Note: this post was originally published on thesnipenews.com on Sept 20 2014.
The end, when it came, came suddenly. It was no “electrifying conclusion,” as the 2004 farewell tour was called.
On Thursday, Sept 18, Guided by Voices issued a statement that the band was breaking up, and that all the shows scheduled for this fall – an even dozen of them – were hereby cancelled.
As a final statement, it was more self-aggrandizing than apologetic – and disappointingly in keeping with the Dayton, Ohio group’s behaviour in the last days. It paid lip service to the fans that have supported Guided by Voices all these years, and apologized “to those that have purchased tickets and made travel plans.” Mostly, it seemed intent on reminding us, or perhaps trying to convince us, that we were lucky to get what we got in this semi-victory lap – “4 years of great shows and six killer albums,” as the statement said.
As a fan, I saw some of those shows. Some of them were great (and, let’s be honest, the albums all had moments of greatness. But “killer” is the kind of hyperbole we’ve come to expect from the GBV camp – after all, this is a band whose frontman, Robert Pollard, would, onstage, often declare them “the kings of indie-rock”). We were there for the first reunion show in Las Vegas, at Matador’s 21st anniversary weekend in 2010. And I was so excited to see their return that I followed the band up the West Coast for the shows that immediately followed the Las Vegas date, and caught them in L.A., San Francisco, Portland and finally Seattle.
At Sasquatch the following year, we watched as they followed electro-dance duo Chromeo in the middle of the afternoon. Chromeo played to thousands, GBV to a few hundred devout, mostly bearded men. (Not Guided by Voices’ greatest moment, although Pollard got off a typically memorable shot at the previous act’s expense. To this day, whenever I see or hear the name “Chromeo,” I can’t help but think of Pollard’s remark, “Who was that shitty band?”)
This past year, when more West Coast tour dates were announced – in Portland and Seattle, at the beginning of June – I was no less excited than when the initial reunion was announced. (That 2010 reunion was of the much-ballyhooed “classic” lineup, the circle of Dayton buddies who’d recorded the band’s mid-’90s breakthrough albums Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes.) We bought the tickets, booked the rooms, drove the miles and had a great time – especially at the Seattle show, where we watched with friends, some of whom had never seen the band, as Guided by Voices – introduced by no less than Eddie Vedder as “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world” – powered through a two-hour-plus set of past “hits” and highlights (and sometimes lowlights – cue “My Dooms”) from the new albums.
That Seattle show – the last time I would see them, as it happens – was also one of the best, at least in terms of experience. (Usually, everyone – well, Pollard and the audience – is so drunk by the end of a typical Guided by Voices show, you’d be hard-pressed to say if an actual performance was a standout.) At this point, I should also interject to say that these shows – part of the classic reunion lineup package – were not my first times seeing the band. I’d seen them multiple times in Vancouver, in both the so-called classic formation and subsequent versions, at the Commodore Ballroom, the Starfish Room, Richard’s on Richards, and the Red Room; as well, I’d seen them in Seattle, Portland, New York and Austin. Yes, I’m that big of a fan – or, at least, was.
The Seattle show at Showbox Market was so much fun that my girlfriend and I were seriously considering a return trip to Portland to see them again, at what was to be the first of a series of fall shows – all cancelled now. But even before the cancellation, we’d decided against it after watching the Stony Pony simulcast.
Now, Pollard and Guided by Voices have always had a reputation as a hard-drinking band. Back in the day, I’d watched as the band put back more than its fair share of cans of Bud, or glugged from bottles of tequila. When writing about the band, journalists couldn’t keep themselves from mentioning two salient characteristics – its propensity for drinking (earning them the nickname “Guided by Beers” by more than one admiring scribe) as well as Pollard’s prolificacy (thousands of songs, dozens of albums, both with/as Guided by Voices as well as solo records and records with other projects). On the last shows of 2004’s Electrifying Conclusion tour, there was even a bar onstage. But the drinking never seemed to get in the way of the band finishing a show, no matter how messily.
The show at the Stone Pony in New Jersey, which broadcast Aug. 23 on Yahoo Live, was different. Swigging alternately from a bottle of tequila and Crown Royal rye whiskey, interspersed with cans of beer, Pollard was in his cups an hour into the show; by the 90-minute mark (if not sooner) he was repeating songs (“Do you want to hear ‘I Am a Scientist’ again? Yeah you do”), falling down, telling Yahoo, the sponsors and the audience “fuck you”, and thoroughly embarrassing himself to the point where he had to be escorted off the stage, after the rest of the band had already left.
Video – Guided by Voices at the Stone Pony, Aug 23 2014:
But Guided by Voices fans are a forgiving bunch, able to look past their hero’s foibles and remember the king’s ransom of, yes, killer songs he’s given us over the years. Those songs have made up for Pollard’s countless feuds (with journalists, fellow musicians, even past members of Guided by Voices, including, most recently, with classic lineup drummer Kevin Fennell – over the online sale of a drumkit!), onstage shit-talking (Lou Barlow has been a favourite target, for no apparent reason), and sometimes spotty albums. And yet, even for Pollard, the Stone Pony performance was over the line – so much so that I hoped, but didn’t expect, some kind of comment, even an apology. But when, a couple of days after the disaster, nothing was forthcoming, I realized that it was going to be business as usual – denial on Pollard’s part and enabling on fans’ (our) part. The centre could not hold.
After this Thursday’s announcement of the band’s split, my girlfriend reminded me of something I’d said on our way down to see the band in Portland and Seattle, in June. “This could end at any time,” I said. “This might be the last chance we get to see them.”
So the end didn’t come entirely as a surprise. Nor, really, did the way in which it came – with cancelled shows, dashed hopes, and a lame apology. Not only was it unprofessional, but it was entirely without class, another “fuck you” (albeit, sober this time) to the fans who had supported, and loved, Guided by Voices, flaws and all.
So long, and thanks for the flunky minnows.