R.E.M.: Life And How To Live It
I’m pretty sure I’d never seen a man wearing eyeliner, let alone one stabbing, sweating and strutting his way shirtless across a stage back lit by 16mm film of fish swimming in slow-motion.
I was in the second row. Standing on my seat for two hours straight. Singing every word.
Indeed, R.E.M.’s 1988 Philadelphia Spectrum performance was mind blowing enough to derail everything that had come prior, and everything that would follow. The tale is well-worn. Heck, it’s baked into my biography.
“My big brother brought R.E.M.’s ‘Reckoning’ home from college which immediately woke me up and snapped me out of my Phil Collins stupor. Hearing ‘So. Central Rain’ for the first time changed everything.”
That hook! 12-string Rickenbacker. Tack piano. Heavy on floor tom. Melodic, propulsive bass line. Sharp counter melody. And the lyrics: at first obtuse (“Eastern to Mountain third party call / The lines are down / The wise man built his words up on the rocks / But I’m not bound to follow suit”), and then clarion clear. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Lyrics any sixteen-year-old could dig.
And that was all it took. Luckily, though, Chris brought home two R.E.M. albums: “Reckoning” and “Murmur.” They were more than records, they were worlds: kudzu-covered railroad trestles, eccentric neighbors, seven Chinese brothers. It was Little America, somewhere deeper, darker, more sinister and in equal turn illuminating than my Philadelphia suburbs. It was escape. It was inspiration.
It’s impossible to chronicle in any meaningful way (and against the crush of the news cycle) just how impactful Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe were.
That tour stop — the “Work Tour” (lest anyone confuse it with the frivolity of, say, Mötley Crüe) in support their 1987’s LP “Document” (the band’s first with producer Scott Litt, and last for IRS Records) was my first rock show. 10,000 Maniacs opened. I wore the t-shirt to the PSATs the next morning.
“The One I Love” was the first song I learned on guitar. Its chords (EmGCD) form the basis for damn near my entire catalogue. I released a live version years later. That recording (“February 25, 2005”, a title inspired by the Uncle Tupelo record guitarist Peter Buck produced) remains my seventh most-downloaded song.
A 24-hour, 1,512-mile journey to Athens, Georgia, was my first road trip. Greg Lage and I listened to “Pilgrimage” every hour. We bought a few cassettes at Wuxtry Records, snapped photos of Walter’s BBQ, and turned around. “Jefferson, I think I’m lost,” indeed.
Michael was the first rock star I ever interviewed — twice. The first time, a phoner for The Syracuse Orangemen, I told him I had forty questions. “Chose your favorite,” he said making lunch plans under his breath. The second time, he offered me an America Spirit in Warner Bros. NYC HQ. I turned green, but held it together through the MTV Q&A (“Michael Stipe: Man On The Moon”).
And a Fireglo Rickenbacker 360 — best appreciated (perhaps) on 2005’s “Heartland” LP — was my first electric guitar. I still have it (albeit under the bed).
The band’s tastes shaped mine. Through interviews (which I clipped and collected in a manila folder labeled “The REM Files”), collaborations and co-signs, I discovered innumerable artists, from The Velvet Underground to Flat Duo Jets, Chris Isaak to Lester Bangs, The Replacements, Wire, Mission Of Burma, Guadalcanal Diary, The dBs, and many, many more.
I covered them live thousands of times, from my first-ever live performance at Conestoga High School (“Finest Worksong”) to our frequent, attic-shaking college keggers (“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, of course), to Arlene Grocery (“Second Guessing”), Mercury Lounge a few days after September 11 (“World Leader Pretend” dedicated to then-President George Bush) and Rockwood Music Hall last year (where I tacked a verse of “I Believe” to the top of “St. Anne (Of The Silence)”).
In fact, it was Jamie, Paul and my rough but passable run through “Driver 8” in a dusty living room on Standart Street in Syracuse that birthed Smokey Junglefrog — and the rock ‘n roll fantasy (or delusion, depending) that followed.
Moreover, though, R.E.M. helped shape an aesthetic: call it expressive, art-house, minor-chord pop. It was a little darker, a little obscured, a little esoteric, but accessible. It was implicit, evocative. You had to work for it, connect the dots, parse the meaning. It’s evident from the cover of Smokey Junglefrog’s 1990 LP “Crumble” (a blurry, wiry light bulb) to 2011’s “Forever Young” (a blurry, bucolic close up of my infant daughter).
And it’s evident in the sound of every record I’ve ever made, from the random, abstract lyrics of (and use of parenthesis for) “Kathryn (Of A Thousand Faces)” to country feedback throughout “Crash Site” to the jangle-pop of “Giving Up The Ghost.”
More than influences, introductions and aesthetics, though, R.E.M. invited me into music. Before that iconic, eyeliner-smeared performance, I was just a fan. Standing there on my seat in the second row, enveloped in the sound, light and fury, I was hooked. I joined a band months later, went to college, bought a guitar, and set out to record my “Murmur,” and live my own sometimes esoteric, always expressive, art-house, minor-chord but mainstream pop life.
I’m still working on it.
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