INTERVIEW: Stan McMahon
Teenager of the Year
By: Stan Hall
Q: What do you think of this statement: "Too old to rock 'n' roll: too young to die"?
Stan McMahon: That's the title of a Jethro Tull album that came out in 1986 (sic), came out the same time as Billy Joel's "Turnstiles" album. I love Ian Anderson, but he can suck my ass sideways. I will fuckin' die on stage. I will shit and piss my pants on stage. I will rock 'n' roll 'til I die.
Sitting in my cubicle at my nine-to-five job, I sometimes realize with a tinge of regret that I'm in this "respectable," yet stifling position at the behest of my parents. They represent "normal" society, and this society decrees that to fully fit in and thrive, you've got to play the game -- finish school (or even better, go to college), get a job, wear a tie, work your way up the corporate ladder, get married and have your 2.5 children, grow old and die with a substantial nest egg for your progeny to fight over like wolves.
When I was in high school, all I ever wanted in my life was to be a rock star, but deep down I knew I could never seriously pursue this dream. I held out one quarter into what was supposed to be my freshman year of college before caving in and enrolling. How could I let my parents down? Now, I'm not even 30, and the path I've chosen is unchangeable. I've already done too much, have too much invested, to walk away from this life.
That is why I possess a measure of envy for Stan McMahon, the garrulous, 49-year-old singer of Portland's oldest and greatest (OK, only) Guided By Voices cover band, Giant Bug Village. And though I don't wish to trade my life for anyone else's, I occasionally desire to live vicariously through a middle-aged man who has simply never grown up. Not that Stan is immature or doesn't have a career (he does, in fact: he's a fundraiser for Special Olympics), but he has the moxie to consider himself a young man, and he makes other people believe it to a degree. He parties with a surprising amount of beer-fueled energy, mingles comfortably with people half his age, and deals with few of the traditional responsibilities most men his age have taken upon themselves. Stan has stayed true to his adolescent fantasies: he wants to get on stage and rock, just like his musical heroes, and he does exactly that.
Stan was born into a middle-class family in Pasco, Washington in 1952. He moved around the Northwest quite a bit growing up. His rock 'n' roll education began while living in The Dalles, as he watched Elvis perform from the hips up on "Ed Sullivan," then forced to sing "Hound Dog" to an actual hound dog on Steve Allen's show. Despite these crusty saps' attempts to hide Elvis' earth-shaking appeal, the very young Stan was infected with the rock 'n' roll germ. "I was bouncing around the room like a tetherball," he remembers of the Steve Allen broadcast.
In 1964, the Beatles hit America, and Stan's destiny was ordained. "I distinctly recall my first exposure to the Beatles," he says. "I was 11 years old, halfway through the sixth grade, and a friend of mine two desks down had the single 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' backed with 'I Saw Her Standing There,' and I was intrigued by the cover. I thought, 'These guys look really cool.' About a week later, I saw them on 'Ed Sullivan,' and my dad was putting them down, saying 'These guys can't play, they can't harmonize, they can't do anything!' And my two older sisters were screaming -- fuckin' screaming! -- and I was totally blown away. I heard them and thought, 'They've got great harmonies, and they're really cool about how they play! They don't give a fuck!' The Beatles were my first musical obsession."
Like a lot of teenagers in the '60s, Stan became interested in doing more than just listening to the wondrous sounds emanating from his hi-fi. His father may have dissed the titans of pop, but he was nevertheless supportive, giving his son a guitar and teaching him a few chords. In 1966, Stan learned his first song, the Beatles' "Day Tripper." He set out to learn as many of the Beatles songs as he could, a process that decades later has earned him the unofficial title "The Human Jukebox," owing to his ability to reproduce large portions of the Beatles, Kinks, Neil Young, Elliott Smith and, of course, Guided By Voices catalogs. If Stan is at a party, invariably his guitar will come out in the wee hours and he will play until he's practically forced to stop.
Stan: The best song on (George Harrison's) "All Things Must Pass" is the first one, and I play it really well.
Q: The first song, which is, uh...
Stan: C'mon, you know it.
Q: I don't know, I can't remember.
Stan: What's the name of it?
Q: I can't remember!
Stan: You fancy little fuck! It's called "I'd Have You Anytime," and it's by Bob Dylan, you wanker! Godammit! (To lady friend) You got a cigarette, sweetheart? I'd love you to death. (Kisses her cheek)
After a couple of years of practice, Stan was ready for his first gig. "In April 1969, I played for four homerooms in high school. My friend who was doing this folk thing had said, 'You should open for us.' So I did 'Rocky Raccoon' and 'Blackbird.' I was 16 years old and playing for 400 people per homeroom and I was scared shitless, but I did it."
High school ended, and Stan entered into a succession of odd jobs, bouncing around America, playing his guitar, ending up back in Oregon. He never got a band together, though: "I was writing songs, but they were chickenshit John Denver, you know, wanker stuff, not good. In the '70s, I was into John Denver and Neil Young. But that's all right, now I can play 80 Neil Young songs." In fact, outside of a "couple of chickenshit cover bands that sucked so hard," Stan's first real band was Giant Bug Village, formed when he was 42. Elvis died when he was 42.
