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

by Robert Loss

6 June 2010


Some kind of angelic troubadour just passing through, appreciated unlike the prophets and monks of old

VIII.  A Prophet

“You can’t Outrun your Occupation, Jonah. Hiding from Me one place, you will find me in another. I I I I stop down the road, waiting for you.”
- the Continental Principality (Angel) of America, from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Perestroika

Bob Pollard cuts out close to 12:30 in the morning, heading back to Dayton with his brother. My last image of Father of the Song is of Pollard huddled against the wall by the pool table, joking with a few friends, his white hair alight like he’s some kind of angelic troubadour just passing through, appreciated unlike the prophets and monks of old who used to pray with their hands held out before them, palms turned upward, in their cells.

Long after Pollard exits, Bookmobile is stomping through its set. Though we’re pushing 1:30, the crowd has only thinned out a sliver. It feels like we’re hanging around to hear the last lessons, although—like the entirety of the tribute show—the point is that we demonstrate the lessons ourselves; the monk doesn’t need to be here, having already taught us the rhymes, taught us the postures of near-lunacy.

“Watch Me Jumpstart”: the song surges like some leviathan crashing through oncoming 6/8 waves, a heavy metal caper, an Irish folk tune gone beautifully wrong and skipping with all the delicacy of a punk rock Paul Bunyan. As promises and declarations of freedom go, the song works because it sounds so belabored, as if to say, Despite this, I’m gonna fucking make it. Bookmobile’s cavorting version is sludgy and liberated, and it gets me thinking about how GBV songs are filled with verbs and movement. Commands and declarations. The rhetoric of prophecy. “Watch me jumpstart as the old skin is peeled”. Is there a better lyric in rock and roll that captures the entirety of the American persona? Defiant, adolescent, in spite of, and gleefully stripping away the yoke of the old, even if, as Pollard sings, “I’m a phase”?

The language of prophets speaks boldly to the future, but is always squarely centered on the present moment, a description of the malaise of the current day and, most importantly, a prescription for what needs to be done about it right now. (The or else tagline tends to be biblical and institutional, and for this reason do Jeremiah and Abraham Lincoln share the same distinction—rock and roll can hardly see past the weekend.) Do this, sings Pollard: “Decide now!” in “My Son Cool”; “Weep, sad freaks of the nation” in “Blimps Go 90”; “Clean your hands and go to sleep / Confess the dreams of good and bad men all around” in the uber-chipper “Glad Girls.” The imperatives range from the desperate to the stoic to the threatening: “Oh pick up, for God’s sake / When we call you back to the lake”; “Don’t stop now”; “If we wait for our time, then we’ll all be dead”.

The prophet does look forward, of course, though in Guided by Voices songs the future is usually a promise of action by the singer, the spoken-to, or the listener instead of some terminal condition suffered by all of society. In “Watch Me Jumpstart”, you can sense the future without it ever being spelled out, and though the anthemic exhortations of “Motor Away” speak in future tense, the song so firmly states its case that the future seems to already be happening. The future in a Guided by Voices song is rarely one of doom, but instead one of release, of freedom. Provided you really do motor away.

Couldn’t you could read “Watch Me Jumpstart” as nothing but an egomaniacal series of boasts? Don’t these sound like the typical narcissism of a genre drenched in it? Mere declarations by someone who takes himself to be a prophet? The trick is that even though the prophet speaks of himself, he’s no different than us. As Greil Marcus says in his book The Shape of Things to Come, “The prophetic figure speaks not from the body of the commonality, but as its body, finding the voice that all members of the commonality can hear, or should hear.” A savior stands above; the prophet stands from within, or to the side, or at the back… forcing all heads to turn. And because Bob Pollard looks and sounds like a normal guy who at any moment could float away in an aura of rock and roll transcendence, or alternately fire up the barbecue and go watch a Bengals game, the “I” of a Guided by Voices song always seems like it could be you. The voice is every voice, and any voice.

But at the live moment, it’s Pollard who’s onstage, and here, liberated from the guitar and free to strike kinetic poses and proclaim, his prophetic persona is unmistakable. In the film of his band’s last performance on New Year’s Eve 2004, Pollard begins “Watch Me Jumpstart” by bow-leggedly striding to the lip of the stage with all the time in the world until he crouches and holds up a hand, as if blocking out the sun. “See an opening and bust into the field”, he sings, and now he’s pointing to that field, somewhere up in the sky. The histrionics of typical rock and roll aren’t needed here; like Tom Waits, like some of the classic crooners, like Sam Moore and the Reverend James Cleveland, Pollard gets more out of less. His body is always under control, even on those karate kicks and microphone twirls. “Watch me bulldoze every bulldozer away”, he promises, a sneaker planted on the wedge monitors in front of him, and though the lyrics are enormous, and though the crowd is pumping fists, Pollard coolly slips back, his hand flittering with lazy emphasis as he bulldozes “each new obstacle from each old fucked-up day”. In the chorus his eyes squeeze tightly, that underrated voice of his keening to hit the high notes until he relaxes into the dark side of the prophecy, where “the faces that cry” pull a person back so strongly that the only response is to kill the old self and burst into something else. Which happens to be the true self, the self that’s been hidden. “Don’t look now, I’m a flash, I’m a phase”, Pollard croons, and his left foot locks to his right knee in one economical motion. In the next, his right arm shoots up, mock-heroic.

