Marc Woodworth (left) and Gary Waleik in their high school band, 1978

Swinging Modern Sounds #39: Interview Within an Interview

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In this piece, we are not at any time meant to use the word greatness to refer to a band from Boston, Big Dipper, best known during the late eighties, for the three fine studio albums, the last of which, Slam, was released on Epic Records in 1990. The word greatness, according to Big Dipper co-founder Gary Waleik, is inaccurate, and represents, I suppose, a kind of grade inflation, though if so it is the kind of grade inflation that is endemic to the rockcrit world. Music that is beguiling, memorable, and helps to pass the time in dark days is great. But who wants to be accused of grade inflation? This all reminds me of the period when I worked in book publishing at a certain highly regarded literary publisher and we were enjoined from using the word brilliant in catalogue copy. The copy desk at this publishing house would allow only one or two occurrences of brilliant per catalogue, and in order to limit the uses of brilliant, on one occasion, I had to persuade an editor to amend the phrase the brilliant blue sky. This didn’t go over so well. The facts at hand are these: a brilliant blue of Big Dipper is to be found in their remarkable and often tragicomic lyrics, and these lyrics are of such substance that you can imagine that a songwriter for this band would eschew overuse of the word greatness, because language means that much to him. And though just about everyone in the band wrote lyrics at one time or another this is true across the spectrum of writers contained under the Big Dipper rubric.

Big Dipper was primarily an indie rock band, I suppose, one with a loyal following, and they recently began playing together again. And this interview occurs, more or less, on the occasion of their first studio release in twenty-two years, called Big Dipper Crashes on the Platinum Planet, a brilliant and blue album, let us say, one that features all that was great about the band in its early indie heyday, the aforementioned extremely literate and often moving lyrics, slightly off-kilter but extremely inventive guitar parts, a very tight-band sound, a mid- to uptempo enthusiasm, and an ambition that is not unlike boutique chocolate manufacture: they have no need to conquer the world, but just to dazzle in brief bursts of dazzlement. Big Dipper are satisfied with doing the brilliant blue in just the way that they do it.

Now: as to the structure of this interview itself: my friend Marc Woodworth, poet, editor, and occasional writer on music was once in a high-school band with Gary Waleik, co-founder of Big Dipper (co-founder, it should be said, with Steve Michener and Bill Goffrier and Jeff Oliphant), and has kept up with him over the years. More on this below. I decided to create an opportunity in which Marc could have the chance to speak to Gary on the record about the Big Dipper legacy, after which, because it is always extremely interesting to know the terms in which an interview is conducted, I would myself interview Marc about his interest in Big Dipper, and his friendship with Gary Waleik, and also about middle age, rock and roll, and what sustains us during the time in which the body begins to decay. This constitutes the interview within or behind the manifest content of the interview, which is primarily the excellent new Big Dipper album (I like “Hurricane Bill” a lot, as well as “Robert Pollard”), and maybe there should always be a teasing out of the context, which is brilliant and blue, as the years stretch out before us and we do what we can despite the high cost.

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INTERVIEW PART ONE

Marc Woodworth: The single “Robert Pollard” from Big Dipper Crashes on the Platinum Planet—your first new album in nearly 22 years—is a paen to Guided By Voices’ master songwriter. Is the song a product of hero-worship?

Gary Waleik: I don’t have many—if any—heroes, so I feel a little awkward having written that song. Robert Pollard made the collage that’s on the cover of the record, too. And he and I worked on an album together as Mars Classroom [New Theory of Everything, 2011]. Maybe we’ve hitched our wagon to his star in an untoward way, but at least we’re plowing some of the same musical ground he is. I’m a bit self-conscious because the song is obviously inspired by my fandom, but hopefully it’s more than just a fan song. I wanted to explore the idea of talent and will, how they relate to each other and how they relate to individual artists. I felt that Pollard, Paul McCartney and I made for an interesting case study. I think there’s some interesting triangulation there. I sent Robert Pollard the song along with a few others before Big Dipper Crashes on the Platinum Planet was finished and his wife Sarah emailed me (Bob doesn’t use email) that when he got the CD he spent several hours in the car riding around the neighborhood with some friends listening to it. So “Robert Pollard” made the rounds on one of Robert Pollard’s musical “Freedom Cruises”—as he calls them—so there’s that, at least. And he told me that Big Dipper was the 20th best rock band of all time. Of course, I had to ask him who was nineteenth and without a smile or the slightest hesitation he answered, “T. Rex.” I might actually put T. Rex below Big Dipper, but I certainly wouldn’t put big Dipper in the top 20, I can tell you that.

