'Closer You Are' Explores How Robert Pollard Changed The Course Of Indie Rock

Aug 25, 2018
Originally published on August 25, 2018 7:53 am

When Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices burst onto the national scene in the early 1990s, they had already broken just about every rule in indie rock.

The genre was dominated by young hipsters from big cities or college towns who made a show of looking bored at concerts. Pollard, by contrast, was an ex-college jock and a school teacher pushing 40 who swigged Budweiser and executed athletic high kicks on stage, and evinced no interest in moving out of his hometown of Dayton, Ohio.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Pollard, still rocking at 60, and his ever-changing bandmates changed the face of indie rock as we know it. Matthew Cutter's entertaining new biography of "Uncle Bob," Closer You Are, does an excellent job telling the story of the all-American-boy-turned-alternative-rock-god who's much more complex than his brash, boozy stage persona would indicate — as Pollard sang in the Guided by Voices song "I Am a Scientist," "I am a lost soul, I shoot myself with rock and roll / The hole I dig is bottomless, but nothing else can set me free."

Pollard's musical ambitions started early. He fronted his first band when he was in fourth grade — he and his friends played air instruments while wailing Monkees songs. It didn't take long for the boy to get hooked on the attention: "Girls would chase them at recess like in A Hard Day's Night," Cutter writes. "Bob thought that was kind of fun." He wanted to be a rock star even more than he wanted to be a pro athlete, which he might have become if it weren't for an elbow injury. (A standout pitcher at Wright State University, Pollard threw the school's first ever no-hitter.)

After graduating from college with an education degree — he reasoned that "if he had to enter the working world, at least he would have summers off" — he started his career as a grade-school teacher and football coach. But music was never far from his mind. He spent all his spare time writing and recording songs with friends, inventing the sound that would later become Guided by Voices: stubbornly lo-fi pop songs with abstract lyrics that usually lasted about two minutes.

It took several years, but Guided by Voices eventually gained notoriety in the Ohio indie rock scene, with fans transfixed by Pollard's infectious songs and his albums' oddball aesthetics. (Some copies of the band's breakout record, Propeller, featured artwork by Pollard's grade-school students; the group couldn't afford printed album sleeves.) Before long, the band was playing CBGB, appearing on MTV, and signing to legendary indie label Matador. They never had a national hit, although they honestly should have — their singles "Teenage FBI" and "Glad Girls" were pure pop gold, even if they never quite broke through to the mainstream.

Closer You Are effectively ends in 2004, after Pollard announced the band's demise. (He has since reunited Guided by Voices, disbanded it, and reunited it again.) It's a wise decision by Cutter — although Pollard has been active the past 14 years, it's too soon to tell what the legacy of his more recent recordings will be.

And one of the strongest points of Cutter's book is his smart analysis of Pollard's music and the influence it's had on modern rock. Guided by Voices, Cutter contends, "was perhaps the most postmodern rock band ever. It presented fragmented experiences, metatextual elements, unreliable narrators, magical realism, the mundane contrasted with the mythic, a marriage of low and high cultures. Bob's catalog took all of rock music, smashed it to tiny fragments, and reassembled it as a sonic collage."

Guided by Voices fans, and anyone with an abiding interest in indie rock, will appreciate Cutter's deep dives into the history of each of the band's albums: He's combed through liner notes, fanzines and interviews with a surgical focus, preserving a lot of stories that might have been lost to history. But Closer You Are never gets bogged down with inside-baseball trivia; Cutter is a natural storyteller who doesn't lose sight of the overarching story of the band from Dayton.

It's clear that Cutter admires Pollard, but his book isn't a hagiography. He honestly portrays Pollard's dark side — he had a short temper, especially early in his career, when he was prone to firing band members on a regular basis. Overall, it's a fascinating, even-handed picture of the unlikely indie star whom Cutter calls "a professional athlete of rock."

It's also an inspiring look at a dreamer who never gave up on his art. "There is nothing worse than an undetermined person," Pollard sang in his solo track "Subspace Biographies." And Pollard's determination to make music, even after countless setbacks, altered the course of indie rock forever.

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