35th Favorite: Bee Thousand, by Guided by Voices

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Bee Thousand. Guided By Voices.
1994, Scat Records. Producer: Robert Pollard.
Purchased, 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: Songwriting genius Robert Pollard leads his original crew of GBV bandmates through 20 songs of melodic brilliance. It’s the Thriller of the early 90s lo-fi movement, a collection of songs you just can’t get out of your head. There are sounds of doors slamming, guitars falling out of the mix and it all sounds like it was recorded on an 80s answering machine cassette. But they’re such great songs, I can’t stop listening.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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(Parts of this post were originally published in 2013.)

In early 1993 I decided to move to San Francisco. I lived in my hometown, a strange place, but not strange in a good way. I didn’t really fit in, and so I decided to move to somewhere that seemed even stranger, a place that seemed like it would accept almost anything. I couldn’t wait to get there and start feeling like I fit in somewhere.

I met lots of great people and had loads of fun and found a place where I really felt at home. By 1993, The City (as it’s been known for years, with the grand, implied question being, “Really – is there any other?”) already had a long history of welcoming weirdos and misfits – from Emperor Norton, in the 1850s to the Beats in the 1950s, hippies in the 60s and Gay and Lesbian people1 in the 70s – so I was sure there was a place for me.

And it really was nerd heaven. Among the young, single artistic crowd I gravitated toward, most everyone I met was really into music and books and movies and technology. We were all misfits, and it didn’t feel like there was a “cool” crowd, the usual group of meatheads and plastic smilers that had appeared throughout my life, taking joy in humiliating and excluding me and others like me. And misfits like me, especially those not far removed from high school, have a keen sense of who the “cool” crowd is. They’re the group around whom we feel the disorienting duality of a) not wanting to be part of, and b) desperately wanting to be part of. But in San Francisco, I could just talk about books and music and movies and technology and not worry about that bullshit.

That’s how it seemed, at first. But after a few weeks in town I realized that, even in my nerdy corner of SF, there was, of course, a “cool crowd,” a collection of those exclusive, snobby folks desperate to dominate others to mask their own insecurities. But unlike those classic 80s teen movies, they weren’t jocks or cheerleaders, they weren’t the children of the wealthy elite. This group was hidden in plain sight out in Freak City. They dressed like everyone else, went to the same places as everyone else, had the same habits as everyone else … and that was what made them so devious.

In bars and at concerts … especially at record stores, and most especially in snooty record stores2 … I noticed there was a group in San Francisco who seemed to be the typical outsider like me and everyone else who had moved there3, but who went to great lengths to assert that they WERE NOT, in fact, typical anything. These people believed, and were out to prove, that they were the coolest of the uncool. They reveled in the fact that their style was unstylish and their tastes were distasteful. Like Bizarro is to Superman, these people were the direct opposite of the usual cool crowd, which made them the cool crowd’s scarier equal.

They were the Hipsters. The Hipster Bullies. And no matter how dorky and awkward you felt, you’d feel even more so when you realized these folks were even dorkier and more awkward than you … and that they sneered at you for not being dorky and awkward enough. You’d meet them at every party.

king kong kardsOh, you think you’re goofy because you still collect baseball cards as a 25 year old? Meet Tiberius (so he claims) in the goatee, Buddy Holly glasses and (authentic) Atari t-shirt. He collects King Kong Kards from the 70s and calls your hobby “jejune” … just like that jock thought (apparently), the jock in the lunch line in 10th grade who yanked the baseball cards from your back pocket, right in front of J., your secret crush, and quizzed you on the player stats like a gameshow host for an audience of cackling lunch ladies and your relieved-not-to-be-the-target friends, making loud buzzer sounds every time you got one wrong, which made J. laugh harder than you’d ever seen4.

Are you proud to be a fan of Bugs Bunny cartoons? Meet Ladybug (yes, Ladybug) in the cat’s eye glasses, cocktail dress and faux pearl choker. She has a Master’s degree in Pop Culture Studies (!) and wrote her dissertation on Warner Brothers animation cels from before WWII. She’ll explain why you should hate Bugs, who’s humor, she insists, is “too obvious” She’ll ask you, “… you can’t seriously like that shit, can you?” in front of 6 other grinning people who await her discourse on some Soviet cartoon goat from whom, she claims, “the essence” of Bugs was stolen.

There were thousands of these types out there, folks who’d been mocked and assaulted – verbally and physically – for their other-ness for as long and as hard as I had, and had responded by stockpiling their geekiness, building it up and molding it into a heavy club, making weapons of their Pez Dispenser collections, graphic novels and ironically-worn small-town-diner t-shirts. They clubbed first and asked questions later, assuming every new person they met was the lunch-line jock – even a guy like me, in sky blue Chuck Taylors and a Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt.