Woodworth: It’s worth mentioning that Mr. Pollard was listening to Big Dipper well before anyone outside of Dayton knew about Guided By Voices . . .

Waleik: When we were working on the Mars Classroom project together, I sent two or three songs that he didn’t end up using for the record. They were the weirdest ones. It was almost as if he couldn’t fathom that one of the songwriters for Big Dipper could write psychedelic or proggy songs. He clearly wanted to go with a pop sensibility that reflected his understanding of Big Dipper. He stuck to that aesthetic. It was the right way to go.

So, no, I don’t think of Robert Pollard as a hero or a deity, but I do think of him as the best rock songwriter that the world has ever known. That’s highly subjective, of course. You can point to songwriters who have had much greater material success, a lot more chart success, and who will probably be remembered longer than Robert Pollard, but no one in the rock pantheon—from Bob Dylan to Paul McCartney to John Lennon—can lay claim to a body of work like his.

Woodworth: If we can think about the new Big Dipper album as a coming to terms with middle-age, one of the features of that accounting clearly has to do with where you are as an artist, one who, at least with your original band, hadn’t recorded and released a full lp’s worth of songs for a very long time. You write about yourself without a shred of ego—and maybe even with a little touch of masochism—as a ‘minor’ songwriter. How do you feel about your place as a writer and musician?

Big Dipper, 2012

Waleik: We’re more comfortable with where we are as songwriters than we’ve ever been. I think that’s part of being an effective songwriter. You have to know what you’re good at. You have to know what your interests are. You have to know what sort of effort you need to put behind the writing and what sort of will is required to do it. It’s a constant struggle because all these factors waver—they ebb and they flow—and if you’re lucky enough to hit a time when all of them are on an upswing you take advantage of it and write all you can. I don’t have as much time to write now as I did when Big Dipper was a full time concern, but in some ways it’s easier now. I like the new songs a lot.

Woodworth: That makes me think middle-age rock can be more incisive than young man’s rock—in part because the coming to terms with the self that happens later in life can be more telling and vital and scary than even the most inspired inventions of youth.

Waleik: Face it, most rock songs written by twenty-somethings are purely about the ego and maybe some of our new songs are too but at least they’re not at all egotistical. We couldn’t even write that way when we were in our twenties. We were writing songs that were downright odd, weird, and eccentric, and perhaps some of the best of them were rather spiritual. Can you imagine Bill Goffrier ever writing a song even remotely like “I’m Too Sexy”? Now we can write outside of ourselves even more easily, maybe even crush our egos a little bit as I do in the song “Robert Pollard.”

Woodworth: Bill’s song “New Machine” with its desperate opening question, “What do you get for the man who ruins everything?” has an edge born of too much self knowledge and more attack than perhaps anything he sang in the band’s hay day…

