Being Frank With Guided by Voices

Philadelphia’s pre-eminent sports journo Reuben Frank knows his Guided By Voices.

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 10 | Posted Nov. 2, 2010

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When we heard the news earlier this year that legendary Ohio indie-rock/power-pop band Guided by Voices—led by the prolific Robert Pollard (pictured above)—were reuniting its mid-’90s “classic lineup” and coming to Philadelphia, we knew we’d need to speak to Reuben Frank. You probably know Roob as one of Philly’s pre-eminent sports journalists, a longtime WIP host, and a columnist/TV personality for Comcast SportsNet. But he’s also a Guided by Voices superfan who’s seen about a million GBV/Pollard-related shows, owns hundreds of live GBV bootlegs (and regularly listens to them), and just might know more about GBV’s sprawling songbook than ol’ Pollard himself. We caught up with Roob to get the diehard fan’s perspective of GBV then and now.

How did you first discover Guided by Voices?

[Philly sports writer] Phil Sheridan and I worked together at the Bucks County Courier Times in the late ’80s and into the ’90s and we’d always turn each other onto bands. One time I was in his car and he put on [1993’s] Vampire on Titus. It didn’t catch right away, but gradually I was like, “This is what I’ve been looking for from pop music all my life.”

What was it that drew you to their music?

Just a total absence of musical or lyrical clichés. Really inventive and subversive, very adventurous chord changes within really catchy pop songs. I mean, I grew up listening to Yes, ELP and Genesis, so it kinda gave me everything I’d been looking for from a pop standpoint but it still had the musicianship.

A lot of people say that it’s hard to get into GBV because they’ve put out so much music and you really have to work to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Yeah, it’s overwhelming. Somebody at CSN asked me to make them a GBV sampler and it ended up being 10 CDs and 250 tracks [laughs]. Every record’s so different. I dunno, I don’t try to convince anybody that they’re better than the Beatles anymore. Nobody believes it until you spend a couple years getting into their catalog, and then you realize they actually have more great songs than the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. It’s almost like you’re unraveling a mystery, and you have to have the time and willingness to put into it, and most people don’t want to do that.

What was it like the first time you saw them live?

I was totally blown away because I’d heard, you know, the critics love to call their live show “shambolic,” but they were a great band—the musicianship was amazing. As much as Pollard drinks onstage and jokes about that, live they were as good as any band I’ve ever seen.

Any shows particularly stand out for you over the years?

I saw them at a place called Conduit in Trenton. I think it was in the spring of ’04 and it was the night I found out they were breaking up. Maybe 12 songs in, somebody had slipped Pollard a drink and it must have had some drug in it because he basically collapsed into the drum set. He sang “Cut-Out Witch” from his back, half-conscious, and it was amazing. And then the show ended. It was one of the best shows because they were living on the edge that night. Until Pollard crashed into the drum set and got dragged off the stage. One night in New York he was onstage ripping Bright Eyes, just killing ’em. He was going, “Ask the person next to you if they own a Bright Eyes album, and if they say yes, punch them in the face.” And it turned out Conor Oberst was standing about 10 feet behind me.

Did Pollard know he was there?

I was told he didn’t. And apparently Conor Oberst left. I’m sure he walked out in very dramatic fashion. It was pretty hilarious. I’ve been to some really bad Pollard shows, too. World Café, when there was like 75 people downstairs there on a weeknight and his wife was crying backstage. It was the low point.

Wow, when was this?

It was after [2006’s] Normal Happiness came out. A lot of the hardcore GBV fans had fallen off because the solo stuff was kinda different. He went into this really long, depressed tirade about how irrelevant he had become and how the glory days were over, and he went on and on and we could see his wife crying backstage. He actually canceled the tour after that.

Did you think they would ever reunite?

I did. I really did.

You went to one of the reunion shows in D.C. recently, how was it?

They sounded great and they played all the hits from that era. It was a little too much like a nostalgia show, though. As much as I love those songs from Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand , they’re 15 years old and there wasn’t a single new song. I just found it a little sad that a guy who’s written so much great music since then would have to limit himself because everyone wants to hear “I Am a Scientist.” To me the great thing about Pollard’s music is that it continues to evolve and grow. But I think everyone there loved it and I enjoyed it. I don’t wanna sound like I didn’t dig it, because I really did. But it felt like it was going backward instead of forward.

