|THE DAY THE VOICES DIED.|
|By Frank Smith||
"That's it. You can't be the Rolling Stones. You've gotta quit while you're relatively handsome. We are the kings of indie rock. When we quit, indie rock will die." -- Robert Pollard, onstage with Guided by Voices at The Bowery Ballroom, NYC, April 24, 2005.
From a lesser band, these words would be something to scoff at, but the essence of Guided by Voices is endurance. This is not a band that ever took the easy way around things.
Guided by Voices began as the brainchild of Robert Pollard, a fourth grade teacher. In the evenings and weekends, Pollard got together with his drinking buddies and played music in the basement. He'd written songs since he was a child, most of them with his brother Jim, but beyond the occasional show at the local venues or someone's party, Pollard was too humble and self-effacing to throw down the gauntlet, leave Dayton and become a rock star. Or, at least, it took him until his forties to give it a go, and even then he never left home, except when he had to.
Like virtually anyone who's been in a rock band since the sixties, the Beatles heavily influenced Guided by Voices. But add in Prog Rock, bubblegum, heavy doses of The Who, King Crimson, Moby Grape and Big Star, put them through the Pollard filter and you've got Guided by Voices. The best of GBV songs don't waste time with repeated
choruses or stretch out thin concepts into three-minute pop songs. Pollard takes the best he's got and throws it out as soon as the idea begins to take shape. He creates songs that are a conduit into one universal song blaring in his head.
Comin' Straight Outta... Dayton.
At first, the band's lineup changed depending on who could get away from work to tour and who was available Saturday night to record. But through fluctuations (most of which involved a Spinal Tap similarity as drummers and bassists changed hands every other week) one core roster remained. There was Robert Pollard, Mitch Mitchell on guitar and Tobin Sprout on guitar (as well as having a song or two on GBV releases, Sprout also has a four or five solo projects of his own which are as good as any GBV release). At the moment when the band hit it big, Kevin Fennel was on drums and all four are best remembered as the "classic" Guided by Voices line-up.
The early GBV albums were self-released and hung around the bins at Dayton record shops like Trader Vic's, Dingleberries and Renaissance Records. By the time GBV began releasing records, they were already well into their twenties. While the first few albums (an EP called Forever Since Breakfast and a full-length, Devil Between MyToes) didn't create much of a buzz beyond Dayton -- they were already the works of journeymen.
One thing was certain; working in a studio didn't sit well with Pollard. He had trouble translating his ideas to studio engineers; instead of being discouraged, Pollard retreated back to the basement with his four-tracks and Radio Shack microphones and complete control of his ideas.
A few albums later, things finally began to click solidly into place; and yet, beyond Pollard's inner circle, the first few albums went totally unnoticed by anyone except perhaps some oddballs in Germany and the Dayton music scene. Actually, the Dayton scene did it's best to ignore the band forcing Pollard deeper into the seclusion of his basement where he continued tinkering away.
Mr. Pollard Hits the Studio.
Years passed. The band got a little bit older, children needed to be raised, and it was getting to be that time for rock dreams to be packed away in order to keep up with adult concerns. So Pollard, knowing that he had to either make the rock and roll thing work or get on with his life, threw all of his leftover masterpieces together into one last attempt, named the album Propeller and called it a day.
Propeller was the album that showcased Pollard's songwriting at it's strongest to date. The albums themselves were pressed in a limited number and a different member of the band or their manager for life, Pete Jamison, handcrafted each sleeve. Then, unbeknownst to Pollard, Jamison sent out copies of Propeller to magazines and labels. The reviews were positive and soon Scat Records in Cleveland picked up the album and Pollard set out to record a follow up, Vampire on Titus (a name check to Titus, the street where Pollard lived at the time).
Vampire on Titus was a difficult, noisy work, but showed that GBV still had a lot of ground to cover. It also indicated the vast body of songs Pollard had at his disposal, an indication that was confirmed by 1994's Bee Thousand.
Bee Thousand hit like a fucking bullet, and showcased GBV at their best. It was a collision of masterpieces channeled through the four-track. The final side of the album ran together in an Abbey Road-esque medley that didn't announce the band's swan song (as Abbey Road did for the Beatles) but announced GBV as the new template for indie rock's lo-fi, DIY nature: all you needed was a modicum of talent and a four-track recorder. The album was brought to a close with their signature song "I Am a Scientist."
At this time, the band released a new single every other day and a new album every week. Pollard cracked in an interview that he would write five songs on the pot "and three of them would be good." And he then set about the next ten years doing just that -- writing song after song after song after song filling out solo albums, side projects, countless EPs and three box sets.
At last count, there are fifteen proper Guided by Voices albums, seven Robert Pollard solo albums, three box sets (comprising the early albums; a suitcase full of demo tapes; and various ephemera), countless EPs, splits, 7"s and a baffling array of side-projects with names like Lexo and the Leapers, Nightwalker and The Circus Devils. Each project, though, beats with the same heart. Inherently, bad mikes, half-erased tracks, the echo from basement walls had all provided GBV albums with that lo-fi sound popular during the early nineties.
In Geeks We Trust.