Big Dipper, Hoboken, 1988

Waleik: Clearly, that song signals the acknowledgment of a breaking point in a relationship and in it Bill gives himself a few lumps as he moves on. So, yes, in some ways this is a very penitential record, but it’s also a record imbued with a real sense of adventure. Our drummer Jeff Oliphant’s song “Princess Warrior” is pretty remarkable. There are songs about surviving serious illness and maybe even particularly about surviving cancer, but can you think of a song written about a spouse’s surviving cancer that has that much genuine pathos wrapped in comedy? Jeff doesn’t in the least trivialize the ordeal his wife went through—and he went through along with her—and yet the song is fun, a celebration of beating the cancer. Somehow, it works. The first verse ends with the line, “Now she’s got double Bs—that chest is good to go.” Jeff’s wife was a little angry, not because he was writing about reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy, but because he got it wrong: she actually has double Cs. I would imagine some women might feel self-conscious about their husbands writing songs on that subject, but to Tracy’s credit, she took it in the spirit that Jeff wrote it. There’s a lot of love in the song. Jeff’s always been great at working with the sound and feel of language in unique ways and you get the rich wordplay and the unexpected idioms in “Princess Warrior,” too, but now there’s a lot more depth to go with it.

Woodworth: I’ve always understood the band’s interest in what you called earlier the eccentric—the astral plane, the paranormal, the metaphysical, even the sub-oceanic—not so much as nerdy or quirky but as a reflection of a dissatisfaction—for the imagination at least—with the known, the real, the mundane.

Waleik: Maybe we have a harder time dealing with the mundane than other songwriters. Some writers are very good at working with what really happened to them on an ordinary day and making that quotidian experience into a wonderful song. We don’t have that gift. We had to go to other realms to find a songwriting style. I’ve heard some criticism about that too: “Why can’t you write about real issues? Why can’t you write more poetic songs about the human condition?” I think we do write poetic songs about the human condition but we have to move several light years away in order to find them.

When we were writing songs for Big Dipper in the 80s, Bill and I would watch PBS documentaries together about the latest theory on the origin of the universe or Fermat’s Last Theorem and we’d talk about them. We’d find themes as writers that might apply to people even if they didn’t care about those particular subjects. The song “Humason” [from the album 1987 album Heavens] became a love song when it could have simply been a song about the obscure astronomer Milton Humason. His major contribution to science had to do with red shifts and blue shifts and Bill found in that a metaphor for love—love moving away, love moving closer. Back when we put out Boo Boo, Heavens, and Craps there were a lot of reviewers who criticized the lyrics for being shallow and sophomoric—novelty songs full of gimmicks. I disagree. If you scratch the surface, that sometimes awkward, even goofy surface, there’s a lot underneath. Bill is one of the more underrated songwriters and singers in rock history. I put him up there with just about anyone.

Woodworth: Can you talk about how the release of Supercluster, the Big Dipper anthology that Merge released in 2008, the reunion shows you played when it came out, and now putting out a new record settled or didn’t settle the emotional fallout from Big Dipper’s demise in the early 90s?

Waleik: We felt miserable over the way things ended in 1990 when we put out Slam, our first and only record with Epic. Steve Michener, our original bass player, left the band. Everything was all wrong. This was not where the arc of our career was supposed to end up.

Before we signed with Epic, we knew the band wasn’t going to last very long if we just kept putting out records and working our butts off on the road without starting to sell records so we said, “What the heck—we’ll sign.” We thought maybe they would rescue us from the indie rock doldrums. We were doing better than many indie bands at the time, but we knew it couldn’t last indefinitely so we threw our hat into the big ring to see what would happen. We were working as hard as ever, but pretty soon it was clear it hadn’t been the right move. But there we were.

I remember feeling shaky while we were making the big-budget video for “Love Barge,” the single from Slam. Our budget was $40,000 and we engaged the services of a very well-known video director. We had wardrobe assistants and makeup artists, catering and a big film crew with tracks for the cameras to move on. We were filming in this appalling shooting gallery of a warehouse on the banks of the East River where we had to watch out for the needles. I even donned a leather jacket, of all things, that belonged to a petite wardrobe girl—if you look carefully, you can see that the sleeves are half way up my forearms. I think the video was played once or maybe twice on MTV. Contrast that with our first video for “Faith Healer” in 1987 that we made for a couple of hundred bucks and with some home-made ingenuity. It had a certain nerdy wonderfulness—we were dancing unashamedly and awkwardly in cardigans and old baggy striped shirts, telling stories around a cardboard cut-out campfire, wearing fractured bone-shaped headpieces that we could fit together in pairs. And it played a lot on MTV—there was Downtown Julie Brown introducing us in her accent and incorrectly as THE Big Dipper.

