[6 June 2010]
“Isn’t it great to exist at this point in time?”
A few years back I got really drunk at a Guided by Voices show. It was five years to the day that a friend of mine had passed—he was a brave explorer and I was the map-keeper rushing to keep up; he turned me on to the Melvins, Prince’s Sign o’ the Times and Vic Wooten. I’d been up to visit his burying place earlier in the day and then hauled ass to get back for the show at the Alrosa Villa. In a blur of rock and roll, sorrow, and self-pity, I discovered how easy it was to drink a pitcher of lukewarm Miller Lite. And those guys in the band thought they could drink?
I trashed my apartment that night, screaming at the injustice of the world and all that my friend was missing—shouting into the void of life and death, what Nietzsche called the abyss. I was loud enough that Porkchop, my punk neighbor, called the cops, worried that I was being murdered. Passed out on my bed when the impression of their flashlights danced across my blinds and they asked if everything was okay in there, I gave them a thumbs-up they couldn’t see.
I didn’t get the Guided by Voices message that night. In the intensity of a grief that had taken me by surprise—so much for “moving on”, I thought—I couldn’t have heard the secret prophecy if Bob Pollard had leaned down to me from the stage and shouted it into my ear. Nor would the message have soothed me. No music, no prophecy is a panacea; at best, it’s the pill you take from day to day, and every now and then you feel a little progress.
Tonight I’m not drinking. Tonight is nearly five years to the day since last Robert Pollard and his merry band graced the stage. Tonight, to mark that occasion, a local musician named Kyle Sowash has organized a Guided by Voices Appreciation Night at Columbus, Ohio’s Treehouse. Tonight I’m riding to the show on the floor of a van weathered by the cross-country touring of Eric Nassau, another friend of mine—he’s got the back tricked out with a bed to avoid those lousy motels that only steal your money. Tonight he will be performing, and his good friend Tom will be hearing Guided by Voices songs for the first time, and tonight I will go belly-up in some kind of mental cloud, a meandering consideration of what tribute shows are really about, and why Guided by Voices deserves one, and what they were really about—and that will lead to thoughts about prophecy and nihilism and Ralph Waldo Emerson and postmodernism. I’ll end up with something like this: tribute shows like the one tonight are the products of souls in search. What they’re searching for varies, of course, but tonight, because it’s Guided by Voices, they and we are seeking a particular kind of courage that seems lunatic, and therefore absolutely necessary.
“Echo and his brother
Fish and Peter Pig
Will meet where it’s big.”
With his guitar bag slung over his shoulder, and decked out in a winter cap and coat, his frizzy beard hanging midway down his chest, Eric faces me with red-rimmed eyes in the Treehouse tree room, where the bands play. “Bob Pollard’s sitting in the corner,” he says, nodding toward the back.
“Oh shit.” I glance past the silver maple in the center of the room. “And you’re first?”
Eric is also the only singer-songwriter, the only lonely troubadour armed with just an acoustic on a night when amplification is priority number two.
Tom says, “Time to nut up or shut up,” and Eric nods, sidling off to the bar for some whiskey.
So apparently Pollard and his brother and Nate Farley are camped in the corner, huddled around a table in the shadows. We are not the first tribute show to be graced by Bob Pollard’s presence; he visited a similar show in Cincinnati, and has appeared onstage at Heedfest, the annual salty salute to all things GBV in Dayton. (During that event, you can take a bus tour of important Voices sites. Really.)
Somehow all of this makes perfect sense: it’s laid-back cool; winkingly egotistical in the same manner as his stage persona. The karate kicks and microphone twirling only ever worked because Pollard seemed like your next-door neighbor cranking up the Marshall on a Saturday afternoon. Because it seemed like you could be Bob Pollard. Besides, this isn’t the Bob Pollard Tribute-a-thon. During the four-and-a-half-hour show, Tobin Sprout is celebrated as much as Bob, if more implicitly, and besides thanking Bob for being there—sort of like you would thank Mr. Entle for letting you use his barn for the Big Party—the bands focus on the songs.
