After I wrote this post about rock memoirs, my friend told me to read Guide by Voices: A Brief History: Twenty-one Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll because it eschews every cliche that I had mentioned about rock memoirs. While not one hundred percent true – there is talk of which albums were recorded where and numerous member changes – it’s true enough to be a really great read.
The challenge it seems for any person – particularly rock journalists – writing about Guided by Voices is how to write about Guided by Voices. Stephen Soderbergh, in his forward to the book, writes thirty-one random thoughts about Guided by Voices. Here are a few:
“4. Watching GBV play live is exactly like something.
7. GBV isn’t famous because people are stupid. It’s good that GBV isn’t famous, therefore it’s good that people are stupid.
16. It doesn’t matter if this book is any good, as long as it’s inaccurate.”
In Marc Wordsworth’s 33 1/3 book about the GBV album Bee Thousand (which I have not read but merely browsed a few pages and thought I’d rather just listen to the album), he writes “How do the qualities of love and purity rise from a particular work of art, one that resonates within and because of its discrete context, but transcends that context to become a fully human expression?”
Superiority laced snark and gushing hyperbole are not uncommon in music writing but they’re both extraordinarily prevalent in descriptions of GBV. It’s as if everyone is at their wit’s end trying to put into words what this band means and how good their music is.
They’re just a band from Dayton, OH fronted by a guy named Bob Pollard.
I mean, there’s more than that but, seriously, let’s just start there.
The story of Guided by Voices is really the story of Bob Pollard, the unlikeliest of indie rock gods. As odd as it may sound, to call him the lead singer, front man, leader, driving force behind all of the songwriting, and only constant member would still somehow undersell his role.
My fascination with the band is really a fascination with Bob. He was a star quarterback, basketball player, and pitcher who was the sometime bully of future bandmate Mitch Mitchell in high school. He threw a no hitter in college and it spawned a t-shirt (that infuriatingly seems to be perpetually out of stock). He talks and in many ways behaves like a high school jock. He gathers at the Monument Club with his buddies to drink case upon case of light beer every Sunday, says things like “I’m a drunk, alcoholics go to meetings” and “no one tells me to do, not even me.” Talks of former feuds will result in an f-bomb laden tirade (see Bob’s explanation for his falling out with “manager for life” Pete Jamison). He married and fathered two children early – or right on time in Dayton, Ohio – and was a fourth grade teacher before finally finding success with the band when he was thirty-six.
He has the effortless cool of the lead singer of a revered indie rock band, always on stage in a work shirt, jeans, and Vans sneakers (i.e. pretty much how I dress except far far cooler). Beer in hand, cigarette in mouth, Cuervo bottle at the ready, his stage antics – his microphone work, his jumps, and kicks – are effective, unique, and imitated but never duplicated. (See attempts below in a video for “Poor Substitute” by a band called Ricked Wicky, which is just another Pollard side project.)
There are three vignettes in the book from his son and the first two are of Bob as a pop warner football coach and the second is about Bob losing to his son in a game of one on one basketball and then taking it hard when he lost.
There were no contributions from his daughter which makes me wonder about the state of that relationship. Bob admitted to the infidelity that led to the end of his marriage and to not being around that much once the band took off. In one anecdote, his girlfriend (at the time of the writing of the the book – she is now his wife) had to remind him of the actual ages of his children.
The first time I heard of Guided by Voices I was in college. I was a junior and in a fraternity and I had tasked a pledge with making me a mixtape of his favorite music. He included Guided by Voices on it. Before listening, I thought it odd that a Jewish kid would be into gospel. But this was also the guy who introduced me to DJ Shadow, so, he must have known something.
I’ve always obsessed over how cool the music that I’m listening to might be (see here and here), admitting publicly to loving Slanted and Enchanted but keeping my love for Taylor Swift a little closer to the vest (just the singles, guys, I mean good pop is good pop). Guided by Voices is too cool for everyone. They hit all the cool band notes. They’re universally praised by rock critics and other rock and roll sacred cows (see: Bob Mould, Stephen Malkmus, Kim Deal), unheard of by the average music listener, fronted by a charismatic and mercurial lead singer making lo-fi basement recordings out of the spotlight.
