Monday, December 12, 2005

Jim Greer: Guided By Voices: A Brief History: Twenty-One Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll (2005)

I started reading this book at around 2:00pm yesterday, and finished at around midnight. I also got in some supper and an episode of Farscape during that time. It contains a short introduction by Steven Soderbergh (for whom Robert Pollard did the soundtrack to his upcoming film Bubble), about 215 pages of actual text, a couple pages of black and white photos, a GBV family tree, and an extensive discography and gigography. I am not sure how much new information there is for someone who followed the band during their entire career, but for someone such as myself who has learned of GBV somewhat recently, there was tons of info. If there is anything to be learned from this book, it is this: Robert Pollard is an extremely hard person to get along with. I should also note that the book comes with a fairly huge bias. The author (James Greer) obviously already thinks the world of Guided By Voices and Robert Pollard, so I see it as a book mostly for fans...

So who is James Greer? He was actually a bass player for Guided By Voices during the Under the Bushes Under the Stars era (though you would never know that by reading the book, since Greer never mentions himself), as well as the writer of the great GBV song Trendspotter Acrobat (from the Sunfish Holy Breakfast EP). I can't really say anything about the writing quality since I wouldn't know a good writer from a bad one. I can say that Greer writes with enthusiasm which makes the book enjoyable. He obviously wants to convince you that Guided By Voices are the best band of all time and that Robert Pollard is a true genius.

I was a little disappointed with the emphasis Greer places on drinking, or more particularly about how much Pollard can drink. Who cares how much the man can drink? This may just be because I'm from Canada where we simply don't care how much anyone can drink (and because, in general, the common Canadian can out-drink any competition). I don't think there was a single story in this book that involved someone who was sober. However, Pollard's on stage drinking antics are part of what has made him a legend, but to have it share equal time in the book as, say, his songwriting ability, may be too much. While talking about what i dislike about the book, I should mention two more things (which really are not that important, though I will mention them anyway); Though I agree with Pollard that baseball is an absolutely useless sport, I cringed when he refers to the "three major sports" (referring of course to basketball, football, and baseball). Is hockey really that minor in the U.S.? My second cringing moment was when Greer admitted that he thought Mag Earwhig! was the worst album since Sandbox.

For anyone expecting to get some insight into the recording process, or some information regarding song selection/history, you will be disappointed. Though the book gives detail regarding recording contracts, band lineups, and relationships between band members, the most information you receive for an individual album will be something like, "the album was released in May of 1994, and was receiving some good buzz". Bee Thousand only gets a couple of pages, and most side projects/solo albums hardly get any mention at all. Greer's focus is on the various band dynamics, and personal struggles of individual members. When we reach the Bee Thousand era, we are given insight to what various individuals (especially Bob) were going through during the time, what touring was like, and some funny stories. In fact, there is a huge amount of information regarding humorous tales of band members, or just friends of Robert Pollard who hung out at his Monument Club.

There are about 30 or so songs that Pollard is asked to explain in the middle portion of the book. It is during this part that we realize just how great Pollard's memory is. Just give him a song title from his huge catalog and he can rattle off some lyrics and tell you what was going on in his head when he came up with it. Sometimes the lyrics to a song are meaningless, and simply fit into the melody. Other times the lyrics did mean something, and the meaning may have changed over time. I loved this part of the book. It reminded me of an article I once read in Guitar Magazine that had Billy Corgan say a little something about every song in the Smashing Pumpkins Aeroplane Flies High boxset. Sometimes he would talk about the meaning of the song, or why it was left off of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. He may also say something about the situation in which the song was written. I love hearing what artists think about their own songs, or their history, and therefore enjoyed this part of Hunting Accidents.

Hunting Accidents is a good history lesson on GBV. It covers Pollard's childhood up to the final GBV album, Half Smiles of the Decomposed. It is not technical in any way, but more of an overview of those involved with GBV, and how their life was affected by being in the band. It is about Robert Pollard's unattainable goal of having a record sell over a million copies, but settling for what may have been an even greater achievement of having a dedicated fan base, and for the most part total creative control of his band. Robert Pollard may have the best level of celebrity there is. He has enough power to do what he wants creatively, and yet can shop for groceries unnoticed. He can release an album of him snoring, and it'll sell at least a couple hundred copies.

Should you buy this book? Most of the diehard GBV fans likely already have. New fans of Robert Pollard may find it a good reference and backhistory. Those who simply dislike GBV (and likely wouldn't buy this book anyway) should stay away. The constant love for the band Greer has will turn you off. After reading it, I have not gained any new respect for Robert Pollard...I just better understand where he is coming from. As for this review's place in my GBV Guide Series, I would consider the book non-essential. Spend the twenty bucks on some GBV EP's instead, or at least wait until you are already one on Uncle Bob's followers.

Robert Pollard's official site
Hunting Accidents at Amazon


Radio Free Burke said...

I didn't like this book very much at all, but as I have grown up with GBV and eventually got to drink a lot of beer at the final GBV show in LA last year, I have realized how important drinking is to Pollard's songwriting. He's just a drunk, although he is a genius. A lot of the lyrical content is about drinking, specifically, or about things that happened while Pollard was drinking with his buddies. Pollard and drinking (and therefore Pollard's songwriting and drinking) are two sides of the same coin.

The Rock Robot said...

Yes, drinking and GBV go hand in hand. However, I feel that the book did not make the connection you just did, about how important the drinking is to the music. The writer treats drinking as a characteristic, not an inspiration. One thing I did get out of this book was how hard it is to make any money off of a record. I found everything about signing record deals (especially the TVT thing) quite interesting.

Thanks for your comment.

jazman said...

Greer thought "Mag Earwhig!" was bad?!?!?!

He was just pissed 'cause he didn't play on it.

The Rock Robot said...

pg. 136 - "In truth, Mag Earwhig! was not a bad album, but it was possibly the worse one Bob had released since Sandbox a decade earlier."

Maybe I was a little out of context there...

jazman said...

Whatever...I'd love to drink a case 'o Old Styles with Jimmy and explain to him just how WRONG he is about Mag Earwhig! Just because it's easy to like doesn't mean that it's somehow less good.

I too was disappointed that the book didn't contain more insight into the recording process...but I'm sure there's just as many fans out there who couldn't care less how Pollard and Co got their sounds on tape. For me, however, one of the best parts of "Watch Me Jumpstart" was the scene when Bob and Toby do the vocal overdub, punching in on that shitty cassette machine and singing...with the microphone resting on top of the tape machine! Now THAT'S lo-fi!!

Ricky said...

Hockey is invisible in the U.S.

Also, I'm halfway through the book and I think it's great. I would like to know more about the recording process, however.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean you can't tell good writing from bad writing? I mean, it's a completely subjective judgement, just like opinions on music or art or film or whatever.

Anyway, I don't mean to sound harsh, I'm a Pollard nut as well and I really enjoy your site.