A Salty Salute

I might even wind up a rock 'n' roll god / It might turn into a steady job -- the Kinks, "Top of the Pops"

In 1994, a rock and roll god was born when a tiny label with the vaguely coprophilic name of Scat released a disc now considered by many to be the Sgt. Pepper of indie rock. The album was recorded under less-than-ideal conditions in various Midwestern basements by an almost unknown band loosely formed around a middle-aged fourth-grade teacher from Dayton, Ohio. The band was Guided By Voices, the teacher was Robert Pollard, the record (the band's seventh) was Bee Thousand, and its offhand psychedelia and habit-forming hooks impacted the rarefied world of independent guitar-based rock music like an Astrodome-sized meteor.

Ten years later, on the eve of the band's 21st anniversary, this same Mr. Pollard, long since retired from teaching and now a full-fledged rock star, has announced the end of Guided By Voices and the launch of his own solo career with the release of full-length album No. 15, Half Smiles of the Decomposed. News of the breakup quickly reverberated throughout the selfsame older if not wiser indie rock community, and the response, aside from some knee-jerk end-of-an-era sentimentality, has been a resounding "Ehhh, so what?"

You see, in the years since the band's auspicious rise to prominence, the general consensus was reached that Guided By Voices had always been, in essence, a solo act. Of the lineup that recorded the beloved Bee Thousand, only Pollard remained by 1996. Virtually every song on every record was written and sung by him, and there was a seemingly endless supply of solo and side projects bearing the Pollard stamp. Many of these, with their lower sound quality and offhand vibe, sounded more like early GBV than the increasingly produced and arranged "official" Guided By Voices albums released yearly. The idea of Robert Pollard going solo struck many as a formality at most.

All of which is more of a testament to public cynicism than a reflection of musical reality. In truth, Guided By Voices has been a relatively consistent, organically evolving entity since '96, when guitar master Doug Gillard quit Cobra Verde and brought his maximum riffage to bear as Pollard's second in command, a post he's retained for eight years.

As charming as the old lo-fi GBV was, the mild-mannered, shambling jangle of yore was just not muscular enough to take on the high-octane Who-like big rock material that its leader was writing. Early footage of the band (viewable on the Watch Me Jumpstart DVD) shows a self-effacing awkwardness that has since completely disappeared, replaced by one of the most physically and sonically aggressive performance styles on the road, with the band bearing down on their instruments like weapons in a pitched battle while General Bob struts, stomps and kickboxes, alternately swinging, juggling and chugging bottles of beer from the ever-present cooler center stage.

Because of his antics and the fact that he plays no instrument in the live shows, many seem to believe that Pollard is some sort of idiot savant, humming and singing tunes and riffs while his bandmates are forced to fill in the blanks. This is apparently far from the case. "Bob is actually quite a good guitar player," avers Gillard. "He's taught me a few things. He uses some very interesting, unconventional chord formations and does a lot with single-string drones. He claims he doesn't know the names of any of the chords, but I dunno…he definitely knows what he's doing."

In the process of working up new material, Pollard would generally bring in acoustic demos of the songs, and the rest of the band would come up with ideas for their parts, according to Gillard. "The process has always been pretty collaborative, and he's generally been open to all of our input. He's also constantly changing his style of writing. I know for a long time he would come up with the music first and write words to fit that, but a while back he reversed it, started writing lyrics and forcing the music to conform to them. He's always challenging himself that way."

Gillard thinks that his boss's drive to find new challenges is the main force behind the decision to break up the band. "I know people think we've got this revolving lineup or whatever, but it's been really gradual and overlapping for a very long time, and I think he just knows us too well. When he can anticipate how each of us is going to play a particular song, that's good in a way, it's solid, but it also cuts down on Bob's own spontaneity and discovery. In that way it's a good thing, I think, that the band's breaking up. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's bad for me personally." Gillard sighs wistfully. "I've got to find work now. Guided By Voices has actually been my day job for six years."

The demise of the band was not planned or expected. "When we recorded Half Smiles, nobody had any idea that it was going to be the last album," says Gillard. "We recorded and mixed, and it was just business as usual. Then each of us got a call from Bob saying it was over." As such, it's fruitless to look for too much significance in the lyrics. While there's a straightforward sadness and separation anxiety underlying many of the songs (specifically on the penultimate "[S]mothering and Coaching"), it's not a breakup album.

The band is on its "Electrifying Conclusion" tour and will be bringing its act to the Engine Room (where Pollard hurt his back during an onstage stunt last winter) for the final time October 1. "We're definitely approaching this as a celebration of the band's career rather than some kind of mournful episode," says Gillard. "There's so much that we want to play, and Bob's adding more and more older favorites to the set list on almost a daily basis. This is it for these songs, at least live, and we really want to do them justice and send the fans home smiling."

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Scott Faingold