Losing The Game Of Pricks: A Guided By Voices Retrospective

Losing The Game Of Pricks - A Guided By Voices Retrospective

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.
-Arthur Schopenhauer

I am a lost soul/I shoot myself with rock ‘n roll/The hole I dig is bottomless/But nothing else can set me free

-Robert Pollard, “I Am a Scientist”

It’s the end of the year, and those of us who scribble for music publications are supposed to reflect upon the most meaningful events of the past year and pontificate about those that are to come. For this piece, I’d like to begin with an examination of what I consider to be one of the biggest losses in independent music in 2014.

Thus, I’ll initiate the inaugural edition of “Our Band Could Be Your Life” with an apology, and not just because I was drinking while I wrote this. Pieces like this invariably approach rock n’ roll hagiography, involve lengthy justifications for what are idiosyncratic preferences, or they’re littered with personal anecdotes about how a particular band became “meaningful” for the author. How does one make the case for something so subjectively tethered to personal aesthetics without sounding trite or absurd?

I don’t know. But fuck it, here goes.

This was one of the worst emails I’ve ever received:

“Dear Guided By Voices Customer,

This e-mail is to inform you that that the Guided By Voices show at (REDACTED) has been canceled. You will receive a full refund back to your credit/debit card in 24-72 business hours. We apologize for any inconvenience and hope you have a great day!”

Having a great day is impossible at this point, and I find “inconvenience” a poor euphemism for “being denied an opportunity to see one of your favorite bands.”

Guided by Voices has broken up. Again.

I am devastated. Again.

On the surface, it’s difficult to ascertain why a band like Guided by Voices (GBV) instills such devotion in their fans. They’re hardly household names. They formed in 1983. The lead singer is 57 years old. They are decidedly uncool in their appearance. Their highest charting album landed at a whopping 160 on the Billboard Top 200. They’re from the delightful postindustrial dystopia of Dayton, Ohio. Why am I so distraught about this trivial event?

I submit that the answer is that they are unequivocally the greatest independent rock band of all time.

That’s no small assertion, but what constitutes greatness? Surely, we need a few metrics with which I might substantiate my claim. I’ve had a few dozen conversations about this subject, and I’ve come to a few conclusions about the criteria for establishing a band’s artistic importance. Obviously, this will be qualitative in nature, and highly debatable, but bear with me. After this little exposition, it is my aim to reveal that GBV easily meets each of these measures of significance.

First, greatness must be undeniable. You can hate the band, loathe their fans, and despise everything they represent, but ultimately you must relent and acknowledge the enormity of their influence. I consider, say, Rush, to be an insufferable amalgam of guitar wankery and unduly self-indulgent drumming played while a goateed Libertarian cartoon character with his testicles in a vice wails like a bereaved marmot. Despite my entirely deserved derision for these intolerable Canadian prog-tards, I cannot dispute their greatness. They’re technically very talented musicians, have a massive following, and have built up a large body of work. I could point to oodles of other bands as examples, but this should suffice.

Next up, greatness involves intention and execution. This takes a variety of forms – instrumentation and arrangement, album production, stage presence, etc., but ultimately it’s about vision. The great band must have something to say, and they have to articulate it in a fashion appropriate to that statement, in defiance of convention. To quote critical theorist and musicologist Theodor Adorno, art is made “by virtue of its own elaborations, through its own immanent process.” The revelation of this “immanent process” is what moves us in music, makes a band or an album great, and is the source of what we term “artistic freedom.” (Yes, I am acutely aware that we’re talking about pop music here. I told you to bear with me. Jesus.) To this extent, technical skill is almost irrelevant, or at least secondary in its relation to that unique perspective. When I heard many of my favorite bands for the first time, I either overlooked them or questioned whether or not they were actually producing music. They challenge their listeners in some capacity while fashioning something beautiful. That’s why Radiohead is a great band, and Justin Bieber never will be.

Lastly, greatness requires context. This is that nebulous “right place at the right time” quality that serendipitously characterizes a band. Historicity is important, and invites all those debates that music geeks like to have with one another; “If Ian Curtis/Darby Crash/Kurt Cobain/Elliott Smith hadn’t killed himself,” etc. This also applies to the intimate history side of a band – they tend to coincide with moments of personal significance for their listeners. This can catapult undeserving bands to prominence, but it can cement a group’s significance for their audience. More importantly, a great band is one that you can grow with, irrespective of where in their artistic timeline you encounter them. Whether you’re a fan from their inception, or a latecomer who excavates the back catalogue, a great band maintains their import in both directions of history.

