Guided by Voices

For the last month or so, my interest in GBV has rekindled and I’ve downloaded three hundred or so of their songs from Limewire (Oh beautiful internet). 

During the early-to-mid nineties, when they were almost completely unknown, they created some of the greatest pop/rock music since…well since the category was created, much of it in a garage in Ohio.  The singer/songwriter was a schoolteacher.  They were all quite fond of beer.

Their songs, short, fragmentary, with sounds of tape hiss, muttering, muffled vocals, also possessed surreal, evocative lyrics, great hooks, and brilliant melodies.  They had a psychedelic flavor as well, with that sense of great discoveries that can never be fully explained.

The songs aren’t traditional pop songs so much as evocations of traditional pop forms, summoned and quickly discarded yet lingering.  They’re an utterly American form of Surrealism, reminding me of David Lynch and Joseph Cornell, with a sense of accident and effortlessness hovering over the proceedings.  After a song, you could find yourself with tears in your eyes, or jumping up and down, although you couldn’t say what the song was about.

Then the singer, wanting to be a crossover success, fired the band and made a million more songs that were adequate, and sometimes excellent.  There were great melodies, excellent musicians, memorable choruses, but it wasn’t as good.  Few of the new songs attained the level of those garage songs; in fact, making traditional songs seemed like, was, a regression.  But the band was playing stadiums and the singer was drinking even more beer so….It was a success.

What this progression makes clear to me, again, is how much of what makes great art is accidental.  No matter how talented you are, or how great your chops are, or your themes, the difference between good and great is outside of your control.  Most of the time, you don’t even realize when you’re doing your best work.

What makes the case of GBV particularly sad is that many music critics – granted, the lowest form of writer – don’t understand why the early GBV is so good, or even that it is better than the new stuff.  But it will come out in time.

The Oscars: Hardboiled

If you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs and the fake sentimentality and the platitudes and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens (you ought to hear them with four martinis down the hatch) and still feel next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture industry you certainly belong.

                                                                                                                      —Raymond Chandler

Back in the Day

A few nights ago I had a long talk with a neighborhood guy who grew up in Williamsburg.  We discussed the old days.  My friend Cesar, who is half-Dominican (although he looks more like Bob Marley, dreads and all), was full of stories about the junkie spots and the packs of wild dogs and the gang-wars between the established blacks and Puerto Ricans and the newcomer Dominicans.  Apparently one of his cousins was a big gangster in the DDP Posse (Dominicans Don’t Play), and Cesar talked about all the violence his cousin had instigated, including shooting a handful of people and ‘popping the eyeball out of a junkie who tried to steal his car radiator.’  Eventually, the cousin was deported.

Cesar grew up on the south side, a completely different world from the mostly white working-class north side only a few blocks away. 

If you saw a white guy down here, my friend said, He was either a junkie trying to score, or a cop.

Where I was interested in finding out about factory closings, abandoned buildings, the arrival of artists, Cesar preferred to recount  tales of violent glory, the lost legends of the lunatics who made their names on the street, the most important memories to a kid growing up in a rough ghetto.