That’s because local musicians like us meet our heroes in these songs. You could say that’s true for everyone, of course; put on a Who record in your rec room or basement, and you not only imagine Roger Daltrey, you cop his moves and imagine you are Roger Daltrey. But it’s different for musicians who’ve spent hours learning to play that A major suspended (“Tractor Rape Chain”) in the same voicing of the record, who then go beyond the chords and the rhythms to find the spirit of the song. Though we’re not immune to the pretense that we transform into our heroes by blazing through “My Valuable Hunting Knife”, the pretense wilts deep in the guts of a song, vaporizes once you pile your gear into a cold van with a rattling muffler and set up again on a stage roughly the size of a postage stamp. To put it formally, you cannot help but realize the difference between you and the Other. But still you go on. You back up into the lovin’ arms of the song, where you can talk back to Father (or Mother) of the Song. “Bright Paper Werewolves” itself is the rec room. “I Am a Scientist” is the garage.
20 minutes later, after Kyle Sowash and his band mates finish setting up the gear everyone’s going to share, and after the film crew from Kinopicz American has affixed a few iPhones around the room (including one mounted on the tree), Eric approaches the mic like a sacrificial lamb. I find out later that he chatted with Bob before his set:
ERIC: Hey, I’m Eric, I’m going to be butchering your songs pretty soon.
The rest of their conversation concerned the oddity of a German choir singing “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” and the strictly non-monetary bets Mr. Pollard was placing with his brother Jim about which song would be first, Bob having wagered on “Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy”. Informed of Eric’s choice, Jim Pollard approved, partly because he co-wrote it.
After the bizarreness of hearing Eric nail “Big Chief Chinese Restaurant”—“Introducing the amazing Rockethead! You know what the deal is, dude! Excuse me, Napoleon…!”—all the tension dissolves. With the help of local singers Miss Molly and Sean Woosley, who’ll close the night with his band, Eric’s set has the ragtag appeal of a lot of tribute shows. It doesn’t get everything exactly right, but that’s not the point. In our humble failings we only expose our genuine desire. Thank you for making this garage where I can hang out, Bob. And Eric’s cover of the Cure-like “Jar of Cardinals” is one of the most haunting songs I’ll hear all night.
“I honestly had no idea Bob was going to come to the show,” Kyle Sowash will tell me later. “I didn’t even know he knew about it. I figured eating wings someplace in Northridge with his buddies would take priority over driving all the way to Columbus to hear a bunch of local bands he’d never heard of play his songs.”
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 Cringe.com, 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.”
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.
“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.
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.
Conclusion: the faith in the categories of reason is the cause of nihilism. We have measured the value of the world according to categories that refer to a fictitious world.
– Nietzsche, The Will to Power
...And ancient ideas are on fire, my love…”
- “My Son Cool”
What I hear in Guided by Voices, what I heard and saw in them live, is a resistance to nihilism.
Nothing matters: that is the essence of nihilism as we usually think of it in contemporary society. As a thought, it’s a belief in no preordained meaning or values, no guiding voice. As an urge, the contemporary version of nihilism heads in two directions. The first is a path of destruction, the violent seduction of death and oblivion; if nothing matters, then life is the freedom to obliterate itself. Even the destruction is meaningless. This is the sound, sometimes, of punk, but it could just as easily be the sound of death metal and slo-core and rap and folk and country and pop music. The style of the music only affects how smoothly we’ll digest our despair.
The second direction is apathy. If nothing matters, then even obliteration is meaningless. Why put up a fight? What is the point of energy, even a destructive energy? Another prophet, diagnosing himself and his times—which, said Anton Chekhov, is the artist’s only obligation (he was a doctor, too)—captured this apathy in five simple words which gurgled out from MTV in the early 1990s: “Oh well, whatever, never mind”. They were a critique of culture and a critique of the music of that culture, a critique, even, of the song that was carrying the critique forward. The message screamed by a man onstage to thousands, eventually millions, was pointless. It couldn’t really change the world, a despairing idea Cobain reflected sometimes by mumbling Nirvana’s first hit song incoherently and sometimes by singing it like Frank Sinatra. No one cared. We sang the words for him, and some of us thought it was grand.
