September 1995, Washington, D.C. My friend Tommy Z. tosses me a disc titled Alien Lanes. "You used to live in Dayton," he says. "Did you ever hear of this group?" Tommy is my infallible music guru, a former record store clerk who ferrets out sonic experiences that I, a harried lawyer, would never discover on my own. Music, especially rock and roll, means as much to me as it ever did -- as high and low culture, as an outlet from the job, as something to do while drinking beer and hoping to meet women. But figuring out what's truly interesting takes so damn much work, and Tommy, who had roughly the same shameful Zeppelin-listenin', malt-liquor guzzlin', Pacific Northwest farm-town adolescence as I, is an indispensable ally. In this age of information overload, he's a flesh-and-blood "agent" who distills detailed concert listings down to a short menu of options, a "bozo filter" against everything that is a waste of time and money.
On this rare occasion, I seem to have the edge on Tommy. The album photo depicts the familiar faces of Robert Pollard, the cherub-faced lead singer of Guided By Voices, and Mitch Mitchell, a long-haired, tattooed rocker's rocker. "Hmmm," I say, "I could almost swear I saw these guys live, and I'm pretty sure the band name was the same." Looking further, I spot a cryptic liner-note reference to the Pine Club, a Dayton steak house where I have eaten many a meal, and countless song lyrics about jets, blimps, and airplanes. "Aha!" I shout, eager to dazzle Tommy with my inside knowledge about this band and its home town. "Birthplace of Aviation, y'know, Wright Brothers -- it's a really big deal there."
Pressing my advantage, I recount to Tommy how, in 1986, I was working my first real job at a nonprofit think tank in the Dayton suburbs, a job that frequently drove me to seek musical release. Dayton never struck me as having much of a music scene; it was fortuitously at the intersection of the Chicago blues circuit and the Cleveland reggae circuit, but seemed to offer little in the way of rock and roll, unless you counted the hair bands and washed-up sixties stars who passed through town from time to time. One highlight was seeing Dave Mason (of Traffic fame) give a free show downtown, reprising "Dear Mr. Fantasy" while we swilled warm beer from a Budweiser truck.
Then came Guided By Voices. At some point during that long summer, I latched onto this scruffy four-piece act, fresh from their garage rehearsals. In my book, the best thing about them was that they sounded uncannily like my then-favorite band, R.E.M.; I would hang around their shows hoping for the odd cover of "Sitting Still." Yet these guys were solid musicians in their own right, affectingly earnest, and their songwriting quirky and original -- even if the tunes did sometimes sound like Murmur played backwards. There clearly was something there trying to be born, and when their first self-published record turned up in local stores, I wasn't surprised...but I wasn't moved enough to buy it, either.
Now I had been handed a second chance. "Put the disc on," I say to Tommy, authoritatively. "You won't believe how much they sound like old R.E.M."
Forty-three minutes and twenty-eight songs later, I am speechless....Elvis Almighty, what a difference! The album defies genre, and can only be described as retro-late '60's-British Invasion psychedelic pop. Pollard has shed every trace of Stipe-alike, in favor of sounding more like Paul McCartney than Paul himself does these days. The gentle jingle-jangle guitars have given way to Merseybeat with a '90's tinge, especially Mitchell's whipsaw rhythm guitar, which has become GBV's signature sound. The lyrics, mostly by Pollard, reflect a trippy sensibility -- this is a man who's not afraid to rhyme "saucer-shaped coffin" with "Baron von Richthofen." The whole concoction somehow manages to sound simultaneously note-for-note familiar and wholly original, creating a weird sense of rock'n'roll deja vu. Imagine Magical Mystery Tour and/or Sgt. Pepper's mixed with a bit of Kinks, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and early Genesis-Yes-King Crimson art rock, tossed into a blender set to puree. "If that's really the same band," Tommy says, smirking at me, "they've been doing some serious drugs."
What neither of us suspects until far too late is the drug-like nature of the music itself. GBV tunes are insidious, sugar-coated morsels that sneak into your system, sprout talons, and then cling to your hindbrain. Since Tommy and I have secret origins in rural places where '70's album rock RULED, we are especially susceptible -- Pollard's homages to that era affect us like Kryptonite. Within days, Tommy is addicted to "My Valuable Hunting Knife," alternately pleading with me to play it for him (citing seniority, I have confiscated the CD) and to pound it out of his skull; while I have developed an alarming propensity to sing "Tractor Rape Chain" out loud at work. Within weeks, we are able to recite the rich GBV mythology chapter-and-verse: how young Bob Pollard hooked up with a rotating cast of high school buddies, including his brother Jim, to form the group; how they gave just a handful of live performances before retreating to the basement, where they recorded half a dozen brilliant but unheralded albums in as many years, practically inventing the "lo-fi" movement in the process; how the live act was reborn in 1993 at CBGB in New York, where their beer-fueled stage antics utterly blew away the alternative rock establishment; how Pollard had spent fourteen years teaching fourth grade before finally quitting his job a year ago.
