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An Earful O’ Wax: My Short, Strange Trip with Guided by Voices

A few years ago, I wrote about creating a cover version of an obscure song called “Sonny the Monster,” originally written and performed by the band Anacrusis,  which ended up as part of a box set of songs by the legendary Dayton, Ohio-based indie rock band Guided by Voices. That experience grew out of another: my brief stint as the drummer for that band in the late 1980s. Even before that, though, I had brushed elbows with the band.

After the breakup of Anacrusis in the late 1970s, I remained on good terms with lead singer Bob Pollard. These days, he is known to the alternative music press as “Robert,” but friends call him “Bob.” (I would advise against calling him “Bobby.”)

I can recall in the early 80s hanging out a few times at Bob’s house. On one occasion, Bob had borrowed a four-track tape machine from someone, and he and some other guys had done some recordings. I remember one tune from their sessions that was very catchy. It was called “Lockets of the Empress.” Years later, I was happy to see that “Lockets” eventually found its way onto one of the GbV box sets.

Listening to those early pre-GbV tracks triggered a desire in me to record my own music.

Not long after, Bob rang me up and invited me to an early gig for his new band at the Greenleaf Inn on North Dixie Drive in Northridge. I think the Greenleaf is still there, unless COVID has killed it along with so many other things. So, I went and caught their set.

It didn’t go well.

The band was a trio, consisting of original drummer Kevin Fennell, Mitch Mitchell on bass, and Bob on vocals and guitar. The only thing I can remember clearly now is that Bob seemed overly self-conscious. He had learned to play guitar by this point, and steadily improved as the years passed, but he never got to the point of feeling comfortable fronting a band as a guitarist. That was the first and last time I saw Bob perform on guitar in a live setting.

Fast forward a few years to the late 1980s. My involvement as a member of GbV began, as many of my musical journeys did back in those days, with a phone call to my parents’ house north of Dayton. Long after I had moved out of Mom and Dad’s place, musicians who wanted to find me but did not know how to do so remembered that they could get in touch with me through my parents. So, one day while I was visiting, Dad told me that Bob had called and left a number for me to call back.

I called Bob, and he pitched me on the idea of joining the band. Bob was on the outs (the first of many times, it turned out) with Kevin, and was looking for a replacement. Would I be willing to come in, do some rehearsals and play on an album they were recording?

By this time, Guided by Voices had done a few gigs and independently released an EP and two full albums. They had connections with a guy who had an eight-track recording studio, and I thought it would be a good experience. So, I signed on.

The rehearsals took place at a house in Butler Township north of Dayton where Mitch Mitchell was living. The house was located on the south side of Little York Road, between North Dixie Drive and Miller Lane. Mitch had developed a well-deserved reputation as a party animal, but he could take the music seriously, and he later worked hard to make the transition from bass guitar to six string.

We all showed up and loaded our equipment into Mitch’s basement, and the rehearsals began. In rehearsal, Bob played guitar along with his brother Jim. Mitch held down the bass and I played drums.

I don’t recall Bob singing when he played guitar. It seemed to me that when he played he played, and when he sang he sang.

The rehearsals were businesslike. They proceeded the way I suspect GbV rehearsals still do: Bob would bring in an idea for a song, show it to the other members of the band, then we would run it down until it either Bob was satisfied with the progress made or he got tired of that song and we moved on to the next one. I borrowed some industrial noise-cancelling earmuffs from my sister to use in rehearsal because it was very loud in that basement.

In between rehearsals, I would sometimes go and hang out at Bob’s place on Titus Avenue. By this time, I had accumulated my own four-track tape machine, a drum machine, a couple keyboards, a sequencer and a Fender guitar. I was doing my own music, and one of the tracks I recorded was a cover of “Sonny the Monster.” On one of my visits over, I played “Sonny” for Bob. He seemed to really like the sound quality I was able to achieve.

After two or three rehearsals, Bob decided we were ready to record. So, one summer Saturday, Bob, Jim, Mitch and I convened at the home of Steve Wilbur, who as it happened lived across the street from my Uncle Norman and Aunt Betty in Northridge. Steve had converted his two-car garage into an eight-track recording studio. We loaded in gear, instruments were tuned, microphones were placed, and the band quickly knocked out the five or six songs we had rehearsed over the course of a couple of previous Saturdays. They were (I don’t remember the exact order):

“Fire ‘Em Up, Abner”

This song was a lampoon of Abner Orick, who owned a trophy shop in Dayton and got himself elected to the city commission out of the east side of town. From what I can recall, Orick had something of a flamboyant personality and stuck out as the lone Republican in a commission frequently dominated by Democrats.

The song had a distinct rhythm guitar part that I parroted on the drums. It was a lot of fun to bang away at, and to sing along with the “ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ah” guitar part at the end of each verse.  I guess Bob got scared after the fact that if he released the song Abner would sue him, so this one wound up in the legendary “suitcase.”

“Still Worth Nothing”

I think the title of this track was a play on the phrase “still worth noting.” It seemed to me that Bob got a lot of his title ideas from messing with words and phrases, like “Bee Thousand” out of “Beethoven.”

The subject of this song reminded me of a guy who used to walk up and down North Dixie Drive talking to himself. I don’t know if the guy had a developmental disability or if maybe something else was going on.

See him walking around

It’s a known fact that the only thing he knows, is this

Hear him talking so loud

It’s a rough world, let him find out for himself

“Never”

I think this was the title of this song. I recall it was sort of ponderous and Bob wanted me to play a pattern of eighth notes on the floor tom. It went along with a pattern of eighth notes in the guitar. The whole thing gave it a rhythmic feel like a weird Native American war dance. I think at one point the working title was “Hear the Indians Whisper.” I used to call it “Give the Indians Whiskey.” I could be quite crass at times when I was younger.

