The long-running Ohio band Guided by Voices recently ended their reunion even more unexpectedly than it had begun four years ago. The band had two months’ worth of bookings, including two shows they just announced the same day that the breakup notice was posted on their website. This is how a Indie Rock band reunion ends. Not with a bang, but with a lot of confusion, anger, and internet chatter amongst those that are, or used to be fans.
For a long time, I was one of those fans. I first discovered them in 1994, as they began to get some notice in magazines, and even MTV. I interviewed the band via phone in 1996, shortly before the band’s original lineup imploded. I followed the band and leader Robert Pollard through several incarnations over the next eight years. Over that time, I photographed the band several times, and eventually got to do photos for one of their albums, and several other projects. When Pollard retied the band in 2004, I really believed that I would not see the band again.
When the band announced in 2010 that were reuniting with their original lineup in 2010, I was stunned and thrilled. Of all places, I was in the band’s home state of Ohio when the announcement was made. My phone rang all day. It all seemed like it was leading me back to the band. A few months later, I was photographing the band again, and it was fantastic. I arrived back home at 3:30pm, and immediately edited ten photos to send to the band at 5am. Within six days, the band had sent the photos to six newspapers, and would stay on their website until their recent break-up. It was like being reunited with long-lost friends. When the band was rumored to have a final show in 2011, I went to Raleigh, NC and shot the show for the band, and those photos were quickly used by the band, Mojo Magazine, Magnet, and a host of other outlets. The show was not the spot-on fantastic concert that it had been the previous year, but it was still fun. As it turned out, it was not the band’s last show, but it was the end of my time with the band. The problem was that I wasn’t aware of it.
I got a photo pass from the band’s manager to photograph a stop on their 2012 tour. When the band’s usual road manager bowed out at the last minute, the band found someone who was willing to do it for free beer and good times on the road. The problem was, he had never road managed, and didn’t know how to handle his duties. When he saw a fax (and who receives a fax anymore?) that a venue in Florida would only point their cameras at the audience, the road manager thought that this applied to all members of the media, including those of us that were coming to shoot for the band. Unfortunately, this included me, who’d driven from Charlotte to Asheville throughout a whitewash rainstorm. It made the band look like petty, whiny has-beens to all media that covered that tour. By the time that management realized what was going on, the tour was nearly over, and many of us (myself included) had been denied the chance to shoot our favorite band for, as it turned out, the last time. Even though the venue was going by what the road manager had told them to do, I have yet to step foot again the venue, and have steered friends and fellow artists away from the place. And the road manager should know that there will always be a special circle of hell that I picture you rotting in, and hope you always do.
I also became aware on that tour that the people in the band, and around the band, had changed. Something was different, and something seemed wrong. There is that moment when you realize that the people you’ve known are no longer those people. They’ve become someone else, and they’re not coming back, no matter how much your want them to. This is sometimes the danger of seeing, or being around your favorite artists. The people they are in person, or have become, can overwhelm the artists that you knew, or wanted to know. The recent internet ramblings and subsequent discussion of Mark Kozelek are another recent example of this. Incidents that started his recent tirades may not have been out of his control, but he sure elevated and denigrated what came afterwards all by himself. For those of us that have followed Mark’s work over the last twenty-plus years, his recent statements are completely at odds with the beautiful music that he was created. Not a total surprise, if you’ve ever met the man, and I’m quite sure that he would argue with me (and anyone else) about this. But it comes down to this. If an artist’s actions blind people to the work that they have created, then the whole reason of why they became an artist in the first place- to create something that speaks beyond their own voice, and in turn taken in by others as something that also reflects their spirit and emotion- becomes lost in the shuffle. And sometimes, never re-appears.
Despite all of that, I really had hoped to see the band one more time. I happened to be visiting Toledo two weeks ago the same weekend that Guided by Voices were playing a free festival downtown. However, I had a family celebration to attend that night, and I could not go to the concert. I was disappointed, but I figured, “Well, I’ll catch them somewhere in the next two months. But once again, it was not to be. It was one last distant frustration in two years of unfulfilled frustrations. As I said before, perhaps I was not meant to see the band again. I was supposed to leave those fun shows in the front of my mind, instead of the anger and confusion that has come since. I don’t know if that is true, but it is all I have now, and just have to accept it.
After the band’s recent split, I found a video on Youtube of the band playing a club in 1996. The band is relaxed, and having a great time. As I watched the video, I realized how differently the band seemed from the one that made the reunion circuit. When an artist, be they a writer, musician, painter or whatever, is in the moment, there is a spirit that carries them through what they do. Take those people away from that moment, and put them back in that space some time later, and the perspective is different. As great as that 2010 show was for me and many others, I know realize that no reunion could have fully recreated that original spirit, and that to walk away from it as that spirit became further deluded is, quite frankly, for the best.
Any reunion, be it a creative or personal one, is based on the idea that you can put the same people (or most of the same people) in a room again after however time away, and expect it to be the same as it was before. And that is almost entirely impossible. The moment has changed, the people have changed. And we, the listeners have changed. And sometimes, that moment cannot ever be replicated again. What’s the difference betweens some band reunions, and some high school reunions? People spend money to watch the awkwardness, instead of paying to be a part of it. That’s not a knock on band reunions, that’s just life. It happens, and one has to at some point move on.
I’ve also come to feel that distance from the artists that we admire is not always a bad thing. That’s quite something for a photographer like myself to come to. However, in this era where one hears everything about everyone’s mistakes via social media, it’s harder to separate the work of anyone from their public persona. Sooner or later, though, it’s the work that matters, and what we leave behind. I’m well aware that many of my social and artistic heroes were difficult people to be around for extended lengths of time. But I did not know them personally, I only know their work. And if we able to separate the noise that comes out of our phones and computers every day from one’s work, than perhaps we will see the work, or ourselves, a little bit clearer.
With all of that I’ve said, I look forward to whatever the members of Guided by Voices create from here on. When they release a new album, it is more likely to be viewed on its own merits, instead of being constantly compared to the work that they did all those years ago. And ultimately, that’s what I want for them, whether or not I ever take their photograph again. I also look forward to the distance from the frustration of that last two years, and to able to enjoy the music again as a listener. And in so doing, continue my own circle of experience. The cycle of being a fan, that becomes a friend, that becomes a photographer, that becomes a distant fan, and becomes a fan of the music, again. And I look forward to that happening.
October 16, 2014