After Slam failed and Steve left, Bill and I stuck it out for a couple more years and wrote some good songs and had some fun doing it. Those songs—eventually released on Supercluster seventeen years later—were written as a way to get back to what Big Dipper was good at doing: not making songs for a record company that wanted a top 40 hit, but creating idiosyncratic songs that were true to the way we had always written them before. But the more we wrote that way, the more acutely aware we became of the fact that it didn’t really matter. Even though it was clear that the record industry was going to make a colossal push to bring indie bands to the masses—that the whole industry was retooling for that purpose—we were left in the dust because of our horrible episode with Epic. It made no difference how much more committed we were to writing songs, how good the songs were, or how much local airplay we were getting because our name was mud. We couldn’t even get the smaller indie labels interested—we had already burned our bridges with Homestead and no one else wanted to touch us. We eventually understood it was time to close up shop. If writing good songs were the only thing required for success, then we’d be a lot more successful by now.

The 2008 anthology and the mini-tour we did when it came out put a positive punctuation mark on everything that had happened with and to Big Dipper. When we played the hometown Boston-area show at the Middle East in Cambridge in 2008 I didn’t realize it was going to be an 18+ show so I was surprised when we took the stage and there was a significant number of kids wearing yellow bracelets indicating they were younger than 21 but older than 18. They were dancing around and very obviously mouthing the words. It was neat that bunch of college students knew our music after all that time.

We intended to put it to bed after that—and we could have done so and felt like we’d arrived at some version of a happier ending. Then Robert Pollard asked if we’d open for his band Boston Spaceships which all of us wanted to do. After that, we decided to record a couple of songs in my modest basement studio and the tunes started sounding really good. Before we knew it, we nearly had an album’s worth. Since we were that close, we wrote a couple more songs—and, boom, we had a record. I harbor no delusions about our inability to sell a lot of records. It doesn’t much matter—we’re playing with house money. If we find that a couple of critics like us and that’s all that happens, that’s fine—I suppose that’s all we ever really had anyway. 

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INTERVIEW PART TWO

Rick Moody: So, Marc, what were the first circumstances in which you, the interviewer above, first heard Big Dipper?

Marc Woodworth: Gary sent me a copy of their first EP, Boo Boo, when I was living in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio and wasn’t following indie music. I assumed it was an LP and played it at 33 1/3. I thought my friend and former band-mate had delved into some misbegotten form of demonic sludge metal before I figured out my mistake. It sounded much better at 45 RPM.

Moody: How was Gary your “former band-mate?” How did you first meet him? And what do you mean you weren’t “following indie music?”

Marc Woodworth (left) and Gary Waleik in their high school band, 1978

Marc Woodworth (left) and Gary Waleik in their high school band, 1978

Woodworth: I met Gary during our first year in high school in Concord, Massachusetts, when we formed a rock band. We first played together in the living room of an uncharacteristically modern house with lots of glass, the family house of another kid who ended up not being in the band. Like Gary, he was a big Stones fan, but, unlike Gary, he sported a dead-ringer British Invasion haircut. I once proposed the song title “Time Waits For No One” for an original number and remember Gary asking “What?” with a wince, incredulous that I didn’t know that title was already taken. I knew the four Aerosmith albums backwards and forwards in ninth grade, though.

Gary had an uncle who possessed an awe-inspiring mid-60s Strat (I seem to remember a fringed leather strap but I might be embellishing) [Editor’s note: Gary confirmed, post-interview, the existence of the fringed strap, still intact and attached to the guitar, which he adds is a 1964, pre-CBS model] that with its natural brown finish (no hard glossy patina) was a talisman of that halcyon era we’d all missed and fetishized. Gary’s Uncle John had hard-won good taste in music which he shared, along with the actual LPs, with Gary whom I imagine was a little mortified at our desire to cover, say, Styx’s “Suite: Madame Blue” or other such product of that curious decade’s purveyors of arena rock. Along with a lot of classic rock, the music of the 70s behemoths was our band’s staple fare until we started to ride the New Wave to cover songs by Talking Heads, The Cars, and Devo.