Two months later, when Guided By Voices plays the Capitol Ballroom, the middle act on a triple bill, we decide to take no chances. We show up at 8:30, unthinkably early for a D.C. Friday night -- disaster! Already on stage, with a microphone in one hand and a Miller High Life in the other, Robert Pollard is belting out "Motor Away," while Mitch Mitchell hammers power chords in the background. These are the same guys, all right -- maybe a little grey around the edges, but their frat-boy demeanor suggests an all-night rock'n'roll party. I settle in; my friend Jill exercises her prerogative to go to the ladies' room. Big mistake. As it happens, the band is most of the way through a skimpy thirty-minute set, a limit slapped on them by tour management. They're chased offstage before I can finish my first beer. I'm despondent, but Tommy turns oddly philosophical, reeling off an anecdote about some mystic painter who labored for years in obscurity before being discovered: "The well does not come to the thirsty man; the thirsty man must come to the well. Pollard is a well." Those words linger in my mind, together with the echoes of "Motor Away."
April 1996, somewhere in West Virginia The photograph is ten years old, grainy, and shot from much too far away. It depicts the Dayton bandshell, one of those delightful civic relics from the era before everyone decided to stay at home watching their VCRs. Guided By Voices is giving a free show at a local music festival, probably their second or third public appearance. The lineup is all wrong: Pollard is playing guitar, which he no longer does on stage, Mitch Mitchell is on bass, and the rhythm guitarist is unidentifiable. I don't remember what prompted me to take the snapshot, but I do remember taking it with my girlfriend's camera, and breaking up with her not long afterward. The print arrived in the mail with a note saying "here's the photo of your God-damned rock band," or something like that. Little could she have known....
The photograph presently is propped up on the dashboard of a brand-new Oldsmobile, where it serves as a lodestar for my and Tommy Z.'s venture into the Great Midwest. Desperate for another chance to see GBV live, we have taken matters into our own hands, '90's style: copped tour dates from the band's Web page (http://www.gbv.com), tickets from the ubiquitous TicketBastard, rental car from Avis. This morning, as we paced around waiting for the car to be fueled, I had given my best impersonation of a practicing lawyer: "Do we get unlimited mileage on that?" "Of course," the clerk said, cheerfully. "Gooood." Tommy, for his part, has shrewdly cashed in on a coupon entitling us to a full-size car for the mid-size rate -- whatever that means. For our purposes, this automobile's best feature is its twin cigarette lighter sockets, one for the CD player and one for the radar detector. Both are in use; we're motoring away down I-64 on our way to Louisville, Kentucky and Columbia, Missouri.
By now, we have absorbed the entire Guided by Voices catalog, analyzed the band's multifarious influences, and sheepishly rediscovered our own high school favorites: wretched British art-rock bands who would have been so much better if only they had adhered to GBV's ninety-second song lengths. At the moment, we're having an animated debate over the relative merits of Jethro Tull (Tommy's point) versus Yes (my counterpoint). Gesturing emphatically, I bump into one of the car's cheap plastic air vents, which promptly shatters. We discuss whether this rates a mention on the official Avis "incident report" that we found in the glove compartment, and how such a report should read. We settle on "Busted air vent -- NOT OUR FAULT."
I'm nursing a week-old case of Romanian Stomach Crud, the predictable side effect of a business trip to Bucharest. Once he heard where I'd been, the doctor didn't bother to run tests, just gave me the strongest antibiotic imaginable. His prescription came with a warning: "you absolutely must not mix this with alcohol, or you'll get sick as a dog." See a GBV show sober? As one band member put it in an interview, "we tried not drinking once, and it was really fucked up...we're never doing that again." It's with good reason that the band's nickname is Guided By Beer, and hardcore fans, Pollard's "new drunk drivers," tend to subscribe to the GBB ethic. Still, we'll have a lot more road to cover after this show, so I resign myself to designated driver status and big hits of Pepto-Bismol straight from the bottle.
Ten hours and 700 miles from Washington, we arrive on the outskirts of Louisville, and only there realize that we don't have a clue where to go next. Pulling into a rest area, Tommy asks the affable -- and exceedingly drunk -- man at the information desk if he knows where the club is. "You guys lookin' for the Phoenix Hill Tavern? You single? There's a lot of purty women go there. 'Course, I wouldn't know nothing about that, I'm a faggot myself, that's why I'm here. Hey, do you guys need any info about the Derby?" This is a good omen; the GBV song "Hit" speaks of "the coming of age...coming into town with the giggling faggots." And indeed, his directions are flawless, and we arrive fifteen minutes before the band takes the stage. I grin. "Tommy, we're in Kentucky!"
