Note: this post originally appeared on the Snipe News, Oct. 19 2010.
It’s a long drive, at least six hours, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, something I hadn’t worked into my calculations. Factor in the time it took me to get moving in the a.m., plus an errand I had to run if the drive were to be much more pleasant, plus L.A. traffic, and the I-5 wasn’t stretching out before me until 3 in the afternoon. This didn’t give me much time to get to the city, find my hotel, boot it down to the Waldorf and buy a ticket (if, indeed, it wasn’t sold out, which I didn’t think it would be. But you never know) before Guided by Voices hit the stage.
But the drive did give me lots of time to think about the trip, and to question the wisdom of it.
As mentioned in the first part of this travelogue, the question had arisen in my mind of whether this whole idea was, well, perhaps wrong-headed. The Guided by Voices shows of the past, the ones that had always left me wanting more, were wildly unpredictable affairs that last two-and-a-half hours; these shows, at least so far, were comparatively tame and predictable. On the positive side, though, with a restricted setlist, and less alcohol consumption than in the glory days, the band was tighter. And Pollard was as limber as ever, high-kicking and mic-twirling his way through what he calls “the hits” (they’re not, really, except in the minds of GBV fans).
And meeting those fans was half the fun, maybe even more so than seeing the band. In Las Vegas, on the third night of the Matador at 21 weekend, a few hours prior to Guided by Voices taking the stage, I’d met Bryan and Mike. As much foodies as music fans, they were enjoying some sushi at Little Buddha, an Asian fusion restaurant in the Palms Casino/Resort, which was hosting the Matador shows. From the band’s hometown, Dayton, Ohio, both were hardcore fans – Mike more so than Bryan.
Indeed Mike claims to buy everything Pollard puts out, from solo albums to his records with other bands (Circus Devils, Boston Spaceships, to name two), including two copies of both CD and vinyl, AND pays the shipping charges charged by Rockathon Records (which sells Pollard’s stuff) – and then goes and picks them up himself.
“If you know that 2,000 people are going to buy whatever you do, then that’s enough,” Mike said, explaining his patron-of-Pollard theory. He had just taken part in something called the “Alpha/Omega Project”, the goal of which is to listen to nothing but Pollard – from the earliest lo-fi Guided by Voices recordings to whatever his most recent record is. Mike said it took him three weeks, and he was still waiting for the T-shirt given to those who complete the project. Once gone over to Pollard’s house, Bryan added, and been directed by his wife to “the clubhouse”, i.e. the garage where Pollard holds court. “I still get tongue-tied around him,” said Bryan, a successful businessman in his forties.
The scene in Vegas had been something else. The Palms is a higher-end casino, a little more adult than say the Venetian, with the only Playboy Club left in the Western world. In the front foyer, a large lit-from-behind poster trumpeted the appearance at the Palms, “one night only”, of porn star Sasha Grey. Not the most obvious choice for a 21-year anniversary party for an indie label that had introduced the world to the stage-shy Cat Power.
The Palms pool area caters to the beautiful people in from L.A., including your typical super-buff dudes and mega-bouncy chicks, while bikini’d babes serve over-priced drinks and speakers pumped out Top 40 dance drivel and top volumes. Pauly D, a cast member of the reality show Jersey Shore, was at the casino to DJ (I’m not making this up) in one of the clubs, and a film crew was keeping track of him and his posse in a poolside cabana.
Imagine entering into this milieu dozens of pasty-white, untoned indie-rockers, wearing Joy Division T-shirts and clutching copies of a book of Ibsen plays and The New Yorker…
Vegas had been strange and fun; the Palms had even paid lip-service to our presence by occasionally playing a Matador act in the casino (not the pool, however). The whole scene had bred a kind of us-vs-them mentality that took some of us, I’m sure, back to the days when, perusing the racks of record stores for the latest indie releases, we felt misunderstood and alien, boo-hoo, before Nirvana made the world safe for ironic lyrics, inchoate rage and distorted guitars.
But Vegas was long out of range of my rental car’s rear-view mirror…
I arrive at the Warfield with minutes to spare; 10 minutes after buying a balcony ticket and grabbing my seat, the band comes out. From my perch I can see people freak out as Guided by Voices launches into what has become its signature opener, “A Salty Salute”.
I wish I could say that what followed was an appreciably different set from the one in Los Angeles the night before, but it wasn’t. Only the crowd reaction was different, or seemed so from where I was sitting – in San Francisco, a couple of people (well, dudes) jumped up onstage to take a picture of themselves with Pollard; also, there was more (though not much) stage-diving and crowd-surfing.
Instead of wondering which song was next, I found myself looking forward to moments I knew were coming – and readying myself for the more cringe-worthy ones. In the former department: Pollard’s intro to “Gold Star for Robot Boy” which, for some reason, always cracked me up; his line about “the textbook committee” from the tune “Smothered in Hugs”; just about all his stage banter, really.
In the latter camp: a long intro before the band came out onstage of a man’s voice from what sounded like an old instructional record; the crass spoken-word break in “Lethargy” (“I don’t give a shit,” says Pollard. “Mitch doesn’t give a shit. Tobin doesn’t give a fuck,” ad nauseum); Mitch Mitchell talking about all that “[fill in blank with name of city] pussy” in the encore.
And I still had two shows to go. And one helluva long drive to Portland…