Friday, September 23, 2011

A Spontaneous Ode to R.E.M.

Unless you live under a rock (or possibly if you’re over the age of 55), you've probably heard about the decision by R.E.M. band members to “call it a day” after 31 years. These guys weren’t just any old band, but a supremely good band. If I were someone different I would be able to describe them in really outrageous terms that included phrases such as “kick-ass” or “all-time best ever” or perhaps even something involving the word “rockin’,” but since I can’t really use language like that without also relying on an oddly affected tone of voice, and since there is no tone of voice involved in reading what I’m writing, I’m just going to go with simplicity here and say they were a really good band. And I just don’t see how anyone can argue with me on that.

I’m not a music snob. I’m not obsessed with music, I don’t keep up with what is new and cutting edge or popular. I can’t, under any circumstances, be considered any kind of music aficionado. But I was fairly dedicated to music from about age 14 until maybe 27 so there are many bands and musicians that I was pretty devoted to during those years and whom I will always hold very, very close to my heart.  Music is so amazing; it’s almost like a magic trick the way hearing certain songs can act like a time machine, instantly transporting you back to some moment in time that your psyche intensely associates with that song. And I love that. I love the feeling when you listen to a song that has such a powerful memory attached with it that you feel physically crushed by the sensation of remembering and you think you can smell some aroma that you smelled years ago and your skin actually feels prickly like you are surrounded by spirits of an earlier time and they are having a cosmic energetic affect on you as you sit there listening in your hum-drum, present-day life.

That’s exactly what R.E.M. does for me. I feel no shame in admitting that I am speaking almost exclusively of their “early stuff” from 1983 until 1989 or so. I did like a lot of their songs after Green came out but I was never manic about them again. And I was manic about them for a while. One of my most fabulous friends of all time, Kim, can attest to this fact because she was manic with me. We fed off of each other’s manias. It was a great time. I was a senior and she was a junior in college in Los Angeles and we’d buy cheap wine from Trader Joe’s and listen to every R.E.M. album and talk about how much we loved them and how much we hated college. In 1991, after she & I had both graduated, we were living out in Washington D.C. and I came up with what I thought was a brilliant plan to drive down to Athens, GA for a weekend. Kim wondered what we would do down there. I had no idea. We’d get drunk at a bar that R.E.M. may have also gotten drunk at. We would walk streets they had walked. We would see sights they had seen. What did I care, I just wanted to be there. I was also a big B-52’s fan so I thought I might double my chances for a brush with a brush with fame just by sitting on a street corner or buying a pack of gum at a 7-11 in Athens.  The road trip never happened, which may or may not have been a blessing. We saved ourselves a lot of gas money anyway.

I have so many other R.E.M.-related memories. My sister was actually the one who discovered them in 1983, which is not surprising since she (at 2 years older than me) was really the source of all cool music at that time. If it weren’t for her, I’d still be listening to my Styx record. Or Shawn Cassidy. Or Journey. Oh, I shudder to think… But I have this very contorted association from Spring break of my freshman year of high school that involves listening to Murmur, going for a drive with my best friend (at the time) to a local park where I sincerely hoped to run into the boy I had recently made out with and sporting my new birthday duds, a pink polo shirt and white shorts that highlighted the suntan/burn I had gotten from “laying out” in the sun on the balcony of our old house in Denver. C’mon… memories don’t get much sweeter than that, do they? Can you even believe all the random elements of that memory? Every single one of them can be instantly conjured by a quick listen to Radio Free Europe. How awesome is that?

There are many other R.E.M. songs woven into the fabric of my youth. Life’s Rich Pageant came out when I was a freshman in college and anyone at Occidental College in 1986-87 who lived anywhere near Haines Hall must remember the two guys who owned a prime piece of college dormitory real estate that year with a 2nd-floor room that opened onto a balcony where they were often spotted kicked back listening to Pageant over and over and over again on many-a sunny SoCal day. Then there were the numerous parties that spring (and by numerous, I mean more than one because obviously 1+ equals numerous) at the Women’s Water Polo coaches’ house where the song Superman was frequently featured in the musical repertoire. I know of at least two other people besides me who will never forget the night that this freshman guy sat there picking his nose all through that song and was henceforth known (only by us) as Boogerman. And how about that cute little jig Michael Stipe performed as he sang Get Up, which I first witnessed at a concert in Irvine the same day as the big earthquake in San Francisco in 1989? I still do that dance, even if I’m driving the car. Oh, R.E.M., so many good times. How can I ever thank you?

Even now, in the days of motherhood when it feels as if my youth is long gone, I still listen to R.E.M. on a regular basis. My daughter is a big fan of many of their songs, including, but not limited to, Nightswimming, (Don’t Go Back to) Rockville, and Imitation of Life. And she can tell you all the names of the band members and what instruments they play. In any given song she can identify which voice is that of Michael Stipe and which belongs to Mike Mills. Man, I love my kid.

Still own it... on vinyl
So here is a little farewell ode to R.E.M. I hadn’t planned on writing this at all but it came to me as I sat at the dinner table listening to them sing their signature barely-intelligible lyrics which I nevertheless still have memorized, if not as actual words, at least as approximations of sounds. It’s quite comforting to my brain to be able to predict each note before it is played. Mr. Stipe, Mr. Buck, Mr. Mills and the already-retired Mr. Berry, I do thank you, from the bottom of my soul for creating so much good music and so many memories, for contributing so many numbers to the soundtrack of my life. I don’t blame you for wanting to call it a day, for wanting a change. Change is what I believe in.

No comments:

Post a Comment