The apathetic strain of contemporary nihilism is the most pervasive, probably because it goes down smoother. And it makes for good entertainment for more people. In fact, it has become entertainment. When nothing matters, the least offensive activity is that entertainment which seems to know, even broadcast the idea, that it doesn’t matter. Pop fluff. If it tries to argue otherwise—if, say, an attractive female country singer dares to speak her views about a war—it’s ridiculed. The dominant public response is one of hierarchy and authenticity, but is girded by the claim that since entertainment no longer has anything to say, and since this person is entertainment, this person has nothing to say. This person, in fact, is not so much a person. So what begins as apathy ends up being destructive.
The character of contemporary nihilism was prophesied by Friedrich Nietzsche, who not only defined but also accurately diagnosed it as the coming conflict of modernity. For this Nietzsche has often been vilified and grossly misrepresented; we have assumed that the doctor was in favor of the disease. Not so. Nietzsche disdained the despair and apathy that nihilism was just beginning to cause in the late 19th century. The scion of a family of Lutheran ministers, Nietzsche believed the cause of nihilism was religion, specifically religion’s emphasis on a perfect other world which made this one expendable. As man realized the other world did not exist, Nietzsche claimed, man realized the fraudulence of his other values—aim, unity, and truth—and so ceased to believe in this world, too. He recognized in The Will to Power:
Existence has no goal or end; any comprehensive unity in the plurality of events is lacking: the character of existence is not ‘true,’ is false. One simply lacks any reason for convincing oneself that there is a true world.
This is the secret understanding of the 20th century, the mad turnabout of the project of the Enlightenment, and one could argue it came to fruition between 1939 and 1945, when a murderous ideologue and his cohorts exterminated millions, and when, in response, one country dropped onto a surgical center a bomb that killed 70,000 people instantly in a nuclear flash. Within six years, the competing aims of progress, science, and humanism clashed and over 60 million people died.
Like Roth’s apprehension of the American spectacle, Nietzsche’s prophesized nihilism was part of the milieu into which Guided by Voices stepped forth. They resisted it. And though it’s tempting to say it couldn’t have been any other way—that the urges toward destruction and apathy were part of the world around them, and so what else could they do?—the vigor of their resistance and the complexity of their response suggest a conscious effort, soaked in beer though it might have been.
XI. Nothing for Something
For why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals—because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these ‘values’ really had. We require, sometime, new values.
- Nietzsche, The Will to Power
“Buzzards and dreadful crows
A necessary evil, I suppose
There’s something in this deal for everyone
Did you really think that you were the only one?”
– “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows”
Nihilism was an unavoidable condition—a necessary evil—but Nietzsche believed it could have a purpose. In doing so, his more nuanced understanding of the term paved the way for 20th century existentialism and postmodernism. A time would come, he said, when mankind would have to confront the fact that life is without an intrinsic, ordained meaning, that existence has no aim, unity, or capital-T “truth”—what then? The confrontation would allow us to reconsider the ways we establish meaning and values. Here, at least, the destruction seems to have a purpose: to raze the earth of its hypocritical institutions and beliefs so that something new and more honest can be built. The debate turns toward what those new values will be.
If Nietzsche was a nihilist, as we often accuse him of being, then he wouldn’t have elaborated a response. That his responses to the problem of nihilism are controversial and endlessly argued, though, is an understatement. They are essentially boiled down to two ideas, the “will to power” and the Ubermensch, each of which possesses tones of exclusion and aristocratic privilege. What has tarnished the philosopher’s reputation, besides his supposed atheism—springing from his statement that “God is dead”, though he meant moreso our conception of a god—are the uses to which these two theories were put into practice by Nazis and fascists, who in the early 20th century perverted Nietzsche’s new values into foundations for the supremacy of race and nation. Nowhere did Nietzsche advocate the death which they meted out; their totalitarian systems crushed the individualism Nietzsche held dear. The philosopher knew the abyss must be gazed into; they expanded the abyss.
