A blog about Bloomsbury Academic's 33 1/3 series, our other books about music, and the world of sound in general.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Guided By Voices

Another of the books we'll be publishing in September/October is Marc Woodworth's paean to Bee Thousand. It's the first book in the series to include a sonnet - not altogether surprising, considering that Marc is also the author of this book.

Marc's GBV book also includes a lengthy essay by Bob Pollard, some delightful fan confessionals, and a deliciously highbrow analysis of "Hot Freaks". Oh, and a photo of Tobin Sprout's Tascam Portastudio One 4-Track Recorder.

Here's a taste...

***

Making something from what we remember — making art from the memory of art that we love, making art from our own lives and imaginations — is not incidental to our being, but essential to it. When Robert Pollard writes the song “Bee Thousand” with falsetto harmonies inspired by “Happy Jack” (1967), he is remembering The Who — in one sense simply recalling what he has listened to before with pleasure and, in a more complicated way, putting together again the parts (re-membering) in his own way a work of art that is still alive in him. The title of the song is further enriched by the fact that the words bee thousand bear the same rhythm as, and nearly rhyme with, the name Pete Townshend, The Who’s songwriter and guitarist.

We could do worse than calling this process of creating a new name and song out of the memory of an old one an example of being “guided by voices.” Liberated from the connection to the name of a band, the phrase guided by voices resonates afresh, providing a succinct description of the process that all artists, led by memory, desire, love, and an unnamable compulsion to create new work, find at the core of their activity as makers.

The song title — “Bee Thousand” — becomes the name under which the album Bee Thousand is released in 1994 (an album which does not include the song “Bee Thousand”). Along with a memory of the la-la-la harmonies of British mid-to-late-sixties pop (even as Pollard substitutes “wabba wabba wabba way” for “la la la la”)—which itself was a species of nostalgia (see The Kinks) for the British music hall of the 19th century — and the echo of Pete Townshend’s name, there is also a connection, however tenuous or unintentional, between Bee Thousand and the Ventures’ song “The Two Thousand Pound Bee (Part 1),” the “first single recording to use a fuzz-box guitar.” As Bee Thousand the album is most often described — in praise or censure — as a radically noisy, fuzz-saturated recording, there seems a fatedness in its connection to that moment in 1962 when a soon-to-be essential kind of impure sound first appeared on a rock record. The Ventures’ fuzz-box guitar sound was a diverting novelty in its moment at the beginning of Robert Pollard’s favorite musical decade; the “noise” issued by Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand in the mid-nineties echoes and expands upon that introduction, offering both pleasure for and a challenge to the listener in the form of songs that incorporate and are sometimes defined by noise.

But however many instances of inspiration by or homage to the larger musical culture that precedes it Bee Thousand contains, there is a more local series of memories — what we could call personal memories — which attach to these two unexpectedly twinned words that become the title of Guided By Voices “breakthrough” record. There’s the memory of Jim Pollard, the brother of the “band’s” main songwriter, noticing a mile-marker on the side of an Ohio road that reads, or looks like it might read, “Z1000.” There’s the memory of Robert Pollard noticing a movie marquee advertising the 1992 St. Bernard dog-based Hollywood comedy Beethoven, a letter “u” pressed into service instead of the required letter ‘v’ so that the film name mutates from Beethoven to Beethouen. And there’s the more slippery memory of a Dayton, Ohio nightspot once called The Thousand and One (though it had a different name — Walnut Hills — by the time the Pollards had a regular table there at the dawn of Guided By Voices’ celebrity) where the guys spent evenings talking and drinking with writer Jim Greer (who would go on to author Hunting Accidents: A Brief History of Guided By Voices). The former 1001 club, a place that makes the myth of a musical “scene” in Dayton possible — a myth that gained currency, in part, because of the power of the record called Bee Thousand — is a place kept alive, however unconsciously, in that title.

Before whatever personal, cultural, or social meanings attach to those two joined words bee thousand, before they become the familiar name of an album that can be assigned a place in a movement or a signpost along a particular aesthetic journey, the reason they became the titles of a song and then an album is because they simply sounded good to Robert Pollard, his brother, their friends. Sounding good is the bottom line — and it doesn’t require a complicated aesthetic explanation. Putting together words that work. We could simply call this process writing, though, as we can see from the mile marker, the marquee, and the bar it doesn’t require sitting at a desk, plumed pen in hand and deep thoughts running through your head. Written down or simply imagined, this kind of making requires memory and accretion — daily incident experienced, stored, and eventually finding expression. The formulation bee thousand contains an appealing tension between the unexpected and the familiar, like so much of Guided By Voices’ work. There’s also an element of mystery and untranslatability that distinguishes words put together that sound good in this band’s alternate reality, what Pollard sometimes calls his “dream domain.” Bee Thousand doesn’t mean anything beyond itself and doesn’t translate into something we can explain. It insists on its own unlikely reality. You might envision a thousand bees or you might imagine how the words and their sounds could be reorganized into something recognizable — Pete Townshend, Beethoven, Z1000 — but nothing you try out in order to understand the phrase can change its real nature. As a lyric from one of Bee Thousand’s best-loved songs, “Echos Myron, ” asserts, “if it’s right, you can tell.” The words that name this album are right; you can tell. And they resonate as an introduction to a record that is equally untranslatable, similarly an act of imagination and surprise, however much this act owes to memory, both personal and cultural.

2 comments:

Phil said...

Great stuff Marc and David! Can't wait to get my hands on a copy. And I will surely review it for my GBV blog. Thanks and take it easy.

Malis in Wonderland said...

Dudes, hold your tongue and say "Pete Townshend." What does it sound like? There's your album title.