Why George Harrison is my favourite Beatle these days

Asking someone about their favourite Beatle is always a kind of litmus test. Are you more of a John, or a Paul? A George or even a Ringo? 

But sometimes, the Beatle you love changes. When I was a younger, angrier man, like an awful lot of people, John Lennon was my favourite Beatle. I listened to the stark anguish of Plastic Ono Band a lot and thought that “God” was like, deep, man. I still love that album and I still love John Lennon, but due to his untimely death, the story of John Lennon’s solo career will always feel a little unfinished to me. 

The first Beatle whose solo album I actually bought was George Harrison’s 1987 chart-topping comeback Cloud Nine, with its kitschy-yet-cool bop MTV-friendly “Got My Mind Set On You” all over the place in those days. The rest of the cassette tape I scrounged my pennies together to buy was pretty good, too – it was an optimistic yet contemplative groove, smooth with an ‘80s sheen thanks to producer Jeff Lynne. “When We Was Fab” was a colourful ode to the Beatles whose own work I was just beginning to discover thanks to the CD reissues of their albums, while songs like “That’s What It Takes” and “Fish On The Sand” summed up George’s vibe – searching, yet determined. 

It’s twenty years now this year since George left us at the too-young age of 58. These days, I find myself turning to George’s solo work far more than any other of the Fab Four.  

Harrison always seemed to be looking for something in this life, and he found it mostly in the embrace of Indian music and an intense spirituality that in some folks’ view helped bring world music to a bigger audience, but other people felt it turned him into a humourless scold. 

1970’s All Things Must Pass is widely regarded as the best Beatles solo album, and it’s still a masterpiece of symphonic, elegant and yet deeply personal pop bathed in Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, with Harrison showing once and for all he wasn’t “just” the third Beatle, but an incredible songwriter in his own right. It’s incredibly lush, carrying on all the sweeping soundscapes the Beatles pioneered on albums from Revolver on to Abbey Road and it’s something that few of the other Beatles’ solo albums ever were – epic in its ambition. 

Yet when you peak with your first solo album and were once in the biggest band of all time, it’s hard not to have everything else afterward seen as a letdown. And no, Harrison never quite equaled All Things again, but he still put out some stellar solo work, including its immediate followup, Living In The Material World, which continued to explore George’s obsessions – inner peace, giving up your anger, and moving on (and occasional cranky rants, like “Sue Me Sue You Blues”). 

The rest of his albums never quite get as noticed now, but even the weakest has a few good tracks to recommend. 1974’s exhausted-sounding and rushed Dark Horse might be his nadir, but an obscurity like the underrated 1982 Gone Troppo has a relaxed, chilling on the beach vibe, harking back to the doo-wop and early rock and roll that the Beatles grew up adoring. The later albums George Harrison and Somewhere In England also marry George’s wry humility with hummable tunes. As he became mired in lawsuits and battles with his record labels, George’s solo career was mainly a product of the 1970s. After 1982, he only released one proper album, Cloud Nine, and the groovy collaborations with the all-star Travelling Wilburys. His long, long in the works next album, the valedictory and blissful Brainwashed, came out in 2002 after his death. 

Harrison sometimes has a reputation as the grim, silent Beatle, but many of his albums like Cloud Nine feel bathed in happiness. It felt like George was at peace. 

There’s a unified theme amongst his albums, which is something none of the other Beatles really managed in their solo work. McCartney has carried on his quest to write dozens more perfect pop songs but his work is often lacking in a vivid personal voice for me. While he’s been by far the most prolific solo Beatle, the sheer flood of albums dilutes the quality a little too often. Lennon wrestled with the demons of his past in a few great albums, was equally as questing as George but far more self-destructive, too. He then went silent for years, and his promising comeback was cruelly curtailed. Ringo was… well, he was Ringo, good-natured and always keeping the beat. 

Lennon inherited the fierce restless intellect and urge for experimentation of the Beatles, while McCartney got the gift for melody and craftsmanship. Harrison represented something else more intangible, something I might even call the Beatles’ heart. In the best of his solo work I find that all-encompassing warm feeling that I get when I hear the heavenly harmonies of “Within You Without You,” the solos that make “Something” soar far higher than most sappy ballads ever could, the distinctive single guitar chord played by George that opens up “A Hard Day’s Night.” In other words, listening to George Harrison makes me feel better about life, the universe and everything. 

