New Theories of Everything Prompted by Guided by Voices Appreciation Night, or, Good News
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.
“Isn't it great to exist at this point in time?”
-- “Dayton, Ohio -- 19-Something-and-5”
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.”