Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Revisited: Guided By Voices

The early/mid 90s rock canon is a moldy old chestnut to tackle, considering it accounts for a huge percentage of what I had listened to in my formative years and thus a little bit hard to separate from pure nostalgia. This nostalgia, though, is of the few examples of "good" nostalgia, so here we are.

We recently watched the Pixies documentary, after which I realized something odd: the Pixies have somehow found themselves in the classic rock canon. People talk about the band with the same fondness that others mention the Police or 80s REM/U2, bands that are a still a little too odd to find themselves in the same light as Led Zeppelin but not odd enough to find themselves as renegade as the Stooges might still be considered to be. I mean, who can't name the next line to "Hey! Been tryin' to meet you"?

If you haven't noticed it already, Guided By Voices has slipped into a close second. While they still might have more of a cult following than the Pixies does, there's an awful lot of people that know "My Valuable Hunting Knife." Guided By Voices has that good ol' college rock gumption that people identify with en masse, and if you still don't believe me, go to a Ween show and see how many frat guys show up, and extrapolate that accessibility by a multiple.

The most identifying GBV album, in my mind, remains one of their earliest: Bee Thousand. The album doesn't truly start until its second song, "Buzzards and Dreadful Crows," much like Big Star's #1 Record doesn't really get going until "Ballad of El Goodo." From there, it's hard for any of the songs to skip a beat, considering most are two and half minutes in duration.

It's "Hot Freaks" that really gets me going. A combination of tape hiss, erotic imagery comprised mainly of culinary references: it's got e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. I'm generally bad for remembering lyrics, but it doesn't take long for me to remember when exactly to yell out "Hot Freaks!" (and it still makes me giggle when he sings about a "wet spot bigger than the Great Lakes").

Of course, as with the Pixies, fuck if I know what the hell Pollard's on about. Understanding isn't the point. There's a whole dissertation on what Pollard (and to a lesser extent, Tobin Sprout) might have meant when he sang about robot boys - read it, and more power to you - but when it boils down to it, Bee Thousand's mass appeal is about soundbites. It really doesn't matter whether you know what "Kicker of Elves" might refer to, but it sure is fun to sing along to, and catchy enough to nestle itself in mass memory.

This is why I figure Pollard has remained more memorable than Lou Barlow. Both were widely associated with the whole lo-fi thing in the mid-90s (Bee Thousand being the most exemplary example), but Sebadoh's certainly not the crowd fave of the two. I loved both at the time, but GBV's a lot more fun to listen to now, with Barlow's sadsack whining being the last thing I need to listen to now, having (hopefully) grown out of any adolescent angst (btw, the Dinosaur Jr albums aren't a great trip down memory lane, either).

That's not to say Pollard's not just as big of an asshole as Barlow - he is, but just a whole lot funnier. When I was 19 or 20, I ended up backstage at a GBV show here in Vancouver, and watched Pollard smoke up in the green room with one of the Zumpano guys while making fun of Eric Matthews (who they had apparently both met at a Sub Pop party). At one point they wanted to release a split 7" called "Fuck Eric Matthews" (the Zumpano guy since carried on with the New Pornographers).

This was they hey-day of whino-GBV, in the incarnation with Mitch Mitchell, Tobin Sprout, and Kevin Fennell. Pollard had pawned off his press obligations to Fennell, who I interviewed for hours before the show, watching him get progressively more and more drunk inside the Commodore, switching from thought-out soundbites ("I fucking love Canada!") to off-the-cuff rants ("I fucking hate Canada!"). This culminated in Fennell running out on a dinner tab and me leaving it to the V3 groupies to pay out.

It wasn't exactly glamorous, in the strictest sense, but it sure was exciting to watch. I re-read whatever GBV press was out, starting with what got me into the band in the first place, a sidebar piece Jim Greer had written in Spin (at the time I was convinced Greer/Blackwell/et al were the second coming of the 70s Rolling Stone). Greer subsequently wrote piece after piece on the band, and, more than that, joined the band (and married Kim Deal, who by that point was pretty much done with the Breeders, started the Amps, and released a number of singles with Pollard). Much like the rest of the GBV lineup from that period, Greer parted ways with Pollard (though he did write a whole book on the subject), which coincided nicely with when I parted ways with GBV too.

Since then, it's probably been around seven or eight years since I listened to Guided By Voices. Despite this fact, I did buy a few of the albums on CD to replace the cassettes I had, out of no better reason than wanting to own them, regardless of never wanting to actually listen to them. And the thing is, after so many years, I still know exactly when to shout out "Hot Freaks."

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