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Back in 1995, two very significant events happened in my life. My best friend and then roommate decided he wanted to dissolve our partnership and have a place to himself, and Scat Records announced that the first four Guided By Voices albums would be issued in a single boxed set (or five, if you bought the LP set). Both events were surprises to me. And now that a score and thrice years have passed, I find the two things inextricably tangled together in my mind.
I’d become a GBV fan in 1993, with the Propeller/Vampire on Titus CD. Getting stoned and going to the wonderful and vanished Streetside Records was a ritual. Browse. Dig. Find something cool. I saw the CD (the only one they had in stock) and vaguely remembered reading a glowing review of it in RIP magazine. 33 tracks, two albums on the disc, the art and look of the disc seemed promising. I bought it (sixteen bucks!) and got it home. Thirty seconds into “Wished I Was A Giant”, I knew I had a new favorite band. I am not Dayton early fandom, but I was onboard about as early as I could have been. Sheer luck and a really good buzz. Nothing more.
We got Bee Thousand, and that was fantastic. Vinyl bootlegs and imports started to show up. Alien Lanes came. We took it for granted, but the band was going viral with almost no press and the internet hadn’t been invented.
GBV was just…in the ether, man. It was there, we were picking up on, tuned in to the same frequency. And there we were, waiting for the box. The air was full of energy, like we were winning a war.
When my friend bailed, I thought it was a disaster. I hate moving. I had no idea where I would land. The only potential replacement roommates I had were recipes for failure and eviction. I was flung like a piece of a thousand piece puzzle flung across a room.
And I landed precisely in the spot where I fit most perfectly.
You can’t go downtown in Columbia, Missouri and find the Chatauqua Center anymore. You can find the building it used to be in, a big brick duplex house that bears no trace of its previous life as a sixties cultural holdout. The place had been founded in the early 70s by hippies as a cultural center and new age workshop. There was a huge finished basement that still hosted groups and activities of sorts. There was a library and reading room. The whole place was open to the public with the exception of the living spaces upstairs. I rented a room there. It was weird as hell. I had a second floor view of Walnut Street and the downtown traffic. Belly dancers sometimes wandered through, street people came in to check things out. Just the place to tune things out and listen to some GBV. That place exists in the past just as the man I was exists in the past, bookends on a shelf of volumes written in an imaginary language.
I was a misfit, for sure. Nothing I was good at would make money with a degree, so college was something I passed on. Jobs were available, but I still hadn’t lit on the right fit. I was obsessed with music, listening to it, playing it, living it. I drank too much and took too many drugs. My twenties seemed like a sailboat stuck in the doldrums, but at least the place I’d been becalmed was pleasant enough. I settled in. This was my place, my life, and the way things were when the box showed up at my favorite record store.
I remember the weather: sunny, mild, partly cloudy. One of those days where you’d get a light mist in the face from some unforecast and unforecastable six inch diameter rain shower coming down out of a sunny sky. The store manager was a lanky, bespectacled fellow named Whitney, a sort of nineties prototype hipster. He sometimes beamed and sometimes sneered at my choices, but when he handed me the GBV Box he’d been holding for me, he was beaming.
“This is amazing,” he said. “You’ll be listening to this for weeks.” I remember the way the store smelled. I remember the walk back. Strip off the plastic overwrap, toss it in the corner trashcan. The day was perfect. Sometimes when something very significant is happening you know it. Sensations seem magnified. Everything is being chiseled into your brain. Life itself seems to have had the volume turned up. That’s what this was. You madman! This, on the day you bought a record? Yes indeed. That’s how I am.
And that’s how records are. Who you are, what’s going on in your life, the state you are in. These things matter as much as the music itself. The worst record you ever heard is the best record somebody else heard, never doubt it. Critics lists represent only critics. Every music fan hears this stuff differently. I got the Box home, and started in the discs. As Whitney predicted, I did eat my way through the vast sea of material on the CD set (four albums and one compilation disc) over the course of a few weeks. And with the important prefatory material out of the way, this is what the listening revealed.
