Bob Pollard taps the top of our patio picnic table at Wings Sports Bar in Vandalia, 15 minutes from his childhood home of Northridge, Ohio. A plastic palm tree sits beside the outdoor bar, reflecting the blue neon glow of a Wright-Flyer-themed beer sign. Pollard orders a bucket of beer, laughing with his younger brother Jim and his boyhood friend Randy Campbell, letting me in on the jokes where necessary; they’re a warm and welcoming crew.
The story of Guided By Voices has long been the stuff of Dayton folklore. During a time when lucrative albums were largely recorded in big-budget studios, a 36-year-old fourth-grade teacher created Bee Thousand — an unprecedented, wildly influential album — in a Northridge basement, its only budget spent on a few cassette tapes.
Bee Thousand‘s unlikely ascent has, at this point, been documented ad nauseum, but the full story of Guided By Voices is more unusual than it seems. The Pollards were not urbane art kids — they were accomplished young athletes from a rough-and-tumble area, and they were highly discouraged from playing music.
“Northridge was once a dumping ground for the city of Dayton, for their trash,” says Randy.
“White trash!” laughs Jim.
“A lot of people had hopes for me to be a professional pitcher because I threw so hard,” says Bob. “There was no encouragement of music. There was only dissuasion. My parents used to say, ‘When are you gonna stop doing that stupid shit?’ ”
While the name Pollard is now associated with music, during the 1970s and early ’80s it was synonymous with Dayton athletics.
“Bob and Jim both played basketball for me,” says former Northridge High School coach and teacher Dick Allen. “If you drive by their old house, their hoop is still out there. They worked hard. They developed a voice inside them that pushed them to become successful.”
“Randy and I were both being looked at by the Philadelphia Phillies,” says Bob. “Randy reminded them of Greg Luzinski, and they liked me because I threw pretty hard. We didn’t have a radar gun back then, but Jimmy postulates I threw about 95 miles per hour. But the reputation is from Jim, he was the phenomenal one.”
“The phenom,” says Randy.
In 1980, before the advent of the three-point shot, Jim Pollard led the entire state of Ohio in scoring with a 36.1 average. In the Dayton area, he still holds the single-game scoring record with 57 points. Jim earned a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State University — playing alongside former NBAers Byron Scott and Lafayette Lever — before sustaining a knee injury that ended his career.
“Had he not hurt his knee, he certainly had a shot at the NBA,” says Bob.
It started in seventh grade when they held me back/ They said I was way too small to defend attack/ When I get my boots on baby/ They’ll see that I’m not so small/ My little gold bills and chain, make me feel like I’m 10 feet tall/ I’m little Jimmy the Giant
— “Little Jimmy the Giant” from 2000′s Guided By Voices archival four-CD set Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft
Bob speaks glowingly of his younger brother, but both Pollards are N.H.S. Athletic Hall of Famers. Bob was first-string quarterback, throwing upward of 70 yards, and was also a talented basketball player. He led the Southwestern Buckeye League in scoring his senior year.
But baseball was Bob’s primary sport. He pitched for Wright State University and, in 1978, threw the school’s first no-hitter, an event commemorated by ESPN in January 2014.
“In my 10 years playing baseball, I pitched nine no-hitters, 19 one-hitters, and 21 two-hitters,” says Bob. “I could throw heat.”
“I’ve loved Bob since the first time I saw him warming up with a croquet ball in 1968,” laughs Randy, who has contributed to many Guided By Voices albums, and whose image graces the back cover of GBV’s Vampire on Titus.
“When you warm up with a croquet ball, a baseball feels like a Wiffle ball,” says Bob.
The lessons the Pollards learned from sports — of perseverance and hard work — carried Guided By Voices through many luckless years.
“I coached Bobby freshman and sophomore year when he played football,” says former Northridge High School coach and guidance counselor Bob Sheehan. “Bobby was playing quarterback on the freshman team; there was not much talent on the line and he was really getting hammered — a lot. But he was so resilient. It was unbelievable.”
GBV spent well over a decade in almost total obscurity, shunned by the Dayton music scene and ridiculed by family, but they never lost their resilience.