"Hey everybody, get down here in the snake pit," Pollard calls out. The "snake pit" is a curiously sunken dance floor the size of my living room; we are only five feet from the stage. Tommy, who earlier had threatened to expire if he came into close proximity to the band, seems to be holding up alright. I'm clutching a warm Sprite, but the Stomach Crud seems to have subsided, overtaken by GBVitis. "Are you ready, kids?" Pollard asks -- once a fourth-grade teacher, always a fourth-grade teacher -- "One, two, three, FOUR..."
The show is uneven at best. It's the first date of the tour, and the band treats Louisville, a couple hours' drive from Dayton, like their back yard. The crowd responds in kind. Aside from us kids packed into the snake pit, many of the (mostly seated) patrons appear to be using the music as a soundtrack for their pick-up attempts, exactly as we'd been promised. Someone in the very back is flipping a steady stream of bottlecaps at the stage, and one of them finally hits Pollard in the nose, drawing blood. He's drunk, even by GBB standards, and doesn't notice he's bleeding until Matt Sweeney, the bass player, tells him. Pollard is doing his trademark kicks, jumps, and twirls, but faced with a choice between holding onto the microphone and holding onto his beer, he chooses the beer every time; at least twice, the mike hits the floor with an amplified thunk. Eventually, it winds up in the hands of the littlest fans, who grace us with their own interpretations of Guided By Voices songs, their special requests, and the classic chant: "GBV! G-B-muthafuckin'-V! GBV!"
For all the distractions, there are some rock moments beyond belief. Mitch sometimes pounds on, sometimes shreds his Gibson guitar, never once losing the cigarette that dangles, Keith Richards- style, from his lower lip. Sweeney, new to the band, pumps out a fluid bass line despite spending much of the time dodging that twirling microphone. Veteran GBV'er Tobin Sprout stands well out of the danger zone, aloof, fashioning precision guitar melodies and lilting vocal harmonies. Kevin Fennell, the drummer, is a rock-solid anchor for Pollard's tipsy meanderings. And Pollard himself thrills us by nailing the vocals for "Hot Freaks," right down to the Roger Daltrey stammer: "Hot F-F-Freaks!" The songs from their latest album, barely a month old, sound fantastic live, and I catch myself gleefully shouting out the chorus to "Big Boring Wedding": "Pass the word, the chicks are back!" An appropriate anthem for the Phoenix Hill Tavern. It's all over way too soon, and once again we have to hit the road. But not before lingering at the merchandise table, where Pete Jamison, the band's manager-for-life, loads us up with t-shirts, bootleg vinyl, and other GBV paraphernalia. Jubilant, standing in the parking lot, Tommy and I spontaneously compose another Avis incident report: "Guided By Voices sticker on rear bumper -- NOT OUR FAULT."
The remaining distance between Louisville and Columbia is a Coca-Cola- and Ho-Ho-induced blur punctuated only by a lengthy procession of aliens, disguised as orange highway cones, who are laying waste to Southern Indiana. Sympathetic to their cause, I blearily cue up GBV's "Marchers in Orange." The Saint Louis Arch rears out of the darkness, a gigantic mothership directing the invasion. Finally arriving in Columbia, we navigate past cul-de-sacs to the home of Johnny Z., one of Tommy Z.'s many siblings. It's a mansion (both Johnny and his wife are doctors), and we let ourselves into the guest suite and collapse. The clock radio reads 6:00 am; the trip odometer on the Olds reads exactly 1000 miles.
"Whattya mean, he said you couldn't drink?" asks Dr. Johnny the next afternoon, scrutinizing my antibiotics with great interest. "Nah, that's bogus. That only applies to 10-15% of the population. If you were affected you'd know it -- you'd have an instant Antabuse-like reaction." When my first few swigs of beer fail to produce such a reaction all over his white couch, he pronounces me fit to drink. Many swigs and many GBV tunes later, Dr. Johnny decides to shave his head. It's unclear to me exactly what was the deliberative process behind this fashion statement; he simply disappears into the utility room, re-emerges with electric shears, and starts hacking away at his scalp. Earlier, Tommy had confided to me that Dr. Karen, his sister-in-law, worries that Tommy's visits are a bad influence on Johnny, and I immediately start to panic. "Oh man, we're gonna be in trouble; she's about to come home, there are empty beer bottles all over the house, and he's shaving his head!" I whimper. Fortunately, Dr. Karen is cool with Dr. Johnny's stubble, and I return to less urgent concerns, such as wondering whether I would ever accept medical treatment from this man. Then again, he practices emergency medicine, so it probably wouldn't be a matter of free choice.
