The first Guided by Voices album I bought was Alien Lanes during the summer of 1995. It was not technically an LP “album” but a compact disc, which made the shock of what I was about to hear even greater: smacking me upside the head from the usual ghostly silence of my CD player was a hiss. The hiss of a four hundred thousand generation tape of something recorded in a concrete box, and a buzz like a piece of audio equipment somewhere is humming away or not securely plugged in. On top of all this, a single guitar plodded away the bassline of a tune, before the singer’s voice dropped in out of nowhere, accompanied by another layer of ssshhh/buzz/hisssss. As the lyrics to “A Salty Salute” came out with all the sincerity of a State of the Union address, my mind reeled.  Was this:
a invocation of attention?
(disarm the sexless/settlers)
a salute to what?
(the new drunk drivers)
a call to arms?
(have hoisted the flag)
a announcement of independence/defiance?
(we are with you in your anger)
a declaration of allegiance/fellowship? 
(proud brothers, do not fret)
a an aesthetic device?
(the bus will get you there yet) 
a promise of things to come?
(to carry us to the lake)
an invitation to celebration?
(the club is open)


The second Guided by Voices album I bought the Spring of 1996 sounded like it was playing on a CD. Under the Bushes, Under the Stars exploded in my ears with a startlingly full sound. The songs were as catchy as the ones I’d grown to enjoy on the previous excursion, but what had changed? 

That May I saw them live. By then I’d acquired the three albums previous to Alien Lanes, Bee Thousand (1994), Vampire on Titus (1993), and Propeller (1992). All have the characteristic buzz/hiss that I’d come to know from the first. But then I heard Bob belt out a line from “Tractor Rape Chain” with more gusto and tonal clarity than he does on the original muffled recording (on Bee Thousand), heard the band transform “the King and Caroline” into a sonically full wave that washed over the crowd, and heard them turn “Hot Freaks” into an other worldly experience. 


Four and a half years later, I’m in Denver, Colorado awaiting the start of the first of four GbV shows I will see in the next two weeks. Stagehands preparing the equipment and instruments come and go from the small stage, and finally Pete “Manager for Life” Jamison switches on a neon sign, the simple message of which conveys something different to everyone in the crowd, yet unites them in a whoop of anticipation round of applause: “THE CLUB IS OPEN” 


A few minutes later Bob appears with yet another incarnation of Guided by Voices, looking jovial. A familiar bass line comes out of the smoke filled silence and Bob belts out the introductory lines even more confidently than he ever has. This performance of “A Salty Salute” now means something to me (about doing what you want to do, the way you want to do it, and not caring one way or another what anyone thought—about perseverance), though I still don’t really know what it means to its author.


Does it matter? I smile and drink my beer with the rest of the audience as we sing along with Bob. 

Next >>