For a guy like me who liked music, The Music Appreciation Hipster Bullies5 were the worst. There was a lot out there that I hadn’t yet heard. I was looking for new stuff, but there wasn’t much to learn from these folks. Bring up any band to any of these guys (and gals) and you were sure to get one of three responses:

1) (Dismissive snort). They suck.
2) (Dismissive snort). They USED TO BE good
3) (Dismissive snort). They’re okay, but they’re really just a rip-off of (insert obscure band from Japan/Finland/Ann Arbor).

But I gamely fought through the Hipster Bully bullshit to learn about Guided by Voices and Bee Thousand. There was a record store called “16th Note,” on 16th St. in The Mission District. It went out of business about 6 months after it arrived in 1994. But on one of my visits, a song on the sound system caught my ear, so I asked the dude behind the counter – who looked not dissimilar from myself – what it was.

“It’s the new GBV.”

“GBV?” I asked. “I’ve never heard of them.”

“You’ve never heard of Guided By Voices?” he asked in a way that – for a second – made me wonder if the words “Guided By Voices” were somehow indistinguishable from “The Rolling Stones.” He continued his belittlement with a sigh and a quiet “Wow,” then came around the counter and pulled out the CD Bee Thousand. In a bored, bemused tone that clearly indicated his patience with my ignorance was growing thin, he told me that he thought it was a good record, their fifth or sixth record, but that it wasn’t as good as their early stuff. The early stuff, he said, was pure brilliance, and, unfortunately, was NOT carried by the lame, hippy store owner. But he played a couple songs from Bee Thousand for me, said he’d forgotten it was so comparatively mediocre to the old stuff (though brilliant in its own right, he assured me) and I bought it immediately, wondering how I’d missed out on such an obviously prestigious and prolific band.

I looked into the band right away and – this being pre-internet (or perhaps nascent-internet) – I couldn’t find much more than a one-page Spin magazine article. “How did everyone know about GBV but me?” I wondered6.

Now first of all, let me say this: the guy was obviously a good salesman who saw right away in me someone susceptible to anyone potentially scholarly7. Fine. He played that part well and made the sale. But I bought it because it was good, not because of what he said. And I eventually learned that his talk about how good the band “used to be” was utter horseshit. I mean, maybe it was good and maybe it wasn’t – but that Hipster Bully didn’t know. True, the band had put out several previous records, but each one was cassette-only, with a couple hundred copies made. I guarantee he never heard them before! They weren’t widely released until 1995. He just knew they existed and saw an opportunity to bully me about my (lack of) music knowledge. The dick.

GBV is a band that lends itself extremely well to cult-like, possessive appreciation with an air of exclusivity. The band is singer/songwriter Robert Pollard and a cast of musicians that has been around since the mid-80s. Pollard is one of the most prolific songwriters of the past 50 years, having released over 100 albums (solo and GBV) since he began recording, and having published over 2000 songs through BMI8. He’s estimated he’s written over 4,000.

Of course, “prolific” doesn’t equal “good,” but Pollard seems to have an extremely high percentage of good songs. He has a knack for melody and sound, and his lyrics are cool and strange, nonsensical yet accessible in the vein of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, or David Byrne, of The Talking Heads, or even Jon Anderson, of Yes9.

Pollard’s backstory lends itself to worshipful adoration as well. He’s a former fourth-grade teacher and father of two who didn’t leave his day job until his late 30s, after the success of Bee Thousand, when GBV took off. He seems like a cool guy who was both a D1 college athlete and music nerd.

The records he makes tend to sound charmingly amateurish – not in the songwriting or performance, but in the way they’re recorded. It’s a sound that was popularized in the 90s by bands like GBV and Sebadoh and Pavement, and categorized as “lo-fi10.” The records were often recorded in basements and bedrooms on old equipment and on the fly.

The song that caught my ear at 16th Note is a perfect example of all that is Guided by Voices: the lo-fi sound, the irresistible melodies, the chiming guitars, the inscrutable lyrics. Behold “Tractor Rape Chain.”

Any song that – four seconds in – features a screen door, chatting voices and then – at 17 seconds – a bass that doesn’t enter the song at the same time as the rest of the band is definitely flaunting its lo-fi credentials. The feeling of the song is amazing – there’s a sense of sadness and loss to the verses, in lyrics about love coming apart. Yet the ranging vocal melody of the chorus, at 1:04, is uplifting, and dovetails beautifully with the ringing guitars and bass. The chorus/title lyrics are a mystery, and potentially off-putting. Pollard is certainly a word-salad expert, tossing in words because they fit the sound of the song, and there is differing opinion on what, if anything, they mean. Some have said they’re just words, others have proposed the strange idea that they refer to the lines that tractors make in fields of rapeseed. Either way, the melody cries out for the listener to belt them out, before they descend into the wistful feeling of “speed up, slow down, go all around in the end.”

The album opens with clarion, fanfare guitars and beautifully struggling, faux-British harmonies asking us if we’re “amplified to rock!” As the intro to “Hardcore UFOs” ends, the vocals fall out of the mix (0:53), making us wonder if GBV is still amplified. But it doesn’t matter.

