SOMETIME IN 1995, Guided By Voices canceled their scheduled appearance at Tempe's Gibson's a few weeks before the show. It was the band's only Arizona date on the tour; but when their rider, which demanded an enormous quantity of "American beer, preferably Budweiser" -- much of which was earmarked for on-stage consumption -- was returned red-inked, the band had second thoughts.
The club explained that, under Arizona state law, on-stage performers were considered to be employees of the venue, and therefore couldn't consume alcoholic beverages while on the job. The band, never known for their leanings toward moderation, immediately canceled the show based solely on the club's decision not to budge on the issue.
On another sweep of the West Coast several months later, the band relented and booked another show at Gibson's. This time they showed up, taunting the hired security throughout their entire set, threatening to drink beer onstage. Reemerging for the encore, the band's leader, singer and primary songwriter, Robert Pollard, had his arms overflowing with bottles of Budweiser, and proceeded to arrange them, one by one, across the entire stage.
In a matter of seconds, Pollard and a security guard were screaming in each other's face, inches from coming to blows. Pollard continued to yell as security confiscated the entire arrangement of bottles. Then Guided By Voices continued the show.
In Robert Pollard's world, few things are more important than Budweiser beer. In fact, aside from his wife and kids, number three on the list would likely be his love of rock and roll music, specifically British rock of the mid-'60s to mid-'70s.
Up until recently, Robert Pollard was a member of the underpaid ranks of elementary school teachers in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, where he still lives. Sometime in the early '80s, as a hobby, he and his buddies would drink beer and write and record songs on whatever equipment was readily available: a four-track, a boom box, a friend's eight-track studio. About once a year the band would go in for a vanity pressing of some of their songs, simply for posterity's sake and so they could see their records in the local bins.
In 1992, Robert Griffin, head of fledgling micro-indie label Scat Records, came across one of those records, Propeller, and was completely floored by what he heard. He offered to release the band's next album, 1993's Vampire on Titus (Scat), and in 1994, after entering into a distribution agreement with Matador Records, released what still stands as Guided By Voices' magnum opus, Bee Thousand (Scat/Matador).
The record, truly one of the great rock albums released this decade, jump-cuts -- four-track hiss and mistakes all -- from track to track at a dizzyingly pace. Just as the boys settle into a prime post-punk twisted-Kinks-ish melody, they're off to a Who-inspired arena rock anthem, which also only lasts a minute or two. Pollard comes across like John Lennon with Attention Deficit Disorder, hook after glorious hook, but dammit, someone keeps changing the station. Lyrically, the songs are as oblique as their titles -- "Gold Star for Robot Boy," "Tractor Rape Chain" and "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory" -- but Pollard delivers his vocals in a tone so passionate and convincing that his subjects hardly matter. You believe him.
The nearly-as-great Alien Lanes (Matador) came in 1995, before GBV stumbled uncharacteristically with 1996's Under the Bushes, Under the Stars (Matador), their first attempt at a full-fledged, professionally recorded studio album. Pollard was apparently so unhappy with the results that he dissolved the band's longtime rotating lineup in favor of fellow Ohians Cobra Verde, who backed Pollard on 1997's return-to-form, Mag Earwhig (Matador).
By now the songwriting formula had changed; along with slicker production values came fully realized songs, no longer the homemade cut-and-paste method which had flavored the GBV sound from the start.
Ready to take things to the next level, Pollard again ditched his entire band in favor of a new group of guys including Breeders' drummer Jim MacPherson. Aided by the production talents of ex-Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, he headed into New York's famous Electric Lady studios to take a stab at mainstream success. The result, Do The Collapse, released earlier this year on TVT Records, is GBV's most fully realized attempt at an album's worth of Brit-rock-inspired full-length songs. While longtime fans may balk at the swank production values -- strings and that trademarked Cars keyboard sound both find their place on Collapse -- the band's blatant attempt at mainstream success still hasn't yielded any radio hits, though "Teenage FBI," "Surgical Focus," and the uncharacteristically moving "Hold on Hope," are potential candidates. Now 41, Pollard emanates a vibe that suggests if it doesn't happen with this album, then it just wasn't meant to be.
So now Guided By Voices find themselves on the road to promote their (last?) shot at the big time, a tour which will bring them to Tucson for the first time. And let me proudly bear the message to Robert Pollard that, about a year-and-a-half ago, the State of Arizona rescinded the pesky alcohol law that gave you so much trouble a few years back. So Mr. Pollard, we'll gladly supply you with as much Budweiser as you could possibly want, as long as you provide the rock.
Guided By Voices appear with V2 recording artists Those Bastard Souls at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 16, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Advance tickets are available for $10 at Hotel Congress and Zip's University, or online at www.hotcong.com/club. They'll be $12 at the door, depending on availability. Call 622-8848 for more information.