It’s a new month. And, after today, there are only 60 posts to go. Welcome, November, month of the shortening days.
Today’s birthday boy is the very prolific Robert Pollard, front man for Guided by Voices, a band I first heard of somewhere around 2000 when I picked up Bee Thousand, the last album by the original line-up, which featured songs not only by Pollard but also by Tobin Sprout. Sprout reminded me of Robyn Hitchcock (indeed, if Robyn Hitchcock took on a pseudonym it might be something like “Toby Sprout”), and Pollard was very much a John Lennonesque figure. The Lennon of the post-psychedelic period. The Lennon who wrote “Sexy Sadie” and “Me and My Monkey” and “I’m So Tired.” Odd little ditties with great tunes and weird lyrics. That pretty much sums up Pollard too. And he even affects a kind of Lennony voice—that brash whine, always fully enunciated.
Pollard is some kind of tune factory. It’s astounding. And for at least some of the time he’s been a grade school teacher, which kind of makes him like one of the most amazing hobbyists one could name. Because his output pretty much maintains a consistent quality. I haven’t heard that many of their twenty-some albums. Mainly Bee Thousand, the first one I got, and, in 2003, Earthquake Glue. I thought about going with “A Trophy Mule in Particular” for today but couldn’t come up with a link to it. Just as well. That album and songs from that period—which was the end of GBV as a touring band—reflect Kajsa giving me tracks as she was picking up stuff of theirs in her college days. For me, Bee Thousand was the one I lived with most, in 2000-01. Its lo-fi tendencies were right on and its revisit of the Brit Invasion sound, altered for the dynamics of the Nineties, charmed me in my revisiting of the late Sixties for the purposes of fiction. It all went together, too, with discovering things like Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin (1999) and Neutral Milk’s Aeroplane (1998) and Elf Power’s Winter is Coming (2000). That’s where it was at, then. Reconfigured prog and psychedelia by way of lo-fi, DIY aesthetics. Or something. And they reminded me, in seemingly endless songs of great brevity, of They Might Be Giants, another jokey group with a penchant for fun titles.
I saw GBV on their farewell tour, at TLA in Philly. I’ve never seen anyone drink so much as Pollard, and certainly not onstage. And the concert went on forever. I mean, we left after two plus hours and it didn’t seem to be winding down. Which is kinda mind-boggling when you consider that almost every GBV song is under 3 minutes and some are even under—well under—two. It’s a non-stop embarrassment of riches. Wears ya out.
“I am a Scientist” is one of their best tracks, I have no doubt, because it’s a song that takes a definite position. It’s a kind of self-portrait, while arguing that there is a method here. To be “a scientist” is to be deliberate and definite. To have goals and the means to attain them. And here those qualities are aimed at self-investigation: “I seek to understand me / All my impurities / And evils yet unknown.” Not investigating the soul through religion or the psyche through psychology, but the self through art as a science. Gotcha.
“Losing sight of the clues” though indicates that it can be pretty tricky to “just unlock my mind.” Yeah, like someone said, “free yer mind instead.” For “feed your head” purposes, Pollard throws in the “potions, pills, and medicines / To ease your painful lives”—which our rock masters have always been willing to indulge in for our sakes—then: “I shoot myself with rock and roll / The hole I dig is bottomless / But nothing else can set me free.” It’s not bragging or despairing, it’s just stating a fact. This far into it, it’s pretty clear that he’s into it not for fame and fortune but for the kick that music gives that nothing else gives. He’s got to keep spinning his own platters. “I am an incurable and nothing else behaves like me”—where “behaves” belongs not only to behavioral psychology but also to the “behavior” of particles, something a scientist would study to see if there are patterns, predictable patterns. And of course that’s what a tune is, a predictable pattern. “I am a journalist / I write to you to show you.” To give us reports on what’s going on in his head.
And then the kicker at the end: “Everything is right / Everything works out right / Everything fades from sight / Because that’s all right with me.” In the end, he won’t be here, and neither will you, or I, or them. And that’s as it should be. The year too will be no more.
Were such things here as we do talk about?