A more positive view of Nietzsche’s brand of nihilism and what good can come out of it is expressed by the Paul Tillich. A Christian theologian and existential philosopher, Tillich had a different take on Nietzsche’s theory of the will power in his 1952 book The Courage to Be, wherein he describes how, for Nietzsche, “Courage is the power of life to affirm itself in spite of [its own] ambiguity, while the negation of life because of its negativity is an expression of cowardice.” The phrase “in spite of” is crucial; it leads us to the word “sometimes”: sometimes life is miserable, but to confuse that for always is a serious error. Nihilism is an absolutist theory; what Tillich calls “courage” here is not. This courage sees the relative ups and downs of life, never believes it can eradicate all suffering, and never mistakes the occasional ambiguity and wretchedness and darkness of living to be its absolute, essential characteristics. Even in the center of a century of mass murder.
Emerson’s sermon of self-assertion—a methodology—finds in this view of Nietzsche and nihilism its purpose. The guiding voice of God, by the middle of the 19th century (about the time Emerson’s Transcendentalists, having done their job, were falling apart), is replaced by the self and the self’s subjective desires. The step forward onto the stage, or to the podium, the pulpit, the head of the table can be motivated by life’s affirmation in spite of. What that voice chooses to say is not mandated by the aim, unity, or truth of a single source, which means it’s free to speak of the courage to be. Or it can advocate nothingness.
I don’t know that a moment of truth arrives for any artist in a clear-cut manner. But I do know that in 1986, Bob Pollard and company did something no one was asking them to do, and that by 1992’s Propeller, they had already begun to make something from nothing—to write and record music, to play it for people, to design countless album covers and to silkscreen them by hand—which was, at least, a blow against apathetic nihilism. Then they kept pushing.
Sometimes I define pop music as song, performance, stance, idea that ignores the issue of in spite of. It pretends to have or legitimately has no awareness of suffering.
Counterclaim: The world is bad enough, we don’t need to be reminded all the time.
Rebuttal: No, but it seems more honest and pragmatic.
XIII. Nothing and Postmodernism
Nietzsche’s prophecy came true in the bloom of a mushroom cloud, and since then we’ve had to come to grips with nihilism. By that logic, what we call postmodernism is the struggle to understand nihilism and choose a direction now that our infection is complete.
I’ve heard postmodernism called many things. When the poet Li-Young Lee called it “the embodiment of ignorance and failure,” he didn’t mean, I think, its global scope, its multiculturalism, or its resistance to the blind faith in meta-narratives that the mushroom cloud destroyed. He meant something closer to a skepticism about the very act of knowing.
The good that has come from the age we call postmodernism—the attributes I’ve listed above, the empowerment of the oppressed and marginalized, the reconsideration of histories—is challenged in every way by the persistence of doubt. Skepticism, intensified, becomes nihilism. Meaning, we’re told, is enormously complicated, motivated by power—whose power? for what purpose?—and always arguable, always contradictory. Relativism which ought to liberate us only traps us. We can’t reach consensus. We cannot know, and we cannot trust that people say what they mean, because we don’t believe that words can mean anything. Maybe the whole project is wrong. Maybe the whole thing is a bad joke. Exhausted by life’s ambiguity, or, to equate it with Tillich’s words, by taking life’s ambiguity for an absolute, we despair. We risk surrender.
Again somebody asks, “What now?” Where postmodernism has failed is not in its diagnosis, but in its inability to offer the answer to that question, to offer a new treatment. This isn’t surprising considering postmodernism’s emphasis on the impossibility of an accurate diagnosis; when treatments are offered, they’re undercut by the philosophy’s doubt in the legitimacy of its medicine.
The impossibility of knowing makes for a fun debate during that stoned, three A.M. run to the Taco Bell, but as momma warned, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
When the body is at stake, when we are talking about flesh and blood and not abstractions of language, when the consequences of meaninglessness come to bear on the human being—and they inevitably do—then postmodernism’s talk of play and provisionality can seem nihilistic. To put it in more concrete terms: when you call a war a façade or simulacrum, you deny the reality of the bodies of the innocent and the guilty which are piling up, and when you point out the incessant relativism of words, you’re not really helping to get equal rights legislation passed, which means you are not helping Sally gain access to the hospital in order to visit her lover Mary. The modern Hippocratic oath, suitably enough, warns against the “twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.”