“Harboring Exiles”

This tune was an up-tempo rocker. Other than that, I don’t remember much about it now.

A Song Whose Title I Don’t Remember

There was one tune I can recall playing in the studio but don’t remember rehearsing. It had a lot of goofy sounding spoken word lyrics. I remember playing a kind of Bo Diddly beat over it.

None of these tracks ever saw release at the time of recording. One, however, did.

“An Earful O’ Wax”

Bob has frequently been quoted as extolling what he calls the “four P’s” of rock music: pop, punk, prog and psych. I think “An Earful O’ Wax” was an attempt to combine all of these stylistic elements into one song. It had a hard edge, like a punk song. It had a catchy pop chorus, yet the lyric of the chorus was very spacy psycho:

Hey man, what was that you said?

I’m going deaf

I chase the widely opened spaces

Drilled in my head

The song featured a bridge section with a proggy change in tempo. For good measure, it faded at the end with an epic rocking jam, featuring a blazing guitar solo overdubbed in post by Steve Wilbur.

One thing I wanted to note here. Years later I checked and found that no one could understand the garbled lyrics at the end of the bridge. One transcriber gave up and wrote “liquidy vocals I can’t figure out,” while another made something up. The correct lyrics are as follows:

Kings versus kings as we speak

Gluttony, porky and piggy

Unintelligible lyric from “An Earful O’ Wax”

Bob rolled the “r” on the word “porky” and they ran the vocal through a flanger effect at that point in the mix to achieve the “liquidy vocal” effect.

We worked quickly that day, then packed up and headed our separate ways.

I think a couple weeks went by, then I remember the phone rang one weeknight extremely late, well past 2 a. m. It woke my wife and myself out of a sound sleep. I had to get up in a few hours to go to work at my day job at the time, running a computer system for a small heating and air conditioning contractor in Old North Dayton.

Growing up in the industrial American Midwest during the 1960s and 1970s, I had learned to associate late night phone calls with death. If the phone rang after 9:30 at night, it almost always meant that someone within our family or my close circle of friends had died, was going to die or was critically injured or ill. Maybe someone was in serious legal trouble. Anything less could wait until the following morning. So, with bated breath, I picked up the phone and softly said “hello.”

It was Bob.

He had just come home, with Mitch in tow, after a night at the local bars. It was still summertime, so schoolteacher Bob didn’t have to go to work in the morning. I’m not sure what Mitch’s story was, but I gathered over the years that Mitch had a flexible work situation, when he had a job.

While I struggled to wake up, Bob launched into talking about ideas for the band. From what I remember, he seemed excited about doing a show at the Diehl bandshell in Dayton’s Island Park. I could hear Mitch half singing, half shouting some snippet of a song idea he and Bob had dreamed up earlier that night. After a few minutes of listening, I told Bob that I needed to go back to sleep so I could wake up for work in the morning. We said our goodbyes and hung up.

I was upset. My wife was pissed.

That was the moment I decided that the band had outlived its usefulness.

I can’t remember now how much time went by before I called Bob to let him know I was quitting. I don’t remember his reaction, but I think we parted ways on amicable terms. It probably wasn’t the first time Bob lost a band member to a day job, and I know it wasn’t the last.

Over the ensuing years, our paths crossed a few times. After I had changed jobs to work for a small apparel company, I walked into the office one day to find Mitch working as a temp moving furniture around. He smelled of alcohol and seemed out of it. After I said hello, someone else in the office asked if I knew Mitch. When I said I did, she remarked how freaked out she was by his grimy appearance. All I could say was “that’s Mitch.”

Still later, after I had taken an IT job in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I drove down to catch a GbV show in Atlanta that featured Bob and the now-infamous Cobra Verde lineup. I got a chance to hang out with Bob for a little bit after the show. He seemed pleased to see me, but I could already sense tension between him and some of the Cobra Verde guys.

A year or so after that, I drove up from Chattanooga to Suwanee, Tennessee to catch Guided by Voices performing as a four-piece band at the University of the South, a little private college about halfway between Chattanooga and Nashville. This was during the period between the Cobra Verde debacle and the production of Do the Collapse. After the show, I had the opportunity to go backstage and chat with Bob, Doug Gillard, Greg Demos and Jim Macpherson.

Probably my strangest GbV experience occurred in the early 2000s. I had moved back from the South to Ohio and got a call from a friend. He was looking for help with security for the annual Saint Patrick’s Day bash at Dayton’s Dublin Pub. As it happened, the headliner band was Guided by Voices! I drove up to Dayton and played security cop for a night. I got to see the show from just in front of the mixing board (front and center) and got paid to boot. That time, though, I couldn’t get backstage to say hello to the band before they went AWOL after the show. I later heard some things happened that night that resulted in the band being permanently banned from the Pub.

As I write this, it’s been a decade and a half since I had any contact with Bob or the band. The last contact I had with anyone connected with GbV was when I sent an mp3 of “Sonny the Monster” to Rich Turiel. It eventually found its way to Suitcase 3. Whenever I catch myself wondering what might have been, I stop and remind myself that there’s no guarantee that things would have gone well if I had stuck it out. At some point I probably would have ended up exactly where I am now: on my own path.

By Bruce

Composer and producer of music for media and personal enjoyment. Researcher and writer. Chief cook and bottle washer.

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