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Thursday, September 08, 2005

 

Proof

According to Jim Greer's forthcoming book on rock band Guided by Voices, Bob Pollard and his friends have spent much of their lives drunk. After finishing the thing (a friend found an uncorrected proof copy at a yard sale and passed it along), I half wonder if Greer was knocking back a few as he wrote it. It reads like most drunks' stories: unfocused, with flashes of insight or amusement, but ultimately less interesting than they think. Just one example of the 180 proof wit:

"Remember at the old Monument Club where we'd piss into a piss bucket just outside?" recalls Bob late one night surrounded by friends after a show. "And it's be full of piss, Clorox, gnats. Bryan and all his friends were there, and--was it you, Jeremy [Myers]?--yeah, and they gave, how much did they give you? Fifty bucks? They gave him fifty bucks to stick a glass in there and drink that shit, do a shot of it."

Maybe you had to be there. A lot of the book is like that. Well, the parts that aren't Pollard and his brother reminiscing about their high school sports teams. Don't get me wrong: sections are valuable, such as a Q&A with Pollard about possible meanings of various GBV tunes. The partial discography provides a reasonably coherent picture of the band's voluminous (upwards of 1000 songs) recorded output. And Greer dutifully recounts, twists and turns included, the slight upward trajectory of a middle-aged school teacher from Ohio who has spent 20+ years making some of the best rock music of all time, (no lie) from cruddy home cassette recordings to big studio efforts for major labels and back to the indies for a final few albums before dissolving the band last year. I've been a casual fan since Bee Thousand in '94, following most of the major albums but few of the rarities or side projects, and I was delighted to finally see them last year in Northhampton on what turned out to be their final tour. The book gave me a mild kick by letting me peer behind the scenes of favorite records like Mag Earwhig! and Alien Lanes.

But too much of the book is a pedestrian, hanging with the band rehashing (Greer, a former Spin editor, also played bass in GBV for three years) of personality conflicts, on-tour debauchery, and contradictory accounts of the main subject--is Pollard an insufferable, paranoid, vain, jealous egomaniac...or the nicest, most supportive guy who ever lived? Or both? To be honest, I've read few rock star biographies, and perhaps many of them suffer from the same deficiences, but even if this is meant as a fan guide, it ought to communicate the brilliance of the art it celebrates. Bob Pollard may not be a certifiable genius as some of the book's commentators assert, (poet and novelist Dennis Cooper calls him "the greatest living artist in any medium") but he's certainly capable of genius in bursts: Chasing Heather Crazy, Buzzards and Dreadful Crows, Motor Away, Not Behind the Fighter Jet, Everywhere With Helicopter, The Brides Have Hit Glass, If We Wait, Girls of Wild Strawberries and about 200 other absolutely essential songs that sound like the Who if the Who were as good as Pollard thinks they are. Pollard and his Dayton scene are similar in many respects to Calvin Johnson's K Records/cuddlecore scene in Olympia and other regional artists who create movements and attract groups of like-minded friends/followers through talent, obnoxiousness and sheer force of will.

In fairness to Greer, he does occasionally stop to think about the dynamics of Pollard's art, and when he does the writing becomes more lucid, and more interesting than drunk war stories about guys falling off of stages:

There has always existed in Bob a dichotomy between the committed eccentric, happy to contain his self-expression to a small but steady group of supporters, and the would-be rock star who grew up worshipping Pete Townshend and whose ego could not be contained within the world of indie-rock--a world he felt uncomfortable inhabiting, and came to despise. Because he had trouble reconciling these two sides of his personality, one might argue, Guided By Voices was able to progress without destroying its essential qualities--a restless experimental side, unsatisfied with simple song structures and easy melodies, and an uncontrollable tendency to write poetry rather than lyrics, poetry without very often an indecipherable meaning, or rewritten to obscure the literal meaning, because Bob has a metaphorical hatred of the literal.

The book also succeeds, if indirectly, at portraying the ways in which alcoholism both binds together Pollard's relationships and tears them apart. He's an unapologetic, even defiant drunk, one half classic rock and roller dionysus, one half pathetic. To a large extent, it really doesn't matter how Pollard lives his life; however difficult, exhausting or self-destructive he may be, I don't have to hang out with him, and it sure has resulted in some great songs. But by the same logic, the book as written, with its focus on the churn of lineup changes and with its' ambivalent apologia for Pollard's behavior, doesn't really need to exist either. One suspects there's a far more serious, ambitious volume to be gleaned from the subject, but not by this author.

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