It would be interesting to compose character profiles of the guys who became college indie rock successes before their ascendance—I expect many of them would have been, like Gary, very intelligent, steeped in good music at a young age, and wary of rock clichés, both personality-wise and musically. Our high school band ended up writing and recording a few originals and Gary posted one a while back at Rock Town Hall for a feature called My First Band. Track 6, “Practical Nurse,” on the cassette icon at the link below is our entry:

http://www.rocktownhall.com/blogs/my-first-band-rock-town-hall-s-talent-less-search

Marc Woodworth (striped shirt) next to Gary Waleik (mustache) in high school

Marc Woodworth (striped shirt) next to Gary Waleik (mustache) in high school

When I first heard Boo Boo, those high school rock band days seemed further away than they do now. I was in graduate school and wanted to make up for lost time by immersing myself in “serious” music—I was very self-consciously focused on remaking myself during those years—so I’d largely stopped listening to popular music and missed the mid-80s emergence of indie rock. Then “Faith Healer,” this brilliant slice of noisy, agitated pop, jittered through the speakers. I didn’t really know what to make of it.

Moody: Really? You were able to put rock and roll aside completely? I remember that time (New Day Rising, Let It Be, The Good Earth, etc.) as one of the most fertile of rock and roll periods? Did you catch up with that music later?

Woodworth: I’ve probably flattened the narrative to make it all or nothing, but I didn’t listen to much new music for a couple of years. I remember writing a seminar essay on Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed il Moderato and it felt like that’s all I listened to for 6 months. I still played records I already liked on occasion and heard via college radio in the car when I spun the dial bands like R.E.M. but I missed a lot of really good music in the mid-80s that I only heard much later.

Interesting that you mention the Hüsker Dü record because I came around to them only after seeing Bob Mould share a bill on the Workbook tour with Big Dipper. In fact, once I returned to the Boston area in late ’86 and started going to Dipper shows, I tuned back in. I saw a small and moody Galaxie 500 show early on, liked a band called Christmas that sometimes played with Big Dipper, and learned about bands such as Camper Van Beethoven from Gary. Most of the music that I love has come through friends who have deeper musical resources than I do. I rely heavily on others—are you like that too or do you like to find your own way to new music?

Moody: As the interviewer in this portion of the interview, I believe I am under no obligation to answer questions of any kind! Okay, so did anyone else from your band with Gary achieve greatness? And what were your other bands as a young person?

The Chlordanes with cousins and later Big Dipper bandmates Jeff Oliphant (left) and Gary Waleik (right) with their uncle John

Woodworth: Gary’s success went unrivaled by anyone else in the band, though one very talented guitarist, Jim Wooster, had a couple of gigging and recording post-college outfits, including an excellent band called Courage Brothers, in the Boston area and still plays in a group with the president of Berklee. The high school group with Gary was a four-year concern and the only outlet I had for my, um, musical talents as a youngster which mostly consisted, first, of wearing Robert Plant-esque kimonos (sewn by my step-grandmother) and, later, Cars-like thrift shop vintage suit coats and striped shirts while aping the stage moves of my rock Gods in a manner that seems in retrospect precariously close to unhinged for a somewhat introverted and self-conscious teen. Gary at the same time also played with his aforementioned Uncle John and his cousin Jeff Oliphant (later Big Dipper’s drummer but then a mere boy) in The Chlordanes. I remember vividly their song “Bag Man” with its chorus of “It’s tough being a bag man / taking out other people’s stuff.” I was somewhat amused but mostly disoriented by The Chlordanes who eschewed the high drama that I sought from rock music in those days. I didn’t have as much of a sense of humor and they did. The line between the Chlordanes and Big Dipper is much more direct than the line between our high school band and Big Dipper, safe to say.

