New Theories of Everything Prompted by Guided by Voices Appreciation Night, or, Good News

by Robert Loss

6 June 2010


Floating in an aura best defined as “drunk reverential”

IV.  Place

After the Whiles’ set, which includes wet-dream versions of “Back to the Lake” and “Hot Freaks”, we’re floating in an aura best defined as “drunk reverential”, a laid-back religion of experience, not dogma—what all those hip young Christian kids are looking for these days (I guess). The kind of church where the old monk sits in the back corner, nodding his head, having once been quite the drunken ringmaster himself.

But I’m a dweller. I think about things—too much? (When you have to ask yourself if you think about things too much, and repeat this question to yourself over a number of days, the answer is “Yes.”) So I find myself wandering around the bar’s many rooms in between the sets of five songs each, speculating on what tonight is about.

Tribute shows come in various sizes, with various intentions. The localized version—organized and performed by local bands—has less to do with ambition and pure cashing-in than, say, a Grateful Dead tribute band that tours from city to city. Those versions, and the kinds solidified in places like Vegas, demand their own essay, which someone else can write, I’m not interested.

Even still, there’s a tendency to see a tribute show as a retread, a regressive or sentimental throwback, a sacrifice to the gods of nostalgia and lost innocence.

The Friday night crowd is clustered in the “den”, hip-to-hip on the black leather couches, batting lashes and cracking jokes not far from the bar. Hipsters unleashed, large-hearted boys and girls, sexy and oafish, garrulous and shy—they have a certain lost innocence to them, though I think they’d shudder at the thought. The parlor is crammed with lines for the bathrooms, friends nearly forgotten in morning-after hangovers now reacquainted. Rarely have I seen a bar so uniformly happy, or one with such a high density of beards.

Everyone is imbued with drunk-reverential halos even though, in Columbus, tributes are pretty common. Clash-a-thon. Elvis tribute (going 14 years strong). The annual Townes van Zandt tribute that Eric puts together. My band played in a Replacements tribute and a Tom Waits-a-thon. Joel Treadway, who runs the incredibly thorough and egalitarian Columbus music website, tells me that the shows “tend to happen in waves, especially around the holiday season. Every few years there seems to be a rash of them…and some related ‘thon-a-thon’ jokes/complaints.” Yet tonight there’s a giddiness to the proceedings, as if this is a brand-new idea. Why?

Besides the fact that there’s never been a GBV Appreciation Night in Columbus, it matters, I think, that Guided by Voices was an Ohio band, and Bob Pollard a Dayton, Ohio, native. A friend of mine says Ohioans are arrogant about our lack of arrogance, but at the risk of sounding arrogant, I stand by this: between 1990-1996, you would find no better collection of bands than those from the Columbus-Dayton-Cincinnati triangle—the Breeders, Scrawl, the Afghan Whigs, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, the Ass Ponys, Gaunt, Ugly Stick, Braniac, and Guided by Voices to name but a few. Columbus was tagged with the “next Seattle” moniker/death-knell in Spin, the hype died, and since then, no Ohio city or clump of cities has come close to being a scene on a national level.

Bob stuck around, though, like a lot of people from those bands. He’s driven here tonight from Dayton, a city that in the documentary Watch Me Jumpstart looks like…nothing. A run-down beer drive-thru, winter-scorched yards, ranch houses, and fast food joints. But the driving tour Pollard gives of the city, or his version of the city, is some of the most affecting rock-documentary footage I’ve ever seen. You sense how much the community—not so much the place itself, but the people in it—means to Pollard. And then you understand why so much great art emerges from seemingly nowhere: there’s nothing else to get in the way.

So tonight it seems like we’re celebrating one of our own. That is part of the answer, at least.

After solid sets by the Cabdrivers, Bicentennial Bear, and Animal Cubes—wherein we get tremendous versions of the menacing “Cut-Out Witch” and the rather joyous “Teenage FBI” and “Glad Girls”—a band fronted by bushy-bearded twins takes the floor (no stage here in the Treehouse). Looking like Seth Rogan’s lost brothers, the boys in Spd Gvnr (pronounced “Speed Governor”, thank you) jaw nervously over an arpeggiated chord.

“Dayton!” one of them shouts.

“Eww,” mutters a woman on the other side of the tree. She may or may not be responding to them, but I hope Bob’s not in the room at this point.

“The spirit of Dayton!” the guy tries again.

Roars of approval.

The arpeggiated chord turns into the opening to “Dayton, Ohio—19-Something-And-5”, one of the most poignant songs Guided by Voices ever performed. Too short to ruin its perfect epic scope, “Dayton” is generically a slice-of-life, but the surging chords and Pollard’s plaintive vocals and the could-be-anywhere details—“the smell of fried foods and pure hot tar”—turn the mundane into the poetic. “This is a song about smoking dope, having cookouts, and hanging out on the west side,” Pollard proclaims on a live version of the song, a description that fits much of the Midwest. But it’s a moment soon after that always gets me. Right after he sings “Where the produce is rotten/ But no one’s forgotten”, Pollard adds emphatically, “Nobody”.

Tribute shows by local bands reflect their locality. Here, everyone knows there’s not much to look at and we take a little pride in that. It’s a stoic attitude, reticent to the point that it resists me even writing about it for fear of glorifying what can be boring, submerged places to live until you make something of them. You can’t get too serious about it. In another live performance of “Dayton”, this one recorded in 2004 at the Alrosa Villa in Columbus, not long before GBV closed up shop, Bob Pollard brings the song’s co-writer Tobin Sprout onstage, and as he sings the opening lyrics—“Isn’t it great to exist at this point in time?”—he grins at the audience like a drunk preacher. Then, after the song is done, he says, “Hey, makes it sound like a good place to be. If you write a song about your city, and it makes it seem like a good place to be, and it ain’t a good place to be… they… you… they should put you in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

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