I have two more posts regarding Guided by Voices and their 1997 album Mag Earwhig. This one and the next, which will be a full track-by-track album review. But before I get to the review, I’ll continue to set the table with another bit of excessive background…
So, in 1997 I was still hanging out with Tony, who I mentioned in the prolog. I think everyone, if they’re lucky, should have a Tony in their backstory. People that add colour. He ticked a lot of boxes. He was creative, smart, funny, charismatic, kind-hearted, charming, solar…a force of nature. He’s the only man I ever kissed on the lips, and I initiated the kiss (to be clear, it was a closed mouth “peck”, but it did happen), but that’s another sorry. To sum up, in my memory, he was like a private rock star that I had all to myself.
Tony introduced himself to me in high school, probably around 1990. He must have heard I was a guitarist that liked R.E.M. and wanted to see if we could jam. We got on pretty well and in no time we were jamming, hanging out and partying. Just bein’ “buddies”. In that time, he was the frontman, for sure. In our short lived band(s), I was the sideman guitarist. And that is how it should have been. That was the correct order of things…then.
Tony needed to connect with people, wanted to connect, could connect with anyone.
I, on the other hand, was guarded and skeptical; cynical and prickly. Really, my act was just me shooting myself in the foot over and over trying to get past a lot of stress, damaged self-esteem, repression, anger and resentment built up living through my childhood. Living through shit I didn’t have the tools or the modeling to get past. So I just sat in those feelings and hoped one day a pill would be invented to wash them all away (That never happened…they did find a cure for restless leg syndrome though. So there’s that).
My childhood, when measured against other people’s stories, hardly rates as tragic, but it left me with the cemented impression that I was a worthless mistake that had no real place of value in the world. I won’t even pin it all on my parents; society did its share, too. I got better…eventually…somewhat. But back then I was what I now refer to as “a tough nut to crack”.
Anyway, Tony just blasted right through my defenses, God bless him. He looked right past all my bullshit and held his hand out to the kid sitting in the middle of all that barbwire and said, “Come out of there. Let’s have some fun.” He wasn’t worried about getting pricked. He was lion hearted. And we did have fun. Epic fun. And we were brothers of a sort. I will always think back and know that Tony helped me out of a bad spot there, and I am forever grateful. We all need that, from time to time.
And Tony did get cut on my defenses. And in many of the stories of life and love with Tony, I was the villain. I did things to Tony that I’ll never forgive myself for…but he forgave me every time. Like I said, brothers of a sort.
What I didn’t know back then, or didn’t respect, was that Tony had demons of his is own, always hot on his heels, and when they caught up they got him real good. And there was no way for me to return the favor and reach in and pull him out. The end of the 1990s came and Tony was out of my life forever. A book closed.
But this is 1997, and that final breakdown was a few years off. As far as we knew, the party would never end! And I have two underwhelming recollections about Mag Earwhig around Tony that come to mind when I think back on that time and that album. All the strands are knit together.
Story One: Tony’s Friend Wasn’t Sold
So, Tony and I were fans of the GBV (as established). I remember driving around one night with him in 95/96, listening to Alien Lanes. He said that GBV had kind of carried on the spirit of Nirvana for him. I’m paraphrasing and I probably have it wrong. But I remember him saying something like that both bands had songwriting that was very catchy/poppy/melodic but because of who they were it came out punk/post-punk/metal (Obviously, a lot of bands did this, these bands just did it better). And we listened to the music and we talked about GBV and we sang along with GBV…
And then Mag Earwhig came out in 1997. I bought it day one. At that point in time, GBV was a “day one must buy” band for me. I listened to it. Loved it.
I vaguely remember talking to Tony about it. I think at that stage he was a little “moved on” from my state of lifelong-full-on-fanboy-Kiss-Army-esque GBV fanaticism. He was positive but reserved, like maybe the album was a partial misstep, but he could dig most of it.
That night we went over to the house of a friend of his that I didn’t know. Tony always had a new friend. I always didn’t.
Somehow the conversation turned to the new GBV. Oh, this guy, the friend, he wasn’t sold. “‘Bulldog Skin’ sucks…They lost it.”
