“I don’t know, if it was me I probably would have kept Guided by Voices and continued to do the other stuff on the side.”
– Peter Buck, R.E.M.
Driving into Dayton, Ohio, on the night before Christmas Eve, 2004, all you could see was snow. The previous day had brought a twenty-inch fall to the area: historic, unprecedented, without recent parallel. Comparisons were already being drawn to the Great Flood of 1913, which had succeeded the invention of flight–by native Daytonians Orville and Wilbur Wright–by a mere decade, and was considered by some superstitious natives as karmic payback for that God-defying machine.
Three days later, word spread that an earthquake of historic proportions had taken place on the other side of the globe, followed by a tsunami that killed many more people than have been killed by quake-driven tsunamis in years past, at least since 1964, the birth date–coincidence?–of the British Invasion.
The confluence of near-apocalyptic events so close to one another must (you’re thinking) have a unifying cause.
How about this: the final Guided by Voices show, on New Year’s Eve, in Chicago, at a club called the Metro, right across from Wrigley Field. The culmination of twenty-one years’ hard labor served in the Prison of Rock. Sentence commuted by the warden, who, as happens in the best and the worst kinds of movies, is also the prisoner.
Our story begins, as all good stories must, at the end. On New Year’s Day, 2005, in Chicago, at the Metro, where, at approximately four o’clock in the morning, after playing for three and a half hours before a thousand-plus lucky ticket-holders who’d paid upward of $750 on eBay for the privilege (though the asking price was a mere 75 clams), Bob Pollard stands surrounded by a wall of well-wishers and family and friends and the ghosts of band members both past and present. ‘smothered in Hugs’ is a fan-favorite song from the 1994 GBV album Bee Thousand. Its lyrical content has absolutely nothing to do with the scene backstage at the Metro, but you’d be forgiven for applying that title to this event. People are teary-eyed, people are smiling broadly, people are hugging profusely and indiscriminately, and we’d like to think this blizzard of hugs, this hug-storm, reflects in micro-view the macro-effect of Guided by Voices–its legacy, in the broadest sense. Because the word that best applies to the awe-inspiring breadth of the band’s double-decade output is one of the best words you can say about anyone or anything: generous. Guided by Voices is the most generous band in the world.
Some would say too generous, and it’s hard to argue the point with those who feel that a recorded output surpassing eight hundred songs and a standard-issue two-to-three-hour live show overmatches the average listener’s attention span. But Guided by Voices fans are not average listeners, and Bob Pollard writes, records, and performs for himself first and for his fans second. The average listener comes in a distant third, with the music business and its attendant truisms–a band can only release one album a year, a band must tour said album for two years nonstop, a band certainly cannot change musicians like underwear and record on a Radio Shack microphone strategically placed between beer cans in a basement on a four-track cassette recorder–left sitting in a corner, feeling neglected.
Result: cult status and failure to sell millions of records. B-side of result: complete creative control and the primacy of the song over the medium. “At the end of the day, there are no bands, there are no labels, there’s only “Three Blind Mice” and “Happy Birthday,”” Pollard opines late one drunken night (there are only late, drunken nights in the Guided by Voices universe) shortly before the final show. “I’d rather find a great song than a nice guy,” he said another late, drunken night over ten years earlier. “John Lennon was not a nice guy. But he wrote great songs.” Bob’s opinions are usually appended with an insistent “Wouldn’t you?” or ‘don’t you agree?” to which there is only one real answer, because the question is rhetorical and you–if he’s even aware of your presence–are for the most part a rhetorical device, or at best an audience. Disagree, and he will accept your opinion with equanimity, but will hold it against you for the rest of your life, though you may never be aware of that fact. He will not respect you for speaking your mind. He will dismiss you as an idiot.
