Thursday, April 10, 2008

Hunting Accidents: A Brief History of Guided by Voices - James Greer

There are only a few bands to have "made it" that may give non-musical aspiring singers, guitar players, drummers and other instrumentalists hope that their "meaningless noise" may find the audience to appreciate its genius: the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, Beat Happening, Sebadoh, Pavement, and Guided by Voices. The latter three were lumped together into the "lo-fi" nametag, applied to capitalize on the truly innovative ways of that middle band. Sebadoh's earliest recordings date to the mid-80's, Pavement's earliest recordings date to the late 80's, and GBV's earliest recordings date to the early 80's. None of these bands featured the typical accoutrements of standard. debaucherous rock and roll bands. GBV, however, came closest to approximating that cliche.

But this is not a review of that band, this is a review of the book about that band, which came out not long after the biography on Modest Mouse and the proliferation of the 33 1/3 book series, featuring a volume on Bee Thousand. Modest Mouse is not a bad comparison point, as they toiled for years in indie obscurity before the breakthrough of "Float On" (no disrespect to MM, but one of their hokiest songs to date) in 2003. Likewise, GBV toiled in obscurity through the 80's, had little reason to retain confidence, stopped playing live, decided to record one last album to put all their musical ambitions to rest, were "discovered" on the basis of that album (Propeller), gained more confidence, made more albums, and eventually settled on the classic Bee Thousand in 1994 which won them a legion of fans for the rest of eternity, but still didn't make them as a big a name as say, The Strokes, who would champion them in 2001 when it would appear it should have been the reverse. Nevertheless, Alien Lanes, Mag Earwhig!, Under the Bushes Under the Stars, Do the Collapse....through Half Smiles of the Decomposed, their final album, all featured songs generally better than anything else released in those years, but still filtered through the "weird" mentality of their hyper-prolific, borderline-alcoholic frontman (R. Pollard, God to James Greer) so that relatively few people cared enough to notice.

Hunting Accidents begins inauspiciously. There is an "Introduction" which is one of the most fawning, ill-advised screeds ever to open a book of rock journalism (that I've read). Even Steven Soderbergh's reasons why you should like GBV seems a little forced. A book about a band that is not known to everyone but for the few that do know the truth that they really are the greatest band never to be acknowledged (i.e, GBV or the Fall) need not try to convince the reader as to their greatness. The Introduction ends up getting repeated later throughout the book, and the whole thing would be much improved if it were edited out in the final review.

Because after the introduction, this is a pretty good rock history book. Like a good book on Nirvana, or Our Band Could be Your Life, Greer makes it feel as if you actually knew Pollard and his brother and his crazy friends and that you were right there in the garage recording studio they often used with them (and I'm not just saying that as a cliched line of praise--the realism of this book on what it takes to be a band when barely anyone else cares is its most singularly impressive quality). There are plenty of good gossip stories about GBV and Pollard and other bands. The Breeders in particular are given a fair share of the spotlight, as they were the first band to champion Pollard and his gang, probably because they shared his hometown of Dayton, OH. Later on Kim Deal offers to produce a GBV album, and when they actually get down to the recording of it, sad antics ensue, and the story of what could have been a fantastic collaboration but never was comes to light. Deal and Pollard would be an interesting couple of indie rock stars to compare, but this is also not the place for that. There is also a story of how GBV and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists got into a brawl after a show they played together, which truly shocked me as I always felt Ted Leo seemed like the coolest guy on Earth. Now, Robert Pollard may be the coolest guy on Earth too, and it is just too hard for me to pick which band I like better, so I prefer to think this altercation was a result of alcoholic misinterpretation rather than anyone truly being an asshole.

About two-thirds of the way through Hunting Accidents, Dennis Cooper makes a surprising cameo (but not really considering Guide had a chapter titled "Guided by Voices" and quoted a line from "Awful Bliss," and considering the cover of Horror Hospital Unplugged contains the line, "Are you amplified to rock?") to extol the virtues of GBV, not unlike Steven Soderbergh, but with more elaborate praise, even going so far as to call Robert Pollard the greatest songwriter of all time. True, anyone familiar with Pollard will know that he has written and recorded hundreds, maybe thousands of songs, and that each one of them is unique in its own way. Greer is not wrong to have picked GBV as a suitable band to document non-fiction style, but he is wrong when he falls back on other's praise as if to say, "See! Other people like them too! They really are good!"

Regardless of all the superfluous attempts at converting the reader into a GBV psycho, by the time you get to the Electrifying Conclusion Tour and the final show on New Year's Eve 2004 at the Metro in Chicago, you will probably be sad that you were not there (I was because that night I was doing nothing in Lake Forest, IL, and was very sad).

One of the more interesting segments of the book details the recording of Do the Collapse (which incidentally, caused me to buy an 8 dollar used copy of that CD from Amoeba Music) with Ric Ocasek, who seems to champion bands like crazy too (Bad Brains, Weezer). Of course, "Teenage FBI" is a classic GBV song, and the first one I ever heard, and the rest of that album is very excellent, but Gerard Cosloy of Matador Records, who had begun to distribute GBV in the wake of Bee Thousand, gives the most interesting take on it. He also gives the best interviews in the book. First, he mentions how they had to have an intervention with Pollard, which he felt bad about because he admits he had his own problems with substance abuse (the difference between him and Clive Davis) because some of their shows had dissolved into alcohol-induced sloppiness.

Second, he goes into this great diatribe about the song "Hold on Hope" off Do the Collapse. He says he thought Do the Collapse was a really amazing album, except for "Hold on Hope," which he thought was a really embarassing song. Pollard almost admits as much, but also says he just wanted to write something genuine and uplifting. Strangely enough, Cosloy is embarassed because he was afraid "Hold on Hope" would get played on the radio. I think he didn't want people to be introduced to GBV through that uncharacteristic song, or something. But the whole discussion about that one particular song is priceless.

And there are deeper analyses to many other songs, some of which Pollard explicitly reveals the subject matter on, such as "Teenage FBI." This is great for any fan, but probably pointless to any with just a cursory knowledge of them.

And that last sentence probably illustrates the value of this book. But also worth noting (and surprising) is that Pollard was married and had children at an early age, and so has a son who is now 27 or so who contributes 3 vignettes to the book, which are hilarious just thinking about what it would be like to have such a ridiculous father.

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