[caption id="attachment_23181" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Guided by Voices circa 1995"][/caption]
Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
"My husband plays guitar in a band,” Laura the post office lady told me. “You may’ve heard of them.”
“Maybe,” I said, although I was positive I didn’t. I may’ve spent my summer in the small northern Michigan town of Leland, but I wasn’t exactly well-versed in the local music scene. I’m sure her husband’s band — Monkey Dystopia or the 21st Century Funk Connection or whatever semi-clever name they’d given themselves — brought the rock and roll thunder every Thursday night during happy hour to an appreciative crowd of six to seven drinking buddies, but I probably wasn’t making a big mistake by leaving them off my “Artists to Watch in 2012” mental list.
“Guided by Voices?” she said, crinkling her nose in the way people do when they’re sharing information they suspect will make them look foolish.
This was surprising for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the woman sharing this information worked for the U.S. post office of Leland, Michigan, a town with a population in the low four digits. It’s a place where tourists come to eat fudge and sail Sunfishes and climb dunes named after Native American legends about dead bears. Not a place that guitar players in legendary lo-fi bands call home. And secondly, was I really to believe that the wife of a guitar player in a legendary lo-fi band had a day job at the post office? Is that what the world had come to? Help create four-track masterpieces like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, and still your wife has to hawk stamps to make ends meet? That’s just wrong.
"I looked at the floor, scouring my memory for even a fragment of a song, anything to prove I wasn’t a fucking liar who’d never heard of Guided by Voices, or worse, was just pretending to be a fan (sorry, a super fan) because I thought it made me look cool and indie. Had I really become one of those douchebags?"
“Tobin Sprout?” Laura asked. “Have you heard of him?”
The muscles in my face were refusing to follow my suggestions. All I wanted was a casual smile. Maybe a head nod, to indicate I was pondering the name and trying to determine where I’d heard it before.
This confessional nugget arrived late in our conversation, after we’d been talking for almost 20 minutes. It was the Friday before Labor Day weekend, and I’d come into the post office with six oversized boxes filled with toys and diapers and various baby apparati that my wife and I, just days away from ending our Michigan vacation, didn’t want to haul by car back home. While Laura weighed everything and calculated the postage (which, I’d already decided, was coming out of my son’s college fund), we started talking about the mountains of equipment required to keep a baby alive, satiated and relatively clean. “With all the gear I carry around,” I told her, “sometimes I feel less like a parent than a rock tour roadie.” That conversational detour led to a discussion of music, which in turn led to her Guided by Voices bombshell.
To say that I wasn’t mentally prepared would be an understatement. You go to the Bar Marmont in Hollywood, there’s always a chance you’ll end up doing Buttery Nipple shooters with Karen O. Not a good chance, granted, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. She could be there, and you could be ballsy enough to go over and say hello. But you go to a post office in a small fishing town in Michigan, the first thing on your mind is not, “Might run into the spouse of an indie rock legend today.” My memory is fuzzy, but I don’t think I was even wearing pants. I was likely in pajama bottoms, with a stained t-shirt that emphasized my middle age paunch, my breath a toxic combination of breakfast burrito and last night’s beer. Not the best first impression. I was also perhaps a bit too enthusiastic in telling her that yes, I was indeed familiar with her husband’s awesome fucking band. I believe I called myself a “super fan.” Not enough to say “Oh yeah, I’m a fan.” I had to quantify it as “super.” Which is just another way of saying, “Can I go through your garbage and see if there’s something I can add to my creepy closet shrine to your husband?”
At some point, I made up something about singing Guided by Voices songs to my infant son in lieu of the usual kid music dreck.
“Oh really?” she asked. “Like what?”
My brain went blank. I couldn’t remember even a single tune in the vast Guided by Voices canon. 2000 or so songs to choose from and I couldn’t dredge up one lousy title. “Oh you know, a little of all of them,” I said. What the fuck kind of answer was that? I looked at the floor, scouring my memory for even a fragment of a song, anything to prove I wasn’t a fucking liar who’d never heard of Guided by Voices, or worse, was just pretending to be a fan (sorry, a super fan) because I thought it made me look cool and indie. Had I really become one of those douchebags?
[caption id="attachment_23183" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Guided by Voices' Tobin Sprout, second from right, in a mid '90s press photo."][/caption]
And then, out of nowhere, a melody popped into my head. Grateful for the lifeline, I blurted it out without thinking. “Tractor rape chaaaaain,” I sang at the top of my lungs.
She laughed. “That’s my favorite song too!” And together we sang the rest of the chorus — “Parallel lines on a slow decline!” — neither of us commenting on why this maybe wasn’t the most appropriate lullaby for a baby.
