Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Robert Pollard: A Fan-Boy's (Salty?) Salute

First, let it be said, that I am given to what I have always called "fan-boyism." I'm prone to cross the line from appreciator of artist to devotee of artist all the way to borderline obsessive stalker of artist. I've grown up a little bit; I try, desperately, to not talk to those I admire at events such as readings or fora such as stage doors. Having met and talked to a handful of "heroes" in high school, I got tired of the sniveling, groveling, obsessive twit I became in the presence of those whom I admired. I received the exact sort of saccharine, synthetic "Get-me-the-hell-out-of-here" smiles and nods from said celebrities (or in my case, pseudo-celebrity as my tastes ran to the nerdy fringe in high school) that I imagine politicians flash when asked to kiss a particularly drooly baby whose diaper is quite obviously full of shit. ("Yes, I know there are cameras present, but do I REALLY have to TOUCH this thing?!")

Case in point: I was a tremendous They Might Be Giants fan in high school. For those unaware, They Might Be Giants might have been the ultimate house band for Jewish summer camp cabins and the basement bedrooms of telescope owning teenage virgins of the 1990s. (That being said I will still defend their wit and their edgy "dork-as-punk" fuck you, East Village experimental attitude, even if they are now spending most of their declining talent on Dunkin Donuts ads these days. To wit: "Lincoln" and "John Henry" are probably the two best nerd-rock albums since Talking Heads' "More Songs About Buildings and Food.") Though dorky and awkward and chubby in high school, I was relatively cool by the standards of their concert goers. In their presence, however, I turned to an amorphous blob of fan-boy goo. I once screamed with girlish delight at touching TMBG guitarist John Flansburgh's super cool lefty, square guitar (seen in use here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/a/aa/John_Flansburgh_2008.jpg/220px-John_Flansburgh_2008.jpg ) during an intermission. Worse yet, and I have never publicly admitted this, I insisted on a family trip to Boston that my parents drive past Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Lincoln, MA where They Might Be Giants' founding Johns, Linnell and Flansburgh, met. I still have pictures.

I have, however, in recent years striven to mellow out and ditch my super unhip fan-boy ways. The first step in this has been to avoiding contact with those whose art I have found myself in awe. Simple, right? Just don't talk to them and you can't make an ass of yourself. Also, should I find myself unable to resist the urge to talk to someone who I admire (or whose art I admire), I would only do so if I had something more scintillating to say then, "Dude! I love your music! I love YOU!!!"

Just such a situation presented itself some two years ago. At the time I worked in Downtown Chicago and it just so happened that one of my heroes, Robert Pollard (founder, front man, primary [and exhaustive] songwriter for Guided By Voices, a band which stands as an inspiration to all Midwestern dreamers, a fact which will be duly expounded upon below) was speaking and signing books with former GbV bassist and GbV biographer, Jim Greer at the Barnes and Noble adjacent to the law school where I worked. It even coincided with my 7PM lunch break. How could I not go?!

So I went and sat and stood in line and hemmed and hawed at what to say. Mercifully for me, Pollard--for a rock god--is unbelievably approachable to a Midwestern boy like me. Much of this is his appeal to me.

The reasons for my love of this man's music are numerous, but allow me to expound upon a few of the main points:

1) The man has no inner censor. This is both a boon to productivity and occasionally, charmingly, a hindrance to quality. Pollard has released an obscene number of songs through GbV and his varying solo projects. The man writes and writes and writes and occasionally it will render a last second addition to an album that is an absolute GEM, a la "Exit Flagger" on Propeller. It could just as likely turn out to be a throw-away songlet like "I Am Produced" on Mag Earwhig!. But Pollard's sheer productivity is a testament to the virtue of creation without shame. He is living proof of how the scales are tipped in the balance of perspiration to inspiration regarding creativity.

2) He is one of the best lyricists of his time, but quite possibly by accident. Pollard manages to simultaneously be both meaningless and evocative. His songs rarely seem to be ABOUT anything, but his choice of words rarely seems frivolous. Who, pray tell, might "Jane of the Waking Universe" be, and what the hell is a "waking universe" anyway? But coupled with the melody it is an undeniably perfect lyric and title. Even whimsical titles like "Postal Blowfish" still evoke an image. The "Official Iron Man Rally Song" manages to be anthemic without falling into the cockrock trappings a song of said title might fall prey to. And Pollard penned one of my all time meaningless song lyrics: "I walked into the house of miraculous recover and stood before King Everything!"

At times Pollard falls into an almost cheesy earnestness, but when coupled with a knowledge of his story and his background (see below) and the obvious emotional and personal investment in his music, it is adorably forgivable, the same way one give Neil Young the benefit of the doubt regarding cheesiness. From the failed "Window of my World" on Half Smiles of the Decomposed to the hackneyed, keep-fighting-tiger message underpinning "Don't Stop Now" on Under the Bushes Under the Stars, Pollard's cheesy-ness is not a failure of creativity, but a triumph of sincerity. (Minus "Hold on Hope" from Do the Collapse. That song's a piece of shit and an whorish attempt at a radio hit and I blame Ric Ocasek almost exclusively for its cloying, weepy, mid-90s pussy-pop tone.)

3) Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices have one of the best stories in the history of rock. Their story is not a sexy story of drug abuse and trashed hotel rooms and bad record deals. Their story is one of day-jobs and wives and children and being working class guys from Dayton who were just too starry-eyed to give up on the dream. Pollard was a 4th grade teacher for a decade before GbV made it big enough to even consider music a career. He lives, still, in Northridge, a working class section of the decidedly un-sexy, un-Sid-and-Nancy city of Dayton, Ohio. Dayton, in fact, hated GbV early in their career, so they went to the studio and didn't play live for YEARS while they honed their song-writing and home-recording craft. These were guys who didn't know what they were doing and didn't know any better and occasionally struck gold because of these things. Implicit, always, was passion. To crib an analogy from a Times' movie review I read years ago for the movie Barbershop, Guided by Voices is NOT a fine French meal: it is a meatloaf that mom overcooked, but that she made with love specifically for you.

4) Guided by Voices is music that will always remind me of the beer-soaked, smoky Midwestern basements and garages of my late teens and early twenties. This is just a personal reason, but I had a lot of friends and acquaintances in bands a few years back...and for whatever reason...Guided by Voices just always reminds me of hanging out listening to friends' bands and drinking shitty beer and talking and just generally have a good ol' Midwestern summer evening.

There are too many reasons of why I love this band.

However, the first time I met Robert Pollard, we talked a little shop. I am not a musician, but as noted above, I have several friends who are basement Midwestern rockers. It turns out we know a few of the same people, at least tangentially. I was totally not a fan-boy. I felt like a hero.

Of course, the next time I saw him in person was at an art opening of his collages here in New York City. I knocked on the bathroom door while he was pissing and got a curt, "Hold on a minute!" through the door. When he exited and I realized just whose micturation I had interrupted, all I could manage was a gulp and a "Whoa! I...I...I...I'm sorry I knocked. I really like your collages, man!"

We are all still fourteen years old some times.

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