Mag Earwhig Buys a Beer: Part 1

Guided by Voices’s “transitional” album Mag Earwhig was released twenty-one years ago. A “line-up change” record which intermixed recordings from both versions of the band, it represented the end of GBV’s formative or “classic” period. At the time, it was a breaking point for many in the early fan base, who didn’t like the evolution. Those people were WRONG, period, and can all “get fucked”. I loved that album when it came out and love it even more today. For true believers, it represents the start of Robert Pollard’s musical collaboration with guitarist Doug Gillard, which is one of the most criminally under appreciated and fruitful rock-genius-partnerships of all time. A partnership that (minus one long break) lives on and can be enjoyed to this day. In honor of Mag’s first legal beer I have decided to write some GVB-centric posts about those times.

Prologue

A long time ago, in a suburb far, far away…Nineteen-something-and-five, younger Ken Powers was listening to R.E.M., Syd Barrett, Robyn Hitchcock, Pavement, SST, indie-rock, post-punk, pop-rock, punk-rock, prog-rock and psychedelic-rock on a loop…Usually, while reading comic books.

He was reading SPIN magazine, too. And in certain issues of SPIN, he was reading about this underground band from Ohio…Dayton, Ohio (?). They were described as a sort of song-guild of misfit freaks who followed this beer chugging, pot smoking, middle-aged ex-jock elementary school teacher who also just happened to be a rock n roll savant.

This man was purported to be able to compose awesome, catchy, “MANLY”-yet-sensitive indie-rock nuggets on command, all day long…every day (Ken Powers, on the other hand, was struggling at the time to write just one song that wasn’t “gay”).

This band was called Guided by Voices, GBV for short. Their front man was Robert Pollard. GBV recorded on TASCAM 4-Track in a genre of music dubbed “Lo-Fi” (younger Ken Powers was also home recording on a TASCAM 4-Track! What a coincidence!). The SPIN reporter explained that in this “Lo-Fi”  style, if done correctly, a performer could capture the most authentic performance possible, the trade-off was tape hiss and poor engineering…Well younger Ken Powers (I was in my twenties after all) was ALL about authenticity. Plus the SPIN journalist was sure to have dropped in some Barrett, Soft Boys, Devo, Cheap Trick, the Who and Wire references and I’m sure Peter Buck was probably quoted as saying GBV was “acceptable”. Buck had spoken.

I (Ken Powers that is) knew RIGHT THEN AND THERE that I was going to make a purchase. I was going to buy my first Guided by Voices record!

At the time, I was working at a record store chain, Warehouse Records. I put in a special order for the two most recent GBV releases, the just released Alien Lanes and its predecessor, Bee Thousand, with my trusty assistant manager. They soon came in, were purchased (at an employee discount), went straight into my CD player and (bingo-bango-bongo) the rest is history.

A lifelong obsession began.

Pollard’s coded lyrics fell like Tetris pieces right into the folds of my brain. The melodies and hooks echoed endlessly in my mind, but they never chafed, they were a welcome addition to the din of my subconscious. Soon, my songs started to sound more like GBV songs, my voice sounded more like Pollards. I was turning Japanese (Spin Cycle).

When all was said and done, in my mind, Robert Pollard was right there with Brian Wilson as “the man”. An estimation that has not waivered to this day.

I bought it all, every record, every EP, and every single I could order from their back catalog. It was a treasure trove, a master class in rock n roll history, composition and performance. As important as the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks in the Pantheon of Rock. And it was all mine…’cause nobody else could give a shit.

I don’t think there were more that three people in my home town capable of understanding and accepting the greatness that is GBV. I mean, It wasn’t that hard to understand…you just had to listen to the records and have good taste. Sadly, good taste was a scant resource in Thousand Oaks, California…where the people are kind of lame-ish (I don’t want to be mean).

I turned my best friend and Jam-mate at the time, Tony, on to the band. He got it…sold on “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” and we became a little “fan club” of sorts.

I knew they were the best fucking band in the world. I tried to help others understand. In my mind GVB should have been huge. It’s not my goddamn fault if everyone else was listening to bullshit. I mean fuck, I had to watch people buy shitty records all day long at the Warehouse…it was very painful for me…Hootie and the Blowfish?! FUUUUUCKKK!!

Anyway, they put out another great record the following year and toured LA. I finally got to see them LIVE and IN CONCERT. It was a revelation. A beer fueled sing-along sausage party where everyone in the crowd felt like Roger Daltrey at Woodstock. Pollard would get drunker and drunker, slinging perfect nugget after perfect nugget. The band sounded great, an unstoppable rock n roll machine. And then there were Pollard’s scissor kicks… You haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed a Robert Pollard scissor kick live. It can’t be topped. It can’t be explained. Watching it on tape doesn’t do it justice. It’s just fucking great. It’s etched on the Mount Rushmore of rock! The crowd fucking eats it up, man. It’s beautiful! You go home, put on the record and, if you’re as inflexible as I am, you pull your groin trying to recreate it (One day I’ll get my flexibility back. I’m doing my stretching exercises EVERYDAY! YOU’LL SEE!!).

End of Prologue

…to be continued