Nearly 20 years after Gary Young left Pavement, the famed wild drummer gets a second chance
Gary Young is standing on his head.
The 57-year-old ex-drummer for iconic indie-rock band Pavement is no slouch when it comes to headstands. On the lawn behind his recording studio on the outskirts of Stockton, he dismisses warnings to be careful and elevates his legs into the air with perfect aplomb. The feat is a striking contrast to his normal posture. Having struggled with alcohol and drug addiction for almost half a century, he has the hunch in his back and the stagger in his step to show for it.
You might say Young’s lived a lifetime the wrong way up. But now indie legends Pavement have reunited—and offered Young a second chance to upright the past. An encore, if you will.
But to understand how Young got so good at being upside down, you’ve got to go back to 1989. A couple of local Stockton 20-somethings named Steven Malkmus and Scott Kannberg walked into his studio to record some noise rock. It sounded like a waste of tape to him, so he offered to drum on a few of the tracks.
Three years and several sporadic recording sessions later, Young found himself touring around the world in a band being touted in Rolling Stone magazine. He had been in bands since the early ’70s but had never tasted success like this. He was a decade older than his bandmates and, being a die-hard Yes fan, not hip to their shoegazing and Mark E. Smith references. He had his own ideas about how a rock star puts on a show.
A typical gig began with Young giving away gifts to the fans: cabbage and mashed potatoes and gravy for smaller crowds; poker chips when numbers began to surge into the thousands. Once the show got underway, the topsy-turvy really began.
“I used to not know the names of the songs, so I’d stop in the middle and do all kinds of bizarre shit,” Young remembers. “It had the feeling that this whole thing was going to fall apart at any second. So there was a lot of tension, which I think is really great in music.”
The tension, however, eventually seeped into the band itself, causing Young to be replaced by drummer Steve West in 1993. In 2000, Pavement disbanded, only to reunite 10 years later for a one-off world tour, including a stop in Stockton last month. This was to be the band’s first-ever show there. To mark the occasion, Kannberg called Young and invited him to play a few songs with them.
Young is in the control room of his studio, sipping on a red cocktail straw poking out of a spillproof coffee mug. Like a barroom raconteur, he recites one anecdote after another about his legendary antics, but he dismisses the idea that he will be performing any of them tonight when he takes the stage with his former band.
“The way I look at it, I did that already. It’s in the past,” he says.
But he adds: “I got to come with something entirely new.”
Young is short on details about what this new thing might be. And that’s not the only thing he’s hazy about, either. For instance, he is not really sure what songs he will be playing tonight in Stockton, either. Maybe nobody told him, or maybe he just forgot. In any case, he’s not worried. He’ll find out everything he needs to know at sound check in an hour. Besides, he’s ready for anything.
“I’ve been practicing three times a day,” he says.
The marquee of the Bob Hope Theatre, a newly renovated Spanish Colonial movie house in Stockton’s bombed-out business district, announces Pavement’s historic hometown show to an empty street.
For the last half-hour, a young woman with a pretty head of hair and acne-scarred face has been loitering around the ticket booth. She introduces herself only as Connie.
Connie has been here since 10 this morning, hanging out in the alley in the hope of getting a glimpse of the band. Her persistence finally paid off when the members of the band waved at her as they filed into the theater for sound check.
Young, however, stopped for a few minutes to talk to her. She asked him if he was going to do anything crazy tonight. Stand on his head, maybe? Connie takes her digital camera out and shows the photo she took of Young standing on his head outside the theater. Once again, his legs are perfectly vertical.
Connie drove up from Los Angeles specifically to see Young play with Pavement. Two years ago, she really got obsessed with the band, and after watching live footage of Young’s antics on YouTube, she decided that seeing him play would add something to her Pavement experience.
“I hope he does something erratic tonight,” she says.
It is impossible to tell what Young will do. A few minutes before Pavement goes on, he staggers into the theater lobby. He doesn’t mingle much with the people there. He seems distracted. Soon he drifts outside, where the sun is setting on the hot and dusty streets.
Pavement opens with the song “Silence Kit” and plays 20 songs before Young finally is spotted wandering across the stage. For a few moments, he lurks behind drummer Steve West. He looks like an absent-minded roadie who forgot that the show was still in progress. If ever there was a moment for Young to fulfill Connie’s dream of seeing him doing something unpredictable, this is it.
But nothing happens, and Young disappears into the wings.
“This is the last song,” Malkmus announces, obviously fibbing; there’s going to be an encore. After a noisy rendition of “Conduit for Sale!,” the band exits the stage. But Malkmus is back a moment later, waving vigorously to someone offstage.
“We went over, and we gotta hurry,” he says.
Young comes out, followed by the rest of the band. Chants of “Gary! Gary!” erupt as Young takes his place behind the drum kit. Several gruff-sounding bros make catcalls when he takes off his shirt.
“Gary fucking Young everyone,” shouts Kannberg before the band launches into “Summer Babe.”
“Summer Babe” is arguably the greatest rock song of the 1990s. Part of that greatness has to do with Young’s drumming. His propulsive groove and manic fills are the refrain to Malkmus’ deadpan verses. Tonight, Young’s drumming isn’t as crisp and virile as it was in 1991, but the concentration on his face shows he’s trying his best to nail every beat.
Young asks for a microphone and thanks the band for letting him play. Young’s heartfelt sincerity is impossible to miss.
The band hurries offstage. Except for Young, who stays behind.
It would be nice to think that in those few minutes behind the drums Young discovered that his “new thing” was what was always most important: the music. But life is rarely so neat and tidy.
The following night, he will perform another encore for Pavement at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. According to reviews of the show, he will not disappoint fans who came to see the legendary drunk and crazy Gary Young. He will walk onstage to hand Malkmus a bottle of Scope mouthwash, mess up the songs and get himself recorded on YouTube stumbling through the crowd after the show and asking fans, “Do you think that I drum better than the other guy?”
Still, that’s all hours away in the future and has little to do with the Gary Young standing on stage now in Stockton, with his head up and both feet planted on the ground.