Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On R.E.M.: A Personal History

I. State College, Pennsylvania, Spring '91: Document

His name is not relevant. He was never really a friend. For three months, he was a pledge brother at my fraternity, which meant we scrubbed floors and cleaned toilets and went on beer runs until one day, a few weeks from our initiation, he abruptly disappeared and never returned. It did not matter why; if I am being honest, I was not particularly fond of him. He came from money, and he was comically snobbish, and he was one of the first overt racists I had come across in my sheltered existence. Here is what matters: He drove a Honda, and in this Honda were several compact discs in heavy rotation. One of those CDs was Doolittle by the Pixies. Another was Document, by a band called R.E.M.

We did not have a true alternative radio station in State College. I'm not sure how this is possible, how a college town failed to have an alternative radio station in the early 1990s, but this is State College, after all, and State College is sweatpants and football and frat parties and dingy bars populated by classic rock cover bands. And so I grew up listening a hodgepodge of mainstream music, listening to that which my brother bequeathed to me and that which I found on my own or through my metalhead high-school friends. I listened to Billy Joel's Stormfront followed by Van Halen II followed by Yes's 90125. "Alternative" music seemed the dominion of a strange and unfamiliar cult, a far more cultivated class of people than that which I considered myself. It wasn't that I'd never heard of R.E.M.--I have a distinct memory of the morning of my driver's test, waking to the local classic rock station playing "It's the End of the World (As We Know It)"--but back then, they resided in some alternate, largely radio-free dimension into which I was not permitted. Perhaps that was the reason I bothered to join a fraternity in the first place: I just wanted to know what was on the other side.

Here is what I remember most about the rides in that unnamed non-friend's Honda: Listening to song called "Exhuming McCarthy." I was eighteen years old, and I knew little to nothing of McCarthyism, and yet the opening of that song--the sounds of a manual typewriter clacking until the carriage return bell rang and a bouncy guitar riff rattled the windows--was like nothing I had ever heard. I listen to it now, and the lyrics seem kind of preachy and didactic, and yet that typewriter still transports me to the backseat of Civic, to that moment when I was just beginning to learn how much I didn't know.

II. State College, Pennsylvania, Summer '93: Murmur

That, of course, is the beauty of those early R.E.M. records: The lyrics are hopelessly and purposely cryptic. You weren't meant to understand them, any more than Michael Stipe understood himself at age 22, any more than I understood myself at age 20. In retrospect, that may have been the most boring summer of my existence: My friends retreated to their hometowns to work as landscapers and waiters and amusement-ride operators, and because my hometown was my college town, I had nothing to go back to. I lived in a forty-person fraternity house with two other people, amid broken furniture and filthy bathrooms, and I was the only one under 21, which meant they went to bars and I stayed home. I worked nights at the school newspaper, and I took a couple of unmemorable classes, and late in the evening, I would go running around the neighborhood, listening to a cassette recording of Murmur, in search of excitement that was nowhere to be found. My favorite song on that album is the most cryptic R.E.M. song ever recorded: "Sitting Still."

You can gather when I talk, talk until you're blue
You can get away from here, get away from here  

The lyrics meant nothing, and yet I was naive enough to believe that they meant something, that maybe they even applied to me somehow, that there was a puzzle waiting to be solved, if only I could get there.

III. Akron, Ohio, Summer '95: Automatic for the People

In the nineteen years (!) since this album's release, I have probably listened to it more than any other record I own. For a long time, this was the only record I could write to; for several months, when I started my first full-time newspaper job and I was fighting deadline at a sporting event, I would load this CD into a discman and coerce myself to finish before I heard the violin strains of "Nightswimming." There are a million albums that start with a blast of greatness, but I maintain, even now, that AFTP has the best two-song finish of any album ever made. It is not the reason I became a writer, but it helped me become one.

IV. Brooklyn, New York, Spring '11: Collapse Into Now

I will defend every album R.E.M. has ever made, with the exception of Around the Sun, which was the first one that led me to realize they were susceptible to the same vagaries of age as every other rock band that ever existed. But even so: I maintain that New Adventures in Hi-Fi is vastly underrated, that Up has some beautifully weird moments, that Reveal, while uneven, is not the train wreck some make it out to be. I know they are repeating themselves now, and I know that even an album like this new one cannot replicate the messiness and hesitancy of their youth. I know that R.E.M. is not what it used to be, and that it never will be.

I'm not sure if we overvalue the influence of music on our existence. I don't know if I'd be a different person if I hadn't squeezed into the backseat of that nameless non-friend's Civic, if that moment hadn't led me Murmur which led to Chronic Town* which led to Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction and Life's Rich Pageant and Green. But maybe the role of a band like R.E.M.--of all those impenetrable couplets, crafted amid the flush of youth--is to help lead us away from whoever we are.

*And I should probably credit Tommy Tomlinson's own excellent personal essay on R.E.M. for at least partially inspiring this one.

1 comment:

EricP said...

Great recollections, Michael! Been a fan since seeing the "So. Central Rain" video on American Bandstand in '84 (of all places) and still wish I had the "Night Gardening" lyrics I wrote my freshman year at PSU, comprised of nothing but snippets from R.E.M. songs to that point (Document and Dead Letter Office). While possibly not on a par with Pavement's early-90s "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence" homage, it was better than it sounds, honest. Many a trip to City Lights to add to my R.E.M. (and, more so, Replacements) vinyl collection during my time in Happy Valley, too.

Though I've lost a certain amount of interest since Bill Berry left the band, Accelerate = great return to form (best in my book since Monster) and looking forward to snagging Collapse Into Now this weekend.

Oh, from the Nigel Tufnel "that's just nitpickin', innit" files, no apostrophe in Lifes Rich Pageant, something I remember quite vividly about the Rolling Stone review of my fave R.E.M. album.