The Drama You've Been Craving
Monday April 9, 2001
GBV Wants To Reinvent You
If Robert Pollard doesn't black out for good
By Michael Goldberg
How improbable is it that a Dayton, Ohio schoolteacher could reinvent himself as a rock star, leader of what is now very likely the best cult band in America: Guided By Voices?
When Robert Pollard sings "I want to reinvent you now," in the high-octane "Skills Like This" (off GBV's amazing new album, Isolation Drills), he could well be reflecting on his own self-determination. It's as if Pollard transformed himself from Peter Parker to Spiderman through sheer force of will.
On a recent Saturday night at Portland's Crystal Ballroom, Pollard captained the latest incarnation of GBV (a band that seems to have almost as many personnel changes as albums) into the stratosphere, and took the fanatical audience, a mix of college-age guys and girls who look like they live in record stores when they're not going to class, along with an odd assortment of older freaks (these days, if you're 35 or older and into a cult band like GBV you're probably fairly unconventional and that's a good thing).
It was a kind of mind-meld or sync-up between fans and band, as thrilling to behold as the music was to hear. Many fans appeared near-orgasmic as the band thundered through many songs off Isolation Drills the jangly, Beatlesque "Driving Heather Crazy," the frothy "Glad Girls" and the ominous "Run Wild" which after many listens I have concluded is one of the group's best albums.
When I wasn't in a state of near-nirvana from the power and glory and majesty of this music, I was trying to put my finger on just what was going on in this faded ballroom, with its worn wooden floor that you could feel give a little if you jumped up and down on it. Fans seemed in a trance at times, at least those I could see close to the stage. They sang along to new songs from an album that hadn't been released yet. Some had their eyes closed, their faces glowing in sheer bliss.
This was quite beautiful to behold. But I couldn't ignore the dark side. Before the band took the stage, a stagehand brought out two tubs filled with many, many bottles of beer. It's not news that GBV like alcohol (they even have a song on the new album titled "How's My Drinking?" in which Pollard sings "I don't care about being sober"). I'd read about the state that Pollard gets himself into the guy's got a bad rep, and not the dangerous cool kind.
The demons on Robert Pollard's trail must really be something. He appears to be medicating himself to such a degree that it's hard not to wonder just how long he's got 'til his liver or other organs simply give out. He's running from something, trying to black out the insecurity and stage fright and god knows what else. It's like he thinks it's the brew that turns him into a superhero rock star.
And Run Wild
Dayton, Ohio isn't home to many great rock bands. It's the kind of place you leave. Or else spend your working life teaching school and in your spare time pursue your hobby, fantasizing that you're a rock star like the ones you love, the Who and the Beatles and the Stones. And get old. And never see your dreams come true.
I grew up in a suburb, a place where nothing much was going on. As a kid I wanted more than anything to leave behind the boring life that my parents had settled into. I was desperate to live the adventures in the books of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle, or The Flash and Spiderman comics, TV dramas such as "Perry Mason" and "Secret Agent," then the Pop Life of first London, then San Francisco, then New York.
I think many of us are desperate to escape the "Imitation of Life" R.E.M. sing about on their new single, which, Peter Buck told me a few hours before the GBV show, he sees as a "teenager's lament." At 13 or 14 I certainly didn't want to live an "imitation of life." I wanted real life. I wanted to be part of the action, whatever that meant, wherever that was.
I remember seeing the coolest photograph in a magazine George Harrison wearing a pair of mod bellbottom pants with incredibly wide stripes and thinking, if you can get those kinda clothes in London, that's where I wanna go. I didn't want to be stuck in a suburb where the most exciting thing going on was a neighbor buying a new car or adding a room to their house, where one lived vicariously through TV and movies and magazines.
Which is a fairly roundabout way of saying that I understand why Pollard might be running as fast as he can. Why he might want to black everything out and find comfort in that oblivion where worry and guilt don't exist, that perfect "pop" place.
But drinking yourself into the ground isn't the answer. I can't help but wonder how much greater, even, the work of Robert Pollard and GBV could be if he were straight and focused.
I noticed one girl singing along to many of the songs. She had a drink in one hand and was chain-smoking. At first she seemed to be high on GBV's music. But then she must have gone somewhere very dark, for suddenly she seemed to be fighting tears. Terror and disappointment replaced bliss. I thought, did she just start thinking about a boy who left her? Or had something actually happened in this ballroom that had upset her?
The Club Is Open
In the old run-down corners of towns and cities where rock 'n' roll bands play, the young and the freaky come to escape. The right place, the right band, fans in the right state of mind. Such a place was the Crystal Ballroom when the neon sign GBV bring from show to show lit up, announcing "The Club Is Open."
Looking at those blissed-out faces, I thought that they too were escaping from whatever they normally must put up with: a job, school, a sorry home life, loneliness, boredom.
On that night, as drunk as Robert Pollard was, as much as I wanted to sit in judgment, I couldn't help but admit that GBV were doing something, right then and there, that felt so right. It was the sound of fairy dust lighting on the fans, transforming them. I thought, as I stood at the back of the ballroom during their final number, it's like a secret passageway out to the other, to somewhere else.
Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.
© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.