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Beer Thousand

Will the Bottle Let Guided by Voices Down?

By John Sewell | Posted 5/16/2001

Guided by Voices auteur Robert Pollard is a man of contradictions. In the seven years or so that GBV has been at the forefront of the indie-rock scene, he has added fabled new chapters to a prolific body of adventurous, flag-waving rock music that deftly avoids clichés and resists musical trends. Pollard's recordings, both with GBV and solo, defy the usual immaturity and vacuousness of rock 'n' roll, instead offering timeless quality and genuine artistry.

But there are definite Jekyll and Hyde facets of Pollard's personality. On the recordings you get Robert Pollard, indie rock's man of letters. In concert, you get Wild Bob Pollard, party animal. As lovable and darkly alluring as Wild Bob may be, he's not always a pretty sight. Guided by Voices shows are virtual orgies of alcoholic hedonism. And if you're not getting loaded too, it just might not seem like quite as much fun.

There's no denying the band members' onstage stamina, both as musicians and as drinkers. A typical GBV set runs through about 50 songs, a couple of cases of beer, and a fifth of whiskey--not to mention whatever intoxicants the musicians might have imbibed before the show. Sure, the band plays well enough in spite of it all, but you have to wonder just what musical heights it could reach if those musicians were less, uh, polluted.

The image of the elegantly wasted star is an oft-repeated rock 'n' roll archetype. And this image has apparently become a pitfall for Pollard. At GBV concerts, fans egg on his drinking as if it carries some kind of inherent heroism, and Pollard seems eager to play the role to his followers' delight.

In man-of-letters mode during a recent phone interview, Pollard downplays the impact and importance of alcohol as a sacrament at GBV shows. "I think the image of my being some kind of partying monster gets a little overplayed," he says. "But the thing is, it's kind of our shtick. Everybody wants to have something to associate the band with. Different bands have different things. Like, the Grateful Dead did the acid thing, and everybody thought it was good to see the Grateful Dead play on acid.

"But our shows are just a party. They're a beer blast, and people like to talk about that," he says. "If that brings out more people to see the show, then fine. But it does get old to be associated with [heavy drinking]."

And what of the overindulgent fans who seem to butt in somewhere in every show? "They can ruin it for you," Pollard says. "I mean, I'm not saying everybody should drink. I drink basically 'cause I've got stage fright and I need to be somewhat inebriated. But our music is more complex and it's not about alcohol. It's above that. I write an occasional song about drinking. And if you want to get drunk and come to our show, that's fine. But the music should be first--not to come there and be an asshole."

GBV's onstage bacchanal is not without merit. And in the course of a show, the band can go from a thrilling entrance to a sloppy, but thrilling in its way, denouement. But, for me, seeing rock stars' talents erode as they self-destruct onstage has lost its mystique. And as much as I love Guided by Voice's records (Isolation Drills, recently released by TVT Records, just might be the band's most focused album yet), when GBV takes the stage I find myself thinking, Oh, it's those guys again.

Whether or not Pollard wants to admit it, the excess seems to be taking a toll. In a recent interview in Revolver magazine, he made veiled references to a schism in his 20-year marriage as a result of his debauched lifestyle.

Asked about the Revolver interview, Pollard chooses his words carefully and reveals little: "[The interview] was funny. I like that guy, [writer] Tom [Beaujour]. He's a good friend of mine. But I would kind of like to stay away from my personal life. I realize that's not gonna happen. People are going to want to know about that sort of thing, and I try to kind of keep it as general as possible."

One song on Isolation Drills, "How's My Drinking," takes a defensive position about alcohol. "That song kind of says, 'Fuck you if you've got a problem with my life,'" Pollard says. "You should be concerned with what the music's about, not with my drinking. And it's not that bad, anyway. I mean, I drink Miller Lite. So c'mon. I don't drink any more than a softball team does."

Pollard seems intent on living his version of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle unrepentantly, and that's fine--as long as it doesn't get in the way of his music. However, the ominous presence of Wild Bob may indeed threaten the creativity of the man many consider to be the very best working rock songwriter. GBV's current career trajectory would make excellent Behind the Music fodder. But those shows are usually reserved for dead guys and bloated has-beens on the revival circuit, not for visionary talents still making valid, living music. And with Wild Bob on the loose, I'm just a little bit worried.

Guided by Voices plays Fletcher's on May 19 with Creeper Lagoon.

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