Youtube-inflicted internet nostalgia
Saturday, January 25 2014
It was snowing this morning and neither Gretchen nor I had much inclination to leave the comfort of the many blankets to face the world, though of course the living room was in the low 50s and the fire needed stoking. I had the idea that we should have coffee even though it was Saturday (our usual coffee day is Sunday). I suggested we have a new rule stating that if it is snowing in the morning it can be a coffee day any day of the week. Later, though, after getting Gretchen several pieces of toast and a cup of coffee before she'd even left the bed, I thought the policy should be amended to "if breakfast in bed is served" then it can be a coffee day. Experience teaches me that if there is a work requirement for exceptional coffee mornings, the chance of those exceptions actually happening will be reduced.
Gretchen was supposed to meet up with her girlfriends for further celebration of her birthday, but there was enough snow that everybody canceled. I saw a car trying to climb Dug Hill Road past our house and, though its wheels spun madly, its progress was glacial. I took advantage of a further delay of the deadline for KMOCA benefit art by beginning work on a fourth small painting.
I turned to Youtube for music because I didn't want to lose my place in a 99% Invisible podcast paused in my computer's MP3 player. (I wish I had a better computer MP3 player for podcasts.) Recently I'd watched some spectacular Miranda Sex Garden videos, and that had me craving more female vocalists. But after watching a few Great Northern videos, I searched for videos of Guided by Voices in performance. Guided by Voices is one of my favorite bands, but it's rare that I listen to it much anymore. The old stuff sounds as unrefreshingly familiar as classic rock, and the new stuff (and there's always new stuff) just doesn't have that certain something. In searching Youtube, for Guided by Voices material, I realized that a lot of great stuff has been added since the last time I went searching (which might have been as long as four or five years ago). The best clip I found was of a full performance in Oslo in 2011 with the classic-period lineup. Those guys were never virtuosos, but they had precisely the musical sense that their music required. When singer Robert Pollard eventually had the fame necessary to attract talented professional musicians and producers, his songs began to conform to a blusier (and less original) template, and people like me eventually lost interest. Now, though, it seems Pollard has realized that the Guided by Voices that people want to hear is the kind that only the classic lineup can perform, and so now they're touring together. That clip I found on Youtube is bittersweet. On the one hand, the band is now more-or-less a tribute band of its former self (as happens with all classic rock bands if they live long enough). On the other, the music is gorgeous and the backing musicians show themselves to be competent and charismatic, as if they'd been studying this rock and roll thing diligently in hopes that Pollard would come to his senses as he finally has. Pollard's stage presence, which is that of a clumsy giant executing kicks and leaps in an apparent attempt to mimic his preteen self, has always rubbed me the wrong way, but Mitch Mitchell (one of the guitarists) is great on stage. I love that he's always got a lit cigarette in his mouth and when the guitar riffs are fast and complicated, he stomps around in tight little circles.
I watched the whole performance intently, having one insight after another. The first came during the song "Watch me Jumpstart," when Pollard (in his faux British accent) sang "I can't pretend to be something I'm not." Guided by Voices started out as pretend band that somehow got to be brilliant. But that line seemed to me like a sort of hinge in the lyrics, a hinge around which we as listeners can swing. Was that intended sarcastically or sincerely? It hardly matters, since if he was once pretending to be something, he certainly isn't anymore.
As I continued to watch, it occurred to me that there was something missing from the spectacle, and I quickly realized that it was something I'd been getting out of other recently-seen videos: female performers. I like to appreciate rock and roll on a partially sexual level, and that's easier when there are women on stage. But the interesting thing was that I was getting a certain small amount of sexual satisfaction from watching these middle-aged men cover the music of their late young adulthoods. Rock and roll, it seems, is one of the places where I'm a little bit gay. This is supported by another insight I had, which seems to reflect a willingness to acquiesce to male domination: I thought to myself, "It would actually be kind of cool if it turned out that all these guys were serious right wingers."
Part of what makes good rock and roll is the coiled up threat contained within it. The first time I heard Guided by Voices over a college radio station back in 1995, I remember thinking, "It sounds like a long-lost Beatles tune with shockingly modern lyrics." Tonight as I listened, I kept noting the use of deliberately-shocking words in the lyrics. There's that "tractor rape chain" of course, but perhaps (because there's a tractor in there too) it's in reference to rape seed. In other songs there are slaves being whipped, elves being kicked, and of course "riding into town with the giggling faggots." But nobody ever protested Robert Pollard's lyrics; people either understood or assumed that any offense that might be taken was intended ironically.
One thing I kept noticing about the songs was the way Robert Pollard's beautiful voice interfaced with the growling and occasionally dissonant metallic thrumming wail rising up from the guitars. What scale is that? Occasionally ("Jane of the Waking Universe" and "Hot Freaks") it sounded like they might have been trying to play the blues on a guitar with some unexpected tuning.
One final thought: "the Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen Directory" might be the best song ever written. It starts so beautifully and then in its center there's that "The Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen Directory" sung twice. It's so absurd you find yourself thinking, "Is this some sort of joke?" But then the beauty returns with "...and we looked and we passed through the hallway of shatterproof glass." But this little fragment of a song is a whole Abbey Road's worth of complexity in less than two minutes. Anthemically, it swells with a vaguely-shocking "She wants me to come but I'm never going there" and then ends with two more "The Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen Directory," which, though repeated, were never intended as a chorus.
The way my recent tiny paintings (along a photo of the sculpture) were looking by the end of today.
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