An Audience With the Alien Nuncio: On Tour with Guided By Voices

This is the first installment of novelist, screenwriter, and musician James Greer’s diary of his fall tour opening for Guided by Voices with his band, Détective. (Greer previously appeared on this website when Nicolle Elizabeth interviewed him for her ongoing “Go Forth” series.)

September 18, 2012: Athens, Georgia

Ropes of rain batter the hood of my 2001 Honda Accord. We’re not far from our destination, which is the legendary 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia. The three members of Détective (named after the J-L Godard film, starring among others cheese-pop icon Johnny Hallyday) are crammed inside, along with our guitars, accessories (effects pedals, cables, batteries, assorted tools, duct tape), cymbals, snare drum, kick pedal, merch (T-shirts, vinyl records, CDs, cassettes), and luggage (three weeks worth of clothes, toiletries, snacks, bottles of water, the dead body of a local promoter, gluten-free crackers, apples, the various chargers and adapters for our mobile communications equipment). Over the next few weeks, the driver-side window will disappear into the doorframe with an ominous crack, necessitating an emergency trip to a repair shop on the way from Orlando to New Orleans, and we will be side-swiped by an enormous tow-truck outside of Phoenix. By the standards usually applied to touring, these incidents qualify as extraordinarily minor. We are lucky.

To get to Athens from Los Angeles, where we live, we drove 400 miles to Tempe, Arizona, played a show, and then drove another 400 miles, then 500 miles, then 500 miles, then again 400 miles. Upon arrival, we set up, soundcheck, and play 45 minutes of garage pop. After which we get to watch the greatest rock and roll band of the modern era according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. Clearly Obama is in the tank for Guided By Voices. After all, Ohio is a swing state. Or a battleground state. In any case, it is a state. In New Orleans, I will tell the audience that they should vote for Obama because there’s no way Romney will appoint a press secretary who’s a huge Guided By Voices fan. The audience responds by booing. I tell them to fuck off.

We arrive early at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, because I’m determined to be at least semi-professional on this tour, especially since we’re borrowing Guided By Voices’ backline for the shows we do with them (backline is what you call the amps) and the drums, too, and we load in our guitars and merch and the drum-related stuff we brought (even if you borrow someone else’s drums, you always bring your own cymbals, and usually your own snare and kick drum pedal, because these are the things that most easily break on a drum set), then head over to the hotel to drop off our bags. Back to the club again, just in time to meet the band, minus singer/bandleader Robert “Bob” Pollard, who has decided not to do sound checks for the rest of the tour in order to save his voice and his sanity. We help load in the gear, meet Park Doing, tour manager pro-tempore, a long-time friend of bass player Greg Demos and a professor at Cornell — and thus used to ordering people around imperiously — as well as the rest of the band, who are variously hung-over and sick, having driven from Asheville NC that day. 

Guided By Voices go back to the hotel to rest, and we do our own line check, which, since we’re using the same equipment and GBV isn’t doing a full-on soundcheck, gives us the opportunity to run through a much more thorough soundcheck than is usually afforded the opening act. Which is particularly helpful because we’re completely unfamiliar with the borrowed equipment. By the time were finished, GBV return from the hotel, this time with Bob and his wife Sarah, who’s coming along for the whole tour, and we exchange hugs and small talk before settling down to the important business of getting drunk. 

Backstage after the Athens show Toby and Bob’s wife Sarah and some other people whose names I don’t remember have a long conversation about what music jail would actually be like. We decide that Clear Channel would run music jail and that the actual jail would be Guitar Center and if you get sent there you have to be a customer and you can’t leave. Ever. Toby and I talk about effects pedals. Pizza arrives. Bob explains “BeeGees Syndrome” which is when a band that was once great starts to suck. “Then when you go back to listen to the early stuff, it’s somehow not as good as you remembered, because it’s been tainted by how much the later stuff sucks. Like with early BeeGees, instead of being one of the greatest groups of all time, the early stuff is barely the Smiths. ‘Barely The Smiths.’ That’s a title.”

[Backstage at the 40 Watt Club in Athens]

With Bob, everything’s a title. Everything that anyone says or that he says or that he reads or that he overhear or mishears or sees on TV or, sometimes, that he thinks up as a title, is a title-in-potential. Between the three sets of encores in Lawrence, Kansas, he would stagger off the stage sweat-soaked and beer-sotted, and start talking about the titles he came up with while he was singing the encores. “I can’t get off titles tonight, man,” he tells me. “'Henry and the Freaks.’ I just thought of that. Wait. 'Henry Ate the Freaks.’ Yeah. That’s it. That’s a title.”

You might think that in his advanced state of inebriation the moment of inspiration, unless captured by some willing scribe (and I was once that willing scribe, scribbling titles on soggy napkins in the bars of Dayton Ohio 19-Something and Five), would vaporize into the song title ether, never to be retrieved. Nope. Bob remembers the majority of the titles he conjures or steals (“It’s not stealing if you tell the person you’re taking it,” he explained once, referring to ideas, not to wallets or cars).

Here’s my grand unifying idea: the music of Guided By Voices, and especially of Robert Pollard, is a mysterium tremendum, and while it may not contain the whole of Western learning, I’m not ruling it out. If, as Whitehead drily mused, all philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, Pollard’s song surely are the footnotes to the Platonic ideal of rock music as constructed by whoever constructs these things, possibly Aion, the god of eternity. All music, like all-everything-else, will eventually disappear. As Pollard sings on “I Am A Scientist,” “Everything fades from sight / Because that’s all right with me.”

And as he sings on “Don’t Stop Now,” a song he’s also called “The Ballad of Guided By Voices,” “Plenty more where we came from.”

In the next installment, I’ll demonstrate what he means.

James Greer

[All photos by Guylaine Vivarat © Détective 2012]