Dr. and Mrs. Z.'s clinical attitude continues through dinner, during which Karen, a dermatologist, describes in exquisite detail the cyst that she lanced earlier that day. It persists at the concert hall, where they ponder the Stomach Crud, inquiring about the frequency and consistency of my stools. They are mercifully drowned out by the opening bands, and by the time GBV wanders onstage, I have drunk way too much beer to worry about medical issues. Apparently a few other audience members also were in Louisville, for one shouts out to Pollard: "Hey, Bob, how's your nose?"
Maybe it's the larger theater venue, maybe it's the friendlier college crowd, and maybe it's the fact that my blood alcohol level finally approaches GBV's, but this show simply rocks. Last night, we were satisfied with the novelty of the thing and with individual highlights; tonight, we see a band. Pollard is running at least three beers lighter, and in any event Sweeney has learned how to duck. Sprout remains the detached, slightly bemused craftsman, but Mitchell wows the crowd by stepping up to the microphone for "Lethargy." Fennell is a motherfucker on the drum kit, jumping between delicate cymbal work and huge art-rock hits on the toms. The songs rain down on us like a greatest hits album that never quite existed: "Weed King," "Echoes Myron," "Game of Pricks."
After two encores, the house lights come up, but the band's still milling around onstage. Tommy prods me. "Man, you gotta go up there, talk about Dayton." I'm hesitant, but I'm also prepared, having snagged my photograph from the dashboard. Taking a deep breath, I hurdle an amp onto the stage, where Pollard's well-known loquaciousness is on display. I arrive right as a gangly kid stammers, "Bob, you gotta help me. I'm just starting out, and I don't know what to do!" I assume he's a rock star wannabe; it turns out he's a young math teacher, looking for classroom pointers. Pollard is gracious with him and with all of us assembled kids. Suddenly, it's my turn, and I wave the picture nervously under his nose. "Um, thought you might wanna see this...it's the Dayton bandshell in '86, you guys played a free show..."
The following Monday in DC, Tommy goes to Avis to return the rental car. He casually hands the keys to the same smiling clerk, who begins to rattle off odometer readings: "Mileage out, 23. Mileage in...oh, my!" The final figure is 2049. Tommy shrugs. "NOT OUR FAULT," he says. Later, I am told that the average life of a rental car is about 10,000 miles. I feel guilty, until I decide that it's fair payback for every insurance and fuel-tank-refilling scheme that the industry has perpetrated for years. I just hope that we're not on some kind of rental blacklist; already, there are rumors that GBV will do a special Labor Day show in Dayton, or maybe Indianapolis....
Meanwhile, the Stomach Crud is gone, but the GBVitis has gotten worse, the symptoms more pronounced. Tommy Z. and I have acquired the dubious ability to construct entire conversations out of GBV lyrics, which is first mildly amusing, then disturbing to our friends, colleagues, and families. Tommy calls me from his numbing desk job at the Washington Post: "I'm sitting down, and I don't circulate," he intones, paraphrasing "Office of Hearts." I feel compelled to buy a used turntable, the better to hear every musical fragment that has flowed onto vinyl from Pollard's prolific brain.
If I had (quoting yet another lyric) "a book of instructions for the rusty time machine," things might be very different. I would've picked up that first GBV record in Dayton, or several hundred copies -- they now sell for $100 apiece. But maybe I also would've dropped everything else in my life, become an early hanger-on, helped the band figure out how to work their now-legendary four-track recorder, and be on the road somewhere with them right now. Maybe there is something in GBV's music that "triggers a synapse, to free us from our traps"; maybe even today, I should "start a new life, with my valuable hunting knife." But Pollard's lyrics also contain gentle admonitions for us Guideheads ("Crawling people on your knees/Don't take this so seriously") not to mention warnings about how much longer a bunch of middle-aged Daytonians will be able to go on tour ("We can't keep this violent pace!"). In the end, his message is simple, and immediately apparent to anyone who sees the live show. It's summed up in his most revealing lines: "I am a lost soul, I shoot myself with rock and roll/The hole I dig is bottomless, but nothing else can set me free." It's about rock as a celebration of life, whether that life is rooted in big-city angst or corn-fed Midwestern contentment. It's about beer, rather than heroin, as a drug of choice. And it's about being able to admit, without irony, that you really did listen to all those bands way back then, and that it might not be so bad if somebody still made that kind of music. It's audacious precisely because it runs counter to the "alternative" orthodoxy, and for me, right now, it's enough. So I think I'll keep my old life, and Tommy Z., not Bob Pollard, will remain my infallible music guru.
Now, if I could just stop singing "Burning Flag Birthday Suit"....
Jay Austin is 20% environmental lawyer, 10% international lawyer, and 70% glorified travel agent. He desperately wants to move back to his native Oregon, but worries about being out of rental-car range from Dayton.