[From Gary, on the interview above and below: The only thing I’m not comfortable with is the use of the word “greatness” in describing me or Big Dipper. I think it’s a big stretch to use that term. Am I/was I and are we/were we good? Yes. Sometimes maybe even approaching something like great. But we remain as we were so many years ago…a quirky little band with a flair for melody and a bizarre penchant for inspiring a truly odd collection of influential and, yes, great, people who have gone on to do some pretty amazing things. To wit: Pollard, Jeanine Garofalo (her personal assistant informed me she was a huge fan and used to come see us all the time when we played in Boston), Jonathan Lethem, Camper Van Beethoven, Bob Mould, Paul Westerberg, Mark Lanegan (he once told me, when he was in Screaming Trees, that “Big Dipper should be bigger than Screaming Trees. You write great songs. We don’t”), That Petrol Emotion, and probably some others I’m forgetting. I’ve come to the (late) realization that BD’s purpose, on this planet anyway, was not to become that big, breakthrough 90’s band (that would be Nirvana) or own the Billboard chart or go to “the toppermost of the poppermost” or anything silly like that. We were meant to inspire, quietly and humbly, others who can help, or at least entertain, this planet better than we can. On the Platinum Planet things would likely have been very different. But, alas, we crashed.]

Moody: My acquaintance with Big Dipper was simply that I loved a lot of Boston stuff in that period (my love for Human Sexual Response/Zulus, e.g., has been documented multiply, as well as Breeders, Belly, Volcano Sons, Mission of Burma, etc.), and this was part of that scene. I think they have a unique lyrical approach, which I admire. Lugubrious, satirical, funny, true. Also I like the guitar sound. It’s really clean and simple. Given that you are working on editing a book on local music, you are in a good position to talk about what else you liked in your hometown in those days when you emerged out of the mists of Handel. So what else did you like? And did you go to a lot of shows?

Woodworth: I admire Big Dipper’s lyrics, too, in large part because of their intelligence and texture. I told Gary when we conducted the interview that Bill’s capacity for extended—even extreme—metaphor and the way the band exploits the sound and surface of language distinguished them from a lot of their peers. You’re never looking through a lyric to get to a big truth or a pat emotion. The words themselves are never interchangeable or merely transparent, a ‘window’ on ‘content.’ The pleasure, beauty, and emotion of the songs reside IN the words themselves. I expect that’s one reason Robert Pollard (to whose music Gary introduced me) is a big fan of Big Dipper.

My interest in lyric writing during that time led in other musical directions. There was a strong mix of indie and folk in Boston and Cambridge during the mid to late ’80s. When I was going through a divorce and living in an unfinished and more or less uninhabitable house outside of Harvard Square that an editor friend was restoring, I’d spend as much time as possible away from the sawdust and power tools. Instead of going to the library to write a dissertation, I often spent nights in the square sitting on a curb and listening to Mary Lou Lord, who busked on the street and in the subway. She turned me on to a lot of music and chose great songs no matter the genre and without regard for how ubiquitous or obscure they were. A set in front of a steamed-up Brattle Street flower shop on a cold fall night might include Dire Strait’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “Thirteen” by Big Star, Richard Thompson’s ”Wall of Death” and Shawn Colvin’s not-yet-released “Steady On”—all songs that are very writerly. Mary Lou was also a friend to, fan of, and sometimes collaborator with local bands and would cover, say, a Dumptruck song just before singing a Simon and Garfunkel classic.

I became interested in singer-songwriters and spent as much time in coffee houses and folk venues as I did in rock clubs. Even with such a rich indie rock scene and so much happening in Boston at the time, the rock shows often seemed compromised by that tepid Boston self-consciousness, a wait-and-see attitude. I embodied it too—and perhaps I’m even projecting it. For a long time, I thought that was just the way of club shows untiI I started many years later going to Guided by Voices gigs in other cities and feeling that out-of-body energy and communal uplift that makes rock much more than a spectator sport. But back in the late ’80s, I often felt more comfortable at folk venues—storied places like Passim but also more or less nameless ones in the suburbs and at churches.