Even when, at 0:58, the guitar goes out of tune, or at 1:22, when it appears the plug may have fallen out of it, the melody and confidence of the band carries the song. The lyrics are, well, words anyway. But there’s something about the song – and the balls of the band to make it the lead track – that hooked me right away. The song, and the album, have the punk spirit of “fuck you, this is the song, take it or leave it!” that I love. Plus it’s catchy as all heck!

The fact that Pollard was older than most of his 90s grunge cohort meant that he could reach for inspiration from his music fandom in the 60s and 70s without hiding behind irony. “Ester’s Day” sounds like Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd. The song “Echoes Myron” sounds like it could’ve been an AM hit in 1968.

Of course it would’ve been recorded more clearly and used orchestra strings. But the band’s harmonies on the bouncing melody sound right in any era. The “Men of wisdom …” harmonies, at around 0:45, are terrific, as are the vocals in the bridge at 1:17. The lyrics feature the phrase “Or something like that …,” which probably describes their meaning as well as I could.

And despite Pollard’s “advancing age” as compared to his contemporaries, in the 90s he and his band put on one of the best live shows you could see, with lots of songs, lots of beer, and lots of high kicks from the singer11. I saw them in the summer of ’94 and it remains one of the best shows I’ve seen. And they are still doing it: I saw them again in 2014, and it was also one of the best shows I’ve seen! And selections from Bee Thousand are always featured. Such as the aggressive rocker “Gold Star for Robot Boy.”

It’s more ringing, chiming guitars – almost a buzzing sound. The recording gives the drums a boxy sound, but the singing carries it. The lyrics actually mean something this time, reflecting his experience as a fourth grade teacher, where the kids who did whatever the teacher said were rewarded. He says he felt like such a pupil when he entered the record industry.

You may have noticed that the songs tend to be short, under 2 minutes. Their brevity and the unfinished nature of most of the songs reminds me of Paul McCartney’s solo album McCartney. Songs such as “Demons Are Real,” “You’re Not an Airplane,” “Peep Hole,” “Awful Bliss,” and “Yours to Keep” barely (if at all) reach one minute in length. But they do display Pollard’s musical gifts. Other songs, like “Her Psychology Today,” could have been baked a little longer. One of my favorites of the weird and brief wonders on the album is the strange but excellent “Kicker of Elves,” which sounds sort of like a Britpop demo.

It’s a song with weird lyrics about, well, elf-kicking, that has inspired fans to make weird videos of it, and play weird covers of it. It’s one minute and four seconds’ worth of Robert Pollard melodic genius.

There are 20 songs on the record, and almost all of them are great. I love the swampy weirdness and perhaps risque (?) lyrics of “Hot Freaks.” I love the haughty pomp and meaningless-yet-wistful lyrics of “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory.” I love the unfinished feeling and out of tune guitar on the Broadway-esque “A Big Fan of the Pigpen,” with its “Ba-ba-ba” chorus. And I really, really love the droning, Sonic Youth noise-pop qualities of “Smothered in Hugs.”

It’s a really remarkable melody. Pollard has a knack for writing these things – when the chorus kicks in, about 1:26, I get chills. Even though I have no idea what he’s singing, and even though the drums and guitars sound like sloppy kids, I love it. I’m not sure what it is about these songs that I love so much, but I think it’s all the great melodies. The guitars may be repetitive, as in “The Queen of Cans and Jars,” but I can’t keep the song out of my head. The drums may sound like tin foil, as in “Mincer Ray,” but I don’t seem to notice. The tempo might randomly change throughout the song, like “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows,” but I’ll keep listening.

Maybe I need a scientist to figure it out, as Robert Pollard claims to be in “I Am a Scientist.”

I am a lost soul/ I shoot myself with Rock and Roll/ The hole I dig is bottomless/ But nothing else can set me free,” he sings. And maybe – in this instance – his words do actually mean something. I love this music – why try to figure it out? It’s the melody, the sound, the words … The Hipster Bullies were right about GBV – they are a special band. But the Hipster Bullies were wrong about everything else, and they still are. Music isn’t exclusive, it’s for anybody. Share it with as many folks as you can! And the music you like doesn’t suck. If it sucked, you wouldn’t like it! It doesn’t take a scientist to figure that out.

Track Listing:
“Hardcore UFO’s”
“Buzzards and Dreadful Crows”
“Tractor Rape Train”
“The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”
“Hot Freaks”
“Smothered In Hugs”
“Yours To Keep”
“Echoes Myron”
“Gold Star For Robot Boy”
“Awful Bliss”
“Mincer Ray”
“A Big Fan Of The Pigpen”
“Queen Of Cans And Jars”
“Her Psychology Today”
“Kicker Of Elves”
“Ester’s Day”
“Demons Are Real”
“I Am A Scientist”
“Peep-Hole”
“You’re Not An Airplane”

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