The National Guard arrived the day after Christmas to begin the process of snow removal from downtown Dayton that would occupy the better part of its next three days, by which time the band was scheduled to move on to Chicago and the last two shows. In the meantime, Bob somehow managed to fit in an expanded version of Monument Club (see the chapter entitled “Ghosts’ for a complete explanation); a meeting of the Wing Committee (self-explanatory–you go to a bar and eat wings–in essence a pared-down version of Monument Club); a movie (The Aviator: mediocre); Margarita Night at a place that may or may not have had the word “Azteca” in its name; the Last Ever Guided by Voices rehearsal; a recording session for a forthcoming solo Bob EP; a recording session for the demos of an upcoming Bob project; a visit to Marion’s Piazza, holy grail for pizza lovers and second home to Bob and his bestest pals (the taping of which meal may result in Monument Clubber Billy Dixon’s first comedy album, At Marion’s of All Places); dinner at the Pine Club, a restaurant both blessed and damned on separate GBV album sleeves; and an intensive scouring of Bob’s personal collection of Guided by Voices–related memorabilia for the purpose of inclusion in this book.
The cast of characters that forms and informs the Guided by Voices multiverse, you see, is not limited to Bob Pollard and band members, whether past or present (though even the present are past, now), which is partly why we will spend so much time detailing that cast of characters, because without context you will not understand the wellspring of Pollard’s singular genius. Not that such a thing is ever clearly understood, but one of the purposes of this book is to explain, and not merely relate, the story of Guided by Voices. To do that, in a very large measure, is to explain and not merely relate the story of Robert Ellsworth Pollard Jr., Northridge, Dayton, Ohio, United States of America, the World, the Universe. Et emphatically cetera.
If you are merely a casual fan of the band, or not even a fan but you have heard of them, you probably know a few rudimentary things about Guided by Voices: that Bob was a schoolteacher for fourteen years before his band was ‘discovered.” That he was consequently considered, at age thirty-six, an unlikely prospect for rock stardom. That the band made most of its records on a cheap Tascam four-track in the basement, spending very little time and even less money, which method became known as “lo-fi,” shorthand for “low fidelity,” of which the band was considered if not the inventor then certainly one of its leading practitioners. That its live shows range from borderline disastrous to exhilarating raw rock power of a kind rarely seen in the unfortunately labeled genre “indie rock.” And that Guided by Voices drinks a lot of beer. A ridiculous amount of beer. An inhuman amount of beer.
If you have never heard of the band at all, that’s a pretty fair introductory summation. All of these things are true, to a point, but what is perhaps less well understood is the history behind those four or five truths–the reasons, if you will, that GBV has been unfairly reduced to a few misleading bullet points, and that, for instance, the band has not been “lo-fi” for well over ten years, half of its existence, during which period Bob’s songwriting improved exponentially and the band learned how to translate its unique sound into the context of real recording studios, sometimes helped by producers with famous names, sometimes on its own, and that once GBV had outgrown the superficial bounds of its self-inflicted mythology, it became, to many discerning listeners, one of the greatest bands in the world. Bob Pollard has left behind, with the help of his bandmates, a legacy that will likely continue to grow in influence and renown long after today’s fame puppets are forgotten. He has been called in the press–before the press got overwhelmed by his unending output and turned off by his fanatical self-belief, mistaken for arrogance–”this millennium’s William Shakespeare,” and compared by The New York Times to Mozart, Rossini, and Paul McCartney in the same sentence. It’s likely that Bob’s familiar with only the last person on that august list, and likelier still that he’d be angry not to be compared to his idol, John Lennon, rather than McCartney, whom he considers a ‘square.”
The initial adulation that greeted GBV’s ascendancy ignited the chip on Bob’s shoulder that had been built up over the years of negativity he’d endured from his family and even some friends who simply couldn’t understand a) why he was even bothering; and b) why he was bothering when he clearly didn’t have any talent. In order to understand the extent of his suppressed (and sometimes expressed) fury, you need to understand the history not only of the years of obscurity but of Bob’s entire youth.
