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GUIDED BY VOICES--My Bartender is God, Pollard just Poses: Notes on the Real
A story by Patrick Range McDonald
Editors' Note: Rock 'n' Roll, booze, big-chested young women and blasphemy,
among other dangerous lifestyles, people and irreverences. Our writer put
his life on the line to uncover the myth called Robert "Bob" Pollard of
Guided by Voices. A man determined to be a Rock God but too sly to come out
and say it. Instead of contributing to the muth machine, we, the editors,
decided to look beyond and behind the glitter and pomposity of stardom. We
wanted the truth not just about Pollard, but the machinations of rockdom that
gives the civilians product. Our writer believes he pulled it off.
I. Welcome to the Gig...The Big Boy Waits Upstairs
How did I end up HERE?
"Oh, sorry, dude," one of them said to me.
"No, no, I like elbows jabbed into my back," I told him.
He leaned his blonde head toward my mouth.
"Never mind," I yelled.
A kid standing to my right stared at me. He held his cigarette ash pointed
down to the floor, the way I held my cigar. When I smoked my cigar, he
smoked his cigarette. When I drank some beer, he drank some beer. It was
odd. I think he liked me or something. But, again, how did I end up here?
Oh, yes, that was right, the swirl dragged me in.
Everything swirled inside Irving Plaza. The frantic New York kids who
stared at me, the music, the walls, the smoke, the beer in my beer can. And
somehow, somehow I ended up in the middle of a boney-assed swirling mass that
sang along with a goofy frontman who liked his high kicks. The mass, in
almost all respects, was too thin and too cutting-edge for its own good. Too
much time and thought had been spent on getting a Look. Too much money had
been spent on hair gel and thrift clothes to get that Look. I felt sorry for
them, even though a part of me wished I had their fashion sense.
But I enjoyed all the testosterone that was on display. It was a solid
endoresement for the need of non-religious, non-athletic male bonding events.
Keep those promise keepers away, I say. Just give us rock 'n' roll, and
everything will be all right. By the way, women can lead us if they want.
Show us the way by ripping out a righteous chord on the behalf of humanity.
Oh, yeah, we look to women for this kind of stuff. We need them to lead us
when no one else can. Indeed.
On this night, however, it was Guided by Voices who was showing us the way.
The New York kids loved the sound GBV belted out. A kind of jolt that
rammed itself straight through the ear drums and down into that tinglely area
of the testicles. The jolt caused odd physical pleasures that would be
impossible to get with a hit of grass or a slug of Jack Daniels. Or, at
least, enhanced the pleasures when the musical edge kicked in.
When GBV left the stage the first time, the crowd yelled the band's mantra:
"GBV!! GBV!! GBV!!". I even joined in. I could feel the blood pumping into
my head and my face turning red. I was really yelling. We were all really
yelling. We begged and begged after every "last" song, and Bob Pollard, the
frontman, walked out with a bigger smile after each re-entrance. I got the
feeling Pollard thought the applause was for GBV. I was sure it wasn't.
Like the rest of the juiced-out New York kids, I yelled for more FUN! I
yelled for more dancing and more beer and more time with the cool kids who
wore their hair just right. I was certain the New York kids were yelling for
the same reasons.
The cool kids did want more, but the house lights popped on. Oh, Christ, I
thought, there goes my good time. For the buffed-up security force, the fun
was just beginning. Nothing unprofessional mind you, but you could see a
twinkle in their eyes when it came to crowd control. It was a time they
could get physical and put all those hours in the gym to good use. So they
went into sheep herding mode. They guided the fans down the red staircase,
through the lobby and out the front entrance. A job well done, I'd say. Of
course, some fans just couldn't get enough and hung out by the backstage
door. They all begged to get in. But security was given strict orders; no
sad-eyed groupies were to pass the check point. Then they were guided down
the red staircase.
I waited. And after much bullshitting with a roadie (Oh, yeah, I'm writing
a big article about the boys, and it's essential that I get backstage access.
I have to see if that rock 'n' roll lifestyles is as crazy as they say.
What kind of lifestyle? Jesus! Drugs, sex and plenty of free beer of
course~ The boys don't do drugs, you say. That's good to know, but I really
must be allowed upstairs. Oh, yes, I'll be on my best behavior. Okay,
great, thank you, thank you very much.) I was allowed to take the long,
upstairs walk to the dressing room of Bob Pollard. It would be the second
time we'd meet face-to-face. The first time ended in a weird spitting
incident that makes me proud to this day. New Zealand's punk misanthrope
Chris Knox was mocking my Copenhagen habit and laughing at me. Pollard stood
next to him and laughed with Knox. I, of course, found none of it funny at
all. So I spat out a huge, brown goober that hit Knox full-on and nicked a
part of Pollard's white jeans. Then I ran out of the bar into a driving
rain. Tobacco juice can be a bitch to get out.
