Sunday, November 7, 2010


I was thinking recently about how what you listen to while your brain is still forming, up through your early twenties, is extremely important. I'd been walking the dogs on a leafy lovely day and suddenly this stupid plinky song from my churchgoing childhood reappeared in my head like a little religious Chucky. It would not leave. I remembered every word, every verse. When I tried to dispell it with another song, an even more insipid Sunday School song popped in. ("Stop! And let me tell you/ What the Lord has done for me." With hapless leader Mrs. Crandall wielding a cardboard stop-sign prop.)

The best antidote to this was going to see Guided by Voices on Halloween night. I got Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes when they came out in 1994 and 1995, and I fell instantly for the off-kilter lyrics, tumbling melodies, songs that launch right into their best parts and cut out before they're over. Their brevity just makes them sweeter--the songs know to leave the party while it's still good, even if the famously inebriated band members don't. And I found I remembered every word and melody, even ones I hadn't heard for years.
I think these guys are legitimately grandfathered past the no-smoking law.
Guided by Voices seem to embody something particularly Ohio in a way that makes me feel a surge of affection for the place: their exquisite tunefulness wrapped up in unpretentious bar-band raucousness, the bass player's Spinal Tap-worthy ruffled shirt and open vest and vertical-bass moves, the wiry guitarist in his Dead Kennedys shirt hands-free chain-smoking through the entire show, Tobin Sprout playing diligently, delicately off to the side with a sort of wary bemusement on his face, Pollard the fourth-grade schoolteacher downing a half-dozen too many and singing his heart out, barking out the title of every song--"This is a song called 'Echoes Myron!'" "This is a song called "My Valuable Hunting Knife!'"--before launching in.

I last saw GBV play in 1995 and this show was, to my surprise, ten times better. Or maybe not to my surprise, because at that show they got so drunk they could barely play. This time, they were still drunk, but more joyful, and louder, and more loved—the crowd was mostly thirty- and forty-something Ohio folks, true fans, old-school, fists in the air, singing and bouncing along. They totally ruled the college kids in quantity and quality. All I need to tell you is, a student in front of me pulled out her Blackberry and checked her e-mail during "I Am a Scientist."

I stayed until halfway through the third encore, by which time Pollard had shifted from the onstage beer cooler to drinking straight out of a tequila bottle, a fight had broken out during "Motor Away," and I knew where the night was headed. Best to leave while the party's still good. Still great, in fact. Their songs are forever lodged in my auditory cortex, and for that I'm forever grateful.