GBV toured, drank a lot beer, recorded a ton of singles and reveled in the new media exposure. Pollard quit his teaching job and took most of the money Matador gave him and built a bar on the side of his house, which he named The Monument Club. Then, just as things were really starting to cook, the classic lineup disbanded and were quickly replaced by the members of Cobra Verde to lukewarm results. After slagging this band in an online interview/chat, Pollard fired all save the guitarist and assembled another group (this time featuring Jim McPherson of The Breeders and The Amps, Doug Gilliard, from Cobra Verde, local scenester Nate Farley and an old friend Greg Demos).
They hit the studio with Ric Ocasek (of The Cars) to produce a glossy rock album. It was Pollard's bid at mainstream
GBV: The Essentials
It would be nearly impossible to list every Guided by Voices album, EP, 7, maxi-single, fan club only release, licensed and unlicensed bootleg, side-project, solo album, split and box set withoutoverlooking something somewhere. It would also be dismissive to send anyone looking to get into GBV towards their best of collection (Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, Matador) despite the fact that its a top-notch release replete with goodies for old and new fans alike. Instead, The Black Table offers this overview of trashed aircraft, soft rock renegades, hardcore UFOs, pipe dreams, glad girls, reptilian beauty secrets, frequent weavers, spring tigers, plantations of pale pink, broken brothers, striped white jets, weed kings, whiskey ships, postal blowfish, buzzards and dreadful crows for your immediate consumption.
the Bushes, Under the Stars
radio. The resulting album, Do the Collapse, did moderately well on the charts, but was ultimately little more than a banal and slick rock record that wanted desperately to be liked.
And this is where the GBV story takes another twist. Do the Collapse didn't bring GBV into the mainstream; rather, it reaffirmed their place on the sidelines with the indie rockers and music apprecionados.
Here's the pinch, and it's an important pinch, being a GBV fan has never been an act of snobbery. If anything, being a GBV fan is a sign of utter music geekery. They release a lot of records and they tour a lot and in a landscape where modern rock has only gotten so far as to blend rap and rock together or ape the looks of seventies punks and play twenty-five year old riffs or it's all corporate-sponsored preening hamfistedly placed into prime-time teen melodramas; where breaking a new rapper requires a fancy producer and fifty other established rappers making cameos in the video and aged rockers stumble out of their mansions every now and again to shill albums about their mid-life crises.
Guided by Voices were a reassuring nod to the misfit inside every rock geek.
On the surface, GBV were old, ugly, drunk guys and their records sounded like shit. But they were also the guys who drove around in crummy cars singing along to The Who on classic rock radio, cruising through drive-thru liquor stores for twelve-packs of cheap beer and cigarettes. They were they weird older guys who made record store clerks special order shit no one had ever heard of. They were the guys who drank so much Rolling Rock that they couldn't drink it anymore and then turned to Bud and overdid that and now they're left with Miller Lite.
Perhaps realizing all of this (perhaps not), Pollard started up his own label, dubbed it Fading Captain and began releasing solo albums and EPs hand-over-fist to his fans. His focus has turned almost entirely to creating songs in the basement, surrounded by his buddies. GBV became an unwieldy beast.
And now they're calling it quits.
The final Guided by Voices album, Half Smiles of the Decomposed, will be released on August 24, 2004. Of this album, Pollard has said: "This feels like the last album for Guided By Voices. I've always said that when I make a record that I'm totally satisfied with as befitting a final album, then that will be it. And this is it. I love the guys in the band, but I'm getting too old to be a gang leader. There's a sense of maturity, and even integrity, I think, in continuing as one's own self."
So while GBV might be going into retirement, Pollard isn't going to stop writing songs. Dayton, Ohio is the kinda town where people find their value through working hard. Pollard would probably drop dead if he ever retired entirely from writing songs. So there will be more, but with Guided by Voices finishing up the final chapter of their book -- an entire era of music is ending. There's just something in the air. It's not the "death of rock" and anyone who tries to sell it to you like that is just fucking wrong. No one is going to show up to save rock and no one is going to kill it. Time passes and next thing you know Weezer and Pavement have released tenth anniversary editions of their debut albums; The Pixies have returned from the sleep of death to rejuvenate the cult status of their solo careers; Radiohead have turned into complete art rock wankers; Kurt Cobain is still dead; the endless possibilities of the dot-com boom have been replaced with a warmongering president and a paranoid job market; those Sonic Youth T-shirts have been washed so many times they're turning gray and the print is chipping off. And that's cause enough to fill a jukebox with GBV and drink irresponsibly.
One thing that Robert Pollard was never short on was reverence. Granted, not everyone in even his hometown of Dayton might have known who they were, but for those who needed to know, one thing was certain -- Guided by Voices were going to be appreciated in their time. Both Pollard and his fan base of music geeks had dug through old records in search of Skip Spences and Syd Barretts and no one wanted to see the eccentric genius of Pollard go to waste. For anyone that wants to dispute this claim, take a look at the body of eight hundred (and more) songs he committed to vinyl, tape and CD throughout the twenty-year history of Guided by Voices and it's obvious -- people were listening.
So whether you saw them play in someone's basement in 1989 or if you've just discovered them twenty years from now in your dad's record collection -- the club is open.