II. Similarities Between Lunatic Luddite and Anti-God of Lo-Fi
"We therefore advocate a revolution against the industrial system. This
revolution may or may not make use of volence; it may be sudden or it may be
a relatively gradual process spanning a few decades. We can't predict any of
that. But we do outline in a very general way the measures that those who
hate the industrial system should take in order to prepare the way for a
revolution against that form of society. This is not to be a POLITICAL
revolution. Its object will be to overthrow not governments but the economic
and technological basis of the present society."--FC (aka Unabomber), The
"The point of (lo-fi) bands is like what punk did--to remind people about
DIY. Punk bands in the '70s broke down the belief that you had to be a
virtuoso to start a band, and lo-fi bands teach the same thing about
recording: do it anyway you want."--Robert Pollard (aka Bob), Option
III. Quick Notes on the Anti-God
1. Like the Unabomber, Bob Pollard demands respect, but he wants the title
of Rock God, not luddite visionary. Then again, maybe he wants that too.
Bob has been subtle in this pursuit, but he has also dropped the hints:
pissed off at the 15 percent royalty rate, wonders about the necessity of
videos, talks about protecting the heritage of rock, wonders about the
current state of music, scuffles with security guards in the interest of his
2. Above facts recorded by rock journalists who are almost always
impressed with this paassionate, regular guy from Dayton, Ohio. Magnet
magazine and CMJ New Music Monthly are particularly susceptible to his
charms. Magnet recently voted GBV's Under the Bushes, Under the Stars the
best album of 1996. CMJ described Pollard's solo album, Not In My Airforce,
as "Indie-rock creme de la creme." But in the Village Voice Pazz & Jopp
poll, a poll of 236 critics from across the nation, neither UTBUTS or NIMA
cracked the Top forty. (Authors' Note: UTBUTS was #28 in Y3's year-end
3. Pollard's scheme: Become Rock God by not wanting to be a Rock God.
Operation Anti-God, I like to call it. Used by the smartest and most
devious young minds on Madison Avenue who sell product by advertising against
advertising. This scheme smells of backdoor phoniness, but the youth,
apparently, go for it.
4. People go to GBV shows with a felling that they, the fans, are special.
It's a good feeling to have when so much of life--political life, work life,
personal life--seems to be dominated and manipulated by money-grubbing cynics
who aim for the lowest common denominator. Bob somehow gets the praise for
keeping some of their integrity intact, even though it's through an art-rock
band with no apparent social concerns. Sure, Bob doesn't want to "sell out"
to whoever it is to sell out to, but what is there to sell? Song titles that
sound pleasant? Odd lyrics written for the sake of being odd? Is this art
or crap? And how do people retain or enhance their integrity by liking it?
I don't know. It's confusing.
5. What kind of honorable homestead is Bob offering us losers? A place of
valuable hunting knives? Where blimps go 90? Where people watch Hank's
little fingers? It's a homestead that lacks relevance, insightfulness and
spirituality. The songs, to me, are just more clutter from the Bush that no
one honestly needs. All the music does is satisfy our new music jones for
the minute. It's, you know, NOVEL.
6. Unfortunately, I like some of the novelty. The part that rocks and riffs
and gets me dancing when nothing else can. Maybe we need that.
7. The Rock Gods Bob loves (John Lennon and Pete Townshend to name two)
examined their own demons as well as society's and came up with some kind of
conclusion that affected the listener. Either Bob Pollard is unwilling to
let it all hang out or doesn't know how to.
8. Until Bob starts this process, he will just be a lo-fi Anti-God wannabe
who conned a bunch of people into thinking he was something more. Some of us
IV. An Opportunity To Hear It Straight From the Anti-God
The dressing room above the stage was bright white. Too hard on my eyes.
I put on my shades and that seemed to help. Of course, it was the wrong
thing to do. The young, East Village chicks turned away when I walked up to
them. They seemed to think I was a poseur of some sort. It didn't matter.
The chicks never wanted me anyway. They wanted the Anti-God. I still
couldn't stop staring at their flat stomachs and pierced belly buttons.