George Harrison could certainly be preachy, I’ll admit. Harrison was looking for transcendence, and the older I get, the hope in something more to this life seems to resonate. I’m not talking about organised religion, really, but just the idea that you can find a calming peace by letting go of some of your baggage and flowing like water. The world is full of mystery. George Harrison never stopped trying to understand it.

George’s biggest song was “Something,” a tune that sums up his eternal questing and curiosity in its few minutes.  Is there something out there? I sure as hell don’t know. But the idea of being at peace with yourself and finding that inner calm that George spent much of his too-short life seeking isn’t the worst goal to have in this life. 

Listening to George Harrison makes me feel better about everything, and that’s why in these often-troubled days he’s my favourite Beatle. 

Review: Crowded House, Auckland, March 21, and we’re all in this together

The first time I heard Crowded House was on a fuzzy mix tape from a high school girlfriend. 

She put most of their entire second album Temple Of Low Men onto this tape, and it felt strange yet familiar. Neil Finn’s voice was gorgeous yet kind of tense, and songs like “Into Temptation” and “I Feel Possessed” felt like a secret code to me in the age of MTV and Bon Jovi. Finn’s lyrics marry the universality of the Beatles with a wry Kiwi humility and eye for detail. The music felt wiser, older somehow than the typical ‘80s pop hits I usually listened to. It felt built to last.

Ever since I think of rainy afternoons, fumbling teenage heartbreak and the impossible fragility of things when I hear Crowded House. 

I barely knew what New Zealand was, and Neil Finn and company were my first introduction to the place I’d one day end up living. 

I moved to New Zealand 15 years ago, the place that hissing cassette spoke of. I’ve now seen Neil Finn a live a few times solo and with other acts, even run across him in the crowd at other shows (it’s a small country, you know), but I never did see Crowded House live. 

Last night, I entered an arena and stood 25 feet or so in front of Neil Finn and the reunited House in one of the only countries in the world such crowded stadium shows can still happen these days. Like the best of Crowded House’s music, it was broad and intimate at the same time. 

Neil and the band, now joined by his amazing sons Liam and Elroy, put on a soaring, cathartic show, doubled in strangeness by seeming so normal with much of the rest of the world still howling in the heart of the storm of COVID-19. All around me, people kept looking at the nearly full arena, almost 12,000 people unmasked and very grateful to be here. 

The lovely little earworms have turned into national anthems – “Better Be Home Soon,” “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” “Something So Strong” – and it was kind of beautiful to have them become stadium sing-alongs. Sometimes the crowd sing-alongs are pretty cringe stuff, but it’s been a weird year or so and it felt good to be part of a crowd. We’re all in this Crowded House together. 

I’ve been here 15 years ago now and so I know what Neil’s singing about in “Four Seasons In One Day” when he talks about “the sun shines in the black clouds hanging over the Domain,” because I’ve walked the grassy fields of the Domain probably a hundred times now. 

And there were the deeper cuts that I’ve listened to over and over through the years – a mesmerizing “Private Universe,” the sultry “Whispers And Moans,” a right fierce bang-up on “Knocked Out,” or a marvelous cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” dedicated to all the front-line workers here and everywhere who’ve made New Zealand a safe island in a world of worries. 

That lovestruck teenager playing that cassette tape over and over couldn’t have imagined how things would end up. The teenage girlfriend and I didn’t last long, but the music echoed forever. 

Neil Finn was singing last night to a very crowded house, yet he was also singing to me, alone in my room a million years ago, listening to gorgeous lonesome pop music and never imagining where he’d end up in this life. 

It’s literally been decades since I got that mysterious mix tape that introduced me to Crowded House, and I’ve got no idea what happened to the quirky and cool girl who gave it to me.

If I could, I’d tell her how I saw Neil Finn sing those songs last night, about the wonderful Kiwi woman I ended up marrying, how strange it was that I ended up in the place that all that haunting music came from, that I’m doing OK and that I hope she’s OK too.