There was a lot of debate in its initial stages about what would and would not go into “The Book,” as Bob kept calling it. Late into one night at Marion’s, he banged his beer glass on the table with some force. “Fuck it,” he declared, and it’s entirely beside the point to say that he was, at this point, not entirely sober. “It’s going in the book. This is the bible, goddammit. I’m not gonna puss out. I’m going to tell what happened, and I’m sorry if anyone gets offended. But it’s called Hunting Accidents, and the way I understand it, when there’s a hunting accident someone gets hurt.” (This is a paraphrase. He could not possibly have been that articulate at that stage.) The funny thing is we cannot for the life of us remember what particular story he was trying to decide to use or not, and just then the tape cut out, probably because someone spilled beer or pizza on it or a ghost wandered into the room and its ghostly viscera coated the magnetic particles of the tape, rendering them inaudible. Which would be appropriate, in a way, because–again, in a way, albeit from a marvelously oblique angle of perception–the story of Guided by Voices is a ghost story. Even funnier is the fact that Bob’s drunken promise of complete fidelity was tempered in subsequent sessions by his desire not to hurt anyone’s feelings. Which is not the same as a disclaimer that any significant lacunae in Hunting Accidents are at Bob’s request, but, at the same time, yeah.
Later that week the band drove up for the Last Soundcheck Ever, before the penultimate show, the first of two at the Metro, which is a very nice club and had always treated the band well and as such served as a fitting site for the farewell shows. The band ran through a few of the songs it had decided to add to the set, then retired to the rock room, which is Guided by Voices’ slang for the dressing room. The opening band that night, appropriately, was Tobin Sprout, longtime GBV member, who has recently begun touring again, playing a mix of songs off his solo albums and songs he wrote or cowrote while in the band. Toby’s always been an affable, lowkey guy, and his music reflects his personality, which is not an insult. His set that night was an appropriate aperitif for the second-to-last supper. Most of the rest of that night was a typical riotous, joyful blur. Afterward, Bob went straight from the stage to the van and back to the hotel, as has been his habit, increasingly, in the last couple of years. Much as he feeds off the energy from talking to fans and friends after shows, he’s lately discovered that the harm to his voice and energy is a potential disservice to those who pay to hear him sing. Also, he’s old.
Next day, the day of the last show, the band members mostly stayed in the hotel for the day, recovering from the previous night’s exertions, but by showtime there was a celebratory air in the rock room that had little to do with New Year’s Eve. Though only Pollard and his brother Jimmy remained from the small group of Northridge friends who started Guided by Voices twenty-one years earlier, wilting fronds of connection to his distant past were present and accounted for: Billy Dixon, his high school football team center; Daryl ‘dink” Deaton, his high school baseball team catcher; Tony Conley, guitarist for Anacrusis, Bob’s first band (albeit a heavy metal cover band); Bruce Horner, another longtime friend, famous for his malapropisms, which will be addressed later; and others too complicated to mention. All these guys are still close friends with Bob, and were before he started playing music, and still are now that he’s a “world-famous’ (in quotes because it’s funny, not because it’s not true) rock guy. Many of them have obscurely derived nicknames; and the preponderance of middle-aged, graying, grizzled men dressed in sweat suits–and at least in one case in shorts, despite the subzero temperature outside–in the rock room made this scene unlike probably any other dressing room preshow gathering ever. Some of Bob’s friends looked a little uncomfortable, even out of place. They’re still not used to seeing Bob treated with this degree of adulation outside the playing fields of Northridge when they were growing up and Bob was a three-sport standout. “There’s two different people. There’s Bobby, and then there’s Robert Pollard. Sometimes I forget,” says close friend Mike Lipps. He’s standing to the side, holding a beer, watching Bob surrounded by longtime, hard-core fans to whom he always allows access to the rock room.
“I just can’t understand,” continues Mike, “how a guy who can make you laugh until it fucking hurts, who talks about nothing but sports and shit when we’re home, just like us, can write songs so beautiful they make you cry.”
For the most part Bob Pollard is a genuinely nice guy–the exception to his own rule–who also happens to write genuinely great songs, and though his refusal to self-edit (despite that he does so far more than many are aware) rankles even some of his most ardent admirers, the ratio of quality to crap over the course of the twenty-one years of his band’s existence remains surprisingly high, and there are those–Bob among them–who value the crap more than the quality. You can understand why–why a guy who can layer a heartbreaking melody over an intricate chordal arrangement without seeming effort might find such a thing unchallenging after a while, and resort to wilder sonic pastures–without agreeing, but even if you disallow Pollard’s cherished experimental side, he’d still have more truly great songs in his catalog than any ten of his more widely known contemporaries lumped together.
