I can hear you, can you hear me?–R.E.M., Sitting Still
R.E.M. is the absolute seminal band for me; their albums are the soundtrack of my life. I was a thriteen year-old heavy metal-loving dork living in working class Michigan in 1984 when, on Easter vacation in Toronto, I stumbled upon Chronic Town in a cutout bin at Sam The Record Man on Yonge St. From the moment the needle hit the vinyl on my shitty, department store turntable, I was literally tranformed into another person. It is hard to remember the fabric of a pre-internet, pre-iPod, pre-video on demand world, but I clearly had a sentimental attachment to the sensation of having a secret, of loving something and finding almost no connection among members of my community, my friends, my peers; is that even possible anymore? I have a very young son, and I often wonder if he will ever feel what it is like to not know a single person who shares his passion for an artist, an idea, a song. Today, we connect online, we find a universe of articles and fans sites and links and history and community among like-minded people around the world. For me, cracking open Chronic Town in Flint, Michigan as a thirteen year-old kid felt like a secret, private revolt. I would literally spend days listening to R.E.M. records, singing along in jibberish, blissfully alone, disconnected, changing into what I now consider “me.” Is that possible anymore?
Smitten with Chronic Town, I immediately dove into the R.E.M. catalogue, picking up Murmur, already a year old, and Reckoning, which had just come out. I was inseparable from those records during Middle School, literally wearing out my vinyl copy of Murmur within a few months. The following spring, 1985, I picked up Fables of The Reconstruction and my step-dad took me to see the band in concert at the Fox Theater in Detroit, which blew my 14 year old mind. I can remember almost every detail of that show to this day, from the expressionistic lighting to the huge sound to the cover of Aerosmith’s Toys In The Attic that came out of nowhere. The band was always mysterious; who wrote which song? What was Michael Stipe hiding from behind his curly hair? What was he singing about? Every once in a while, an interview would appear in a magazine, a clip on MTV, and I would gobble all of it up, trying to understand the band and the reasons I felt so connected to their music. It was and is a mystery to me; Stipe’s voice is in my own vocal range, so I could sing along, the abstract imagery of the songs hit me, the jangly guitar connected to classic songs that I loved, there was an outsider’s perspective that the band conveyed that felt true, a million reasons.
But more importantly, they were singing songs that felt like being young and feeling eternal, about the impossibile reality of death and growing old, mixed with a deeply curious attachment to passing ways of life, regional, local experience, to just living and not giving a fuck. I felt like I could live a million years, secluded and all along the ruins and on and on.
Most of all, though, R.E.M. felt like something in stark opposition to the conservative literalism of Regan’s America, something much smarter and bigger than Middle and High School, connected to an almost impossibly vibrant scene (Athens GA, a place I dreamt of for years), an ideal of creative work, of personal possibility for me. There are infinite numbers of stories of kids claiming that bands saved their lives; my life didn’t need saving, I was a happy, confident kid. R.E.M. didn’t save my life or give it purpose, they simply offered me a portal into the possibilities of living, of a larger world. I listen to those records today and more than the music and the words, they convey the texture of memory and experience for me; they make me feel the same feelings, but through a new, changing perspective about who I am.
For no reason other than my own inability to appreciate the grand scale of the stadium concert, I stopped going to R.E.M. shows after the Green tour. And in truth, after Bill Berry left in 1997 to recover from a brain aneurysm, I felt like the band and I both had changed, which, fucking right and fair play. There was nothing revoked between the music and me, but all of doors that R.E.M. had opened for me had been populated by a million other moments, experiences, songs, shows, loves. I grew up, got older, and they did the same. I haven’t felt a deep connection to the band’s new work in the same way I did their 1980’s work, but who feels the same deep connection as a thirty something that they did as a teenager?
I am going to die someday. I have a son to whom I want to give the entirety of the world and all of myself. I have a wife that I love in ways I thought impossible. So many things I dreamed of doing will never get done. And I feel completely content.
That said, whatever connected inside of me, it is still very much alive. Today, I picked up a copy of R.E.M.’s new album, Live At The Olympia which has essentailly forced me curl up in a ball in my bedroom with my headphones on, a irrevocable grin plastered on my face, emotions and feelings I haven’t had in years flooding through me. It is an absolutely amazing retrospective of everything that made the band vital, crucial, meaningful to me. The song selection is unreal (they play so many of my favorites) but it is the muscular, urgent sound of the performances on this record that prove just how important and powerful a band R.E.M. are. All of that is well and good and yes yes yes, but the real gift here is the way Michael Stipe just CRUSHES these songs– I just can’t believe how good and clear he sounds on this record; the performances of Sitting Still, Carnival Of Sorts and especially 1,000,000 as they are performed here are achingly, jawdroppingly great. I had forgotten what they mean to me and this album feels like a reclamation of everything I loved about discovering their music, everything I was and wanted to be. I can’t believe it. It’s still there and I forgot how much I missed it.
Brilliant fun to feel all of this again. xo