Lou Reed, and loving someone even if they’re kind of a jerk

Today would’ve been Lou Reed’s 79th birthday, and I still miss his battered, cynical voice in this troubled world. 

He’s still the only artist whose lyrics I’ve got tattooed on my arm, and I’d easily put him in my personal top 5 pantheon of musicians I return to again and again. But he wasn’t easy – Bowie or Prince could challenge but they never really scared you; Dylan and Costello have taken missteps in their career but never quite sabotaged it as badly as Lou could (Dylan’s born-again phase comes close, though). 

Yet he was also an amazing next-level jerk an awful lot of the time, as even a cursory read through Lou biographies and many rather tense interviews will attest. He would not put up with fools, or even innocent questions, and there’s a bloody battlefield of journalists mauled on the field by Lou Reed who didn’t all deserve their wounds. Whatever demons drove him in life led him to lash out a lot, too. 

But boy, Lou Reed could write a song, whether it’s the clatter and loneliness of the Velvet Underground or the brief moment he spent as a pop star with “Walk On The Wild Side”; the anguished family dynamics of Berlin or the strutting prophet of New York.

And there’s Magic and Loss, his 1992 song-cycle about death and dying that is honestly one of my favourite albums of all time – and yes, I’ve got words from the title track tattooed on my arm, and yes, I’d be happy enough from the great beyond if someone cranks that epic title song up at my funeral. Lou was kind of a genius, you know?

I only saw him live once, from a distance in Seattle, but as much as I love Lou Reed’s music that’s probably as close as I wanted to get. I’d probably have been a suffering fool in his eyes. 

Lou Reed offended, an awful lot of time, from the Velvet Underground singing about heroin to an album full of feedback to the rather ear-scraping and awkward collaboration with Metallica that was his abrasive final work. Sometimes it felt like he was just playing a role, a demented character he’d created. Sometimes it didn’t. But he did mellow out in his final years before his death in 2013 (I’m thinking the zen calm of his wife Laurie Anderson helped a lot). 

We live in an era where a lot of past behaviour is being questioned and analysed through new eyes. That’s a good thing. There’s a murderer’s row of celebrities who have been shamed and scorned and sometimes even jailed.

Some of these fallen stars I stopped caring about the moment their misdeeds came about, others I have made the decision to continue reading/listening/watching their work in full awareness of how flawed they were. That’s the choice any of us make when we consume art. A lot of artists are jerks, or worse. Lou Reed never hid his cantankerous side and it’s certainly not breaking news. Lou Reed wasn’t a nice guy an awful lot of the time, but he made some beautiful music for me. 

In the end, you take what you want to take and leave what you want to leave. There’s a bit of magic in everything. Lou Reed left me a lot. 

There’s always time for a little Alice Cooper

It’s summer here, and it’s Alice Cooper season. The reigning godfather of horror-rock turned 73 this week, and hot weather always puts me in the mood to spin his gloriously overwrought anthems. 

Years ago, I got to spend 20 minutes or so on the phone with Alice Cooper as he got ready to play a local gig back in Oregon, and it’s still one of the highlights of my so-called journalism career. Although he’s probably given a million interviews just like that one in the more than 50 years of rocking out, I still loved hearing stories direct from the man himself, who was really thoughtful and interesting. (I wish the interview was still online, but the paper I worked for then has changed owners and apparently erased all its past history including my beautiful words.)

In a week of all things Alice, I’ve also been reading a breezy tell-all by his former bandmate Dennis Dunaway, the wonderfully titled Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!: My Adventures In the Alice Cooper Group. It’s a great view from in the arena as the Alice Cooper band paved the way for goth, metal, glam and an awful lot else in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. 

Sometimes, you just want to blast “School’s Out” or “No More Mr. Nice Guy” at the sun bakes down on you. 

I still have some of the notes from my interview with Alice way back in 2005:

That interview, from way back in 2005.

“I never went out of my way to say OK, I can’t wait to shock the audience. I was much more interested in entertaining the audience, doing something they’ve never seen before. People called it glam rock, people called it theatrical rock and we were at the head of all of that.”

