Albums of Our Lives: Guided by Voices’s Alien Lanes

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I discovered Guided by Voices fifteen years ago, while miserably married and fully employed, teaching ESL in Atlanta. In those days, I was earning money for curtains, towels, and bedspreads. Instead of working full-time as a writer slash part-time anything, I woke at 3:30 a.m. to write before work. After my job I went to my counseling appointment—for my attitude and my drinking.

Many evenings I rode my bike to a Mexican restaurant nearby, ate the free chips and salsa at a booth, and drank beer. Headphones and a notebook were good company. A tacky string of fat little bottles hung blinking on the wall above the table I favored. Mostly I took notes on the short stories I was writing, for an excuse to be alone. But I also liked just drinking and listening to Alien Lanes.

My friend Dave, in Portland, had recently mailed me the CD. “Listen and keep listening,” he said in his letter. “It’s all about what we’re trying to do.”

One time at the restaurant, I laughed as I listened to the opening song. I kept laughing, hard, for a minute. Nobody noticed. The staff didn’t visit my table much after my first few days of using the joint as a bar. I’d heard the tune several times. The laughter was probably a weird release of nerves. But also at that moment, I was astonished by the sheer ballsiness of Bob Pollard’s lyrics.

“A Salty Salute” conjured in me a feeling of giddy defiance that I had not felt in a long while: “Disarm the settlers/ The New Drunk Drivers/ Have hoisted the flag/ We are with you in your anger. . .” The singer reaches out to those particularly despised creatures, the angry and not so young, who drink and break the rules and make a mess of other people’s lives. The final lines invite them onto a bus to ride to a lake, where kinship awaits: “The club is open.”

Dave was designing shoes for Nike sixty hours a week in Portland. In his letter he had a cheerful way of saying the job was truly grim. He’d put in his notice and planned to work in a warehouse. And he and his girlfriend were breaking up, for a lot of reasons, it wasn’t only his career change. Dave was ready to get back to work toward writing and directing films—another artist past thirty who did his real work after everyone else was done with him, if there was anything left.

He and I were high school friends who got back in touch after we’d both started writing. In Portland we hit the bars three, four times a week, for a year and a half, until my wife and I moved to New York City and then Atlanta. We burned to make lasting work. Our words came fast with the excitement of our commitment. We were like adolescents who’d happened upon new music at once—an intensity of friendship rare for adults.

Once, we met at the Horse Brass Pub in the late afternoon and closed the place out, after drinking eight or ten good pints. Dave wore his Do the Collapse T-shirt. He’d mentioned Guided by Voices and front man Bob Pollard before. He was going to burn a CD for me, but hadn’t gotten around to it.

It was an hour after closing at the pub. They wanted us out. We kept intending to leave, but continued to talk. We were spelling out lifetime rules: Never quit. Do the real work five hours a day. No full time job. Drink as much as you have to. And don’t listen to people who frown on your drinking. Creative people need to drink, most of them. It’s not romantic, and it’s not part of some clichéd image—for the serious ones. It’s our drug. Let us have it.

Of course, the lovers in our lives were, sensibly, displeased with our friendship right away. We spent time justifying the drinking.

“You should see how much Bob Pollard drinks,” Dave said. “He drinks all day, and nobody has written more songs than he has—not such brilliant songs anyway.”

Finally the barman had to come and tell us to get the hell out. We did.

Since I had no creative friends in Atlanta, it was upsetting to recall, in my isolation, the rules that Dave and I had made two years earlier. Those rules were sacred. They mattered.

Alien Lanes is goddamned incredible,” I wrote him back.

The album was ecstatically furious, rebellious and moving. In “Game of Pricks,” the singer negotiates hellish employment “with knives at the back of me.” The song pushed beyond anger, to a vulnerable breaking point: “I’ll climb up on the house/ Weep to water the trees.”

The theme surfaced again and again: a desire to pursue inspiring work against the claustrophobic demands of marriage. Predictably, my wife hated the album, given the glorification of drink, but later, at the GBV concerts I went to, in Portland and Iowa City, women and men drank hard and sang along with Bob, or screamed along, pumping their fists.

I listened to Alien Lanes all the time. My wife called me “grumpy headphones.” I was an ass in those days—frustrated, arrogant, and speaking always of my own dreams. But it was the way I wanted to be, and she didn’t know what I went through, & etc.—two lines from the album.

We had a thousand tedious conflicts. I disagreed that four or five domestic beers a night made me drunk. On better days, I knew her ambitions weren’t trivial. Her mother had been a hoarder who watched Christian TV while lying on the couch all day. The girl who grew up in that mess now worked as a medical Spanish interpreter at a hospital. I was proud of her.

But I put on the headphones and escaped into Bob Pollard’s America, where “sad freaks of the nation” embraced low stations, drank a lot of booze, and kicked through walls of opposition, fighting for a life that was compelling and worthwhile.

The album’s sound and feeling were so varied—a melancholia of the trapped, alternating with an ecstasy of the liberated. Heavy guitars followed melodic, ’60s pop tunes.

The theme of following a risky but vital compulsion, despite the loved one’s campaign to defeat you, repeated with a gathering venom. “As We Go Up, We Go Down” was a favorite: “I speak in monotone/ Leave my fucking life alone.”

Balancing out the agreeable self-promotion were moments of humorous culpability and shame, as in “Chicken Blows”: “And I see what you mean/ I’m not here to drink all the beer/ In the fridge/ In the room/ In the house/ In the place/ That we both/ So love.” An ironic note for sure, but the songwriter was unafraid to make his champion beer guzzling look foolish.

Bob Pollard was my kind of counselor. I recognized my own rebellion in these songs, a rebellion I had put aside for my marriage, believing it was the mature thing to do.

By the fiftieth listen-to of “Motor Away,” another raucous tune that kicks ass at every level, I was ready to drive the icy streets to a finer moment: “When you motor away beyond the once-red lips . . . You can belittle every little voice that told you so . . . Oh, why don’t you just DRIII-VE AWAAAAY? Speed on!”

The songs were rattling, disturbing, life changing. “I want to start a new life/ With my valuable hunting knife.” I wanted to run away from everything that wasn’t mine anymore. I wanted to be guided by my own voices again.

I finally did motor away, from a woman who was better than I knew. In Portland, Dave and I moved into a cheap two-bedroom with motel curtains. We worked part-time jobs and devoted everything else to our real work. The place was hazy with cigarette smoke and it smelled of pizza boxes. Cases of tallboys filled the fridge. Keyboards clicked.

We wrote five or six hours in the morning, and at night sometimes too, taking a break from the Horse Brass Pub. While writing and drinking in the evening, it was a blast to loop the rapturous “My Son Cool.” “Decide now! . . . I finally know how, I finally can’t quit/ And ancient ideas are on fire, my love.”

Pollard’s voice was often in the background—or, I should say, the foreground. The man was our exemplar. Dave and I debated his lyrics. We read the bandography Hunting Accidents. We played the documentary Watch Me Jumpstart a hundred times.

Alien Lanes kicks out its twentieth anniversary this year. It continues to glow in the mind like a fantastic planet. When I listen to the album, I often feel it too much. I get shaky and I want to smoke and drive fast, alone.

Guided by Voices fans speak in superlatives. For me, Bob Pollard became a messiah of the creative life, urging me forward for many years to come, in my new, somewhat shabby but inspired career.


Ryan Blacketter is the author of Down in the River. More from this author →