Category Archives: On Robert Pollard

On Robert Pollard: “Man Called Aerodynamics”

[No. 02 in a Series]

“Man Called Aerodynamics,” the opening track of the 1996 Guided By Voices album Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, hits you like an anxiety attack, if an anxiety attack were indistinguishable from bliss. Like “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” the first song on the second side of the band’s 1994 breakthrough Bee Thousand, it starts with a disorienting jolt, as if someone had bumped into a turntable playing the Nuggets compilation. For the first couple of seconds, it sounds like pure noise, the multitracked guitars (all played by Robert Pollard) flying off in different directions. Reminiscent of Love’s “7 and 7 Is” and the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun,” two notable punk-rock precedents, “Man Called Aerodynamics” feeds on its own self-destructive urges. It uses entropy as its energy. It’s a motherfucker of a song.

It’s also one of the very few songs in the history of popular music to have the word aerodynamics in its title. Webster: “The study of the properties of moving air, and especially of the interaction between the air and solid bodies moving through it.” Pollard’s fellow Daytonian Wilbur Wright once likened an airplane to a “fractious horse.” An aircraft, he explained, had to be fundamentally unstable in order to be maneuverable. The machine had to be out of control for the pilot to wield control over it. The moving air had to have a say in things if the solid body was to resist gravity’s squalid despotism. Wright’s revelation pretty much sums up the wild flight of “Man Called Aerodynamics.”

What makes the song a masterpiece, though, are the vocals. Arthur Lee, on “7 and 7 Is,” and Johnny Rotten, on “Holidays in the Sun,” incorporated the violence of the music into their vocals. Their singing, angry, aggressive, adolescent, reflected and reinforced the punk thrust of the instruments. Pollard’s vocals are completely different. As the music rages around him, he sings the song slowly and deliberately, drawing out each word. He’s the calm pilot, within and yet removed from the surrounding turbulence. The song rushes forward recklessly, but Pollard gazes backward ruefully.

Find deep within your memory coat
a cricket bag you ate from,
its sweet smiling apology,
acceptance awaits you —
don’t be afraid to cherish it.

The lyrics are strange, even by Pollard’s standards. But it’s clear, both from the haunted imagery of the words and the melancholy mood of the singing, that this is a song about guilt and its expiation, the shame of the past and the possibility of forgiveness, if not redemption. It’s about discovering a place of calm, a still point, at the center of the chaos of memory. And somehow, just as the buoyancy of the solid body is inseparable from the moving air, the calm is inseparable from the chaos. The man is not just called aerodynamics. The man is aerodynamics.

Look it up in the bookmobile,
look it up in the gun rack,
in the magazine rack,
and the map.

For it is only after the fence comes down
that the cartoon bubble explodes
and the new party begins …

The secret to finding what you’re looking for is to look for nothing in particular — but to look for it fearlessly.

Image: Detail of “Super Hard” by Robert Pollard.

On Robert Pollard: “My Zodiac Companion”

[No. 01 in a Series]

Please Be Honest, the latest Guided By Voices record, opens with a dirge. Over spare, unsteady acoustic-guitar chords, Robert Pollard slurs an ode to the otherworld:

Orbital ghosts
attract sparks,
aftermath heavens.
The unborn called:
they miss you.

The verse ends, but despite a slight quickening of the guitar line the song, called “My Zodiac Companion,” can’t muster the energy to drag itself out of its minor-chord funk. No chorus arrives, no lift. The song seems fated, like so many other Guided By Voices songs before it, to collapse in on itself. Entropy echoes through the lyrics of the second verse:

The stones are dead,
the different fathers.
The vulgar souls,
equal in torture,
fly torn apart.

We’re among damaged spirits, beings coming undone, a patrimony in cosmic disarray. It’s as if the fate even of angels is to be ripped to pieces in time’s whirlwind. “We are stardust,” sang Joni Mitchell in “Woodstock,” her loopy 1970 mash note to a hippie Eden, and the opening of “My Zodiac Companion” feels like Pollard’s belated, despairing rebuttal. Dust is dust, whatever its origin, and to be fashioned of it is a horror.

“The stones are dead.” But also: “The Stones are dead.” (The submerged allusions to the Rolling Stones in the first verse — “aftermath,” “miss you” — rise to the surface at the start of the second.) Pollard is often thought of as a primitivist, an avatar of lo-fi, but he’s the opposite of that, really: a formalist. His formalism is not the comforting formalism of the traditionalist but the anxious formalism of the modernist. His challenge as an artist is to take classical forms (in Pollard’s case, the song and album forms created by rock bands — “the different fathers” — during the second half of the 1960s), dismantle them, and remake them into new things that fulfill his own aesthetic and emotional intentions. He follows Ezra Pound’s command: “Renovate, dod gast you, renovate!” The terrible question that runs through “My Zodiac Companion,” and all of Please Be Honest, is whether renovation is still possible.

An electric guitar enters the mix, shimmering with distortion. There’s a clatter of pots-and-pans drumming. The song swells, tentatively, toward a chorus. “Come back to me,” Pollard calls out into the chaos, “my zodiac companion.” There’s no reply. The muse remains silent.

The chorus deflates, and the drunk returns with his loosely fingered acoustic. The clock spins backward. We’re among children in a nursery, the antechamber of youth, awaiting a sign, harboring a “nebulous wish.” The kids in their innocence play adult games — of war, of chance, of marriage, of faith:

Umbrella swords
with which we play-fight,
sixes and sevens,
saucers and cups —
for Magdalene.

It’s clear by now that Pollard is leading us on a quest, guiding us in the direction of some clarifying origin, some source. The path we’re on is similar to the one Robert Frost took in his great poem “Directive”:

First there’s the children’s house of make believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.

It’s a quest — in search of the as yet unbroken home — that runs through much of Pollard’s work. It was there, desperately so, in one of the most famous of his songs, “Game of Pricks”:

I climb up on the house,
weep to water the trees,
and when you come calling me down
I put on my disease.

Among the playthings in the playhouse of the children — the saucers and cups, the guitars and drums — Pollard finds what he’s after. The random stars come together into patterns, coalesce into zodiacal signs. The tentative chords turn into power chords. The song delivers its hook, becomes a swirling, sad anthem. Pollard is on stage, looking out over an acre of pumping fists. He is more than an orbital ghost. He is, as his fathers were, a star.

After two minutes and twelve seconds, “My Zodiac Companion” reaches its terminal chord. The dust is universal, and the song, as long as it lasts, is the only shield.

Image: Detail of “47 Holes Randomly Punched and 15 Replaced” by Robert Pollard.