“…I looked at the Who, The Yardbirds, all of these great, great bands, but nobody’s going to do anything with that stage. Why would you leave that stage just bare? Why not light it up, why not decorate it, why not make it come to life? If you say, ‘Welcome to my Nightmare,’ don’t just say it – give it to them.” 

Another thing I fondly remember about that show was the absurd hysterical reaction from some of the townsfolk in rural, conservative Oregon at the time, who were freakin’ out about Alice like it was 1956 and Elvis was coming to shake his pelvis at them. Apparently he was a “known Satanist” according to the letters to the editor, written by people who I assume today are presumably posting hourly on QAnon Facebook groups. 

Alice was in his mid-50s then and still put on a hell of a fun show which featured him being “killed” on stage at least twice and surely made the Satan-haters run for cover. But it was all in good fun, with Oregonians turning out in full Alice makeup (and a few more confused quasi-fans made up as KISS members). For one raised on Generation X’s ‘”eh, whatever” ethos, the dizzily over-the-top pageantry of an Alice Cooper show was a revelation.

One of the big appeals of Alice Cooper over the decades for me has been his unabashed showmanship – unlike some of the darker metal acts since, he’s not there to make you believe his schlock. He’s there to make the darkness rock out. Even at 73, he’s still making music, including a pretty decent new single released just this week.

For all his talents, though, Alice Cooper isn’t always the best fortune teller, regarding this quote from my 2005 interview: 

“I’m having more fun with the show now and I’m making better records now. I think I’ll end when I get out there and there’s nobody there to play to. I will not end up on a Carnival Cruise – you won’t see me playing a cruise ship with Ozzy Ozborne.”

Woops. Wasn’t with Ozzy, at least.

Nevertheless, rock on forever by land or by sea, Alice! And happy belated birthday! 

I’ve been stretching my mouth / to let those big words come on out

…In a nifty little coda to the piece on Peter Gabriel I wrote late last year, I was invited on Radio New Zealand yesterday for their Afternoons Music Feature to talk all things Gabriel with host Jesse Mulligan and play a selection of his grooviest tunes. Listen to my occasionally coherent babbling! Hear some good songs!

You can listen to the full audio right here!

And here’s the playlist of the songs I selected if you’re interested:

25 songs that helped me survive 2020

Music helps keep us sane. I listened to a lot more music than usual this year, between lockdowns and working from home, and a couple dozen songs saw me through some of the tumult and craziness. 

I alternated between comfort songs and raging at the void screaming songs, probably swinging like most of our moods did this year. Isolation, political carnage in my home country, sickness and worry…  The soundtrack of 2020 is a schizophrenic thing. 

Admittedly, I skewed heavily towards older songs this year, returning to the comforts of the familiar; also, I’m an old dude. A song can reassure you, like the still-fiery Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello’s latest works, it can lift you, like the looney chaos of The Cramps or the hypnotic rhythms of Alice Coltrane, or it can fire you up, like Lou Reed’s still-incandescent rage in 1987’s “Strawman,” or Pylon’s jittery “Stop It.” 

This isn’t my “best of the year” list – but here’s a playlist of the 25 songs that helped me survive 2020: 

Peter Gabriel, the man who disappeared

Peter Gabriel turned 70 years old earlier this year. For a little while back in the day, he was a superstar, and I was kind of addicted to him. Then he walked away from it all.

I can’t quite overstate how ridiculous my Peter Gabriel fandom was back in the early 1990s. I listened to the tracks from his hit albums So and Us so much that they still feel tattooed on the brain. Pre-internet, I scoured the shops for rare B-sides and remixes.  I did that thing where you listen to a particular album so much you’ve memorised every vowel, every chord. Where the music itself transforms into something bigger than it is. 

To keep in silence, I resigned / My friends would think I was a nut

I dove deep into Peter Gabriel fandom at the precise moment that I graduated high school and moved to a college clear on the other side of America, where I knew nobody. I do not know what I was looking for with my Peter Gabriel obsession, but somewhere in there, I found it. 

