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A Big Fan of the Pigpen

Skidmore author Marc Woodworth deconstructs the slapdash genius of Guided by Voices

By Kirsten Ferguson

 

A few years before Saratoga Springs author Marc Woodworth decided to write a book about his favorite rock band, Guided by Voices, he traveled to the group’s hometown to watch them play a St. Patrick’s Day show in a keg-filled rental tent outside an Irish pub in Dayton, Ohio. Although he had witnessed the brilliance of the band’s live shows—typically energy-charged, beer-soaked and somewhat haphazard, multi-encore affairs—at clubs in New York, Boston and Albany, Woodworth thought a GBV show on the band’s home turf might be an unparalleled experience, one that could take his mind off the recent death of his mother.

Instead, he initially found the low-key atmosphere of the show, filled with friends and family of the band, to be less exhilarating than he had expected. Still, it struck a chord. “Flying to the show was a way of consoling myself,” says Woodworth, a poet, English department lecturer and associate editor of Salmagundi at Skidmore College. “If art does anything, it provides a kind of consolation. It’s something connected to life but separate from life.”

Woodworth’s love for the songs of Robert Pollard, one of the most gifted and prolific songwriters in modern music, led to his publication last year of Bee Thousand, a book in the 33 1/3 series by Continuum Publishing. Each pocket-sized volume in the series is dedicated to a well-loved album from the indie or classic rock “canon” (with a few representations from hip-hop, soul and funk). All authors in the series, some well-known writers or musicians in their own right, some not, could be described as hardcore fans of the albums they write about; author love for a particular album is often as much a topic of the book as the record itself.

Bee Thousand the album is considered by many fans to be Guided by Voices’ lo-fi masterpiece, a mélange of brief, lyrically surreal songs recorded in basements and garages with little regard for production values, but with spontaneous flourishes (the background sound of a screen door slamming, for instance) that add to the album’s otherworldly but of-the-moment appeal. Upon repeated listening, Bee Thousand’s quirkiness and slightly dissonant surface gives way to reveal a melodically beautiful core.

Woodworth first learned about Guided by Voices from his high school friend and bandmate Gary Waleik (who went on to play in Boston indie rock band Big Dipper) in the late ’90s, around the time GBV released Do the Collapse, a more polished recording and perhaps the band’s only album to be received poorly by some fans. Although Woodworth didn’t fall in love with that album, the band’s next, Isolation Drills, caught his ear, and he eventually found his way to 1994’s Bee Thousand.

Bee Thousand’s subtle melancholy, infused with a sense of lost adolescence, really spoke to Woodworth at a time when he was struggling to deal with the loss of his mother. “Absorbing this music was a way of consoling myself; it hit many of the same pleasure centers that I felt as an adolescent and, in a way, allowed me to revisit that time in an almost physical and perhaps subconscious way,” he says. “The influences you take in at that time in your life make a deep and indelible imprint however far you move away from them as an adult. Somehow, this record and this band turned up at a time when I needed to recover a past that I was losing and a person I was losing, my mother, who was central to me then.”

Woodworth’s book mirrors the cut-and-paste format of the album, with first-person narratives interspersed among band-member interviews, listener responses solicited from the GBV Listserv, and academic essays that explore issues related to art and creation in a style befitting a college lecturer in English. Pollard’s lyrics, in fact, could someday fill a college course: the former schoolteacher pens surreal phrases, often grounded in a reality that adds a hefty emotional resonance. (Pollard’s interviews for Woodworth’s book shed light on his inspiration for particular songs.)

“I think [Pollard’s lyrics] are some of the most intelligent verbal artifacts that I can imagine in popular music,” Woodworth says. “He’s got some kind of purchase on the mystery of making art that I really like.” As a poet, Woodworth admits admiring the lack of self-consciousness with which Pollard churns out his inexhaustible singles and solo albums (GBV as a band called it quits in 2004). “I’m inspired by how free Pollard is to create,” he says. “He doesn’t have to second-guess it. He allows it to happen. There’s nothing calculated about it. There’s a kind of encouragement in listening to this work. I feel much more spontaneous in my own work now. I needed to be a little less closed to a certain way of making art.”

Woodworth will host a celebration of Bee Thousand tomorrow evening (Friday, March 2) at Valentine’s. The 6 PM event will be a participatory affair. “Fans are encouraged to come with a paragraph about their experience of the album which I’ll read to the masses assembled on Friday night,” Woodworth writes in his blog for the book, www.b1000.blog spot.com.

Asked about the band’s response to the book’s release, Woodworth says, “They seemed really happy about it. They look back really fondly on that time. But I think to them it’s a little bit surprising that this is considered their landmark album. They would probably say that some of their favorite work came later.”


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