In 1973, Stan needed work after being laid off from his job as a grocery store clerk. Since the draft had just ended and he didn't have to worry about getting sent to Vietnam, he joined the Army. 16 months of military service at a base in Washington State apparently did nothing to cramp his style: "In the Army, I smoked dope, drank beer and saw a lot of shows. From '73-'75 I saw at least 20 great rock shows." The Army stint was apparently enjoyable enough that in 1980, when Stan again couldn't find a job, he enlisted in the Navy. He left the ranks as a 2nd class petty officer.
After his time in the Navy, Stan settled in Eugene for a while, where in 1993 he experienced his most important musical epiphany since the Beatles on "Ed Sullivan."
Q: What is it about Guided By Voices' music that means so much to you?
Stan: First, the Beatles aesthetic, and the way they can make a song sound heavy metal, hard rock, pop or acoustic...
Q: So they embody everything you like about music?
Stan: Well, Bob Pollard specializes in reinventing rock 'n' roll. He's one of the genius songwriters around right now. His lyrics are pretty heartfelt stuff.
For the uninitiated: Guided By Voices is a Dayton, Ohio-based band fronted by the extraordinarily prolific Bob Pollard, a former elementary school teacher. Pollard and the band (an ever-shifting ad hoc group of drinking buddies) are average-looking over-40 year olds who believe and act as if they're rock stars, which they are, at least on a downscaled level. Pollard and company hung out, got drunk, played music and made records in almost total obscurity for close to 10 years before being noticed outside of Dayton. Between 1993 and 1997, the band was one of the most celebrated in American indie rock, releasing a series of startlingly unique albums that combined classic pop melodies recalling the Beatles, the Who and countless other harder rocking bands, elliptical lyrics and a do-it-yourself recording style that ranged from no-frills studios to a tape recorder and Radio Shack mics. Although they're not a hot new band anymore, GBV is more popular than ever, and their newest album, "Isolation Drills," is one of their best yet.
But they were virtual nobodies on the West Coast in 1993, when future Portland Rocket magazine editor (and current Giant Bug Village bassist) John Chandler walked into Green Noise Records in Eugene one day and heard an advance copy of GBV's "Vampire on Titus" album playing in the store. Suitably impressed, he got his own copy, brought it home and phoned his friend Stan McMahon.
"John Chandler called and said, 'Stan, you gotta come over and hear this shit...' I first listened to 'Vampire on Titus' and thought, 'wow, these guys pretty much know what they're doing.'" Within three weeks, Chandler had struck up a correspondence with Bob Pollard, and Pollard sent him copies of Guided By Voices' first five albums. Stan listened to these early works obsessively, and by the time GBV played in Eugene in July 1994, Stan had already learned 25 songs (of GBV's alleged catalog of over 2,000 songs, Stan now knows 167 and counting).
I talked to Bob Pollard before Guided By Voices' March 31 concert at the Crystal Ballroom about his memories of meeting Stan, and about the meaning of being a truly obsessed fan.
Q: Tell me about the first time you met Stan McMahon.
Bob Pollard: The very first tour we did was the Insects of Rock Tour for Scat Records (GBV's Ohio-based label before they moved to the national indie Matador). We play Eugene, and we're like, "what the fuck is YOO-gene?" So we play this outdoor show in the town square or whatever, and he came up boldly, saying "I'm Stan McMahon and I know 20 or 30 of your songs." And at the time, nobody really knew about us...he was the first obsessive GBV fan. And I go 'no way' and he said 'no, really' and I said, 'well, go play some' and he went up there and played about 20 of our songs and I was really impressed. So then we became friends with him and John Chandler. At the time, we had some fans, maybe even some hardcore ones, but not on the level of somebody coming up and saying 'I know 50 of your songs' or whatever. That freaked me out a little bit.
Q: What do you think of Giant Bug Village? First, I'll tell you what some people here say about them.
BP: I want to hear this, because I want to know!
Q: They say Giant Bug Village kicks a lot of ass--
BP: Well, they've got a lot of good material!
Q: No one's saying they're as good as Guided By Voices, since you're the original. But people like them because they play the stuff that you won't play anymore.
BP: That's good! That's like when Wire came back and started touring, they had a band opening for them called Outdoor Minors which would play the "Pink Flag" album since Wire didn't want to play it anymore--
Q: Have you heard or heard of any other Guided By Voices cover bands?
BP: I know of three or four around the country. I'm not quite sure what their names are. But Giant Bug Village was the first GBV cover band, as far as I know. It's weird, because Stan told me somebody once came up to him and said, "How dare you, being a tribute band to a band that still exists and is in its prime?" But hell, so what, it's flattering.
Q: So what is it like to have people tell you how deeply moved they are by your music? Does their level of obsession ever scare you?
BP: Well, there are some individuals who have scared me, but for the most part, I'm flattered. I appreciate it because I know how I used to be when there were certain bands that I was obsessed about -- I had to have all their stuff, dissect their lyrics-- I'm happy because I did that kind of thing for so long and now people do it with my stuff.
Q: Stan said he went on tour with you later in '94. Would you ever take Stan on tour with you again?
BP: No, no. We sent him home, as a matter of fact. We took him on one of our East Coast tours, and we had to send him home. He was getting on our nerves.
What a lot of people don't know about Stan, maybe because he's known for covering other people's songs, is that he writes his own. He has his own band, the Rock 'n' Roll Peacocks, to play his original material. "I have 18 songs that I like to play," Stan proudly says, "and they all kick ass." Seven of the songs have been recorded for an upcoming CD (he plans to record some of the others soon), and they're mostly terrific. There is a Guided By Voices influence on Stan's songs (especially the fantastic "Don't You Know"), but mainly Stan is tapping a much older motherlode -- Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who.
An interesting quality to Stan's songs, and something that perhaps does betray his age, is the lack of cynicism and irony in his vocals. His slightly husky voice sounds completely earnest, but not annoyingly so, and his lyrics always provide for a hand out of the darkness to help, redemption for those needing it, and other sweet, tender sentiments that are refreshing in an age when so many rock acts, to quote Camper Van Beethoven, "find it necessary to conceal love, or obscure it as is the fashion." It all seems nearly a throwback to the '60s, but in a good, non-"Freedom Rock" way, and it's also a marked contrast to the willfully obscure lyrical stylings of Bob Pollard. With the snappy musical and harmony backing of his Peacocks, a full Stan McMahon CD would be a terrific mix of melodicism and optimism. It probably wouldn't make him a household name -- that would require improbable strokes of luck and circumstance -- but if there's one thing Bob Pollard has proven, it's that you don't have to be young to break into the biz anymore.
Q: What's your opinion of the current state of Portland music?
Stan: Most Portland bands' music is not worth a squirt of warm pee.
Not surprisingly, Stan has strong opinions about anything musically related. As far as local music is concerned, it appears that he favors bands that a) rock, preferably in the styles of Stan's influences; b) don't put on airs or subscribe to trends. Portland bands that are in Stan's good graces include Quasi, Richmond Fontaine, the Crack City Rockers, the Minders, the Standard and Wolf Colonel, whose members fawn over Stan's songs in a way that's eerily similar to Stan's own Bob Pollard fixation.
'Tween Planets singer-guitarist Robbie Scrivner, who also plays lead guitar for the Rock 'n' Roll Peacocks, says that for Stan, a Guided By Voices tour's Northwest stops are "like Christmas, and Bob Pollard is Santa Claus." Observing Stan during this time is to really see his inner teenager (which isn't very far below the surface in the first place) come bursting forth in an expression of pure ecstasy. After seeing GBV in Seattle the night before, Stan is in full-on schmooze mode in the artists' private area, drinking free beer, exclaiming that Guided By Voices is the "best fucking rock 'n' roll band in the world," talking (but acting coolly detached) to R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, who's there to play with opening act the Minus 5, and reaping as much quality time with Bob as he possibly can. I take a picture of Stan and Bob together; Bob's face has an expression of tour fatigue, while Stan reacts as if he's reuniting with a beloved brother he sees only once a year.
When GBV takes the stage to the roar of a nearly packed room and the opening of many an onstage cold brew, Stan is in the audience, ready to rock. As the band launches into what would eventually amount to a 57-song set, Stan throws his 6'4" frame around, singing along with every word, pumping his fists. At one point he drapes an arm around a woman he may or may not know, very animatedly yells lyrics in her ear and gives her one of his trademark cheek kisses (he gives them to everyone, quite frequently; it's his trademark display of affection. Just make sure he doesn't get you on the ear or it'll ring something wicked). He walks up to me, arms outstretched, a pleading look on his face, mouthing the words to "Motor Away." Later, as the band kicks into a new song ("Run Wild," I think), Stan shouts in my ear, "I don't like this song at all. Not at all." Nevertheless, he dances joyfully, singing every word, just like a true fan always does.
A few weeks earlier, I had watched him on the stage with Giant Bug Village at the Medicine Hat, reverentially belting out "Chasing Heather Crazy" in much the way a devoted jazz chanteuse would render some classic Billie Holiday tune, finishing the song with his trademark raising of a bottle of beer. After the band wrapped up their set, Stan, breaking out his acoustic guitar, announced he was going to wrap up the night with "a couple" of solo GBV songs. But of course, with Stan, it's never just a couple, and even though last call had come and gone and work loomed just a few hours away, I and a few other hardy souls stayed to see just how many songs Stan would play, to see if he would stop voluntarily or have the plug pulled by the surely exhausted sound guy.
Finally, after 9 songs, Stan quit, but those who know Stan know he'll keep playing, even if no one's listening, because at least he's listening. Even then, it still matters. And that's when I wish I could find the time and energy to have music matter as much.