Closer You Are is a raucous read, warts and all.
Robert Pollard looks more like the manager of a gas station than an indie rock legend. For decades, the now-white-haired, leg-kicking, microphone-twirling, beer-swilling “drunk uncle” of rock has presided over shifting lineups of Guided by Voices and, all told, has released over 100 albums among that band, ancillary side projects and his own solo work. He has embodied a type of “roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work,” blue-collar attitude, all the while pumping out thousands of British Invasion-influenced songs with surreal, impressionistic lyrics. (“Closer You Are,” admittedly, is a better title than “Chain Smoke Rings Like a Vapor Snake Kiss,” the same song’s opening line).
So, what does a reader get from a biography of this at-times cryptic frontman? Most fans will already know some basic facts about him—growing up in Ohio, excelling as an athlete, pitching a perfect game, working as a schoolteacher while being in GBV up until their mid-1990s success, designing all their early record covers, making collages, writing songs at a breakneck pace. And perhaps less flatteringly, in order to preserve his vision of a band that is essentially a one-man operation with occasional input from others, Pollard had to be domineering. Like the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, Pollard has had many bandmates, including his own brother Jim, who played an important role early on.
The author, Matthew Cutter, opens his book with a magical set of chapters devoted to Pollard’s childhood and adolescence, giving us a sense of how growing up in ‘60s and ‘70s Ohio shaped young Pollard’s outlook, and how his fascination and even romanticization of the humble and inglorious members of society developed from those formative years. We also see how Pollard’s restless creativity and imagination was there from the start, though its idiosyncrasy made it something he felt the need to conceal at first, given how unusual it was amongst his peers. We also see how, even in his earliest bands and incarnations of what would become GBV, Pollard had learned from rock history the need for a certain self-mythologization, which would of course become part of the GBV aesthetic and an element in their songs, which often seem to exist in a kind of heroic mode.
Cutter seems to have written the book in close consultation with Pollard. Most of it is written at a borderline novelistic level of detail; you can imagine Pollard with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, rattling off names and dates, sights, smells and sounds, as Cutter tries to get it down. The book reminds one at times of something like Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, not so much a rock biography as it is a story of how messy and hard it is to grow up around others.
One might object to parts of the book for favoring exhaustive documentation over a greater dive into, say, Pollard’s psychology. But in a sense, this is unfair to ask from a musical personality who so fully externalizes his dreams and demons and projects them into his lyrics, which, even at their most abstruse, never fail to be personal. And it is also perhaps unfair to ask from someone who, more than most figures in rock, has treated his career like a job, and not in the cynical way—rather, as something to be proud of and to do well for the sake of one’s self-worth. This is something Cutter effectively captures, and it makes Closer You Are a raucous read, warts and all.