As I said earlier, it’s cool, suave… the prophet who lets the joke be on him. We know, and he knows, that the fist-pump has been done a million times before. He looks like an ordinary person striking the once-extraordinary poses of the rock and roll savior, which have, over time, through repetition by souls less aware of the irony, been made ordinary again. Pollard never pretends the poses are anything more than style, anything more than ritual and stock gestures as systematized as the characters and faces of ancient tragedians and the Italian commedia dell’arte. Pollard comes at us as Arlecchino and Pantalone, the youthful acrobat and the old lecher, the feels-like-the-very-first-time of innocence reconciled with the been-there-done-that of experience. He’s the aged hipster who knows what it’s like to be 16 and want the hell out of a nowhere town, and in the moment of the performance, he’s the 16-year-old, too. “I can’t pretend to be something I’m not”, Pollard croons, and that’s the kicker: by winking at the cock-rock posing, by implicitly criticizing it and then embracing it, he isn’t pretending to be innocent, and by acknowledging this, he’s free, wholly unified and ingenuous.

IX. Guided by Self

The word “prophet” drips with pretension and lionization, perhaps, but consider that in the rock and roll pantheon, and in pop culture in general, icons are adored and worshiped not as prophets—who in the oldest sense were outcasts, spit upon—but as saviors. If we emulate them, we can achieve their status. Of course, our contemporary saviors offer little but themselves and their music, or the music they perform which was written by someone else, or the music they’ve appropriated from disenfranchised forebears like Big Mama Thornton, and it comes in a distant second. Rock and roll has encouraged its fair share of hero worship, cloaking its heroes in terms like “guitar god” and “godfather” of this and “queen” of that, and though the stated message is often suitably equal opportunity, the covert message is often uncomfortably messianic and aristocratic. It seems you have to be chosen, and how does that work, exactly? Mysteriously selected, the pop savior remains a singular individual; the closer we get to him and the more we accept him, the better off we are.

And prophets? They choose themselves. They start rock bands. No one asks them to. Sometimes no one listens. This is the lunatic fringe, the unauthorized messengers: the guy on the corner with his “Jesus Saves” placard, or the guy who spent the better part of three years on the corner a few blocks from me holding up a sign that read: “George Bush War Criminal”. These people make us nervous, especially when they aren’t sanctioned by some authority—the electorate, a music corporation, a rock critic—who’s gained our trust by reaffirming our complacency. If these voices break through, we panic… partly, at least, in joy. Barely sanctioned, Dylan, punk, and rap caused panics because they spoke truths that weren’t supposed to be spoken—had we not agreed on this?—in forums where they weren’t supposed to be speaking.

The anxiety of ‘stepping forward’ has caused artists and their managers to invent stories of modern-day devils at the crossroads or God-given talent (origins, discoveries), and that same anxiety sends rock critics scrambling for comparisons, organizing as they/we/I do those A=B+C equations like “Guided by Voices sounds like Sonic Youth-meets-Beach Boys”. It is the self-assertion which comes first, sometimes for, sometimes against tradition, and sometimes with no sense of genre at all, though the work may end up defining a genre.

For Ralph Waldo Emerson, the genre, so to speak, was a “national literature” of America. In his essay about Emerson, “A Literature of Secular Revelations”, in A New Literary History of America, Mitchell Meltzer describes how Emerson sought a unique American literary and philosophical voice, one that would naturally grow out of the rebellion of the previous century and the apprehension of one’s progressive, creative Nature. Meltzer explains that, to Emerson, the creation of a national literature, indeed, of a nation:

…necessitated a claim of authority that would somehow override the sheer arbitrariness of the naked fact of simply setting out…. Emerson continually preached that the way to begin in the new United States was by means of a self-assertion amounting almost to prophecy. An American was to utter the inspired word, though inspired by whom, and how, was a matter of endlessly slippery and evasive maneuvers.

And so there is Bob Pollard, swerving on stage, one hand clutching the mic, the other hanging, clenching, jabbing as he sings daylight-sounding songs about dark nights of the soul, songs full of slippery and evasive maneuvers. Pervasive in his recorded and especially his live performances is the sense that he followed Emerson’s advice, that he nakedly set out to arbitrarily play the role of prophet and to his surprise… became one. He had, in fact, been weaving it for so long into his creative work—consciously or not—that when people actually started listening, the rhetoric, the stage presence and, yes, the message were in place. Watching him onstage, you could see the history of that journey on his face, in his voice. You could see that he remembered what the beginning was like. It had all come to fruition instead of being manufactured, and yet he had manufactured it himself, with the help of various Daytonites, out of nothing.

What makes Bob Pollard unique among the prophetic voices of the last, say, 20 years of pop culture is that once he became a prophet, he found a way to embrace the role without imploding.

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