Mr. Bob noticed all the curves, rings and accentuations as well. He stood
in the middle of the girls and looked fatigued. Pollard himself wasn't so
hard-bodied. The days of beer before, during and after a gig were starting
to catch up to him. His face was bloated, and he wore a navy blue GBV T-shir
untucked over his jeans to hide the lumps. He was soaked in perspiration.
But our favorite former teacher and prospective Rock God geared it up when
he had to. He had to meet all the East Village girls who wanted his
attention. I tried a few times to introduce myself, but he was far too
concerned for the girls. He was so busy running around I couldn't introduce
So I was left with the drummer, who bitched about bad new R.E.M. albums. I
nodded and offered up Monster as an example of a good new R.E.M. album.
"No, no...that one sucked, too. Don't get me wrong, I have all their old
stuff. When Stipe mumbled, and you didn't know the words. I still like that
I nodded some more not believing any of it, and I kept an eye out for Bob.
The whole situation made me feel nervous and weird and thirsty. I looked
for beer, but the sinks and plastic tubs were cleaned out. Then I saw Bob
and Tobin Sprout rush out of Irving Plaza for a waiting cab. The band still
had three or four hours of hard drinking left. I ran outside and jumped into
the backseat with them. They stared at me but didn't say anything. I
introduced myself and told Bob of our earlier meeting and past
correspondence. He smiled and shook my hand. He seemed to remember me.
Rock God interlude...
(Note: I had sent Pollard my self-published novella based on my
childhood. Pollard wrote the following hand-written reply in basic
penmanship. Not cursive.)
Dear Range, Thanks for writing and sending me "Notes From A White House." I
dug it and it reminded me a lot of the shit me and some of my buddies do.
Keep it up and send me anything else (if you would). Also thanks for
turning others on the Guided By Voices. Send me the illustration when you
get a chance. Good luck with your commitment, Bye.
V. Quicker Notes on the Letter
1. I think my "shit" is a bit more revealing and truthful than Bob's
"shit". Although, I'm not totally sure what kind of "shit" he's talking
about. Fiction or GBV stuff?
2. I had sent Bob another self-published novella. I never received a
reply, which was expected.
3. Bob stayed formal when signing the letter. Whenver I spent time around
the band and Pollard, I never heard anyone call him "Robert". I always heard
"Bob". Is "Robert" the alter-ego Anti-God???
VI. Another Chance to Gain Wisdom From the Anti-God
The cab stopped in front of the Lakeside Lounge on Avenue B in the East
Village. I had never been inside the bar, and it wasn't going to happen this
time either. The line outside was too long, and a GBV entourage of glam
girls, hangers on and band members prevented us from barreling in. So I
suggested Mona's down the street where I knew some of the bartenders.
Mona's is long, dark and narrow, and somehow someone fit a pool table
through the front door and placed it in the back. Bob found a seat on a
bench near the front door. A girl from Irving Plaza sat next to him and
seemed to be pouting. Bob was determined to cheer her up. I just wanted a
beer before I broke up the girl's therapy session. The bartender walked up
to get my order. "Light, Howard...two pints."
I grabbed the first pint, and Bob's hand was outstretched. I fed it. Some
verbal jockeying played out among the entourage for Bob's attention. Bob was
quiet throughout. I wasn't sure if he was just bored, tired or drunker than
I thought. His head nodded softly to anything anyone said, and he'd
sometimes try to get into the conversation only to spit out a word and leave
it at that. The girl grew bored and walked out. Pollard didn't follow her.
I had already fed Bob two pints, and we were talking amiably, and I thought
it was the best time to get him to open up.
"So how did you like Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, Bob?" I asked.
He sat below a plate glass window and stared at the bar behind me and
shrugged off the question.
"no really, how did you like it?"
"It's good...I like it."
"Well, you know, I think it sucks!"
It was a bold move to get him talking. To explain his craft and what he
had to offer this world and all the other crap a fan should know before
giving someone that high praise of Rock God. Bob didn't go for it. He sat
there more motionless than before. To make matters worse, his road manager
took up the charge for the GBV defense. He didn't like me, and right off I
"How dare you say that to the lead singer of Guided by Voices!" he yelled
I didn't understand why the punk yelled out the name of the band or Bob's
position within it. Hell, I knew who I was talking to. But I looked around
at that moment to gauge the bar's reaction. Everyone around our section
stared at me. So it worked for the punk. He tried to embarrass me while
getting some recognition for Bobby Boy.
"Well," I said, trying to be more diplomatic, "it doesn't suck...it's just
"So you're back-pedaling now!"