And like anything you fall for, you think the artist is speaking directly to you. “Red Rain”? Clearly about me leaving my hometown. “In Your Eyes”? First love, of course. “Big Time”? My sky-high hopes and dreams for the future. “Secret World”? Every traumatic fumbled breakup that ever was. The entire remarkable Passion soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, a grand and sweeping instrumental meditation on what felt like life, the universe and everything, swirling around my brain. 

I was feeling part of the scenery / I walked right out of the machinery

After the smash hit of 1986’s So, Gabriel’s output slowed to a trickle. In 1992 came Us, his breakup album. Then in 2002 came Up, an album about ageing, death and transition. 

That was 18 years ago now. In the meantime he’s been heavily involved in human rights and his record label. He’s also put out a couple of albums of somewhat lifeless re-recordings of his own songs, an album of cover tunes, and some soundtracks and instrumental work, but he hasn’t released an album of his own songs in close to 20 years. (There’s a “planned album” called I/O that’s literally been in works since 1995 – I’m not holding my breath.)

Gabriel’s lyrics were never as dense as a Dylan or Costello – indeed, as his career progressed, he turned away from the surrealism of his Genesis days and his words became increasingly naked, declarative and stark, even as the music became more adventurous and layered, heavily influenced by his interest in world music.

It is a shock to see Peter Gabriel now, a bald and bearded senior citizen, when in my mind he’s still that ultra-cool guy bouncing around in the “Sledgehammer” video that MTV played endlessly once upon a time. Yet I look in the mirror and see my own face and the grey hairs and the lines that weren’t there when I picked up my first Peter Gabriel albums more than 30 years ago, and I realise we’re all going through the same thing. 

I will show another me /Today I don’t need a replacement / I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant

I listen to Peter Gabriel a lot less these days – not that I like him any less, but due to the paucity of any new material and the fact that I listened to the old stuff so many bloody times that it’s engraved into my DNA. 

A lot of artists don’t know when they’ve drained the well of inspiration, to be true. There’s a lot of great musicians who I love but consider many of their later albums utterly forgettable. Of that great run from Peter Gabriel’s 1977 solo debut to Up, every single one of them rings with meaning for me. That’s not a bad legacy to have.

My heart going boom, boom, boom / “Hey, ” I said, “You can keep my things / They’ve come to take me home”

(Lyrics “Solsbury Hill,” 1977 Peter Gabriel)

The Stooges, over and over and over again

I’m lost / I’m lost / I’m lost, yeah / I’m lost

Lost, lost, lost

– The Stooges, Down In The Street 

When I was a wee sprat in the pre-internet era, I’d often record songs off the radio, those poppy synth hits of 1983/84 or so, and I’d listen to them over and over in a strange fugue state, engraving them on my frontal lobes, trying to figure out the peculiar power that Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” or Prince’s “When The Doves Cry” held on me. 

Nobody records the radio on cassette tapes any more, but sometimes, I still crave the calm of noisy repetition. Sometimes you just want to fall into a kind of trance state, and listening to 13 or so takes of a single song in a row can certainly get you there. 

I’m ambivalent about the phrase “only for the fans” – as if there’s something wrong with being a passionate fan of something – but “complete studio sessions” type boxes probably do fall squarely in that category, I’ll admit. I’m a big fan of the Iggy Pop-led pivotal punk band The Stooges, and the completist in me has scooped up several “complete sessions” compilations devoted to them. 

The Complete Funhouse Sessions is a brick of a box set collecting six entire discs of takes on The Stooges’ fiery second album, 1970s’ Funhouse, and if you crave screaming guitars, Iggy Pop at his howling messiah peak and the clattering anarchy of garage rock melted down to its core elements, this is the place to be. Be warned, there’s 26 takes of “Loose” at one point. This is not for amateurs. Another great set, Heavy Liquid, grabs together scraps and blueprints for the album Raw Power, where you can hear The Stooges breaking down “I Got A Right” 13 times over, slower, faster, louder, softer, clattering into instrumental versions, studio chatter, a scrappy take on “Louie Louie” and more. You become sucked into the rhythm of repetition. How many ways can you play a song?

