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August 27, 2018

Matthew Cutter's Playlist for His Book "Closer You Are"

Closer You Are

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Matthew Cutter's Closer You Are is a definitive biography of Robert Pollard and his band Guided By Voices that fans of the band, indie music, and popular culture will enjoy.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"The author's lively writing captures the arc of indie-rock's mainstreaming...A well-crafted, intimate portrait of an unlikely, all-American rock-'n'-roll life."


In his own words, here is Matthew Cutter's Book Notes music playlist for his book Closer You Are: The Story of Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices:



Picture this: The only true ambition you’ve had in life—to create rock ‘n’ roll records—is shriveling before your eyes. Nobody likes your stage act or buys your self-financed LPs, you’re deep in debt because of them, your family (especially your father) is bitterly disappointed you won’t responsibly support your family, your spouse asks for a divorce.

“Fuck it,” you decide—you’ll put out one last record, a Greatest Hits compilation of sorts, and throw in the towel. Nobody plays past the final buzzer.

It’s called Propeller. It kicks off with voices screaming, All right rock ‘n’ roll! Is everybody ready to rock?! and raucous chants of “G-B-V! G-B-V!” The refrain: “Hey let’s throw a great party/ Today for the rest of our lives/ The fun is just about to get started/ So throw the switch it’s rock ‘n’ roll time.” Pulling the plug by throwing a switch takes guts, especially when it all works out in the end. That’s why Pollard’s story resonates so powerfully with me, and, I think, with a lot of Guided By Voices’ fans. It’s a story about risk, and the redemptive power of relentless creativity. It’s about making dreams real.

While stitching together the sources, research, interviews and narrative, I played Bob’s records or EPs on repeat (Forever Since Breakfast and Propeller top the rankings with close to 30 plays each). These are the songs that stood out most starkly to me. Ask a hundred Guided By Voices fans to create this playlist and you’d get as many different versions and interpretations, with only a handful of songs repeated throughout—a testament to the overall quality and sheer breadth of Pollard’s catalog.

I went with my instincts, choosing songs that illuminate an episode in Bob’s life, hold special meaning, or just fuckin’ rock.

“1 Years Old,” Robert Pollard Is Off To Business (2008)
“Like when you slipped away/ A child at play.” The picture of baby Bob included in Closer You Are—eyes alight with joy, drooly grin, tiny white shoes—immediately made me think of this song. “And I am 1 years old/ Singularly bold,” is willful innocence wielded as artistic confidence, which embodies a lot of Pollard’s appeal as a songwriter and entertainer.

“Some Drilling Implied,” Propeller (1990)
Bob was a three-sport star at Northridge High, and this song has always sounded to me like the lament of the frustrated parent/coach of youth athletes. It’s not hard to imagine Bob and his teammates on the receiving end of something like, “I dare not say/ The way I feel/ About your inability to/ Suck it up and win the game.” Imagine going through a full day of football practice on eight spoonfuls of mustard: “Of course I’m not complaining/ I’m simply dying.”

“Big School,” Static Airplane Jive EP (1993)
“One! Two! Big school!” When Pollard attended Wright State University, this song’s title was what they called it in Northridge. With its East and West Coast imports throwing Frisbees and eating bagels on the quad, it was another world nestled in the heart of Dayton. “It’s a million miles away,” Bob sings, “And it’s in the backyard.” This tune, released during the Year of the 7”, channels the jittery feeling of being an outsider in your own town into blistering, dueling bass and guitar riffs. “Don’t you ever look back/ Cause it just might catch you.”

“Carnival At The Morning Star School,” by Kink Zego, Suitcase: Failed Experiments And Trashed Aircraft (2000)
“When will you come out to our school?” This outtake, recorded in 1992 during the Propeller sessions, is a curious intersection of Pollardian themes. The track is credited to a fictitious band. You’ve got a carnival at a school—evocative of elementary school classrooms—but it’s the Morning Star School. An allusion to Lucifer before the Fall, or a finger pointing at the planet Venus? Mythic or cosmic, take your pick; “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” could be related. The song also contains the oblique lyric, “Tilted cubicles galvanized,” which later appears on Pollard’s solo masterpiece Kid Marine—a case of Bob trying out his favorite turns of phrase in different settings until the right one manifests.

“White Whale,” Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (1989)
Pollard exhibiting his uncanny ability to marry the mundane to the mythic. “Come now Antoine give me your hand/ I will fly you across the land,” Bob beckons the listener. “We will search for the dream of the king/ And friends will hate us.” The song’s chorus, “Die for your freedom while you can/ We can always use new blood,” could be an indictment of militarism, an assertion of the honor in bleeding for one’s art, or both—or neither. There’s plenty of time to think it about while obsessively replaying this song.

“Long Distance Man,” Sandbox (1987)
An acoustic ballad recorded at Steve Wilbur’s 8-Track Garage for Sandbox, which Pollard calls one of his least-favorite releases. I love it. This song sticks out to me as an example of Bob describing himself: “He’s a long distance man/ and he keeps on goin’ cause its not worth blowin’/ and he does what he can/ cause it not worth losin’ and there ain’t no choosin’.” Between teaching and family, Bob had a huge amount of “domestic overhead” in the ‘80s, a dilemma this song seems to embody. “Build another tower for your freedom/ He don’t need ‘em shed no tears/ for the long distance man.”

