XV. Tribute Shows
“Oh, this time I really trust you
But it can’t belong to anyone
And I’d be so sad if I lost it”
- “Sad If I Lost It”
It’s quarter to two and the Woosley Band is creeping up on “If We Wait”, a buried shard of pop beauty from the 1996 Sunfish Holy Breakfast EP. The chords of the song leak out as Sean Woosley introduces the song with a story I won’t exactly remember, other than that this song means a lot to him. Fatigued, drenched in sweat, he looks like a man tempted to give in, to give up, but who’s going to take one last stab at it. In the back of the room, I’m perched on a barstool listening as two guys crowd over an iPhone, dismayed at some news—a text message, a photo, I’m not sure—the one hanging his arm over the other’s shoulder, and in the hushed Christmas lights strung around the silver maple, the night starts closing down. “There’s some food upon the table, boys”, sings Woosley in a voice that sounds like it could shatter in the emptiness of the song, “And if you’ve ever seen me flying / Then you know that I am weak”.
A petite bartender is making the rounds in the tree room, collecting empties. This late at night, the fluorescent light glaring down on the band for the sake of the video being shot creates a sense of desperation and forthrightness matched by the stark lyrics Woosley sings in the song’s bouncing rhythm: “If you could be anything that you want to be / Do you think that you would be who you see in the mirror?” More than any other singer tonight, Woosley’s weary voice lives up to Pollard’s lived-in, Everyman tenor. “If I look long enough, my face would start to change”, he offers, and you know that “long enough” is too long. The song’s all the sadder for its 1960s lilt, a skipping 6/8 ballad from the Beatles and the Beach Boys—until the catastrophe coda when the electric guitars swoop in like they’ve been waiting impatiently the whole song long. If there’s any song in the GBV catalogue that epitomizes the in spite of quality, this is it: fighting through the haze of late night/early morning blues with a warning, emerging with a blast into the stratosphere.
I’ve realized now, many nights after the Woosley Band closed the show with a powerful, enduring version of “Smothered in Hugs”, that the choice of Guided by Voices for a local tribute has affected not only what I think of tribute shows, but also what I think of Guided by Voices. Maybe it’s just that I can put a name to the sublime element of courage that always coursed through their songs, an element I was inured to years ago at that Alrosa Villa show. That night I wasn’t thinking about my courage, or my fate. Maybe I should have been.
In any tribute show, the performers try on the voices of their heroes, or inspirations, or simply predecessors. Arising from the same self-assertion that has urged modern American prophecy—nobody asked Kyle Sowash to set this up—perhaps any tribute show already enacts the egalitarianism and promised equal opportunity of American culture, even if it is a reproduction of an earlier ‘stepping forth’—maybe because it’s a reproduction. If they could do this, we can, too. At its best, a tribute show is an active and regenerating reproduction. Active as opposed to the normal, passive way we react to music as consumers-only. Regenerating in that the show loops back to the source without getting mired in it, and creates something new without tacitly rejecting the source. What’s being produced is not being “pressed, printed, stomped, and strategically removed…trapped, tricked, packaged and sent out”, in the words of the haunting GBV song “I Am Produced”. We are free to produce ourselves, to participate in what Guided by Voices was itself carrying on, to experiment with transforming from receivers to producers.
By performing at a Guided by Voices tribute, local bands can try on the prophetic voice of the need for courage. Nearly five years after Guided by Voices closed out its final show on New Year’s Eve, 2004 with “Don’t Stop Now”, there is a continuing dissatisfaction with the pessimism and outright nihilism of American culture, and at the risk of overreaching—oh hell, I passed that mark a long time ago—this particular tribute show reflects a dissatisfaction with nihilism’s cost and a desire for meaningful life. An attempt, perhaps, to fulfill Nietzsche’s prophecy by pushing through nihilism, via the courage Tillich identified and Guided by Voices proclaimed, toward new values, toward a new way of being.