Many of those songs he played tonight, on New Year’s Eve, at the final show of a tour Pollard dubbed “The Electrifying Conclusion,” complete with T-shirts featuring a clearly silhouetted leaping Bob, captioned ‘mission Accomplished.” The set list contained some sixty-odd songs, augmented throughout by ex tempore surprises like “14 Cheerleader Cold-front,” a chestnut he dredged up without hesitation when he turned to see Tobin Sprout, who had wandered onstage looking for champagne (we’ll explain soon) and who cowrote the song.
Bob had meticulously dotted the list with songs designed for guest spots from every former band member who was willing to participate; the band’s lineup has changed more frequently than that of most minor league baseball teams, so these guest appearances were frequent, and brought appreciative roars of nostalgia from the crowd. As has been his wont over the past few years, Bob engaged in frequent lengthy monologues, often studded with actual wit and insight, albeit slurred wit and beery insight–often trash-talking bands (an extension of his sports-heavy upbringing), including his own, sometimes when members of those bands by chance are in the audience–between songs. So popular have these bits of between-song banter become among the faithful that a comedy record comprising a few choice morsels has been assembled and released, called The Relaxation of the Asshole, featuring a photo of Bob passed out on a couch, but that’s not the true origin of the phrase. The true origin of the phrase is that when you are driving around the streets of Northridge drinking beer (also known as “Freedom Cruising”) and listening at full blast to whatever songs Bob has just recorded, and he has to piss, you pull over to the curb and he swings his legs out the passenger door and pisses on the sidewalk, sitting down. “The secret to pissing sitting down,” he will tell you, “is you have to relax your asshole.” Thus: and so.
The band did not take the stage until around 11:30 P.M., after a brief movie featuring a montage of still photographs from all stages of the band’s career intercut with images of bucolic splendor–butterflies flitting across sunlit meadows, a hawk sailing across a canyon–set to a Muzak version of “Windows of My World,” a song from the very last Guided by Voices album forever. You would not think the movie, titled Memories and deliberately constructed to leach the show of sentiment, would instead have the reverse effect: We’ve watched this little montage six or seven times now and it never fails to induce both smiles and, well, yeah, what might be construed as tears. Opening the set with the first track off 1992’s Propeller, a song called ‘mesh Gear Fox/Over the Neptune,” which Guided by Voices had not played live for some time, the band went on to play shouldacoulda-been hit after hit, until the witching hour, also by tradition the point at which balloons are released and people hug and kiss. And so balloons were released, and people hugged and kissed, band members kissing other band members, band members kissing wives and girlfriends who came out onstage, audience members hugging and kissing other audience members. Doug Gillard may have played an impromptu solo version of “Auld Lang Syne” on guitar, wearing a top hat and a bright red Ex-Lion Tamer’s coat he’d saved for the occasion, but here memory fails. An enormous bottle of champagne–technical term for this particular size: “Nebuchadnezzar” –a present from Matador Records, home sweet home to many Guided by Voices records, including its last, was toted by unflappable tour manager Rich Turiel and maybe two other guys onstage and uncorked. Plastic cups were placed under the foaming mouth of the bottle as Bob attempted to pour, which is when Tobin Sprout wandered onstage looking for his cut, in the minor incident related above.