The Stooges are music at its most basic – there’s not a lot of deep eloquence in lyrics like “She got a TV eye on me” or “I feel fine to be dancin’, baby”, but there’s a churning power to it that sometimes is all you want. It’s just rock. 

I wouldn’t want to listen to “complete sessions” for every band, but there’s nothing quite like it to really get into the DNA of the creative process. You can hear how the song is made. The Beatles’ sessions that have slowly been coming out in the past few years are like getting a look into the birth of mythology itself, while stuff like the wild improvisations and alchemy found in Miles Davis’ sessions make the music feel as big and wide as the sky.

And in the Stooges, you’ll hear the churning chaos of their songs stretched, bent and swollen into a wall of sound that’d make Phil Spector jealous. So I’ll listen to takes on “TV Eye” ten times over some days when I’m in the right mood for it, slight variations and all, and it works. 

Sometimes you just want to get lost in the bones of the song and let the noise wash over you. 

How Bob Dylan might just be the next Billy Joel

…OK, that title is a bit of a joke, I’ll admit it. 

But in listening to Bob Dylan’s masterful, dense new album, Rough And Rowdy Ways, and its epic closing track, “Murder Most Foul,” I find myself spinning back to make a most peculiar connection: This feels like Dylan’s homage to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” 

I was a card-carrying Billy Joel fan in 1989. Joel’s easily digested, open-hearted everyman pop songs were everywhere in the 1980s, and what turned out to be one of his last big hits, 1989’s Storm Front album, got to me. In particular, his endearingly clumsy anthem “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” 

I have a soft spot for it, coming as it did in the fall of 1989, when the Soviet Union abruptly crumbled and the Cold War we’d all been conditioned since birth to be afraid of just went away almost overnight. I was just turned 18, at that peculiar junction in life, between high school and whatever lies next, at the cusp of adult cares and fears. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” seemed a totem of that urgency, of being suspended between moments in history. 

“We Didn’t Start The Fire” hasn’t aged particularly well, I’ll admit. Billy Joel’s songs were best when he went for the personal. When he tried to go big and broad on social issues, he wasn’t subtle – “Allentown,” “Goodnight Saigon” – but they were powerful, angry songs still, and anchored in human experience. The problem with “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is that it’s all huff and no puff, a list without much of a message.

Joel’s song is angry. He basically recites a list of cultural touchstones from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War, catchily rapping off names from Stalin to Elvis to Bernie Goetz, interrupting the lists with his chest-thumping chorus, “We didn’t start the fire / It was always burning / Since the world’s been turning.

Now, that rhyme makes me cringe a bit. Yet I still kinda love that song. It’s awkward and befuddled and the only real message despite its urgency seems to be, “Hey, shit happens.” In the video, Joel pumps his fists and rages as the background bursts into flames behind him. Again, it ain’t subtle. 

Now, take Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul,” at 17 minutes the longest song the bard’s recorded in his 50-year-career. If anything, Dylan’s song is even more of a laundry list than Joel’s. He peppers in Tom Jones lyrics, Freddy Krueger, Buster Keaton, BB King.

Unlike “Fire,” it’s structured around a narrative, a hallucinatory seance of imagery revolving around the assassination of President Kennedy, fragments of Americana scattered by the death of a dream: “They killed him once and they killed him twice / Killed him like a human sacrifice.

Joel hits on JFK too, of course, with a particularly wince-worthy rhyme again: “JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say?” 

Dylan is 79 now. He doesn’t rage, he contemplates. There’s a mesmerizing power to “Murder Most Foul,” even as the tempo barely changes, as the song just kind of chugs along without any of the fire of Billy Joel. It’s got the power of a mystic chanting around a campfire, a thousand years ago. 

At one point Dylan asks, “What is the truth, and where did it go?” In 2020, nobody knows. 

The difference is that “Fire” is a list, a yell. “Foul” is a sermon, a prayer, and in wrapping his summoning of all America’s highs and lows around the fateful events in Dallas in 1963, Dylan conjures up something sadder, more haunting than Joel’s outraged yelp. I’ve listened to “Murder Most Foul” many times so far, and each time it unfolds new facets. 