Devil Between My Toes
This was the first full length album they recorded, released in 1987. Track list: Old Battery, Discussing Wallace Chambers, Cyclops, Crux, A Portrait Destroyed By Fire, 3 Yearo Old Man, Dog’s Out, A Proud and Booming Industry, Hank’s Little Fingers, Artboat, Hey Hey Spaceman, The Tumblers, Bread Alone, Captain’s Dead. “Old Battery” kicks off the album and provides a really good soundtrack for getting out a pack of Zig-Zag Orange rolling papers, which is exactly what I was doing. The song appears to be about hippies attempting to fix a car using positive energy. I knew people that had actually attempted this, and were serious about it. They failed, but they did manage to cure one of the worst doses of the flu I ever got nailed by in under two hours. They had strange powers, but they were not mechanics. I was sitting in my favorite chair, right by the window looking out over the street. Pretty girls were walking by every second. This album has a feel to it, as undeveloped and primitive as it is. This is the sound of band that has worked hard and gotten pretty good, but nobody knows or cares and they know it. We can hear the germs of “Sandbox” and “Self Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia” in tracks like “Crux” and “A Portrait Destroyed By Fire.” This album also has tracks that are complete singularities. “Hank’s Little Fingers” and “Hey, Hey Spaceman” have a sound that is unique to this record. This record doesn’t have any tracks I dislike, but it is a record I’ve been guilty of spinning favorites off of and skipping deep cuts from. Nobody knew. I wonder what would have happened if this album had made it onto the right desk, because the songs are both solid and unique. The band hasn’t quite crafted a signature sound yet, but they aren’t imitative.
I listened to a few times in a row, and then went to Ernies Cafe for lunch. They had a better than average burger and a mural sized Dick Tracy picture on the wall drawn by Chester Gould himself. You can still go there.
The sun was going down when I put Sandbox in the player. I had a few hours to kill before I put in an appearance at my favorite bar, The Metro. (It’s gone daddy gone. But it was special.) Track list: Lips of Steel, A Visit to the Creep Doctor, Barricade, Get To Know The Ropes, Can’t Stop, The Drinking Jim Crow, Trap Door Soul, Common Rebels, Long Distance Man, I Certainly Hope Not, Adverse Wind.
Like it’s predecessor, this album has a feel all it’s own. We still have a sense that this is a band in search of a direction. And like the previous record, this is an album with no bad material. Some songs are good, and a handful are stunners. “Trap Door Soul” was still showing up live after the band came to national prominence, and “A Visit To The Creep Doctor” is a kind of lost Greatest Hit. Of special significance is “Long Distance Man.” This track features one acoustic guitar and two voices, and is the first we hear of Bob Pollard’s acoustic songs. It’s a soulful pop gem, and the ability to charm with so few rounds in the chamber is proof of songwriting prowess. This album was also released in 1987. For a band with no fans, no gigs, no press, and no record deal, they had a lot of energy. A shout that nobody heard. Repeated listening reveals a significant forward momentum here, there’s some major progress happening. It’s leading up to something truly special.
The first two albums are good. They are very good. I went off to the bar after this, still early enough that Jim the bartender and I had time to relax and talk. In those days, we’d shut down the bar, grab our guitars, and head over to the monument behind the hospital and play songs all night. I already had acoustic renderings of “Tractor Rape Chain” and “Motor Away” in my playlist.
Sandbox always reminds me of the Metro and the friends particular to that time and place, and of playing parties and weird places when I was already skilled enough to be getting gigs. (And why didn’t I? That’s a get-in-the-Time-Machine question. Time will make you a stranger to yourself, brother.)
Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia
In the morning, and nursing a mild hangover, I gave this one its first spin. Aspirin, beer, and cigarettes for breakfast, and Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia.
The first two records are both highly listenable, yielding tracks that would be featured in Greatest Hits collections and live shows. Neither of these could prepare you for what transpires on SIAN. Track list: The Future Is In Eggs, The Great Blake St. Canoe Race, Slopes of Big Ugly, Paper Girl, Navigating Flood Regions, An Earful O’ Wax, White Whale, Trampoline, Short on Posters, Chief Barrel Belly, Dying To Try This, The Qualifying Remainder, Liar’s Tale, Radio Show. Released in 1989. For those few in Dayton who were actually paying attention, it must have seemed like GBV had splattered on the windshield and gone away. Were they working on the album the whole time? Did Pollard stockpile songs to ensure that this one would be a classic? Or, after a few years of dormancy, did they just get to the point where the compulsion to make a new record overwhelmed them?
This album is easily one of the five best released in 1989. The band takes alternative rock as it existed in the 80s, adds a helping of prog (The Future is in Eggs, An Earful O’ Wax) and blends it with a pop killer instinct. Some of the best guitar work in the band’s catalog resides here. SIAN is the end of a trilogy, the place where all of the sounds and modes they’ve been playing with on the previous two albums come together in synergistic fashion. This album is also the band’s first real success at producing a proper LP. This isn’t just a collection of songs, this has two sides with two different vibes and the songs are sequenced perfectly. Each track sounds perfect after the one before it. I called this the third and best act in a trilogy, and it is. The sound they had been working toward for three years is perfected here and they never revisit it. This is GBV’s first masterpiece, and the end of the first era.
