I’m really enjoying the Guided by Voices book that we’re working on at the moment. So much so that another short extract couldn’t do any harm, right?
It’s tempting to make a myth out of the Guided by Voices story, to turn the reality (like any reality always more messy and vibrant than the tale that recounts it) into a by-the-numbers rise-to-glory narrative. But that would belie what Guided by Voices was — and, in doing so, betray what makes their music — and particularly Bee Thousand — worth caring about. The elements are all there to shore up a tall tale: the rise to a lofty place in the indie rock firmament on the wings of purity and passion; the decade or more toiling in obscurity on art that recommends itself as a fit occupation for its makers only at the 11th hour; the workings of a rare inner compulsion so strong it’s hard not to ascribe to it the language of legend rather than allowing it to remain at its real, strange potency; the miraculous turn when labor and compulsion are rewarded with buzz and love and listeners.
Given that all of the plot-points above are true enough, it would be easy to translate this version of the facts into a pretty story with Bee Thousand as epiphany, the work of “genius” finally finding a place in the world where its creators never expected to make a ripple let alone a splash. In a sweet and creamy version of this feel-good plot there follows the devotion of People Who Matter, the awe of musicians whom the band holds in awe, the adulation of a rock polloi who see themselves reflected in some “average” and “old” guys gone gold (or its underground approximation), or more charitably — and probably more truly — the adulation of people who simply loved what they heard.
But, however true they appear to be, these are the elements that tempt the truth to stray in order to fill a formula. The thing is, there’s nothing formulaic about Guided by Voices’ music or their move from invisibility to relevance, a trajectory along which the release of and response to Bee Thousand is, unmistakably, an event, but not an easily contained one. Call it a Fourth of July for the skeptical citizens of some rock and roll county of the uncool, where dangerous home-made fireworks explode in stunted, asymmetrical shapes over the outskirts of a city in view of anyone looking up instead of gazing at his or her shoes. It’s an American tale of triumph, sure enough, but one, if we resist the temptation to make it a blockbuster, that has more to do with a vision of native self-reliance, one full of contrary impulses and willful individuality, rather than homogenized product or lowest-common-denominator marketability. Under the story, untouched by the story, is a music that’s explosive, revelatory, playful, off-color, aggressive, tender, untamed — and a manifestation of what makes real art work, mean something, move us.