There are myriad other aspects to consider: musical talent, influence, live performance, and lyrical content among others, but I believe that these all can be placed under the broad guidelines stated above. Guided By Voices succeeds on all of these counts. I’ll leave the “undeniable” qualifier out my evaluation, since obviously I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think that they’d already met that criterion.

Regarding intention, GBV has always had a particular vision, and that has made itself manifest through their diverse sonic meanderings. Every examination of the band is required to include analysis of Robert Pollard, the prolific songwriter who is Guided By Voices. Sure, there has been a rotating cast of musicians and collaborators over the years, but without Bob there simply is no Guided By Voices. He’s written over 1,700 songs, of which an astonishing number are good and an astounding number are great.

Pollard was a fourth grade schoolteacher with an inexhaustible supply of four track recordings made in his Dayton basement. His wide-ranging influences included psychedelic, punk, and British Invasion (notably The Who, to be discussed later), and revealed an impressive capacity to sound like some sort of primordial synthesis of all of these genres without being chained to any one of them. Their dedication to the lo-fi aesthetic, while by no means monolithic, remains more or less constant throughout, giving hope to any kid with a guitar and a notebook. Guided by Voices is by turns sugarcoated pop, reverb saturated dissonance, and stubborn weirdness in one exquisite beer-soaked package.

Did I mention the drinking? While many forms of excess have featured prominently in rock music, I’m not sure many bands have made consumption of alcohol such an irrefutable cornerstone of their artistic influence (agonizing pun intended). “How’s My Drinking?” “Drinker’s Peace,” and “Some Drinking Implied” are but a few songs that explicitly state their love of ethanol in the title, and an absurd number of tracks are about imbibing the glorious substance. Pollard supposedly had to inebriate himself in order to overcome crippling stage fright, and what began as a means to that end eventually became a premeditated centerpiece of their live act. Bear in mind, this live act regularly pushed past the three hour mark, with the intake of booze holding steady throughout. James Greer, sometime GBV bassist and author of the incomparable band chronicle Guided By Voices: A Brief History: Twenty-One Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll, described the $100,000 advance budget for one of my favorite albums thusly: “The cost for recording Alien Lanes, if you leave out the beer, was about ten dollars.”

Losing The Game Of Pricks - A Guided By Voices Retrospective
Robert Pollard’s alcohol consumption is a thing of legend.

Now while this may not sound like intention, I submit that it very much is. Providing space for improvisation, happenstance, and outright error are things we rarely see in the all-too-antiseptic recordings of contemporary music. Guided By Voices has always invited these happy accidents, even cultivated them. The result is a kind of authenticity that happily bares its scars for public view.

I’m finding this article is already bloating well past its intended length, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of my “intention and execution” criteria, but we must press on, to historical context. Once upon a time, before you could Napster over to the Google Play store and iTunes a download to your Kindlepad, you had to go to an actual record store to purchase your music. (You can actually still do this, and I encourage you to do so.) Finding a band involved a conversation with an (often condescending) actual human being, the perusal of catalogues, and conducting the kind of digging through crates that has been obviated by the internet search engine. This, while monstrously inconvenient and difficult, made the discovery of a band a kind of quest, with rewards commensurate with the obstacles. When you finally encountered an underappreciated band, it felt like stumbling across a kind of divine secret or gaining admission to an exclusive club. Discovering Guided By Voices was like being initiated into the rites of a Gnostic cult that understood universal truths inaccessible to the lay practitioner.

This was coupled with the fact that GBV was ultimately never at the “right place at the right time.” Despite Pollard’s outsize ambitions to become an all-conquering rock band, they tended to languish in obscurity. After recording the incomparable Bee Thousand, the band scored a distribution deal with Matador records. The Breeders covered the track Shocker in Gloomtown, and mainstream outlets like Rolling Stone and MTV began to take notice with favorable critical reviews. But by 1996, the strain of touring took its toll, and the “so-called classic lineup” imploded.