At this point show business resumed, and continued until you would have to guess at least 3 A.M.; you’d have to guess because even those wearing watches were in no shape to interpret their mysterious glyphs by that time. Other things of note happened during the set, including the mysterious delivery of a mass of hot dogs, quickly devoured; the presence of longtime GBV “associate” Trader Vic onstage, where he had rigged up a fairly spartan bar featuring shots of tequila or whiskey, for which he had the temerity to set up a tip jar (full by the end of the night–we did say that Guided by Voices members are generous); the return of the neon sign “The Club Is Open” which had formerly adorned many stages at many shows and which was a reference to a line from a song called “A Salty Salute” from the album Alien Lanes; and the unfortunate and sad and complicated absence of Manager for Life Pete Jamison, for reasons to be explored later. Also sadly missing were two of Bob’s earliest and longest-serving (if you count the years of obscurity in which the band nevertheless toiled like squirrels saving nuts for the Big Winter) bandmates, drummer Kevin Fennell and (more crucially/mysteriously) guitarist Mitch Mitchell. Kevin had wanted to come, but had called unreasonably late in the day and asked to bring four or five extra guests, which, considering the already bursting-at-the-seams guest list, and the fact that extra tickets were being scalped on the Internet for hundreds of dollars, was a simple mathematical impossibility–upon being told which, Kevin with characteristic petulance simply decided against going. But Mitch–Mitch had disappeared. He and Bob had fallen out years ago, in fact seven years ago, and now even had Bob tried to proffer an olive branch, no one knew where to find Mitch. Rumors abounded: that Mitch was a short-order cook at an undisclosed restaurant, that he had moved out West to go to truck-driving school, that he was in fact a truck driver. A trip to his house, where the band had spent long hours practicing back in the mid-“90s (as much drinking as practicing, but despite its sloppy rep, GBV had always worked hard on Bob’s songs), just after the epic storm, produced no answer despite repeated knockings at his door which would have roused a ghost, if Mitch by some process of transmigration, doubtless induced by the veneration of the league of Guided by Voices fans, had passed into the spirit world. But nothing. No reply. And so his presence in this book will remain one of spirit rather than substance, just as he was present tonight in spirit, because some of the guitar parts on the older songs were his parts, and further because rhythm guitarist Nate Farley had been Mitch’s prot”g”, introduced to the band first in the role of roadie, and only later as a kind of Mitch Jr. Which is not to slight Nate’s contribution in the slightest, because in many ways he surpassed his mentor’s antics both on and offstage, and was all things said probably a better guitar player, “better” being a word that’s difficult to quantify in this context but probably true.
It’s particularly appropriate that one of the celebrity guests on the last night of a three-show New York stand near the end of the last tour was Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher on the HBO series The Sopranos, because in many ways Bob has played for twenty-one years the part of a Mafia don, with an extended “family” that consists of current and former band members (because you’re never really out of Guided by Voices unless you’ve done something so egregious as to permanently offend Bob’s strong sense of loyalty, in which case you really are dead to him), friends from elementary school and later, and actual family. There is never any doubt that Bob’s the center of attention whenever he enters the rock room, or any room. A fact of which he is well-aware, and believes that he has earned.
Should you fail to pay him the proper respect in the rock room, your attitude will be noted. “The only people I hate more than people getting up my ass all the time at shows are people who think they’re too cool to get up my ass,” he says, only half-joking. But even those who have fallen out of favor for one reason or another over the years will eventually be forgiven and welcomed back into the fold, though with a certain distance commensurate with the severity of the original offense. “I forgive, but I don’t forget,” Bob said, many years ago. And he’s got a memory like a large herd of extra-smart elephants.
Bob’s also a big fan of The Sopranos, and GBV tour manager/webmaster Rich Turiel remembers watching an episode with Bob and a few other members of the inner circle, and the episode was one where Tony Soprano made a joke and everyone had to laugh and you could tell the laughter was forced. “And Bob kind of looked around at us, and we quickly had to say, “No, no, Bob, you really are funny.”” Because one of Bob’s most endearing traits is that he’s a very funny guy, and more than that, a consummate storyteller, which may help elucidate why he understands structure so well. A vastly misunderstood part of Bob’s songwriting is that he does understand structure, and puts a lot of effort into the structure of both the music and the lyrics. While he’s fully capable of writing songs that have no literal meaning, and often prefers it that way, just as often he will write songs with at least general meaning, some based on true stories that he transforms into music–into art, if you will.
Whether or not his talent for storytelling is part of the reason so many of his friends have remained close for so many years (i.e., because he’s so frankly entertaining to be around) or whether he commands loyalty because he’s desperate for an audience and underneath is still seeking the approval he was denied for so many years by so many people–that’s something this book will try to explore. There’s an undercurrent of melancholy, of bittersweet regret, that runs through so many of Pollard’s songs that it’s hard not to form an impression of a man who, despite his surface jollity, is at heart a sad and even lonely figure. But he hides it well. Earlier in his life that sadness often took the form of anger, and it still does, though time has softened his temper. He got in a lot of fights–physical fights, the kind where people can get seriously hurt–but he was brought up in a rough town, at a time when corporal punishment was a popular concept in childrearing and emotions were most often expressed with fists. ‘my dad used to tell me, ‘don’t give any shit to people, but don’t take any either.” I took that to heart a little bit. I don’t try to start fights, but I finish them,” he says, though he points out: “Only when absolutely necessary.”