My wife and I left Leland a few days later, but in my head I was still in that post office. It haunted me for months afterwards. Not necessarily because I screamed the lyrics to “Tractor Rape Chain” in a government building in which at least two senior citizens were standing nearby, staring disbelievingly at me like I’d been caught trying to ship a box of porn and pot brownies. What bothered me is that Laura and I had such a brief time together. She laughed at my jokes and I laughed at hers, and it felt like if we’d just been able to talk a little more and realize how much we had in common, from our countercultural parenting philosophies to our mutual appreciation of her husband’s music, it might’ve organically evolved into something special.
Nothing gross like an affair. I mean a meaningful connection. Like a dinner party invite.
"I can’t hear Guided by Voices anymore without thinking of that post office in Leland, and how close I came to becoming Tobin Sprout’s BFF, even though that’s probably not in any way true."
The seasons changed from fall to winter, and I still couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I decided to be bold and make the first move, reaching out to Tobin, in the guise of journalism, to see if there was any spark between us. I did the perfunctory research, just to make sure my run-in with Mrs. Tobin Sprout wasn’t a fever dream. Wikipedia confirmed it: "He has continued writing and composing independently from his home in Leland, Michigan.” (And if Wikipedia says it’s true, there’s a 40% chance it’s sorta true.) I also learned that Tobin has his own website, with an email address that apparently goes directly to him. “Laura mentioned that someone came in that knew of GBV,” he wrote back to me. “If you want to send some questions (e-mail) I could fill them out and then talk on the phone a bit.”
I sent him the following email, which may’ve been a mistake.
I met your wife on my last day of vacation in Leland, after being there for well over a month. So of course, in my head I'm thinking, if I'd run into Laura sooner, I might have ended up getting invited to a Sprout family dinner party/ summer barbecue/ hootenanny, in which we’d drink way too much Michigan wine and do sloppy sing-a-longs of ‘I Am a Scientist.’ Does that sort of thing happen? Do you run into fans and then become fast friends with them? If it doesn't actually happen, do you mind if I continue to believe such a thing is possible? And can you help me fill in some of the details? What are your digs like in Leland? During these (possibly fictional) dinner parties, would we dine inside or out on a back patio? Would I need to bring my own guitar, or is there a rack of guitars for guests at the front entrance? At some point during the evening, would you feasibly say something to me like ‘Here's a nice piece of smoked whitefish I picked up at Fishtown? While you're enjoying that, allow me to entertain you with a selection from the Guided by Voices forthcoming album Let's Go Eat the Factory.
He never responded. I can’t say I’m surprised. But I don’t blame the email. I blame the fact that I sang “Tractor Rape Chain” to his wife. It’d be like walking up to Bob Dylan’s wife and saying, “I love your husband! ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is such a killer song!” And then she goes home and mentions that to Bob and he rolls his eyes and makes a mental note never to invite you over to his house for a barbecue-slash-hootenanny. I don’t really know if that’s how it happens, but what if it is? The musician/fan relationship is complicated, and sometimes you only get one chance to prove that you’re not the guy who only owns the greatest hits. You want a lasting friendship, you need to demonstrate a working knowledge of the deep cuts.
There are many sentences in my email to Tobin that I regret, but the last line was probably the worst. “Just out of curiosity,” I asked, blatantly showing my hand in an already sloppy poker move, “what song would a GBV fan have to name-drop to impress you enough to make you momentarily think, ‘This person should get an advance rough-cut copy of Let's Go Eat the Factory, because clearly he's the definitive GBV fan?’” He never gave me any suggestions, and to this day I don’t know what the right choice would’ve been. But I still wake up some mornings singing “Game of Pricks” or “Smothered in Hugs” or some other half-remembered song, and wondering if that’s the one that would’ve changed my entire summer.
When the new Guided by Voices album came out earlier this month -- the first release since 1996 featuring the classic lineup -- I bought it. And I listened to it repeatedly. I’m listening to it even as I write this. But make no mistake; I listen to it bitterly. Because I can’t hear Guided by Voices anymore without thinking of that post office in Leland, and how close I came to becoming Tobin Sprout’s BFF, even though that’s probably not in any way true. Every time I put on Let's Go Eat the Factory, I think about warm Michigan summer afternoons and the back patio at the Sprout house and the smell of hot coals on their grill and Tobin’s famous extra-chunky potato salad, a family recipe he shares only with his closest pals.
“You’re the only one who really understands what Guided by Voices is all about,” Tobin tells me in my imagination, as he pulls a beer out of the cooler and offers it to me. “Hey, can I get you another brat?”