XIV. Rock and Roll
“And oh, mesh gear fox
Pull out another bag of tricks from your scientific box
Time’s wasting and you’re not gonna live forever”
- “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox (A Rock Anthem)”
It’s no accident, I think, that rock and roll is the battleground where the nihilism untreated by postmodernism is confronted, subdued, or surrendered to. Even if rock and roll has chronologically been the music of the postmodern era—when Jacques Derrida delivered his seminal lecture “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at Johns Hopkins in 1966, it was to an audience of American academics listening to Blonde on Blonde—and even if it speaks to themes of relativism, aporia, and historical reconsideration, rock and roll has always been a medium of electricity, sweat, and the body.
For that reason, rock and roll is pragmatic—occasionally a political and philosophical pragmatism, but always, sometimes obsessively, the it’s-Saturday-night-let’s-get-it-on brand of pragmatism. Even when the music and lyrics dwell on doubts and uncertainties and aporia—on stillness, stasis, incarceration—they are still being performed, acted out, and there is a sense that someone has to pay, someone has something to gain, and in the performance, someone can be hurt, or saved. Dealing in consequence, rock and roll in its viscerality seduces, shames, sexes, and moves its listeners. Good rock and roll, anyway. Which is another way of describing the difference between rock and mere entertainment. It’s the difference between music that kills some time—nihilism—and music that engorges time with meaning; that innervates the courage to believe, even if it’s a belief that the building needs to be burned down.
If this is how I define good rock and roll, then I have to admit that, despite its tendency to side against nihilism by virtue of its form, rock and roll is still, as I said, a place where nihilism can be surrendered to. Certainly by the late 20th century, nihilism was a seething answer to any kind of “courage to be”, labeling the latter as either impossible, naïve, falsely innocent, politically-manipulated, or merely profit-driven. Not that the prophets had been silent: KRS-One warned against it; Bruce Springsteen warred against it in the American blue-collar vernacular; Nirvana and Bikini Kill tried to choke it. And now, a decade into a new century, I’m not convinced that the landscape has changed drastically. Is the cinematic sound of Animal Collective an affirmation of life or an escape from it?
What I will say is that the question of nihilism grows more urgent, that people are looking for something to move themselves beyond postmodernism’s malaise, and that rock and roll’s function as battleground is not going to change. And that, for roughly a decade and ever since, Guided by Voices prophesied the sound of the courage to believe.
Listening to Guided by Voices today, I hear the yearning, to paraphrase Dr. Cornel West on the venerable Charlie Rose show, to believe in some possibility “by means of our stepping out on nothing and landing on something.” The “nothing” West spoke of was his brand of a very Christian doubt, and while the GBV oeuvre never suggests any kind of coherent theology, to my ears, Voices songs do evoke a madness and sorrow that can be overcome. Call it a secular faith, call it the belief in belief.
You can hear it in the music itself, especially the early years, when every song or song-fragment seemed like a chance. You can hear it in the literal voice of Bob Pollard, the Everyman whose singing sounds like something made from nothing much. You can see it in his heroic-in-spite-of stage persona. And most of all, you can find it in the words. Everything about Guided by Voices is, as I’ve mentioned, active and imperative and forward-looking. Infused with an awareness of suffering, the songs gain greater courage for that knowledge.
Nihilism is fought by what Tillich calls the worth of man’s “own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation.” In spite of death, in spite of doubt. Bob Pollard stands on the roof of a beat-up Pontiac waving his younger self, or us, into the circle in the “Motor Away” video. Onstage, Pollard plays the fool, reporting on the bondage of our fears and desires while kicking karate and guzzling beer by the gallon, not to ignore, not to escape, but to confront, to lead. If Cobain was a prophet because he diagnosed like Nietzsche, Pollard is a prophet because he recognized that nihilism’s price—when it finally comes due, when it is finally leveraged against the human body, against the desire for more life, against the courage to be—is too high.
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.