In Is That It?, Bob Geldof's post-Live Aid autobiography, he narrates with tremendous humor the rise and fall of the Boomtown Rats. (This was before his dubious status as a multiple-suicide-inducing custodial parent, obviously.)Particularly amusing is his tale of their record company's attempt to overcome the "I Don't Like Mondays" kafuffle by sending out real, dead rats to radio stations, and their attempt to ameliorate *that* damage by changing the band's name to "The Boomers." Good God. But somewhere in this process, Sir Bob noted that the curse of all curses had descended upon The Boomtown Rats: "We had become a cult band."
I'm ambivalent about this term, because I suspect many bands I like are probably, by definition, cult bands. (I take the definition to be: fixed at a modestly or moderately successful level; known for one or two songs; possessed of a solid core of true believers. But I'm not married to that definition.) I don't, in fact, hear such a term as necessarily negative. But every now and again, one comes face-to-face not with the cult band, but with the cult, and that can be a disconcerting experience.
Guided by Voices is on their last tour. Their last show will be on New Year's Eve, at Metro in Chicago. Now, GBV has never been huge, really, and Thersites and I suspect a certain intentionality to this. The breakout record was supposed to be 1999's Do the Collapse, produced by Ric Ocasek, featuring a radio-friendly single ("Teenage FBI"), all that sort of thing. But in seeing GBV play regularly, I had never seen them as actively self-destructive as they were on that tour. The show I saw, Pollard brought his teenage son onstage to sing and fed him liquor in front of several thousand people, and Doug Gillard plaintively asked the audience if anyone out there knew how to change a guitar string. It seemed to be a big fuck you in the face of their rising popularity, and seems to have worked, Muzak versions of "Hold On Hope" notwithstanding. (Perhaps the oddest experience of my life: recognizing that bit of Muzak in the grocery store.)
We saw them on Saturday at Irving Plaza. Now, we've seen GBV probably six or seven times over the course of the last five years or so, crowding into Maxwell's on New Year's Eve, or driving several hours to crash a student Spring Fling at Penn State. We've met the band in one of its incarnations (and did things in the basement of Maxwell's we probably shouldn't discuss in a public forum). But things were different this time, and I didn't know whether to expect a poignant goodbye or the royal kiss off.
Three solid hours, with no breaks. The show was decidedly heavy on newer stuff, which surprised me, as I expected a sort of retrospective. But many albums got little or no representation. Hell, I don't even remember them playing "Teenage FBI," and I was pretty sober. Bob was actively apologetic, not for the fact that they were giving up touring, but because they were still there at all. "Two more songs, and I promise not to bother you again." And he seemed, well, tired.
But it was the crowd that struck me as truly odd. The first time I saw GBV, the place was full of true believers, people walking around in t-shirts that read "Pollard's Bitch" and knew all the words to all the songs: the energy in the room was truly amazing. This time, no. The energy of the crowd seemed awkward and strange this time, like everyone was just going through the motions. There were a lot of people there, but many of them didn't stay to the end. Many were very tall, and very beautiful, budging regularly in front of your humble narrator, oblivious to my 5'2" self. Lots of people were also taking pictures with their cell phones. Security was tight (we got yelled at for going up to look at Doug Gillard's effects pedals from the house). And I've never seen a house clear out so fast. (Or so many Brooklyn Lager cans at once.)
I don't know what all this means. Perhaps it's good that GBV take a break, even if this is only a Who-style farewell tour as opposed to a real farewell. Perhaps the attempted expansion of the audience alienated the true believers, and the johnny-and-janie-come-latelies just weren't up to the task. Perhaps what I witnessed was the ugly downside of the geek-to-hipster transition, because, after all, being beloved of hipsters is a limited-time offer. Capture the heart of a geek and you've got it for life! Or am I thinking of this all wrong?