I am a scientist – I seek to understand me
all of my impurities and evils yet unknown
I am a journalist – I write to you to show you
I am an incurable
and nothing else behaves like me
I am a pharmacist
prescriptions I will fill you
potions, pills and medicines
to ease your painful lives
I am a lost soul
I shoot myself with rock & roll
the hole I dig is bottomless
but nothing else can set me free
This week marks the anniversary of “Bee Thousand,” one of my best-loved albums of, well, the past twenty-two years, by the Dayton, Ohio indie-rock band Guided By Voices. Like my first mad crush, I remember hearing this 1994 cracked masterpiece soon after it was released as if it were only yesterday.
I had read about the building buzz around this strangely named group of beer-swilling avatars of pop: a random note here, a small but enthusiastic mention there (in the Washington Post). My reaction upon hearing “Bee Thousand” ? As giddy and immediate as the music and songs on that record. I vividly recall falling head over heels in lust, love, and fanboydom from the moment I bought the LP and cracked it open to discover the band had pressed it on blue wax (and as, I would find out later, these great patriots did it up in red and white besides blue, too).
Still in bathrobe, bedhead, and sluggish before my morning mug of coffee kicked in, I placed the album on my turntable for an early morning, pre-work liftoff, and sitting down on the couch across from the stereo, bulky headphones on so as not to wake my still-sleeping wife. My first jolt of thought — aside from being knocked out by the splendid ’60s-evoking inner sleeve artwork that boded well for what I was about to hear — was that this band loved everything I did about rock & roll, and probably listened to the same records.
The sound, as well as the music, on that blue-plate special platter struck me like no other had to that point. The songs were frequently humming with tape hiss, and would often come to an abrupt halt (more than a dozen tracks clocked in at under two minutes) or bleed into the next one, like some over-saturated re-recorded magnetic tape cassette. Sometimes the tunes would be interrupted, jarringly, by what seemed to be scissored splices or violent cuts, or they would sway and wobble in and out of focus like a guy squinting the scenery through the buzz of four too many beers.
Then there were the bodies of the songs themselves; compact bantam weight zingers that bobbed and weaved and came at you at odd pop-art angles, with occasionally mismatched parts that sounded as though they had been grafted like limbs onto those little torsos of melody; glued-on appendages and addendums of inspiration. Before long, I was convinced that the whole album had been cooked up with beer and weed and laid down in somebody’s garage or rec room. This wasn’t too far from the truth, as it turned out.
But dicey sound production aside, there was nothing cheap or crappy about the sunburst melodies, the diabolically stirring guitar chords, the lead singer who had adopted a faux British accent and sang like “Who Sell Out”-era Roger Daltrey. Damned if I knew who these guys were, but they sounded like they were having a blast playing out their make-believe rock star obsessions on the invisible stages of their basements and bedrooms. Again, I wasn’t too far off as it turned out.
“In the lo-fi phase, I wanted songs to sound like outtakes from Beatles albums, like really bad copies,” principal singer-songwriter and bandleader Robert Pollard told me years later. “I wanted it to sound like you had this Beatles bootleg, like all those ‘White Album’ outtakes that you found on some fourth-generation cassette.”
Add to this quaint modus operandi that these guys were all way older than I had imagined them to be made me feel like a kindred spirit.
Frankly, it was refreshing to finally be able to adore the music of a rag-tag bunch of dudes who pre-dated me (an event that had increasingly become a rarity when one gravitated toward scruffy indie-rock made by, and for, college kids ten years my junior). Listening to my favorite current artists and bands of the time always gave me a slightly bittersweet feeling: A creeping, semi-subterranean awareness that the once narrow distance between college and my life was slowly, yet inexorably, yawning into an ever-widening chasm.
On the one hand, it felt good to have hit my early 30’s and still feel connected and as engaged as I had ever been (maybe even more so) to an alternative universe of music that fell well outside the assembly line of reheated beats and calculated catch-phrase baubles masquerading as music. At the same time, so many people around my age had long settled into so-called lazy-boy “classic rock” radio armchairs that anesthetized docile listeners with the likes of Bad Company, Bob Seger, or Boston. If they bothered to even listen to music anymore at all, that is.
It was easy to feel quietly superior. After all, I had worked hard for my taste. It had taken years to acquire and refine. Relentlessly and obsessively soaking up sounds, bands, genres, and sub-strains of styles, and then cataloging and distilling them into a vast mental library that would accompany me in life had exacted a not entirely unpleasant toll: enormous amounts of time that had come at the expense of almost everything else — except buying and listening to more music.
But taking satisfaction in being a discerning music obsessive — staunchly resistant in the face of the ubiquitous, empty calorie tripe that gunked up the airwaves like the clogged arteries of middle age — was tempered by something unsettling: the nagging knowledge that even though I was partial to music at least two college generations younger than my years, I was getting older. Although still firmly at the forefront of my priorities, the music was becoming more of an emotional respite and sanctuary from life’s pressures than a lifestyle unto itself. The thought panicked me.
