Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Closer You Are' tells the Guided By Voices story


Matthew Cutter's 'Closer You Are.'
Matthew Cutter's 'Closer You Are.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Do Guided By Voices actually exist? They're revered by rock buffs, but they've never had the breakthrough hit that would make them a household name. They have well-known members, but their lineup is constantly changing. Instead of conventional album cycles, they spew LPs like frisbees. Their shows, inevitably drunken, seem on the verge of falling apart.

And yet they (almost) never quite do. At age 60, nearly half a century into his musical career, GBV frontman Robert Pollard is still out there making music, playing shows, and giving interviews — including to Matthew Cutter, the writer of a new authorized Pollard biography.

One reason GBV are so hard to pin down is that their success didn't line up with their generation. The band formed in the early '80s, gave up on live performances after a few frustrating years in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio, and then — it seems, in retrospect — just waited around for the music world to be ready for them.

By the time that moment arrived, when Bee Thousand hit in 1994 and Pollard was finally ready to quit his day job as a schoolteacher, he was 36 years old. The band came with a readymade myth, perfect for the DIY decade: Pollard and his bandmates created music on their own terms, but they weren't studio perfectionists. In fact, they were the opposite, jumping from one project to another without stopping to let the dust settle. Their sound was rough and noisy, but their songs were surprisingly complex.

And live, they were a glorious mess. Among the most famously drunken rock bands, GBV may have had the greatest longevity. The Replacements burned out, Pete Doherty got clean, others died. Pollard still administers a combination of beer and hard liquor before, during, and after shows. Sometimes the critics carp, but the ticket-buyers know precisely what they came for.

Cutter (presumably via Pollard) relates an anecdote from the mid-90s, when Pollard said he was considering playing a show sober. Nate Farley, a roadie-turned-band-member, replied, "I'll just stand there and f---in' boo." That was all the encouragement Pollard needed to keep boozing.

Fans' patience for this, of course, presumes that they actually did buy a ticket to see Guided By Voices. For much of the band's career, that hasn't been the case. Their notoriously high energy, their critical cachet, and their affordable price has made GBV a popular opening act. Much of Closer You Are relates the ways in which this has gone wrong.

"He'd grown frustrated with GBV's place in the musical pecking order," writes Cutter about the band's situation in the late '90s. "For example, Guided By Voices would play an eleven a.m. slot at a festival while a novelty act like Tenacious D headlined." Things weren't necessarily better when GBV were opening for seeming soulmates like Cheap Trick, who had to discreetly ask the potted Pollard to quit joining them onstage to sing harmony on "Surrender."

The ups and the downs, though, are all part of the legend. Whether sarcastically or not, Pollard said the band's favorite tour was their disastrous 1995 outing with Urge Overkill — then riding high on the success of their Pulp Fiction Neil Diamond cover "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon." GBV alienated press and sponsors, insulted the headliners, and had shouting matches with fans. Through it all, they knew that their machine-gun sets were way more exciting than the "utilitarian mid range thump" of Urge Overkill, as the New York Times put it in a review.

Born in Dayton in 1957, Pollard got around to picking up guitar almost as an afterthought. First, he conceived albums. As a teenager he'd create collage covers and write elaborate liner notes, complete with lyrics and musical credits, for music that never existed. Eventually, his peers picked up on his songwriting prowess and enticed him to join a series of bands that led to the official debut of Guided By Voices in 1983, at a gig attended by 20 people — one of whom was actor Nick Nolte, in Ohio to film the 1984 movie Teachers.

Self-releasing albums and playing shambolic live shows to often indifferent audiences, Guided By Voices played what Pollard decided had been their last show in 1986. For the next seven years, they'd be strictly a studio band, working on passion projects while Pollard held it down as "the cool teacher," delighting kids by spontaneously writing songs about their playground games. Finally, Pollard was ready to drop the curtain on even that limited life as a band, and in 1992 they dropped their would-be final album: Propeller, an album with covers the band members had to individually decorate because they couldn't afford anything fancier than plain white sleeves.

Against Pollard's instructions, his bandmates sent copies out for review — and in the wake of Nirvana, grungy but passionate indie rock was white-hot. Labels came calling, and suddenly GBV weren't broken up any more. The band hit their critical and, such as it was, commercial peak in the mid-90s with Bee Thousand and 1995's Alien Lanes.

Closer You Are (named after the Alien Lanes song that Cutter thinks best describes the band's live appeal) unfolds in a tumble of shows, sessions, personal piques, and one-liners. "We always wanted to be the Beatles on record and the Who live," Cutter quotes Pollard as saying, with sometime bandmate Jim Greer adding, "and Cheap Trick backstage."

Pollard himself is rarely quoted directly, but his perspective informs the whole volume. There are Pollard epigraphs at the opening of chapters, including a book-opening story in which Pollard recounts a dream he had in youth.

There was this record store. [...] It was just full of f---ing albums on the walls, racks of 45s. And all of them are s--t that I made up in my dream.

They weren't even real; nothing that I recognized. I started getting excited, grabbing all those albums. Nobody's in there, so I won't have to pay for them.

But then I wake up, and that's the nightmare part of it. You realize it's not real. It's like a dream where you find a bunch of money. I had four or five of these dreams. Eventually I said, "I'm going to have to make that reality."

Then he wakes up, and finds himself back in Dayton, where someone's constantly cracking a bottle. "There is no option in drinking," says Pollard about life in Ohio. "You f---ing drink."

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