Moody: How does all this sit with writing poetry? How has what you do been influenced by all this rock and roll?

Woodworth: I maintained a rigorous separation between literature and rock for a long time. I don’t think any poem I wrote before 2005 bore the influence of what I might have gleaned from rock or folk songwriting either as a listener or amateur songwriter. When I was writing a book for the 33 1/3 series on Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand, I became increasingly interested in Robert Pollard’s lyrics and the way he generated them by trusting his own intuitions as a writer. The energy and variety of his lyric writing along with his unwillingness to let himself be shut down by self-doubt suggested itself as an interesting model. I’ve since written poems under the influence of something like that open way of putting words together. That aesthetic is like what Jack Spicer understood by poetic inspiration: taking dictation from Martians. I don’t know if the poems I’ve written that way are any good, but I’ve enjoyed the freedom to push language and, more, to be pushed by it.

Moody: How did you get to be the Bee Thousand guy in the first place?

Woodworth: Gary handed me a copy of Guided by Voices’ Do The Collapse when in came out in 1999 and said he thought I’d like this band. I hadn’t heard of them. Do The Collapse was their major label debut, produced by Ric Ocasek, and features full production unlike Bee Thousand or the other mid-90s ‘lo-fi’ records that made the band’s name. I wasn’t particularly a lo-fi-ophile so wasn’t inclined to be unnecessarily dismissive of a fully produced record, but I didn’t fall head over heals for it either. I liked it well enough that when Isolation Drills came out a couple of years later, I took some notice. That was the record I fell in love with—it’s one of Pollard’s greatest albums. The songs with a big rock vibe hit the sweet spot for a guy who grew up in the 70s and yet it also boasts writing that is the antithesis of embarrassing anthemic rock lyrics.

My mother was dying at the time I found that record and my Guided by Voices ‘conversion experience’ had something to do with revisiting my past as an adolescent when we were a family and more or less intact through the displaced and complicated nostalgia of Isolation Drills.  Though it’s not self-consciously retro, parts of it might have been on a record I’d loved in 1975 but, of course, they weren’t and couldn’t have been. In fact they’re not really songs that sound like 1975 at all, but songs that sound like they were written 25 years later by someone who loved rock songs in 1975—which is exactly what they are. The songs carry a densely layered sense of time and become more dimensional from how much of the past registers in them—and there’s the attendant feeling of loss that runs through the album even though there’s no particularly direct announcement of time and loss as its subjects. I find it hard to explain how listening to Isolation Drills while I was losing my mother allowed me to experience the past we shared, mourn it, and negotiate the realities of the present.

From there, I worked through the Guided by Voices catalog and have to admit that Bee Thousand took some getting used to for me. I wasn’t an acolyte the first time I heard it, but I was taken in by its obvious pleasures and came to love the less accessible aspects of the record even more as it grew and grew on me.  At some point, I was listening to almost nothing but Robert Pollard music and felt I had to do something with my immersion to make it less unseemly. I wrote David Barker at Continuum out of the blue and asked if he might be interested in a book on Bee Thousand for 33 1/3. He wrote back that he’d long wanted that title for the series and that there was an open call for proposals coming up. I sent mine in and he accepted it.

I have Gary to thank not only for all the music he made with Big Dipper, but also for my introduction to Robert Pollard’s songs. When the reunited Big Dipper opened for Robert Pollard’s Boston Spaceships at the Paradise in Boston several years ago I was there, the same club where I’d seen Big Dipper in their heyday. It may not have been a cosmic alignment on the level of a grand trine, but it was a major convergence of a lot of the music I love—and the history that attends it—at one time and in one place.