Pollard reshuffled the band a few more times, and ultimately emerged with a more radio friendly focus. They joined TVT Records and signed Ric Ocasek on to produce Do the Collapse, which was their most cleanly produced album to date. Despite this, the album was greeted with middling reviews, dancing as it did between experimentalism, lo-fi aesthetic, and cleaner production. It ultimately failed to catch on the radio.

Undeterred, GBV released four more albums, a greatest hits album, an anthology boxed set, and a DVD before breaking up (for the first time) in 2004. Pollard continued to release music at an astonishing pace, spawning more than an album a year from his fertile brain. Eddie Vedder described Moses on a Snail thusly, “It sounds to me like Robert Pollard uncharacteristically took ten years to make this one. He will tell you otherwise, but I don’t believe him. It’s too fucking good. If it were any other group this would be seen as their masterpiece. I think for Bob it’s just another good day of weaving words into a kaleidoscope of one of a kind, thought-provoking perspectives”.

And yet when I ask most of my friends and colleagues (admittedly, the normal ones who don’t obsess about music like some of us) if they’ve ever heard of them, they invariably ask if they’re some kind of Christian rock band.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the most legitimately indie rock thing a band can do. A bunch of regular dudes from Nowheresville, Middle America produce a copious quantity of stellar music, garner tremendous reviews, approach the edge of rockstardom, and, due to their unrelenting dedication to that idiosyncratic “immanent process” of artistic production, walk the fuck away from it all. Better still, they aren’t even discouraged by their failure, and continue to churn out more songs before breakfast than you have in your entire life.

Somewhere, in an unlabeled box (thankfully) cloistered somewhere in a closet, is a video of me and my childhood friend Hunter rocking out and lip synching to The Who’s Pinball Wizard. It’s embarrassing and absurd for a number of reasons: Hunter is wearing a cast which would have rendered him incapable of playing an instrument, we’re wielding dulcimers instead of electric guitars, we’re eight years old. But we’re jumping off my bed and windmilling our instruments like miniature Daltreys and Townshends.

When I first heard Guided By Voices, I felt that same rush of enthusiasm. Pollard has often cited The Who has a major influence (Bee Thousand is supposedly meant to sound like “Pete Townshend” when holding your tongue), and I can’t think of a better one to have. Given my childhood appreciation of the moddish Quadrephenia lads, I’m obviously biased, but GBV took two great elements from The Who – an explosive live performance and ambivalence toward success. Guided By Voices’ puckishness on stage and hard-partying ways are reminiscent of Keith Moon blowing up toilets and crashing his car into a hotel pool. The Who Sell Out is famously self-effacing, and that intentional irony has been the standard GBV has borne throughout the breadth of their career. No one wants a band that takes itself too seriously. Otherwise you end up with Bono.

Losing The Game Of Pricks - A Guided By Voices Retrospective
Guided By Voices doing their best Who impression.

Though their influence may not be immediately apparent, it has been substantial. Bands have gained acclaim simply through proximity to GBV. There’s an apocryphal story about Julian Casablancas throwing a demo tape of the then-embryonic Strokes onstage at a Guided By Voices show. Pollard listened to it, liked it, and sent it along to Matador Records. The band even makes an appearance in the video for “Someday,” in case you ever wondered who those old guys were playing Family Feud with New York’s favorite four car garage band.

There’s even a beer that has been brewed in honor of our intrepid Buckeyes. Delaware brewery Dogfish Head has produced limited quantities of “Beer Thousand,” an imperial lager with ten grains and ten varieties of hops that clocks in at 10% alcohol by volume (10x10x10 =1000). I’ve had it, it’s fucking delicious. Moreover, while you feel like you can drink it all day, it sneaks up on you and packs a substantial wallop. I’m hard pressed to think of more fitting tribute.

And so, despite my melancholy, I suppose I take solace in the fact that Guided By Voices will live on through the many bands they’ve influenced (and will continue to influence, if this kid is any indication) and the fans they’ve touched. I’m sure Robert Pollard will continue to “shoot himself with rock and roll” and pump out music at a bewildering pace. When they motor away, smothered in hugs, I’ll be crying, “Don’t stop now.”

It still would’ve been cool to see them. Thanks, GBV.

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