There’s one thing, though.
The name is kinda dumb, isn’t it? He seems to have decided on the name pretty early. When his brother Jimmy dropped out of Arizona State after blowing out his knee and no longer being able to continue playing basketball (Jimmy was a god in Dayton, Ohio for his basketball playing ability, surpassing Bob’s athletic prowess, which was no small task) Bob greeted him at the airport saying, “Congratulations, you’re in Guided by Voices!” Other band names and side projects include: Ricked Wicky, Moping Swans, Boston Spaceships, Airport 5, and Circus Devils. For someone so often praised for his lyrical genius, why he would be so taken with the name “Guided by Voices” puzzles me but I digress.
GBV was actually namechecked quite a bit in one of my favorite shows, The IT Crowd. There was a giant poster in the corner of their office and one episode featured “Game of Pricks” (one of my favorite GBV tunes – listen below) being blared to cover up the noise of two characters having sex in another room.
I never really understood why they were featured on The IT Crowd, though. I’ve never known any IT/dev people that were into GBV. I’ve known a few devotees of hardcore (Minor Threat, not Debbie Does Dallas), some metalheads, and quite a few DJ’s and fans of electronica so the devotion to Guided By Voices seemed an odd choice for the IT nerds of this show. (See Jen Barber below mention how she’s been infected by the band through IT culture.)
But the book illuminates the reason why this connection may have been there. There have been online databases of GBV songs since the nineties – the mid-nineties – when there was still an air of geekery and not entrepreneurship around people who developed websites. The sites themselves are decidedly Web 1.0 – the old GBV and the current store (it appears that the new GBV.com is run on squarespace – good call, Bob, it’s a good solution.)
The only inaccurate line in the above clip is where she says, “I’ve heard everything they’ve every done.” That, frankly, is doubtful. The people who have heard everything they’ve ever done would be able to be counted on one finger. Hell, I bet Bob was even blacked out for a few recordings, perhaps rendering that number to actually be zero. I believe GBV has recorded just shy of two thousand songs. For comparison, a quick google search will show that the output of the Beatles and The Stones is around 300-400 songs and those were songwriting teams. A non compromising guy who’s written thousands of songs that are able to be catalogued, rated, and argued over? They’re a music geek’s – or any geek’s – dream.
In fact, a good third of the book is just a list of all of the songs and shows (as of the writing of the book in 2004). I was at one of those shows. It was a private show for my dot com company Concrete Media. We were flush with money and wasted it on a couple of recruiting events (as well as an expensive new office space at the Starrett-Lehigh Building) and the GBV concert at The Bowery Ballroom was one of them (the other was a Luna concert). It was listed in the back of the book.
They had just put out the Ric Ocasek produced Do the Collapse album, featuring their one “hit” “Hold On Hope,” which is an embarrassing song when placed among the rest of the band’s catalogue but would have been a great tune for The Verve Pipe, Ugly Kid Joe, or Mr. Big. I did get to hear “Teenage FBI” live, though.
The second time I saw them in concert was a reunion tour of the “classic lineup” at McCarren Park. Apparently, I listened primarily to the “classic lineup” albums: Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under the Stars. I knew all the songs they played and I was amazed. It was a great show.
Later in the book the author says to do yourself a favor and listen to the “last” three albums: Universal Truths and Cycles, Earthquake Glue, and Half Smiles of the Decomposed. He’s not wrong. Those are three solid rock albums, particularly Earthquake Glue. Since 2004, after the band’s “final show,” GBV has released eight more albums and that’s not counting solo albums and side projects plus three more Suitcase collections (bringing the total to four – each featuring a hundred previously unearthed, unreleased tracks from the band).
The Replacements are another revered midwest band a band with similar tendencies to GBV. In fact, I believe The Replacements actually broke up drunkenly on stage. They put out a handful great albums and that was it. GBV just managed to stay drunk and never break up. I guess Ohioans can out drink Minnesotans.
I had a wine snob friend of mine once tell me about picking a good bottle, “look, at the end of the day, do you like drinking it?” So, with all of the snobbery that comes with a band like this, you have to ask, do you like listening to the music? I may be a GBV dilettante but I really do. Here are a few more favorites. Enjoy.