It was similar to the disquieting feeling I encountered years earlier, when I had continued to collect baseball cards into my early twenties. One blinding spring morning after a trip to the 7-11 corner store for coffee, deodorant, and a pack of baseball cards (just to get a gander at what the new crop of cards looked like), I flipped over a favorite player’s cardboard stat profile. And was confronted, face to face, with a birthdate uncomfortably close to my own, rendered in the familiar font of my childhood. Here was a guy roughly my own age and era actually on a big league baseball card, immortalized for all-time. And here I was, inevitably hung over and standing alone outside a 7-11 in a dreary nowhere town, sticking a wad of stale pink cardboard gum in my mouth (although I always liked the gum). He was chewing gum too, in the picture. Only he was a professional baseball player who was far more rich and famous than I’d ever be.
Untouchable legends like The Beatles or the Who I could understand. (I had always comforted myself with the reassuring thought that when those guys were 22, I was barely born). Besides, they were divine beings, not mortal men of this earth. There was no competition or envy or jealousy tied to the idea that their attainment of fabulous famousness necessarily spelled my exclusion from a small sample of those things someday. Obviously, John Lennon and Pete Townshend were one thing: mythical figures to be admired as the rock-god gladiators they rightfully were. But baseball players named Marty Barrett and Mike Greenwell gazing toward greater glories (and riches, Porsches, and readily available women name Porsche) were quite another.
As gifted as they were (talented enough, apparently, to make it to the major leagues), they were impossible for me to latch onto without seeming a little pathetic because hell, I could have gone to high school with those guys. And in the case of the young indie-rock bands that were arriving in the wake of my firm entrenchment into adulthood, it was even worse. These were kids who were still in elementary school while I was in college.
All the more reason Guided By Voices struck me as special but approachable, down to earth gladiators — in other words, semi-regular dudes somewhat in my orbit who probably listened to a good chunk of the same bands I did in college. As their name attested, they were guided by voices, most definitely, but voices that I too could hear and relate to in my record collection.
That’s only one of the reasons I fell so completely for what Bob Pollard and his crew of thirty-somethings were doing on “Bee Thousand.” For me (and perhaps for other guys in their 30s and 40s), more than any other band at the time, Guided By Voices made it OK to remain an unrepentant rock and roll lifer — in my head, in my living room, in my life. They hadn’t given up on the music. They hadn’t turned a deaf ear to listening to the way they wanted their world to sound. And look where their belief in their basement dreams got them: their voices and visions brought to glorious life on red, white, and blue wax.
“When I was a kid, I always waited for certain bands to put out a certain record, like the Beatles,” Pollard once told me during an interview. “And I’d go home and put ‘em on the stereo and I’d be in bliss, man. (Even Now) I still want to hear a particular song, and if it’s not there I’ll go ahead and write it. And I write songs because I think that maybe there’s other people out there who want to hear it also.”
I am truly, genuinely incredulous when I consider that I’m 52 years old now. I ponder this notion (I guess some would call it a ‘fact’), and most days, that number just doesn’t seem real. There’s a mile-wide disconnect between my head and heart, and the rest of my mortal coil. It may be getting late and grey outside, but when it comes to a lot of stuff, and music especially, inside I’m a flushed teenager with a racing heartbeat, still rushing to take in the sights and my seat in the classroom (To quote that great sage “Diamond” David Lee Roth: “I don’t FEEL tardy!”).
I prefer to remind myself of the wise words spoken to me by Bob Pollard, who once threatened that he’d do scissor kicks onstage until the day he broke a hip. I had asked him whether he thought youth was a false barometer of quality and relevance when it came to making music. “Youth is definitely overrated,” Pollard said without hesitation. “But everything is geared to youth. Youth is pretty to look at, and youth is easy to market. But as a songwriter, nothing beats experience.”
Twenty-two years on, the voices still carry. With whatever permutation constitutes GBV these days, Bob Pollard, now directing his sneakered scissor kicks toward the prospect of 60, is still making music impervious to logic, age, and commercial considerations. And “Bee Thousand” still gives me the rush it did when I first heard it that groggy morning, headed to another day’s drudgery. In other words, it can make me feel 21 or ageless, I’m not sure which. But I’m guessing that’s part of the point and the power of “Bee Thousand,” and why for many of us the thing remains so guilelessly charming, so perpetually endearing.
Much like parsing out those spliced melodies connecting captured moments to fleeting movements, it’s tough for me to tell, exactly, where the magic spell of “Bee Thousand” as a record ends, and where the cherished place it holds in my life begins. To borrow a lyrical image from one of its gemstone songs, the album’s ability to summon sights and evoke a multitude of perspectives resembles “a necklace of 50 eyes,” ever-reflecting, ever-refracting, and always ours to keep.
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