“Local Mix-Up/Murder Charge,” Same Place The Fly Got Smashed (1990)
This epic prog-rock suite was created entirely by Bob, his brother Jim Pollard, and Greg Demos. It tells the life story of “Joker Bob,” who started out bright-eyed and eager and ended up in the electric chair. Several phrases from Bob’s lyrics informed the biography’s various sections, from “In the early days he was bursting with confidence” to the Electrifying Conclusion, in which “They buried him with a smile on his puss.” This song pulls together everything I love about Bob’s songwriting.

“Echos Myron,” Bee Thousand (1994)
A snapshot of the band’s feel at very start of their ascent. “We’re finally here/ And shit yeah it’s cool/ And shouldn’t it be/ Or something like that,” sums up the essential éclat of GBV’s arrival.

“How I Met My Mother,” Let’s Go Eat The Factory (2012)
When Pollard got the classic lineup back together for Matador’s marathon concert retrospective in Las Vegas, he insisted that a Guided By Voices reunion couldn’t be a nostalgia trip. It had to involve new albums. Let’s Go Eat The Factory, recorded at Tobin Sprout’s studio in northern Michigan, channeled the classic sound of GBV through the middle of everything Bob had learned in the intervening years. This little ditty, ostensibly about being born, always struck me as a love letter to Bob’s other mother—Rock ‘n’ Roll.

“Closer You Are,” Alien Lanes (1995)
My favorite song on one of my favorite GBV albums. It evokes images and feelings but invites the listener to create his or her own meaning. I think it’s about a way of being that invites inspiration. All these years after his break, Pollard still lives in Dayton, very close to where he grew up. He runs Rockathon Records with the help of longtime friends. He’s known a few members of his band for 25 years or more. “The closer you are/ the quicker it hits ya.” I’ve always wanted to get up at seven o’clock and drive myself to the Lookout Rock—with coffee—but I never have, not yet.

“I Am A Scientist,” Bee Thousand (1994)
One of Pollard’s greatest compositions, and probably the purest personal manifesto he’s ever recorded. “I am a journalist/ I write to you to show you/ I am an incurable/ And nothing else behaves like me.” Simple yet indelible melody is woven into pop rock bliss. “Everything works out right/ Everything fades from sight/ Because that’s all right with me.”

“A Second Spurt Of Growth,” Half Smiles Of The Decomposed (2004)
Pollard experienced several growth spurts after releasing this ode to creative self-improvement. He experimented with form, mood and genre on an astounding run of solo albums, Boston Spaceships and Circus Devils releases, and collaborations with other musicians—including Tobin Sprout, Doug Gillard, Tommy Keene, Gary Waleik and Richard Davies. One of the things I admire most about Bob is his drive to do new things and challenge himself. And he seamlessly incorporates successful experiments into new work, without mere repetition. “A second spurt of growth will come about me/ Don’t doubt me.”

“Rumbling Joker,” Waved Out (1998)
The story of Pinocchio is hardwired into Closer You Are, a lens to view Pollard’s process of transforming fantastic dreams into concrete reality. Carlo Collodi’s original tale included numerous parallels to Bob’s life, from brutalized crickets to creations taking on life of their own, to nick-of-time intercession by the Blue Fairy—in Bob’s story, his wife Sarah. Geppetto spent two years “Asking very good questions/ Justifying an existence/ In the belly of the whale” before Pinocchio rescued him, just as Bob spent two years in the belly of the record industry. Like Geppetto’s puppet, Bob’s songs dragged him to safety.

“U.S. Mustard Company,” From A Compound Eye (2006)
Some of Bob’s songs are watershed moments that sum up what came before and point toward what’s to come. This tune, released on Bob’s first solo LP post-Electrifying Conclusion, is one of those. “Contain yourself/ Make yourself feel like it used to be,” evokes his lifelong habit of reaching within to find the free and innocent creativity of childhood. Other lyrics lay out the future: “If you never think about changing the view/ Then happily believe what I’m saying to you/ If you may consider there is work to be done/ Readily accept I can turn you on.” For Pollard, there is always more work to be done.

“Colonel Paper,” Space Gun (2017)
“Who is this Colonel Paper of whom you speak?” A swaggering rocker recorded by the band’s latest incarnation—the New Golden Age of GBV—on one of its best albums of all time, Space Gun. According to ex-manager-for-life Pete Jamison, Pollard’s buddies used to quip, “Careful what you say or Bobby will make a song out of it!” Seen in that light, “Colonel Paper”’s origin in the tale of an ex-bandmate who woke up hungry in the wee morning hours and scrounged KFC from a garbage can is all the more amusingly poignant. “In the middle of a cold premonition/ Is it fish or chicken?” It proves that Pollard’s primary inspiration is all around him. The closer he is, the quicker it hits him.


Matthew Cutter and Closer You Are links:

Kirkus review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review

Magnet interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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