My response was, “I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of killer stuff on there.”
Well, suffice to say, I was instantly convinced that I never wanted to see this fucktard again. And I never did.
You see, back then, if you didn’t like the music I liked, I thought you were a fucking idiot. And, if you criticized a band I liked, well then you should probably lie down and die like a fucking dog. I now realize this was defense mechanism to keep people at arms length, but it felt right at the time. I’ve evolved since.
By the way, in that same period, I was constantly telling every person I met how terrible their taste in music was.
I was a real special guy.
But to be fair, artists must have convictions.
Let’s face it, ‘Bulldog Skin’ was the ‘Hold on Hope’ of its time (more divisive than Trump). But, I mean, Jesus Christ! Cut ’em some fuckin’ slack…I get it! It’s repetitive and dumb…and it was the lead single. But it’s just ONE song from maybe one of the most prolific and consistently interesting songwriters of our time! And you can’t say that guitar solo isn’t a lot of fun. Come on! Doug Gillard killed it!…Whatever. I’m not going to die on that hill. NEXT!
Story Two: Everybody’s Going to Love This
So it must have been the “early” internet that told me there was an import version of the Mag Earwhig CD with two bonus songs (I mean the standard album only had 21 songs, obviously we really needed two more). Well, you know, as a true believer, I couldn’t pass that up. I bought that overpriced import, and I listened to those fucking bonus cuts, and I really liked them. Particularly the song ‘Running Off With The Fun City Girls’ (In fact, many of the outtakes/B-Sides from this record are very strong and they will ALL be reviewed in my upcoming Mag Earwhig MEGA-review…COMING SOON!)
The song is a serviceable little rocker. It’s got that GBVerde sound. It’s got some nice bits in it. The drums are tasteful and tight. In hindsight, I can see why it was an outtake…but it’s not a bad track. The lyrics bring to mind the Beatle’s ‘She’s Leaving Home’…but, to me, maybe she’s leaving home to become a stripper. I don’t know, maybe I was just thinking too much about strippers at that time. It kind of sounds like he’s saying “porn” when he’s saying “fun”…I-I-It doesn’t matter now.
Bottom line, I thought the song was a cool. It was new to me and I liked it…and the theme.
So, I remember, one night, being in someone’s backyard at a little “get together”, let’s say, within a week of me buying that import. Tony was there, and others. We were handing around an acoustic guitar, as young troubadours do. I would usually play a Big Star ballad on my turn. You know, typical Ken-Powers-in-his-twenties behavior.
Eventually the showboating was over and someone started playing CDs (this was the age of CDs…before iPods, before iPhones, before BLUETOOTH! We had Spooky Tooth…just no Bluetooth) and I thought to myself, “Ooh, I’ve got an idea – a special surprise for everyone. I’ll sneakily excuse myself and grab that Mag Earwhig import out of my car. Then! When no one’s looking, I’m gonna highjack the Hi-Fi and play ‘Running Off With The Fun (Porn?) City Girls’. People are going to be knocked out. Everybody’s going to love this!”
So, you know me, once I get an idea in my head, particularly about covert operations where I think I will be helping (“educating”) the masses with one heroic act, I can’t be stopped.
The operation, technically, went off without a hitch, yet the response from the group was not what I expected. I would characterize the response as indifference mingled with a smattering of disdain. Well, you can’t win ’em all.
Those looks, OOF! They convinced me that, for the time being, I would keep my GBV torch close to the vest, thus lighting my vest on fire. Lesson, kids…watch where you’re pointing those torches.
I determined to keep my GBV flag in the car and in the bedroom. I took it way underground. It was clear that I was on the wrong side of history. That this love was not natural and not going to be easily shared with others – that I was into a cult band and the Kiss-Army cavalry was not coming to save my ass.
But goddamn it if Mag Earwhig isn’t one of the great GBV sing-along records. It summons spirits every time.
And if you ever want to hear Tony, just listen to the scream at the end of ‘Are You Faster?’. I swear to God it’s him…
End of Part 3
…to be concluded