Dylan’s become more of a magpie than ever in his autumn, picking up bits and pieces of pop culture strewn throughout history and saying something new with it. Who’s to say he didn’t perhaps find a kernel of meaning to redirect in Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” as he assembled what might be his magnum opus, a song that stretches wide and high to try to define the indefinable? 

One song seemed perfect for the perhaps misguided optimism of 1989. One seems just right for the muddy, uncertain waters of 2020. One was the sounds of being 18, and one hits home with me as I near a half-century on this strange, perplexing world. 

Both songs grapple with that old chestnut, the American dream, a hope and a mystery nobody ever really seems able to solve. 

Guided By Voices and the songs that never stop

I first encountered Guided By Voices in a pile of free CDs. It was 1994, I was working as an intern at Billboard magazine in New York City, and one of the undeniable perks of the gig was the massive amount of freebies that poured into the mag in that pre-Internet era. 

I discovered a lot of great new music that summer, but nothing that blew my mind quite like the work of Robert Pollard and his band Guided By Voices. While it may sound a bit absurd, it felt like I’d discovered a secret Beatles nobody knew about but me.

GbV’s seminal disc Bee Thousand hit me like a thousand surreal butterflies singing pop tunes, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Their very best songs make me want to scream along at the top of my lungs, anthems for those who didn’t know they needed an anthem. 

It’s hard to nail down Guided By Voices. They’re a rock band with a strong power-pop vibe, and an often-nonsensical stew of lyrics that make just as much sense as you want them to. At their peak, each album from GbV feels like a message from another planet made just for me – lo-fi and crackling with pretty little mistakes, a radio stuck between stations on the coolest sounds around. On stage, they were a boozing, debauched riot far different from the brittle beauty of their albums. 

I like bands that feel bottomless. Acts that have deep backlists, frequent changes in style and approach, and a dogged determination to see their own vision through. The Bowies, the Zappas, the Nick Caves, the Pollards. A self-proclaimed jock from Dayton, Ohio, Robert Pollard isn’t someone you’d pick to be one of the busiest songwriters of all time. 

And he’s prolific. Good god, he’s prolific. Pollard has a compulsion that drives him to perpetually come up with new songs – more than 2000 in his career to date, spread out over more than 100 albums by Guided By Voices, solo albums and an entire stadium full of side bands and one-of projects. 

I mean jeez, I’m a pretty big fan, I’ve got something like 60 of Pollard’s various albums GbV and otherwise, and I’m still a long way from having it all. Still, nothing for me quite tops that absolutely golden stretch from album no. 3 (Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia) to album no. 11 (Do The Collapse). 

A recent biography of Pollard, Closer You Are by Matthew Cutter, does a pretty good job of attempting to nail down GbV’s niche appeal. It’s particularly strong on the band’s early years, sketching Pollard as an eager young rock fan who became a professional teacher with musician dreams. Pollard was the kind of teenager who’d literally spend hours making up dozens of pretend album covers for his imaginary bands. The after-hours musician didn’t actually “make it” until he was in his mid-30s. 

The flood never stops. After breaking up for the first time in 2004, GbV returned just a few years later and the albums have been coming one, two or three a year at least ever since. Pollard is 62 now, and still banging out the hits for a very devoted fan base. 

That can be to GbV’s detriment for some. Of their 13 (!!!) albums since 2012’s revival, there’s always a few great songs, a lot of good ones, maybe one or two dogs. The music has lost that mysterious edge it first had in the 1990s, but still has plenty of great hooks and riffs. But the constant flow of new material makes it kind of hard to sit down and soak them in properly. 

That’s just Bob’s way, like it or lump it. Yet it’s kind of fun to pick up GbV album No. 26 or Pollard side project No. 37 and find a few songs that sound like they should’ve been massive hits in some alternate universe. He won’t stop. Maybe he can’t stop.

And maybe that’s the reason we Guided By Voices fans keep coming back, album after album after album. They’re songs just for us, in the coolest club in the land, and while they’ll never be as omnipresent as a Taylor Swift hit maybe, they’re magic all the same.