Guided By Voices
The Intersection, Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 26, 2003
We took our seats as the opening act was setting up. The Intersection is a nice little venue with a well-stocked bar and a relaxed atmosphere. Not the cozy old shithole it was before relocating, but still a good place to see a show. My pal Ivan ordered a well-deserved Guinness, while I, recovering old drunk that I am, made do with Diet Coke. We settled in among the placid crowd of a couple hundred Grand Rapids hipsters and indie kids and waited. (Ah, those perky little indie girls in their tight jeans, almost half my age…)
The All Golden from Kent, Ohio started things off, and they sounded like Love And Rockets as interpreted by Kansas. Ivan generously said they sounded like Jethro Tull.
Then my boys hit the stage. I’ve been referred to as the “Guided By Voices bitch.” It’s true. Bob Pollard and company can do little wrong in my book. I’ve been a slavering fan-boy since Bee Thousand, and their last release, the somewhat uneven Universal Truths and Cycles, did nothing to discourage my devotion. They kicked their set off as Uncle Bob, fifth of Jameson in hand, declared GBV the greatest band in the world.
“We’re better than The White Stripes!” he bellowed. The crowd wasn’t sure how to take the joke. I thought it was funny.
“We got two and a half hours of rock for you, and you’re gonna love every minute of it!”
Testify, Reverend Pollard! Testify! I am a true believer and was ready to be born again.
They started rocking. Hard. They slammed their way through some new material from the forthcoming release Earthquake Glue, and it simply rocked. If the rest of the album sounds half as good as what they played from it, it could be a real winner. Guitarist Doug Gillard can lay it down: perfect riffs played with real soul.
Bob and the rest of the band were in good form, too. After only a few songs (mostly new stuff), the crowd was theirs, completely. Hands were in the air, heads were thrashing, the little indie girls were bouncing up and down. Then they played some vintage material (“I Drove A Tank,” “Game Of Pricks,” “Skin Parade”) and their spell was absolute. Pollard danced, kicked and jumped, like a cross between Roger Daltrey and a demented leprechaun. He anointed the crowd with beer, laid hands on them, and declared he was doing it for the kids. One song after the other, slam-bang.
“We can play for two and a half hours cause we got two and a half hours of hits!” Bob shouted at one point, then: “My dad asked me one day: ‘Bob, what can you give to rock and roll? Can you be the best?’ And I told him ‘No.'”
“But I said as long as there’s shitty music out there, I’ll keep playing!”
Then the inevitable happened: Pollard got drunk. And I mean stinko. He had started the show spinning bottles of beer high overhead and catching them behind his back. Then he started missing them. I lost count after he’d had about a dozen, punctuated with shots of Jameson. His voice began to slur, his leaps started getting wobbly and he lost his pitch. He mangled “Everywhere With Helicopter”—the awesome song was barely recognizable.
By the end of the show Pollard was having trouble lighting his cigarettes. He wisely gave the bottle of Jameson to a member of the audience.
But they kept it going by sheer momentum. The crowd was obviously put off by Pollard’s obnoxious condition, but they weren’t ready to give up on him. And guitarist Gillard was still sober and steadily punching out the noise. By the last song, GBV had indeed gone two and a half hours, and played some great rock and roll. But the show was a microcosm of the lives of all great alcoholic artists: dizzying heights and crashing lows. And although Pollard might not have hit bottom, he got pretty damn close.
We left without waiting to see if there was going to be an encore. Even if there was, Pollard was in no shape to continue. Driving home that night, we agreed it was 75% a great show. Greatest band in the world? Who knows? When Guided By Voices are on, they’re dead on. They rocked it until the booze finally caught up with them.
At home, my ears ringing and my throat hoarse from yelling, I pondered how long Robert Pollard might have before he drinks himself to death (or into irrelevance). All I could think of were the lyrics to “How’s My Drinking?” from Isolation Drills:
How’s my drinking?
I don’t care about being sober
But I sure get around
In this town
To hell with my church bells
And leave me die
I won’t change
I felt like that myself back in the old drunken days, guzzling bourbon and listening to the Replacements. My advice? Catch GBV while you can, because there’s no telling how long Bob Pollard is going to last—the man is in a class with William Holden when it comes to booze. But he puts on a hell of a good show until he’s wasted.
Also check out Johnny Loftus’ GBV piece from May 2002. You can download MP3s of a couple of new GBV songs: I’ll Replace You with Machines via gbv.com and My Kind of Soldier via Matador. There were some great photos of this show taken by Dennis and Cheryl Oshea and Joe Stopa.