Books

Matthew Cutter Chronicles the Ordinary/ Extraordinary Life of Robert Pollard

On the lo-fi high jinks of unlikely alt-rock legend, Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard.

Closer You Are: The Story of Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices
Matthew Cutter

Da Capo Press

Aug 2018

Other

There can be few more daunting tasks in chronicling the history of popular music than grappling with the enormous output of the many and various guises of Robert Pollard. An online database details his involvement in a shade under 2,400 songs recorded, written or performed in 35 bands or projects since 1987. That's a heck of a work ethic Imagine you've got the job of writing his biography. Where do you start?

Matthew Cutter's Closer You Are does a great job in making the unlikely success story of an elementary school teacher who accidentally becomes the first lo-fi icon an engaging read, even for non-devotees. It's the classic Hollywood tale of the rookie kid from the chorus (or in this case, the late 30's misfit with a penchant for Budweiser) rising from obscurity by overcoming obstacles with dogged persistency. It's almost Funny Girl (Wyler, 1968) for Generation X.

Cutter makes a virtue of Pollard's ordinariness. A native of uber-non-glamourous Dayton, Ohio, he washed dishes for pocket money, went to college, played in garage bands and eventually ended up as a teacher in a small town school. So far, so what? Fortunately, the writer has a real flair for finding vignettes which have a real resonance in Pollard's later life. A great example is the horrified reaction of Pollards parents to him smashing a mantis with a plastic toy hammer. Cutter writes "He (Pollard) didn't feel particularly bad about what he'd done, but he noted the reaction he'd garnered just by ignoring expectations." Pollard seems to have made a career out of ignoring expectations.

The story really begins where by rights, it should have ended. Following the time-worn path of miming to Monkees tunes in front of his schoolmates, leading to a teenage devotion to Kiss, Pollard ends up in the inevitable bar band. He releases a handful of albums which achieve local notoriety and national obscurity, which is where our hero should straighten up and fly right. Instead, he throws himself headfirst into a career which continues to unfold over 30 years after his first, vanity produced record. Cutter digs deep here and manages to make drunken high jinks by local musicians, prolonging their teenage years, sound interesting at the very least. He even unearths a revelation or two. The reader may be surprised to learn that to Guided By Voices, who always looked as if they all got dressed in the dark, image was incredibly important. "First and foremost, we had to fucking look good," quotes the author, "because we weren't good." One of the Ten Commandments of rock 'n' roll, right there and very succinctly put.

Robert Pollard. Press photo courtesy of Tell All Your Friends PR.

You don't have to be a Pollard aficionado to enjoy this book, but you certainly need stamina. Because of the enormous breadth of his output and the almost bewildering cavalcade of bands, solo projects, short lived collaborations and jokey pseudonyms, the reader will need all their wits about them. Cutter does his best to catalogue all of them, but the ever-changing roster of band members and record labels could lead to some head scratching and backtracking by the reader. One of those Pete Frame-styled "Rock Family Tree" diagrams on Guided by Voices would have to be the size of an Olympic swimming pool. Notes in the margins may help you.

Cutter doesn't let his admiration of the subject get in the way of telling the truth. It may not be "warts 'n all", but it's certainly an unvarnished story and Pollards erratic behaviour -- tantrums, drunken boorishness and his habit of firing band members on a whim -- are all front and centre here. Pollard however, isn't painted as some Jim Morrison styled bad boy of rock 'n' roll, but as an ordinary man from an ordinary background, dealing with extra-ordinary things.

This is an exhaustive book. Cutter has interviewed every significant character in Pollard's life and fact checked himself into a frenzy. If you put all the 7" singles, albums, cassettes and CDs he had to listen to when he was writing this, they'd weigh more than a Buick full of college students. For that alone, he should be praised. The fact that he makes it less than a tiresome chore, is admirable.

After reading Closer You Are, I found myself trawling the internet for Guided by Voices performances and came across a show recorded in Oslo in 2011. Onstage, five doughy, middle-aged men who look like mechanics (except for the bassist who looks like a member of the Turtles) rip through an immense back catalogue with energy and enthusiasm. Or, as Cutters last words in the book state:

"Pop quiz: What, if anything, have we learned? Answer: Rock 'n' roll will never die".

We can rest assured that rock 'n' roll is in pretty good hands. The custodian may have been drinking since lunchtime and tetchy due to nicotine withdrawal, but he loves his work and he's good at it. And that's the moral of Closer You Are.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.