Guided by Voices, Part II: The Beatles, The Grifters, and Sparks
The house on Patterson looked good in every season, as it was constructed of bulky, brown, stained, wooden clapboard and had stony, raised gardens. In the winter it looked lonely and almost haunted, while in the summer the peeling brown clapboard was blistered by the sun, but in autumn the house was in it element. With its tarnished grass fading gray and brown and yellowing leaves bulging out of its overstuffed gutters, it could be a grimy wooden effigy or the loss that October seems to bring.
The days and nights shuddered and burped along. Every package we received at Used Kids came bearing gifts of sound, and the mail box on Patterson always seemed to contain some letter requesting music from Columbus. Time was as still as a television station that was always on but never watched. Nobody paid heed to it.
I had fallen hard for the sound of the Grifters, a band from Memphis that annihilated sound and built it back up with blasts of melodic sounds that were at once disquieting and soothing. I had received their first full-length, So Happy Together, from Scat Records. I listened to it while working at Used Kids one morning, and by the third song I was on the phone with Robert Griffin, seeing if he could get me in contact with them. By the end of the afternoon I had booked them a show at Staches with Moviola and Gaunt.
Onstage, the Grifters were a shuddering, calculated, belching wreckage of sound. With a cloud of distorted guitars straining to stay out of tune and, in a spurt of electric coughing, the audio version of a halfback darting from the pile into open space, they would bend into a melody as breathtaking as a dive into a warm pool of water. They were, in a sense, a counter balance to Guided by Voices. Where GBV would inject a heavy dose of smiling hope into their minute-and-a-half epics, the Grifters were more concerned with the disappointment that tragedy brings, a sorrowful blend of noise and crankiness.
At that first Grifters show at Staches, there was hardly anyone there, only myself and a few patrons who had managed to pick up the band’s record at Used Kids. Jerry Wick was not yet too impressed with the Grifters, but the Ted Hattemer and the other fellows in Moviola were enamored of their sound. The Grifters took a step into the freedom of feedback and built something that was as extraordinary as a stone castle, a noisy blackened musical hook to hang yourself with.
The next morning over coffee in my dining room, I played some Guided by Voices for the Grifters, explaining that I thought they had a lot in common musically. It was apparent that Dave from the Grifters was every bit as much a music fan as Bob Pollard. We spent the morning playing records and talking music. This listening together was a form of breaking bread, and the bond of kinship was born.
There is really nothing as a stranger asking, “What kind of music do you like?”
I always think that a good response would be, “I really like the idea of Anal Cunt, but I never really liked their sound,” or, “I really like the first Cars record because I got my first blow job to it, but after that they went completely and embarrassingly downhill.” There was a difference in the world I inhabited. It was common knowledge that we all obsessed over sound. The knowledge that the mechanism of sound could be used to transport a person somewhere else was the adhesive that held our community together.
Bob and the rest of Guided by Voices were making monthly visits to Columbus, usually to record with Mike Rep and drink beer with Ron House, Jim Shepard, Jerry and me. Shuffling into the store in the late afternoon, fresh from the hour drive from Dayton, they would arrive just in time for the five o’clock God-given right to a beer. Dan Dow once made the outrageous claim that getting stone drunk at work was not always a good idea. Ron replied, “Well Dan, that’s why we fought the fuckin’ revolution!” There was no argument from us—how could anyone dispute the constitutional right to happy hour? After sharing Rolling Rocks or vases of Budweiser at Larry’s or BW-3, Bob would huddle with Mike in the annex and mix and mash-up the tinny four-track recordings he had made. We talked music and sports mostly, because in Ohio there is really nothing else that matters. The weather is always gray, the economy is grayer, and politics is just a slick slope to traverse over beer..
One afternoon Bob asked me if I was familiar with Odyssey and Oracle, by the Zombies. “Yeah, I love it. It’s kinda like Odessa by the Bee Gees. In fact, it’s my girlfriend’s favorite record.”
“Do you have a copy?”
“Yeah, it’s not on CD yet. In fact, there’s only a crappy best of on CD. I actually think I have a first pressing as well as a Rhino re-issue. You can have the reissue or I’ll trade you something for the original.” Bob offered to trade his copy of Slay Tracks, the first single by Pavement, which I gladly accepted. We also talked about new bands we liked, especially the Grifters, whose tarnished, feedback-laden sound had made an impression on Bob.
He wondered aloud, “That’s what I’m trying to do, get that sound, but maybe my songs are too poppy.”
“Oh, you have to see them live. They pull all that noise off in person and it’s like watching a choreographed car wreck.”
Bob excitedly replied, “Lemme know when they play next and I’ll make sure GBV plays with them.”
Guided by Voices were playing in Columbus quite a bit. Dayton hadn’t embraced them yet and they were not quite polished enough to get shows there, so they would come to Columbus and play with the Slave Apartments, V-3, Belreve, Gaunt, and Jenny. One of the most memorable shows they played around this time was when they opened for V-3 and the Dutch noise band The Ex.
Roughly a month or so later, Flower Booking called me and asked if I would be willing to book another Grifters show. Although I had already brought them to Columbus several times, losing a pocketful of money on every occasion, I gladly accepted. By now Jerry had become a fan, mostly on the basis of their single “She Blows Blasts of Static”, a song of epic, noisy wreckage that pulled you in and then pummeled you with leathery hooks before offering release, so Gaunt was on the bill. I phoned Bob, who said that because it was on a week night not everyone could get off of work to play the show, but he would come up anyway. During the show, Bob, Jerry, and I were just to the left of the stage. As the Grifters plied their splintered sound in front of thirty or so souls, Bob turned to me and Jerry and yelled, “The three best bands ever: the Beatles, The Grifters, and Sparks!” Jerry and I would repeat this often to one another, nodding our head with laughter at our own inside joke. “The Beatles, the Grifters, and Sparks!” Indeed.
Bob wearing a Used Kids t-shirt on this early video
no Jenny Mae on youtube: