Closer You Are

The Story of Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices


By Matthew Cutter

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The authorized biography of Robert Pollard, indie rock icon and founder of the music group Guided By Voices

Robert Pollard has been a staple of the indie rock scene since the early ’80s, along with his band Guided By Voices. Pollard was a longtime grade school teacher who toiled endlessly on his music, finding success only after adopting a do-it-yourself approach, relying on lo-fi home recordings for much of his and his band’s career. A prolific artist, Pollard continues to churn out album after album, much to the acclaim of critics and his obsessive and devoted fans. But his story has never been faithfully told in its entirety. Until now.

Author Matthew Cutter is a longtime friend of Pollard and, with Pollard’s blessing, he’s set out to tell the whole, true story of Guided By Voices. Closer You Are is the first book to take an in-depth look at the man behind it all, with interviews conducted by the author with Pollard’s friends, family, and bandmates, along with unfettered access to Pollard himself and his extensive archives.

Robert Pollard has had an amazing and seemingly endless career in rock music, but he’s also established himself as a consummate artist who works on his own terms. Now fans can at long last learn the full story behind one of America’s greatest living songwriters.


Part One

Bursting with Confidence (1957–1986)

Chapter 1

The Doors of Morrison Elementary

I used to ride my bike down to a convenience store called Stop-N-Go. I don’t know if they still exist. I must have been about eleven or twelve years old. But anyway, they had a revolving rack of 39-cent cut-out 45s and I used to take money from my mom’s purse occasionally and go down to Stop-N-Go and buy a few 45s. So on one occasion I bought “The Unknown Soldier” single with the picture of a shirtless Jim Morrison on the sleeve. It’s a famous photo. I think it’s called “The Young Lion” shot or something. It’s when he was trying to look like Alexander the Great.

So I had it out, playing it and looking at the sleeve, when my dad noticed and said, “Why did you buy that? Do you know what he did?” I said, “No,” and he said, “He pulled his willy out onstage.” Which I thought was pretty fucking awesome and it certainly did nothing to deter my passion for buying records and wanting to play rock music, which is exactly what my father did not want me to do.

—Robert Pollard1

At the end of every week, the Pollard kids counted the minutes until their visit with Grandfather Friday. They staked out the front hall, jostling and giggling in plaid polyester, Debbie, Bob Jr., Lisa, Judy, and baby Jimmy. They peered out the car windows on the drive over, breathless with anticipation, and cheered when they pulled up to Grandfather Friday’s house. “We had little shot glasses and our grandfather used to pour beer in them for us, on Fridays,” says Jimmy.

Sometimes Grandfather Friday took Bob and Debbie with him when he ducked out for a drink at the local watering hole. He would lift Bobby onto a table and shout, “Hey—put a lamp on him!” The kid belted out the latest song he’d acquired via radio osmosis, maybe “The Twist” or Elvis Presley’s hit “It’s Now or Never.”

There was little Bobby Pollard, age three, on a table in a Dayton, Ohio, bar gettin’ down. Gleaming neon, sweat, and the clinking of bottles signaled the club was open. It was a party, a riot of cheers and laughter—Bob, at its center, exhilarated.

Grandfather Friday’s real name was Clyde Baxla. In marrying their grandma Catherine, he became the only grandfather Bob Pollard ever knew—a step-grandfather, technically. Baxla styled himself a house painter but radiated a bootlegger’s aura. His station wagon had empty paint cans, wadded spattered tarps, brushes, and a ladder in the back, but those might have been for show. Baxla moved around a lot—some speculate he sold a little grass on the side—and had acquired the reputation of a local gangster around the neighborhood of Northridge in Dayton.

Although Bob’s mom, Carol, and her mother-in-law had often had a chilly relationship, Carol thought Baxla was a delight. The old man would sit in an easy chair with a beer in one hand, laughing and grinning, never becoming angry or flying off the handle with the grandkids.

Robert Pollard Sr. liked Baxla all right, but at times he eyed his mother’s new husband warily. He definitely didn’t want his sons to see Baxla as a role model. He had always preferred the straight and narrow path—in sports, in Korea, at Frigidaire.

Bob’s verdict? “Clyde Baxla was the coolest motherfucker—by far—of all time.”

IN HIS YOUTH ROBERT POLLARD SR. had played baseball, football, and basketball, lifelong avocations for him. Later on they would provide him with much greater aspirations for his sons. He took comfort in the great outdoors, was fascinated by animals, enjoyed traveling.

Pollard served in the US Army in Korea, where he drove a general’s staff jeep. After the war’s end in 1953, he returned to Dayton. He and Carol Ramby married the following year. He worked for the Frigidaire division of General Motors, was a registered Democrat, solidly middle class. Carol stayed at home, caring for their first child, Debbie, and planned for the brood to come.

On October 31, 1957—a crisp Halloween night of shivering blood-red and mustard-yellow leaves, brightly masked trick-or-treaters, howling spirits—Carol Pollard gave birth to her second child and first son, Robert Ellsworth Jr. He was a long baby; his time in the womb left one leg bent inward at the ankle and knee, curled tightly in a club foot behind his thigh.

Carol doted on the baby boy in her practical, no-nonsense fashion. She tirelessly kneaded his muscles for months—eventually working out the kinks. As Bob learned to totter around the house, she made sure he wore specially weighted shoes and braces. Debbie observed these developments warily, as children do. Perhaps she already suspected her new brother portended trouble.

Sometimes Bob Sr. and Carol sat in the backyard of their house on Keowee Street, across from the McCook Bowl, chatting and watching three-year-old Bobby as he played. Toddling along one day, the boy caught sight of a bright-green praying mantis wobbling along the wall on its thin stalks.

Bob marveled at the ungainly, prismatic body, the globular compound eyes, the forelegs like scimitars. It attracted him, terrified him. He picked up a plastic toy hammer.

“Bobby,” his mother warned, “don’t do it!”

Maybe the boy wasn’t going to smash the mantis. But as soon as his parents told him not to, its fate was sealed.

Bob whacked it once, then watched in fascination as guts oozed out and legs spasmed inward. What was more intriguing to the boy was how his parents flipped out. He didn’t feel particularly bad about what he’d done, but he noted the reaction he’d garnered just by ignoring expectations.

He vented a mixture of childhood fury and scientific curiosity on insect life. No target was more plentiful than Gryllus pennsylvanicus, the common field cricket. Bobby was like Pinocchio, who answered the talking cricket’s helpful advice by squashing its head against the wall with a mallet. It gave a final crick-crick-crick before it expired, stuck to the wall exactly where it was smashed.

Bob went on a cricket rampage. He declared himself “the Hitler of Crickets,” Adolf the greatest monster his five-year-old mind could conceive to embody his “despicable methods” for torturing and killing the chirping insects.

It was, he wryly observed later, “perhaps my spiritually darkest moment.”2

IN 1960 THE FAMILY MOVED into a bigger house on Arthur Avenue, across the street from John H. Morrison Elementary School.* Soon Bob and Debbie had three younger siblings—Judy, Lisa, and Jimmy. Carol Pollard stayed home with the kids for now, but when they got a little older she took a job as a playground supervisor, and later worked as a teacher’s aide.

Pollard’s mom was kind but tough, and she brooked shit from no one. One time Bob was outside throwing a tennis ball against the side of the house. The belligerent girl next door—whom the Pollard kids, after suffering countless hours of her harassment, had dubbed “Crabby”—started yelling at him from her window. Bob’s mom had had enough too, because she strode up to the window and punched Crabby right through the glass. She had to appear in court and actually served a little time. Says Bob, “She came back from jail with glass in her arm.”3 Crabby left them alone after that.

School and sports took up most of Bob’s time. By elementary school he was playing baseball, basketball, and football, “The three main sports, baby! Those were all that mattered. We didn’t care about anything else.”

Bob Sr. had high hopes for his son, and he wasn’t shy about telling him so. But his encouragement tended toward nurturing rather than tyrannical. Bob says, “He wasn’t like one of those Bobby Knight dads.”4 He put Bob through his athletic paces, and the boy excelled in youth leagues and driveway pickup games. He also instilled in Bob and Jimmy a fiercely competitive nature. The boys grew to hate losing, to despise it like a sickness.

Northridge was generally a poor neighborhood, and although the Pollard house was on the small side for seven people, there were far smaller places around. The house had one bathroom—they’d filled in the outhouse and installed it when the sewer came through in ’57—which served five kids, seven years apart, and their parents. Once they were all in school: “Nuts. One bathroom, one telephone,” Jim Pollard says.

Bob laughs. “That’s the vibe. One bathroom, seven people, no exhaust fan.”

Like most siblings confined to a small space, at times Bob fought savagely with his. “I was a sick little kid,” he laments. One time he and Debbie tied up his younger sister Lisa and locked her in a closet for a few hours. This was the result of a rare alliance; Bob and Debbie fought each other most of all, with the younger brother getting the worst of it in most bouts until he eventually came into his own.

Once Bob terrorized Debbie so much, chasing her through the house, that she locked herself in her room. Bob persisted, banging on the door and sticking his fingers underneath it, until Debbie slashed his hand with a knife. This event was traumatic enough for both sides that, between them, the matter of coexistence was considered settled.

Bob and Jimmy shared a bedroom. Jim says, “As soon as I could sleep by myself, nobody worried about rolling over on me and smothering me.” Bob saved the worst tortures for his brother, often involving flatulence in his cruelty. Once Bob got so mad he promised, “I am going to frog you to death.” He chased Jimmy down, pinned him on a swiveling chair, and started frogging him—punching him with the extended knuckle of his middle finger all over, hitting every muscle with a sharp jab.

“It was awful!” Jimmy says. “Just because he was an asshole. Just being sadistic.”

Bob kept on until Jim was blubbering, crying, nearly limp.

The brothers were always close, but Bob set out to make Jimmy tough. He played him hard in basketball, pitched him the ball as hard as he could manage, threw crushing tackles. Bob never let Jimmy win; he had to earn it. But he wouldn’t let him quit either.

They discovered teamwork, starting with mundane feats of invention, humor, and performance that, while sophomoric, were sophisticated in their disregard for convention and capacity to provoke. The ruder the better. Example: Jimmy used to drop his fly and pull out his dick by the middle, plucking at the fleshy half-loop until it popped free. He called that routine “the baby bird getting the worm out of a hole.”

Jimmy also invented the game of spongeball. He and Bob would remove the cover from a baseball and fill it with sponge. They could throw sliders and curve balls as with any other ball, but beanings didn’t hurt. Needless to say, getting drilled without pain was one of spongeball’s greatest features and its central conceit.

Gangs come and go, but in his brother Jimmy, Bob found a friend and ally for life. Like many brothers their relationship was built on fraternal competition, but throughout their lives they remained each other’s greatest supporters.

Money was often tight, but Pollard Sr. took the family out for Marion’s Piazza (pronounced “pizza”) once a month or so. “One large Marion’s pizza for the whole family,” Bob recalls, “and you got roughly three squares apiece.” Other families in hardscrabble Northridge got far less.5

“But no one thought about being poor, you know?” Jim interjects. “You just go out and play and shit.”

SOME NIGHTS, HIS SLEEP PLAGUED, Bob got out of bed and walked to the window. His breath caught in his chest. A being with goat legs and a human body was in the street, like a distorted minotaur—the Goat Man. Walking toward his house. Looking at him. He startled awake in bed, damp with sweat.

Bob devoured all the comic books he could get his hands on—his seventh-birthday Halloween costume, an all-time favorite, was Batman. He loved anything fantastical, adventure-filled. Bob Sr. reared his children on a diet of imaginative fiction, watching episodes of My Favorite Martian and The Twilight Zone with them.

Sometimes Bob Sr. took the family to the Dixie Twin Drive-In for double- or triple-features. They saw Hitchcock’s Psycho there in 1960. When the second film ended, the scary trailers would kick in. The last film was always a horror flick, a Hammer film or some other grindhouse fare.

Bob put his hands over his face and watched blood-drenched previews through his fingers. Senior made no move to start the car.

Bob asked if they could go home.

“What?” His father chuckled. “You don’t want to check this out?”

“No, I don’t wanna do that,” Bob said, a quake in his voice.

Eventually, Bob started performing at home. He lined up his younger siblings on the edge of a bed, little Judy, Lisa, and Jimmy a miniature, squirming audience. They started as Bob’s head shouted “Heeey!” and popped into the doorway. They sat captivated as their older brother performed comedy routines, mimicking what he’d seen on variety shows. As far as the kids knew, it was all Bob’s material.

ONE NIGHT IN FEBRUARY 1964, Bob Sr. called from the living room, “Debbie! Bobby! Come watch what’s on TV!” The kids were positively gobsmacked by what they witnessed: four black-and-white, shaggy-haired moppets playing rock ’n’ roll, and singing the most gorgeous melodies.

It was The Ed Sullivan Show. When the newly arrived Beatles launched into “All My Lovin’,” the kids freaked out almost as hard as Sullivan’s studio audience did. After McCartney did “Till There Was You,” the trifecta-completing “She Loves You” cemented the quartet forever in Bob’s mind as the ultimate paragons of rock.

Having already discovered a knack for performance, Bobby felt his first longing to do what he saw on the flickering black-and-white set. More important, he just couldn’t get enough Beatles songs, so he set out to write more of his own. At times he affected a British accent for his singing voice.6 He molded everyday experiences into immediate ditties he’d sing to his siblings.

“Some of my best melodies… I wrote them when I was seven years old,” says Bob.

He got queasy at the breakfast table over a plate of eggs, spawning “Eggs Make Me Sick.”7 He made up a tune called “We Are from the Planet Mars,” an homage to The Outer Limits and other eerie fare:

We’re past Jupiter, Saturn,

Pluuuu-to tooo


We are from the planet Mars

Other early compositions included “Corn Country,” “Polar Bear” (“—in the hot city!”), and a Beach Boys–tinged, automotive ode dubbed “Jag Wire”:

Well, I’m runnin’ down the highway

In my new Jag-wire

You gotta pay a million

If you wanna buy ’er

She really knows how to go

She tears out right now through the snow

My Jag-wire, my Jag-wire…

Well, look at her go!

She tears out here

She tears out there

She tears out almost anywhere!8

Late at night in Lisa’s bedroom, his younger sisters could hear Bob singing through the heating vent, his clear Ohio twang a ghost creaking on the floorboards, echoing into the attic, throbbing in the foundations. They knelt down and listened, wide-eyed.

BOB SAW SMOKE IN THE sky, fires, people running, police cars tearing through the streets with sirens wailing. But he was as oblivious as most nine-year-olds would be. Bob Sr. and Carol were terrified, but they kept a lid on it for the children’s benefit. “Lock all the doors” was all their father told them. Thanks to his parents’ sheltering influence, turbulent events transpired at the periphery of Bob’s youthful awareness.

They were near-constant in the mid-1960s’ roiling unrest—JFK’s assassination, the burgeoning civil rights movement, the growing US involvement in Vietnam. Dayton wasn’t impervious to their influence. The city has historically been one of the nation’s most segregated, particularly after the riots of 1966. In the summer of that year, the killing of a black bar owner sparked two days of rioting west of the Great Miami River. Police and National Guard rolled in. President Lyndon B. Johnson visited the scene when he deemed order had been restored.

If politics transpired outside his sphere, music was another story. Given Bob’s love of song, the British Invasion could hardly escape his notice. He’d absorbed his dad’s love of music, if not his tastes, which dwelled primarily on big band and jazz. But Senior appreciated all types. “He could sing like Nat King Cole,” Bob recalled later. “He had a good voice.”9 He attributed his own ability to carry a tune to his father’s singing.

After becoming aware of the Beatles and rock in general, Bob started buying 45s whenever he could scrape together enough money. For a kid in working-class Northridge, that prospect was usually bleak. He snapped up the Beatles’ releases, but other acts like the Kinks, the Beach Boys, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and the Zombies ended up in his growing collection as well.

Visiting friends’ houses, Bob was amazed that other kids had long-playing albums. He launched a campaign of pestering his father for one, until Senior relented and bought him Count Me In by Gary Lewis & the Playboys. The taste of vinyl only stoked Bobby’s desire.

Later, his dad came across an offer in LIFE magazine for the Columbia Record Club, hoping thirteen records for $1 (plus shipping and handling) would prove to be the cheap way out. Bob chose the ones that looked cool: Ten Years After, the screaming face on King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, Moby Grape.* The covers suggested to young Bob entire new worlds. He spent hours poring over the jackets and liner notes.

“BOBBY,” HIS FOURTH-GRADE TEACHER SAID to him one morning, “if you’re good and finish your lessons, I’ll let you come up and do your band in front of the class. All right?”

Bob smiled. He and three of his friends liked to pose as the Monkees, singing the sounds of their air instruments while Bobby provided vocals. Girls would chase them at recess like in A Hard Day’s Night. Bob thought that was kind of fun.

By sixth grade Bob had put together an incomplete combo he dubbed Jell-O. One kid could play drums, another convincingly faked playing a guitar, and Bob sang. He designed a band logo featuring the word “Jell-O,” where the word actually looked like gelatin—a visual onomatopoeia. With only the personnel and the barest veneer of an image, to Bob’s mind they were ready.

Jell-O performed twice, once in front of the music class and again for the PTA, the first times Pollard mounted a stage in front of a proper audience. They played along with a recording of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” and again Bob was that kid on a bar table, cheered on by Grandfather Friday. Jell-O was a little more congealed, more musical.

They got out of synch; the drummer galloped ahead of Doug Clifford’s metronomic pace. But the class went wild and Bob grinned ear-to-ear.

That night at the PTA meeting Bob laid it on thick, singing, “Big wheels keep on toinin” with all the twang he could muster. Those PTA ladies just about swooned.

When Bobby heard people laughing he doubled down, heightening the rock comedy. Having heard “boinin” and “toinin” he couldn’t—wouldn’t—sing it any other way.

IN PRIMARY SCHOOL, BOB WAS sharp enough that he didn’t have to apply himself to the material; a passing familiarity tended to suffice. As a result, and combined with the boy’s ingrown disdain for authority, he found school a big fucking bore. He would knead a piece of notebook paper between his palms, softening it with sweat and sebum over hours under his desk until it reached the consistency of tissue paper. Then he blew his nose in it. “Just to make time pass,” Bob says.

One day in sixth grade at Northridge Middle School, a young female teacher who shall remain anonymous stooped over Bob’s shoulder while patrolling the aisles between the children’s desks. She asked, “Robert—what is that paper wad doing in your desk?”

Bob’s confusion was rapidly overtaken by dread. He had no idea who’d put the paper wad there, but he was certain he’d catch hell for it. He decided to admit nothing: name, rank, serial number. “It’s not mine,” he said.

“Then why is it in your desk, young man? Can you explain that?”

Bob shrugged. He couldn’t.

“Stand up.”

The teacher followed Bob out to the hallway. She had him bend over, palms on the wall, and cracked his ass with her paddle four times. Sheepishly he went back into class, trying to ignore everyone’s stares. He put his head down on his desk and cried tears of shame and rage. School became a fraught gauntlet, feeding Bob’s contempt for teachers and the authority they enjoyed.

Although the younger children were spared the teachers’ “whacks,” Debbie and Bob received the business end of Pollard Sr.’s Wiffle Bat at home when they misbehaved.10 Despite this, Bob Sr. was the first person Bob ran to when he was injured, including once when he caught a lawn dart in the thigh.11 Another time, the bigger kids were shot-putting a rock the size of a honeydew melon. It was Bob’s job to retrieve the rock every time they threw it, obligingly hauling it back to the bigger kids with both hands.

A particularly hard throw sent the rock rolling off the grass and onto the sidewalk. Bob failed to wait for it to stop, and its mass flattened the tip of his middle finger. The most intense pain he’d ever felt seared a trail up his arm to his head and blinded him. “Get my dad!” he wailed.

At the hospital, a doctor injected cold numbness into the ruined digit and diligently stitched it whole. Bob delighted in showing off his middle finger, whether he was asked to or not.

ON A MUGGY AUGUST AFTERNOON in 1971, a few weeks before Bob started his freshman year at Northridge High, a gold Camaro rolled up to the curb in front of the Pollard house. Senior Jimmy Chandler, dating Bob’s sister Debbie at the time, sat behind the wheel.

Northridge Bears pitcher Eddie Howard, a southpaw, sat in the passenger seat. Both wore sunglasses and toothy, expectant grins. When Debbie went out to meet them, Eddie told her, “Get your brother. Get Bobby.”

Bob had no idea what his sister’s boyfriend wanted with him. They beckoned him closer. “Get in. Sit in the back, in the middle.” After Bob settled onto the leather hump between the bucket seats, Chandler snapped on the 8-track player. Cranked the volume until the speakers hissed.

A fluttering synthesizer run marched into a repeating arpeggio. Another synth joined in a round, then what sounded like a third, swirling like madcap birds at top volume in Bobby’s ears. A plangent piano cut through, sounding three chords. Again. A third time. Thundering drums poured in like an avalanche, driving the arrangement toward a soaring, gravelly howl: “Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals!12

Bob had already bought—and stolen—enough records to know his shit, and everyone at school was well aware of his knowledge. The first time Chandler and Eddie heard Who’s Next, they were so blown away, they drove over immediately to play it for Bob.

They looked back to see Bob’s reaction. He grooved along, grinning. “Yeah!”

They yelled, laughing. “He’s says YEAH!”

Debbie rolled her eyes and went back inside.


* In later years, Bob and his friends called it Jim Morrison Elementary, laughing and adding a high-five or a “Far out!” when invoking the rock ’n’ roll antihero’s name.

* “In rock,” Pollard avows, “you can judge a book by its cover.”

Chapter 2


  • "This authorized biography of Bob Pollard is a blast...[Cutter] has captured the raucous and squalling voice of a powerful American songwriter."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Essential for fans of GBV, lovers of '90 indies rock, and proud Ohioans."—Library Journal
  • "The author's lively writing captures the arc of indie-rock's mainstreaming...A well-crafted, intimate portrait of an unlikely, all-American rock-'n'-roll life."—Kirkus
  • "Essential reading for all fans of Guided By Voices, as well as anyone interested in the history of American indie rock."—Dangerous Minds
  • "The first proper, objective,...definitive Guided by Voices biography."—Psychobabble
  • "Cutter's entertaining new biography of "Uncle Bob," Closer You Are, does an excellent job telling the story of the all-American-boy-turned-alternative-rock-god who's much more complex than his brash, boozy stage persona would indicate."—NPR
  • "Closer You Are does a great job in making the unlikely success story of an elementary school teacher who accidentally becomes the first lo-fi icon an engaging read, even for non-devotees."—PopMatters
  • "A raucous read."

    Spectrum Culture
  • "Closer You Are is a solid rock bio, and fans of GBV and indie rock will love it."-—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • "A boisterous chronicle of one of indie rock's least probable but most luminous and unremitting stars."—Arts Fuse

On Sale
Aug 21, 2018
Page Count
368 pages
Da Capo Press

Matthew Cutter

About the Author

Matthew Cutter has published in MAGNET magazine and penned several award-winning game supplements for Deadlands: The Weird West. He wrote a licensed game adaptation of Eric Powell’s Eisner Award-winning The Goon, and his short story “A Lonesome Place to Die” appears in The Cackler graphic novel. Cutter is also lead singer and lyricist for the bands Joseph Airport, Rectangle Creep, and Girls of the Big 10. He lives in Rockville, Maryland, with his wife and their three children.

Learn more about this author