“We did it for fun,” says Bob. “We were working on our image way before we ever knew how to play. Like, let’s make sure we wear cool clothes, our hair looks cool, we got moves, we can jump. We were athletes, so we knew we could do it — you know, kicks, jumps, whatever. We’d turn on the guitars and amps and we weren’t even playing; we were just jumping around. Then we were like, ‘OK, we got that. I guess we should start working on some songs. Maybe.’”
This was Guided By Voices’ “gestation period,” as Bob calls it. GBV was learning to play and write and record. Their glory days as athletes were over.
“It was softball, beer and rock time,” says Jimmy.
“During that period, we did acid,” Bob says. “We took our fucking clothes off, we turned the amps up full blast and started hugging and crying and saying, ‘It’s going to happen!’ Then, the doorbell rang. I answered the door, on acid, completely naked, to some Jehovah’s Witnesses. They got freaked out and tried to leave and I was like, ‘No, no, don’t go away, I want to hear what you have to say.’”
The Pollards switched focus from sports to music, but they never lost their relentlessness.
“Bob never gave up on anything. I remember he came up to me after a baseball game in Tipp City, and he was like, ‘My foot is fucking killing me!’” says Randy. “There was a blister, but there was something deep down in there. I was like, ‘I’m not fucking touching that, man!’ Bob went home, and when he pulled back the flap of skin, there was a rock embedded in his foot.”
“I played the whole game with that fucking rock in my foot,” says Bob. “I didn’t say anything because the coach would’ve sat me down. And I didn’t like to come out. These guys who have to come out all the time now. A pitch count in baseball? A pitch count? What the fuck are you talking about?”
“One thing we always hated: losing. It was unacceptable to lose,” says Jim.
“We hated to fucking lose,” says Randy.
“There was a diligence,” says Bob.
That same diligence led to the band’s breakthrough. Initially, the band borrowed money to produce early albums like Forever Since Breakfast and Sandbox, but they never sold enough copies to recoup their costs. This went on for years, and eventually the well went dry. Unlike their many modern protégés, GBV’s lo-fi sonics weren’t affectations; they were born out of necessity. It was either quit or start making records in Bob’s Titus Ave. basement: the Snake Pit.
“After I hurt my knee, I lost my scholarship,” says Jim. “Dad called and said, ‘You blew it, didn’t you?’ I hung up on him. I came home from Arizona and Bob was like, ‘Hey, now you can be in Guided By Voices!’ So I bought a guitar and we headed to the Snake Pit.”
“That’s a great alternative to being in the NBA, isn’t it? Be in Guided By Voices!” laughs Bob. “Actually, in my opinion, it is. I would not trade anything for what I do right now.”
Since the ’90s, Pollard has released a dizzying number of albums under various monikers. At 57, his work ethic is unfading.
“Bob would get knocked down. He’d dust himself off and go right back to work. He is such a naturally talented human being,” says Sheehan.
“I had Bob in psychology class and he was always a great writer. Smart kid,” says Allen.
“Did I write the most songs of all time?” says Bob. “What I want to know is if I wrote the most great songs of all-time. That’s an intangible thing.”
At the time of this interview, Bob was approaching 90 albums. When asked which is his favorite, he immediately answered, “From a Compound Eye.”
But I can beat you to the strong side| Right away, I’ll meet you today| ‘Cus I’m a strong lion, been tryin’, The Lord likes me that way| Tryin’, still fightin’, the boys like me that way.
“I’m a Strong Lion” from the 2006 Robert Pollard album From a Compound Eye
“I’m old, but my muscles are still not bad, and we’re still playing for two and a half hours,” says Bob. “Randy, Jimmy and me? You don’t want to fuck with us.”
I drove Bob and Jim home as the sun set in north Dayton, lighting up the sky in a parade of color. We took Jim home first, backtracking to Bob’s place.
“We have beautiful sunsets here in Ohio, don’t we?” said Bob. “My wife Sarah is from St. Louis; it’s something she definitely notices about Ohio. The sky.”
I pulled into Bob’s driveway. “Watch the lip on the driveway there. You must back out ever so gingerly,” he said in a bit of British accent. He shook my hand, thanked me for the ride, and gave the top of my car a couple quick pats before heading to his front door.
As I backed out (ever so gingerly), the sunset now behind me, Bob turned to me with a triumphant rock ‘n’ roll fist in the air, and a huge smile.