For those that have not been "GbV'ed," here is a short version of their story. The band, led by singer/songwriter/ringleader Robert Pollard, form in Dayton, Ohio in the mid 1980s, fueled by a love of 60s and 70s rock, and dreams of stardom. They write and record constantly before their fifth album, Propeller (released in 1992), starts to gather attention. Realizing that they could record as much as they wanted, and spend as little money as possible, they start recording on guitarist Tobin Sprout's four-track home recorder. This gives the albums a low fidelity, do it yourself quality that endears itself to fans. The songs also become shorter, with songs quickly merging from one, into another. By 1994, their album Bee Thousand is the toast of the indie rock scene, and they seem to be releasing a new album, or EP every week. By 2005, they band would release 14 full-length albums, and too many EPs and singles to count. To this day, Robert Pollard still releases five albums on his own every year.
I first heard about the band through a short news piece on MTV in late 1994. Not too long after that, I was in a Media Play store, and saw their then-new album Alien Lanes was on sale for six dollars. I knew nothing about their lo-fi aesthetic, or that the album featured 28 songs in 35 minutes. The first time I heard it, I thought, "What is this?" The sixth time I listened to it, I really liked it. The twentieth time I listened to it, I thought that Guided by Voices were the greatest band in the world. It was like the Beatles in another universe. They were one of the first bands I had heard that took their cues from the same 1960s records that I loved, yet played it with a heart and spirit that made it their own. Between GbV, and the Velvet Underground (whom I had also started listening to around this time), my understanding of popular music exploded, and I have not stopped listening since.
Guided by Voices was also one of the first bands I had ever encountered that inspired its own special fanbase. This was different than the Deadhead community, or other fans I had encountered growing up. GbV seems to encourage their own sense of community, like we all had been lucky enough to receive a secret code. A shared love and experience with something bigger than ourselves. The comfort in knowing that all I have to do is say the phrase, "One, Two, Big School!" and that those who know, wherever they are, will shout, sing, or think the phrase, "BIG! SCHOOL!!" The feeling of standing in a crowded room that share the same feeling as you. Everyone tied together by their love of GbV's endless fountain of great songs, and joining together in a chant of "G-B-V! G-B-V!!" before, or after the band takes the stage. It's a feeling I still look forward to.
In late 1996, I got the magazine I was with at the time to let me do interviews with various GbV bandmembers. By the time I had convinced the magazine to let me go to Dayton, Ohio to meet the band, the lineup (now known as the "classic lineup," which had recorded the albums I previously mentioned) had split up. By the time I finally saw the band in 1997, a new lineup, with Pollard still at the helm, was in place. While these later lineups will always hold a special place in my heart, the band was now a different beast.
Also feeding this change was the crowds that were coming to the shows. Early in their career, Pollard had started drinking heavily onstage, to fend off stage fright. This led to the band, and the crowds often turning the shows into drinkfests. Some people have been surprised to learn that I largely do not drink, and yet have seen GbV fourteen times, and counting. I was never there for that. I was there for the records, the songs that made up the albums that I loved. Some will always associate the band with the communal alcohol watersheds that they often inspire, a rallying cry to drink, sing and let go as much as any human can. I understand that, but its never been my thing.
In 2000, GbV started touring the Southeast US a lot more. I saw them in Columbia, SC, Chapel Hill, NC, Athens, GA and elsewhere, taking photos the whole time. Pollard posed for photos for me here and there, and we talked about doing more. One Friday, I was debating going to see the band play in Asheville, when my phone rang. A magazine in Pennsylvania needed posed pics of the band for a cover. Could I meet GbV at 5pm? Off I went, and the photos we did that evening also led to me having photos in Universal Truths & Cycles, their best-of, and other places.
I have had so many great experiences with the band. Going record shopping with Bob in Athens, GA, and letting him buy an album that I was desperate to have. (Still have that Montage record, Bob?) I showed up in Chicago for a festival, and appeared in the front row without telling them I was in town. The looks on their faces was priceless. I have seen Bob at his best, and, well, drunk. I have been paid a grand total of $67 by their old label, Matador Records, for a photo shoot. The following week, I received another $67 check from Matador, and someone from the label called me in a panic, pleading with me to not cash the check, saying that their system had accidentally printed and mailed another check. That second check is still in my desk, a proud souvenir of the continuing story of GbV, and me.
By 2004, Pollard had grown tired of touring, and the lifestyles of the crowds had taken over much of the band. I saw them on their final tour, leaving an Incredible String Band show in Winston-Salem, NC, to see GbV play in Chapel Hill. And quite frankly, I should have stayed in Winston-Salem. It was like watching your friends obliterate their senses, a dark carnival of a memorial. I really like Robert Pollard, and have always enjoyed talking to him. But I know that when fans show up to "hang out" with Bob ("Hey, I consumed things with Bob Pollard!"), that my time with the Bob I've known has wound down, and the stage version of Pollard is soon to emerge. By the time the band finished later that year, I figured that I would never see the band again.
All the while, the woman that is now my wife, a native Ohioan (I once told Bob, "I have done so much with this band, marrying an Ohio lady just seemed to make sense"), let me go to Dayton to visit the band's hangouts, and gamely went with me to the band's New Year's shows, where fans of both genders were gathering in the ladies room to consume drugs, and whatever else they could get their hands on. My wife, like many, is an understanding GbV widow, and I will always be thankful for that.
I was in Ohio in 2010, visiting my wife's alma mater, when my cellphone started ringing. It was various friends, informing me that GbV's "classic lineup" was touring again, and that a North Carolina show had been announced. It seemed strange to be in the band's home state when the announcement was made, but for me, it seemed to be a sign that things between me and this band were lining up again. By the time I returned home, their manager had already contacted me about photographing the NC show.
The show was, well, fantastic. Is it possible that an event was worth the fifteen years I waited for it? Well, this one was. A ton of great songs, a sold-out crowd going crazy (but not TOO crazy), and good experiences with the band, and everyone there. The lighting wasn't great, but I was able to pull out some good shots. I got home at 3:30 in the morning. I had to be up at 10am that morning for another gig, but I knew that I would be busy the rest of the weekend. I did a quick edit, pulled out five shots that I had immediately liked, and emailed them off by 5am. Later that weekend, GBV's manager emailed me back. Can the band use these for press? By Tuesday, the five pics were in papers in Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere. Not much money, but lots of trade-outs, photo credits and thank yous. Just like the way it used to be. But here I was, working with GBV again, and working with the lineup I had always wanted to see.
After the Hopscotch show, the band's manager asked me a question. Would it be okay if Mojo Magazine used a photo of mine? Of course, I said. Several days later, a photo of the band from the Hopscotch show appeared in Mojo, announcing a new Guided by Voices album.
So, friends, we gather here again, for the funeral that wasn't. Much like our love for this band, Guided by Voices has returned, again and again. With three (count 'em, three) new albums this year, and new shows planned for the fall, our collective experience will continue to change, and grow. Times may have changed, but we have been changed by our time with the band, and made better by it. The hope of any art form is that one can receive love and hope through what one creates. And for many of us, there is nothing that inspires more love than the letters G, B, and V.
GbV is dead, long live GbV.
June 15, 2012