And once I had ingested this record over a few plays and smoked a half pack of cigarettes, I felt better. A nap, then, and off to work. I was slacking, working in restaurants. I had not yet grown tired of that kind of life, but the realization was growing deep in the back of my mind that I was living out days that would need to be curtailed soon. This record has that kind of feel to it.
Same Place The Fly Got Smashed
After a bad night at work. Hot, greasy, and sort of angry. Long, late, and left feeling antisocial. The shower felt good, though, and the evening was going to be nice. I always had a cornucopia of things to do and people to see. I may have been on a low budget, but life was indeed and embarrassment or riches. Many rich people never had it as good as I did. So with a good buzz on, a cold bottle of beer sweating in my hand, and high expectations from the stunning excellence of SIAN still in my brain from the morning, I put this record in. Released in 1990. Track list: Airshow 88, Order For The New Slave Trade, The Hard Way, Drinker’s Peace, Mammoth Cave, When She Turns 50, Club Molluska, Pendulum, Ambergris, Local Mix-Up/Murder Charge, Starboy, Blatant Doom Trip, How Loft I Am?
The first three records showed a band learning their chops and achieving greatness. The fourth record shows them burning the tires and taking a hard left turn into a completely new musical direction. In many ways, this is the record that actually defines the style of the band’s classic lineup. Everything that fans grabbed onto and loved with Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes happens here first. This is The Formula, heard here for the first time. Lo-Fi in the most glorious way possible, working class guys creating Rock using the cheapest and most primitive tools available–but they’ve mastered them, and their art.
I was getting pretty ripped listening to this one. By the time I got “Pendulum”, I was immobile in my chair. But the lyrics still got through. When the pendulum swings, it guts. When the big door opens and shuts.
Time would catch me. This I knew. The buzz and the music, the sounds of the downtown Friday night, smells from nearby restaurants creeping in the window. All these things combined to create a moment of surreal beauty. If I could have, I would have grabbed it with both hands and held it fast. But such things are not permitted.
King Shit and The Golden Boys
The following afternoon, and this one drops into the player. This is an album of unreleased material from 88-93, and is notable because it is the first of many such. Half baked ideas, alternate and early takes, perfectly good songs that weren’t used elsewhere–or just aren’t ready yet. Track listing:We’ve Got Airplanes, Dust Devil, Squirmish Frontal Room, Tricyclic Looper, Crutch Came Slinking, Fantasy Creeps, Sopor Joe, Crunch Pillow, Indian Was An Angel, Don’t Stop Now, Bite, Greenface, Deathtrot and Warlock Riding A Rooster, 2nd Moves To Twin, At Odds With Dr. Genesis, Please Freeze Me, Scissors, Crocker’s Favorite Song.
You can spend a whole day digesting this one, and I did. This is properly an anthology, not an album, but there are some truly significant pieces to this puzzle. “Crunch Pillow” and “Scissors” are both gorgeous Tobin Sprout gems. “We’ve Got Airplanes” and “Indian Was An Angel” were both worthy of inclusion on any of the bands records. “Don’t Stop Now”, heard here as a primitive one-man demo, comes to beautiful fruition on “Under The Bushes, Under The Stars.” “Crocker’s Favorite Song” gets a name change, revised lyrics, and a horn section to become the title track to the second reunion album, “Class Clown Spots A UFO”. The process is unveiled here, feet of clay shown with no socks to hide them. Baffling dead ends on display. This is a record that pulls up a chair, shoots the breeze and says “you can do this, too.” And then goes a long way toward showing you how. I absorbed some lessons from this one, no doubt.
Those times are long gone. That place is long gone. The man I was clapped his hands together and *poof!* vanished. But I remember, and the memories hit me with the greatest clarity when I listen to the Box, which served as the perfect soundtrack for that place and who I was within it. It’s all gone now, the bad guys won. It’s all corporate down there, now. New apartment complexes have risen like tombstones marking the spot where the culture used to be. Still…
There’s a place on Walnut street where I cracked my heart open on the curb and poured it out onto the sidewalk. That’s a long time ago, and not so much as a stain remains to mark the spot. Listen to these records: maybe the music will take you there as you drive by.