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

by Robert Loss

6 June 2010


That’s the motion of discovery, when you aren’t just drawn to a band, but feel impelled by some mysterious force

V.  Discovery and Organization

Spd Gvnr rips into the opening chords of “Motor Away” and the crowded room surges forward as if a giant hand reached underneath the Treehouse floor, lifted it up, and tossed us at the band.

That’s the motion of discovery, when you aren’t just drawn to a band, but feel impelled by some mysterious force. Who can say when it happens, or explain the alchemy of why a song, a record, a band suddenly make sense? For me it was the early triptych on Bee Thousand of “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” into “Tractor Rape Chain” into “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”. Dazed by what I was hearing, I nodded to myself, as if to say, Finally.

A tribute show wants to not just recall the memory of the original discovery, but to actually motivate new discoveries. By concentrating so many songs into such a short amount of time, the tribute show is a high octane fuel, strong enough to make you forget what you knew. If the musicians discover by going back into the songs’ structures and poetics to know again what they knew only as listeners, the audience discovers by forgetting (to some extent) their initial experiences, their first listens, their old opinions. When a tribute fails to enable that discovery, it’s because the performances are bound to the cultural dogma of a Rock and Roll Sanctuary—nothing new is created, or even found, only relics, note-perfect renditions of a thing that is dead. One enters the tomb of holy Father/Mother of the Song, and one lights a votive. Kneels. Says a few gabba gabba heys and crosses one’s chest.

This tension derives in part, at least, from the fact that tribute shows organize what was an organic and often chaotic body of work by the venerated artist. Which songs to play, which to ignore. Which albums are cool. The retrieval of lost classics, proving one’s true fandom. The musical artist didn’t plan out step-for-step his or her career, didn’t plan on that eighth album sucking so bad, a lone beauty of garage-pop architecture buried under its dung heap. The tribute show can liberate that song, stand it up next to the other masterpieces. Or it can bury it all over again. A good tribute show is about its immediate context, its locality and temporality, about a fresh point of view of the past from this moment. Right now. Otherwise it’s a sodding liturgy.

(Sometimes tributes don’t work for more mundane reasons, as Joel Treadway reminds me: “Often you’ve got a lot bands who’ve taken very little time to learn and practice the songs, so many of them are kinda crappy, musicianship-wise. But in a big line-up and longer-term annual tributes, there can also be a few once-a-year highlights.”)

If we have been guilty of a certain amount of hero worship tonight, we can take comfort that with Pollard and Guided by Voices, such sober reverence can only go so far. While this limitation has everything to do with GBV and its front man, the fact that it’s a locally organized show of bands unconcerned with commercial greatness encourages a more egalitarian tone, something familial and humble and adolescently raucous. The lasting example? The bulging, desperate eyeballs of the Whiles’ lead singer, Joe Peppercorn, as he becomes possessed by “Hot Freaks”. I swear they’ll pop out any second, and many days later I will wonder if they still hurt.

VI. Foreshadowing

“And see the truth, yeah, is just a lie.”
  – “As We Go Up, We Go Down”

Is it too much to take those competing interests of discovery and organization to be an example of our contemporary dilemma, the problem of I-can’t-stand-the-same-old-thing versus nothing-new-under-the-sun? We’ve become quite talented in our abilities to intake and collate new information—or so we think. Are we not inundated? Are we not unsure of the purpose of such work, or if there is any purpose?

Though we’ve become media-savvy, we excel most at integrating familiar ideas. We know what to make of the latest gadgets and television shows and music because they fit into categories we’ve already established: this is a way to seem connected to a world I’m only marginally interested in; this is a snappy Arrested Development rip-off; this is a twee folk band good for the soundtrack to a commercial for a hybrid car.

Is the only purpose to keep going, regardless of the purpose’s worth? And if we believe that, can we believe in anything, at any moment, with no consequences?

VII. Guided by Voices

“The Asbury Park Press said Matthew Sweet was on here tonight….”
- Question in an AOL/Spin chat room during an interview with Guided by Voices, 6/14/95

The release of Bee Thousand in 1994 felt like someone was trying to poke a needle through the tough but doggedly resilient plastic of pop music, specifically the corporate pop that had emerged as an early reaction to grunge. The week the album was released, the Gin Blossoms and Counting Crows were peddling their very tastefully written songs on the Top 40. Pop-rock was well-produced, colorful, drawing on the optimism of Bill Clinton’s first term and a revival of late 1960s hippie motifs—but none of it was weird. (Certainly not Blind Melon’s bee-girl video for “No Rain”.) Guided by Voices had a sharp edge to its occasional jangly-ness, a sensibility borrowed from punk more than its earliest reviewers seemed to admit. Lyrically, Pollard seemed to delight in everyday catch-phrases mixed with inscrutable pastiches of the surreal and plain-old nonsense. The Lemonheads covered “Mrs. Robinson”; Bob Pollard sang about UFOs, tractors, a “non-dairy creamer explicitly laid out like a fruitcake”, and characters like King Everything and Echos Myron.

If the absurdity and inarticulateness of the kingdom inside a Guided by Voices song was off-putting to some, it was only because they’d become used to smothering themselves with the absurdity and inarticulateness of what passed as ‘normal’, or recently-labeled ‘alternative’, culture. Freed by their irreverence, freed by the fact that they didn’t have to make sense, GBV songs were springy, tough affronts to Order. But neither were they just fey Brit posturing and spraying beer and lyrics about robot boys. They weren’t entirely escapist; that hadn’t worked for a generation. Neither were they entirely nihilist; that hadn’t worked for another generation. And still the songs spoke through their utter weirdness, through their irrationality, to something more genuine than the crafted, commercial messages of the Top 40.

Here we come to the crux, kids.

In his essay “Writing American Fiction”, a speech originally delivered in 1960, author Philip Roth spoke of the artist’s challenge “to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality,” which was, at the time, the insanity of the country’s nascent, explosive pop culture. “It stupefies,” he wrote, “it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.” Roth outlined a few responses: the first was alienation, the second satire, the third a kind of commercialism which he compared to “leaving sex to the pornographers.” Roth was interested in another, more difficult and ultimately more compelling response.

Unable to compare fiction writing to rock music (for now), and unable to blithely compare 1960 to 1994, I will say this: Guided by Voices faced an even more entrenched and aggressive pop culture than the one faced by Roth, a monotonous yet spectacular American Wow full of crudity and self-help aphorisms, and the band’s first reaction was to stop using the culture’s language. Or more precisely, to wrap up all that alienation and satire and commercialism into nonsense parables in order to obliterate them. But the obliteration was not the final step.

The funny thing was, they’d been at their work for so long, they already seemed to have figured out that next step. We were the ones trying to catch up. Bob Pollard reported back from just up ahead, standing, as he does in the video for “Motor Away”, on the roof of a clunker in a varsity jacket and white jeans as if he’s been to the future. Come on! Speed on! For all the ironic, arena rock posturing, something valuable, truly meaningful, is at stake. He’s foolish enough to believe in it, and to insist that you believe, too. And so, what some critics saw as a suspended adolescence in Pollard’s persona is revealed to be prophetic.

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