post-Pavement band, the Jicks.
As a lyricist, Malkmus is known for his somewhat obfuscated wit and wordplay more than straight narrative, and that’s on full display in the Charm City-referencing couplet from “Transport is Arranged”: “Praise the grammar police, set me up with your niece / Walk to Baltimore, and keep the language off the street.”
Baltimore could really be any city. In the Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks song actually called “Baltimore,” it is the home of a love interest. The song shifts from a kiss-off to the proclamation: “I’m in love with the people/ I’m in love with a saint/ I’m in love with a soldier from Baltimore/ Baltimore/ Baltimore/ Baltimore/ Baltimor-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa whoa-whoa.”
On “Sparkle Hard,” the band’s just-released album, the reference is the most direct in “Bike Lane,” a juxtaposition of bourgeois urban interests (“Another beautiful bike lane”) and the death of Freddie Gray (“The cops, the cops that killed Freddie/ Sweet, young Freddie Gray/ Got behind him with their truncheons/ And choked the life right out of him”).
In a Springsteen-esque twist, he assigns Gray with the status of a mythic racer, urging “Go, Freddie, go” as if he is still out there and able to run away from that fateful final encounter.
Talking with Billboard, Malkmus says bike lanes are a “small, not important problem, but there’s a lot of mental energy spent on it and other things like that and other things in your town.”
For whatever reason, he said he followed Gray’s death more closely than other instances of police brutality, and he wanted to have Gray as a protagonist to show “the conflict of interest in what is meaningful to you.”
There’s a bit of hesitance in his answer, like he knows people may take exception to one of the icons of ’90s white indie rock using Gray as a character. Your mileage may vary.
But what of this larger connection to Baltimore?
In a conversation with the comedian, actor and musician Tim Heidecker, published by Spin magazine, Malkmus unpacks it a little.
“I have a thing for Baltimore: the word itself, the place, I don’t know where it comes from, it’s just a weird city,” he says. “I have a song called ‘Baltimore,’ but I’m not from there.
“I’ve driven through there a lot,” he continues, “we’ve played a couple of shows there, but it’s not a big market. Some good bands come from there, though. Animal Collective and Beach House. John Waters is a genius.”
He likens it to Philadelphia as a place where artists can live and create affordably compared to New York, only cheaper than Philly. What Philly is to New York, Baltimore is to Philly, he surmises.
“But it’s a bizarrely segregated place,” he says.
And that’s the end of the answer. Still, it’s an interesting revelation as to why Baltimore has popped up a couple of times in his nearly three-decade career.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean there is currently a tour date in Baltimore on the Jicks’ current tour. But maybe soon.
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks play the Black Cat in Washington, D.C. on June 17.
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