By and large Bob’s audience rarely sees that side of him, though there have been isolated public incidents, which will be addressed mainly because they’re entertaining stories. The more prevalent public aspect of Bob, in terms of Guided by Voices, is his prodigious drinking, both onstage and off, though mainly on. Because a typical show ranges anywhere from two to three hours, and because Bob is often half in the bag by the time he hits the stage, the quality and coherence of the show deteriorates or improves, depending on what you’ve come to see and/or hear, over the course of things. There is famously a cooler of beer onstage at every show, and there is famously very little if any beer left in the cooler by the end of the show, which has often had to be refilled halfway through. Partly this is sleight of hand: Bob long ago developed a technique where he appears to chug a bottle of beer, but in fact he blocks the passage of liquid down his throat by pressing his tongue against the lip of the bottle, so that most of the beer flows harmlessly over his shirt and onto the stage, which requires frequent moppings by the tour manager to prevent accidents, of which there have been a few, some serious enough to do real damage to both equipment and personnel. Nevertheless, though Bob insists he has learned better how to gauge his drinking so that alcohol serves to enhance rather than detract from the quality of his and the band’s performance, he is noticeably drunker by show’s end than at the beginning. Sometimes to the point where, the next day, details of the previous night’s performance remain fuzzy. In early days, when the scale and duration of the drinking was greater, there were occasions when he could not remember having played at all.
That is no longer the case, and especially not tonight, the Last Night, despite the extra-long set, despite Trader Vic’s liberally distributed shots of hard liquor, despite the midnight champagne toast. By show’s end Bob was able to stand, and talk, and hug, but not much else, and did not seem particularly cognizant of his surroundings. “I want to go out at the top of my ga-a-a-a-me,” he slurred, gamely, as a joke, and then pinched his face with his fingers into a grotesquely funny mask. The same could be said for many others, postshow, even though they had not just spent nearly four hours jumping around and singing and drinking beer and champagne and tequila. On second thought, actually, most of them had; that’s what you do at a Guided by Voices concert, that’s the sort of behavior encouraged, sanctioned, and in fact engendered by the madcap revels you witness onstage. It’s an elaborate hoax, of course, designed to make you believe that a moment of joy can be extended or even applied to the rest of your mundane life. What you rarely consider is the toll sustaining such an illusion takes on the performers. Part of that toll is evidenced tonight by the drained, weary, and above all relieved faces of the band members, surrounded by wives, girlfriends, family, friends, ex-bandmates, fans, management, record company guys, and strangers with candy.
“Not everyone can hang with Guided by Voices,” said Kevin Fennell in an interview earlier that week. In another context, of course–Fennell was referring to the unusually high turnover in band members throughout the course of its course–but his statement could as easily apply to the legion of devoted fans who have matched, or tried to match, Guided by Voices: beer for beer and leg kick for leg kick, often shouting along to the lyrics with a fervor equal if not surpassing Bob’s amplified delivery. The band’s audience has been built to a degree on its Dionysian live shows, and though assuredly there were as many turned off by the onstage debauchery as turned on, those turned on were turned on for good, and often followed the band from city to city, in the hopes that the party would never end. With Bob as pied piper, Guided by Voices had morphed into a kind of Grateful Dead for the drinking set, and as long as there was another show to which to look forward, the party need not end.
But now the party had ended. The night had started with Bob singing these lines to the song “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox”: “Hey, let’s throw a great party today, for the rest of our lives.” He sang those words for probably the last time, ever. The great party was finally over.
Back in Dayton a few days later, Bob seemed unusually ebullient for the sober hour of the day. We asked how he felt, now that Guided by Voices was over.
“How do I feel?”
He paused, and we thought we could hear him assembling a statement of mixed feelings, of relief and regret, of fear for the future and confusion about the present.
“I feel free,” he replied. “I feel like a huge fucking weight is off my back.”
“I am a new man.”
From the album Bee Thousand