Moody: That’s an incredibly beautiful answer, and it gets to some of what I always want to ask of music now. I want to ask of music now what is its use value? If the music can’t be employed over a variety of periods, in a variety of times, if it cannot be made useful in times of great sorrow and times of contemplation and times of celebration, etc., then it is just not interesting music for me. Music whose only purpose, e.g., is to cause me to dance, that is not interesting music to me. What you’re saying about Isolation Drills and grief is really moving, and partly because the manifest content of that record (which I really love, too, especially “How’s My Drinking?”) is about something like grief (life on the road), but also because it really is very upbeat in spots, in tempo and sound (“Glad Girls” is on there, right?). So you used Isolation Drills as treatment for the isolation of grief, but then that led the employment of Pollard and his idioms across a great spectrum of feelings. I guess part of what we’re saying here (both in my interview of you and your interview of Gary) is: how do you employ rock and roll, a music of youth, in middle age? So do you care to attempt to answer that question yourself?

Woodworth: Wallace Stevens writes that poetry is that which helps us live our lives. That’s a fine definition of music as well. Maybe I’m deluded, but I don’t think of rock music as particularly the music of youth anymore or as necessarily less complex or rich than other genres of music that might be thought of as more ‘serious’ (pace Adorno). It’s just music and music for me, perhaps more than any other art, has been a guard against loneliness—and also a way to experience a full rather than empty kind of solitude. Listening can offer the solace of human connection without requiring anyone else to be in the room. So I look to rock music—if we can put under that category everything from Guided by Voices and Fairport Convention to Yes and Rufus Wainwright—for the same reasons I look to any art: for confirmation and connection. That confirmation is an ontological necessity for me.

It’s also true that my “use” of music has changed radically in at least one significant way in middle age. Listening to music with my children, singing together and playing songs with them, has brought a lot of pleasure of a different kind to my experience with rock.  I love hearing my daughter in the back seat singing along in her particular voice to “I Am The Walrus” or “Best of Jill Hives,” replacing half the words with ones she’s invented because she doesn’t know them all. There’s no loneliness in that moment at all—just music as family bond and shared pleasure. We were listening to satellite radio yesterday on the way back from school and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” by Tame Impala came on. My 9 year old asked, “Why do they sound so much like The Beatles?” She picked up the Lennon-sound-alike vocal immediately along with that highly compressed Revolver drum sound—and we talked about that as we listened. So I guess we’re back in the altered but recognizable territory of rock iconography: kids riding around in a car listening to songs.

Moody: Last question: how does this middle-aged cure-for-loneliness use value of music apply to the new Big Dipper album?

Woodworth: One of the virtues of hitting middle age is that it can be a good time to come to terms with yourself. If you’re lucky, you have enough experience to allow a degree of self-understanding and a version of self-acceptance. You see your limitations clearly but they don’t infuriate you quite as much. There’s something of that understanding on the new Big Dipper record. Gary’s thinking about himself as a songwriter (in the context of writing a terrifically accomplished and memorable song, “Robert Pollard”) with a clear purchase on who he is and who he isn’t, all without rancor. That feels right. That song is also a very open statement of appreciation for someone else’s gifts. The ability to appreciate the accomplishments of others without your ego getting in the way is a very healthy thing. Curiosity about the world and an element of wonder were always at the heart of Big Dipper’s music and those qualities have only deepened and become richer on the new record. When I listen to Crashes on the Platinum Planet, I just feel a lot of admiration for what the band has done and simple happiness that they’re making music again.


RICK MOODY is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a collection of essays, On Celestial Music. Moody's band, The Wingdale Community Singers, will soon release their third album, Night, Sleep Death, on Blue Chopsticks Recordings. He has also released a solo album, The Darkness Is Good. MARC WOODWORTH's writing about music includes two books, Solo: Women Singer-Songwriters in Their Own Words and Bee Thousand (in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series). He’s also published a collection of poems, Arcade. He teaches in the English Department at Skidmore College and is an editor at Salmagundi Magazine. More from this author →