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1. Cory said... on Nov 3, 2010 at 08:55PM

“Wow! It's really funny, because I remember being at that Conduit show where he collapsed into the drum-set after a short set (but I assumed he had just been hitting the bottle hard before coming out) and the World Cafe Live show that was sparsely populated (I think Tommy Keene played with him at that show). Pollard and GBV always put on great shows and leave you with funny, unique memories. I can't wait to see GBV in Philly this Saturday. I thought it would never happen again!”

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2. Anonymous said... on Nov 4, 2010 at 05:16PM

“I was at that World Cafe Live show and I loved it! Yes, it was sad that there weren't a lot of people there, but I was thrilled not to see the frat boy element that had become a part of GBV's fanbase towards the end! His wife was crying? Maybe Tommy Keene's amazing guitar work brought tears to her eyes. I brought an uninitiated friend along and she came away a fan of his solo work and GBV after that night.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Nov 4, 2010 at 08:36PM

“The World Cafe show was excellent. The only problem with that night was the venue itself. Sterile and cold. Also depressing to not have more Philadelphia GbV fans turn out, but the band and Bob were brilliant as is usually the case. I expect nothing less than a trademark GbV barnburner at the Troc Saturday. I don't get the sad nostalgiac feelings mentioned in this article. This is the first time ever most of us will get to see the 5 guys responsible for these legendary songs perform them live. A victory lap for the finest American rock n roll outfit that ever lived and it's so cherry.”

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4. Shawn said... on Nov 5, 2010 at 12:31AM

“Wow - Reuben really nailed it in his comments about how with time and commitment you realize that yeah, GBV has more great songs than the Beatles and the Stones - maybe combined! Also so true about this current tour being too limited in choice of material. That said, I was crazy enough to follow the band up the West Coast last month. Wish I could leave a URL, but I wrote about it on my site, Guttersnipe.”

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5. cigarette tricks said... on Nov 5, 2010 at 01:08AM

“greatest songwriter ever, greatest band ever, by far. not even close.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Nov 5, 2010 at 07:40AM

“"I just found it a little sad that a guy who’s written so much great music since then would have to limit himself because everyone wants to hear “I Am a Scientist.”

Actually, Bob's not "limiting himself". He has new records and projects coming out all the time, and lots of people support those. His decision to go on a tour and play the old stuff is just one aspect of what he is doing - it's not like he HAD to do it. The tour was something that he and all the guys WANTED to do right now since Matador asked them to get back together for the label's anniversary show in Vegas anyway. It's a nice thing for the people who never saw the original lineup because they became fans later, and also a nice thing for the guys to have some touring fun and make some money that they may have missed out on. You insinuating that Bob is being driven to play old nostalgia songs to get any recognition at all misstates the facts to fit your own opinions.”

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7. Gleasons Drift said... on Nov 5, 2010 at 01:17PM

“Few things. Been following the band since Bee Thousand. Been hanging with Bobby and the boys since that day. Spent many a night in fine condition discussing life, liberty and the pursuit of Rock and Roll. I can tell you a few stories, as many of you have already done. But I will spare you the details. First the boys deserve to do whatever they want to. You wanna complain about no new songs and a tour, level those criticisms at Pavement and the Pixies who haven't played in a long time and certainly are getting a payday for their current reunions, with no new records or even songs for that matter, Friends playing music toigether is what we get with GbV, glad i'll be hearing and seeing it! And lastly, we all love Bob, but more gems than the Beatles or Stones..come on now...that's crazy talk!
Here is to the most prolific songwriter of the last 20 years! Bob Pollard!
See you all at the show!”

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8. twin-b said... on Nov 5, 2010 at 04:34PM

“"To me the great thing about Pollard’s music is that it continues to evolve and grow."

Indeed. Too bad that so many GBV fans fell away and don't realize that Bob is still creating amazing music. He continues his run and yes, has caught the Beatles too. Bob touring solo or with the Boston Spaceships should bring out the same crowds, the same love as this tour. It has been amazing and I'm so thankful that I was able to see these guys play these songs. But there's no sadness there for me.... I can't wait for Space City Kicks and I hope to see Bob performing on stage again sometime in the near future.”

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9. rob said... on Nov 6, 2010 at 06:57PM

“I can't wait for the European tour. Will I be the only one there?”

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10. Nick said... on Jan 15, 2011 at 05:47PM

“I'd love them to come to Europe but they didn't on their last tour in 2004. Great article!”

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