"No, no," I said, still calm. "Bee Thousand was solid, Alien Lanes also
solid, but this is weaker compared to the other ones."
I took a drag from my Dunhill and wondered what in the hell I had gotten
myself into. The situation had the potential for full-out ugliness. I
didn't want that. So I decided not to look at the punk and hope he'd go
away. The punk became even more angry.
"We want nothing to do with you anymore!" the punk yelled. "You have some
nerve to say that shit to the lead singer of Guided by Voices!"
Now I had to look at him. I had to stare down the enemy. He was a lumpy
guy in his twenties. His black hair was cut short, and he wore a confident
smirk. He was certain Bob would back him up.
"You hear me?!" the punk yelled. "We don't want anything to do with you!"
I looked at Bob and waited for the final word on the matter. But Bob sat
there slouched and quiet. I knew there would be no final word coming. I
looked into the punk's eyes even deeper.
"Hey, babe, no one's talking to you. Stay out of it." No yells, just the
But the punk rattled me, and my brain panicked. I didn't want to leave the
bar with bad vibes in the air. Besides, we were on my home turf. I couldn't
allow myself to be shown up. So I decided to take a piss and re-evaluate the
situation. There was no line at the men's room.
VII. The End of It All, and No Results
"Oh yeah, oh yeah, welcome to New York City!" I blurted out to no one.
The rank smell of urine and ammonia in the men's room woke me up and
jangled my senses. It was just what I needed. It gave me focus. Diplomacy
was no way to go with the road manager around. I didn't think I had the
cerebral tools intact to fend off another volley of adolescent baiting
tactics, but I didn't want to leave with Pollard hating me. What could I do
to smooth over the situation, make everyone happy? Then I realized it wasn't
Pollard's feelings I was so concerned about but my own. I knew I'd wake up
the next day with a horrible hangover and a festering regret for lost
tactfulness. I didn't care about the hangover, really, just the regret.
What to do...what to do? I zipped up my pants and walked outside where
Pollard was hunched over the pool table.
Pollard had let me down all night. The most he would do for me was sing
songs from Quadrophenia when I mentioned my favorite tracks. He refused,
like the last time we had met, to get into any kind of talk about the
"heritage of rock". (Heritage of rock? Now, it seems like such an absurd
phrase. A tinge of right-wing thinking comes to my mind. Take, for example,
a local school board member in Florida who wanted to preserve the "heritage
of America" by teaching America's "superiority" over all other nations. Hey,
Bob, things change.) He also refused to get into his work and how it related
to his loyal fans. Why his fans should even be loyal. In real terms, I had
no reason to be polite to Pollard, but it seemed the only thing to do.
I grabbed Bob's shoulder and spoke into his right ear.
"Bob...don't listen to that other guy," I said. Bob nodded.
"I like the music, but I was just telling you how I feel. Open
communication, you know?" He nodded again. For some reason, he said
It was all I needed. And I couldn't keep up with Pollard anyway. After
several hours of tit-for-tat hedonism, the beer was oging down like bitter
grapefruit juice. I walked outside Mona's and a cab drove me home.
The night before? Oh, the night before. Sweet Jesus, I never knew ho dark
my bedroom could be at one in the afternoon. No regrets, that's good. Are
there Rock Gods? That's always in doubt. I guess it's possible they're out
there. But don't we really just care about the voice, the riff, the poignant
lyric? You know, the sound itself, not the person. And if we can't get that
from one person or band, don't we move on to another? I mean, really, who is
spared from that test? And who can always pass it? Besides, I have always
seen gods as being immortal, but is a songwriter? Doesn't the songwriter
have some kind of creative death? Doesn't that make him mortal, therefore
impossible to be a god? All these questions, Bob, and where is it that you
want to go? And why even go there? Rock God, Rock God, Rock God. A defray
of conscience I say. Drink to defray it, Bob. It's the only way to save
yourself from complete self-loathing. Or go cold turkey. Put the whole ugly
phase behind you and sweat it out. It gets better with the breakthrough.
(Post-script: GBV has apparently broken up. This is nothing new to
Polalrd. "I used to go through different line-ups every album," Pollard told
Magnet two years ago. "I'd fire the whole band. I'd say we've gone through
maybe 30 members throughout the history of Guided By Voices." There's no
doubt that Pollard will continue recording under the name Guided by Voices.
But one has to wonder how the band will sound without the influence of Tobin
Sprout. He apparently decided to spend more time with his family and his
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