Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Wake To a New Today Tomorrow

A quick disclaimer -- I'm long winded by nature, but I'm going to outdo myself on this one.  As a long time R.E.M. fan (obsessive?), this is meant more as a little cathartic exercise than an attempt to really write something worth reading.  It may well be a waste of time, though I'll always appreciate anyone who takes the time to read anything that I might write.  If you make it all the way through, I hope you enjoy it, but if you get a sentence or two further and give up....well, you've been warned.

You'd think with one of my favorite teams making an improbably push towards the Wild Card, I'd be posting daily thoughts on the Cardinals.  But as dramatic as the home stretch of the baseball season has been, there's only one topic on my mind as I start writing tonight....After 31 years as a band, R.E.M. has decided to -- as they put it -- " it a day...".

(Photo taken from --

Some will tell you that hearing (fill in R.E.M. song here) for the first time changed their life, I think most stories would sound similar to mine.  I honestly can't remember the first R.E.M. song that I really heard, but it was "The One I Love" and Document when I first really became aware of R.E.M.'s music -- this was my sophomore year of high school.  And at first, I wasn't a huge fan.  But a friend of mine was insistent that this band was awesome (he'd previously tried to convert me to the Cure, which oddly enough is a band that took another 3 or 4 years for me to fully appreciate).  He was so convinced that I would be hooked that he dubbed a cassette with Life's Rich Pageant on one side and Document on the other.  By this point, "The One I Love" had been in constant rotation on the radio -- and the few "long time" R.E.M. fans at my school were converting new fans all the if anything, they were what the "cool kids" liked, and that gave me reason to listen.  "It's the End of the World As We Know It" was another one the clicked right away.  I flipped the tape over and thought "Fall On Me" and "Superman" sounded vaguely familiar.  But outside of these songs, not much really drew me in and for the time being, my musical tastes tended more towards classic rock such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

But the "coolness factor" kept increasing for R.E.M. so more and more of my classmates were becoming fans.  Later that year, a few of the "cool kids" decided to play "The One I Love" at our school talent show.  Starting to come around, but still far from a fan.  Fast forward to the next of my best friends goes away to camp, comes back with stories of a guy that he had met that had "great taste in music".  So a few weeks later, the new friend comes to visit, and struck me as a pretty cool guy.  And the fact that he didn't seem to think I was a complete idiot didn't hurt, either.  He's got a cassette with him that would change my musical tastes forever.  Ironically, it was -- of all things -- a Warren Zevon album.  The album, Sentimental Hygiene, featured R.E.M. as Zevon's backing band, and all this new friend could say was that this was a great album and that it sounded like an R.E.M. album.  Wanting to fit in, I made a copy and started playing the album for hours on end.  The more I listened the more I liked it.

A few weeks later and my family heads out for one of our annual vacations...this one out west to Colorado.  As I said before, I was a pretty typical 15 year old in that I would listen to Warren Zevon basically because someone that I thought was cool told me it was good.  And like most 15 year old kids, I had also developed a nice little surly streak (my family would probably tell you that it's never really gone away).  Staying home wasn't an option, however, so packing a walkman and as many cassette tapes as possible was a must.  Traveling from central Illinois to Colorado by car involves more than a few hours in the car, and many of the miles are typified by flat terrain and very sketchy radio reception.  I'll tell you today that my parents have excellent taste in music.  They introduced me to bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Jefferson Airplane/Starship....There are many songs, bands and albums that I still love today because I remember hearing them in the car during a family trip.  But, at 15, I'd have made no such concession, and with the exception of the Beatles, just about any tape they played on the car stereo was met with me putting on a pair of headphones.

You can only listen to one Warren Zevon album so many times as you traverse states like Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, etc., so eventually I had to pick something else.  Somewhere along the way, I decided to put in the R.E.M. cassette that had Document and Pageant.  The former was the bigger draw because of the hit songs and the sound closer to the Zevon album, but after a while, it was Pageant  that really settled into my brain.  I think I may have listened to this cassette non-stop for the rest of the trip.  Or at least that's the romanticized way I'm choosing to remember it.  And from that point forward, I started to count myself as an R.E.M. fan.

As Junior year gets underway, news breaks that Van Halen (or Van Hagar as they were referred to at the time) was coming to the Peoria Civic Center.  I hadn't completely forsaken classic/hard rock at this point, and Van Halen was still a big deal.  Different "cool friend of a friend" spends the night talking about R.E.M.'s new record, Green, and that we needed to go right out and buy a copy for ourselves.  Back then the $15 necessary to buy a CD seemed like a lot of money, and it took me a couple of weeks to save the cash.  But as soon as I did, my dad drove me over to a local record store, and I bought a copy (the first R.E.M. ablum that I actually bought as opposed to copying from a friend).  "Orange Crush" was a song I liked right away (and had heard on the radio) and "Stand" hadn't yet hit the airwaves.  Hooked, mesmerized....however you want to put it, that's where I was.  This album had the dual benefit of being something that I really loved AND something that was cool to listen to.

The school talent show rolls around again, and the same kids that had performed an R.E.M. song the year before play "Driver 8".  How did I not know this song yet?  That I don't know, but I do know that I immediately bought a copy of Eponymous (the IRS greatest hits album that came out at the same time as Green).  And so now I also loved "Radio Free Europe", "Talk About the Passion" and "Don't Go Back to Rockville".  Some friends -- more of those "cool kids" that I wanted to be in good with -- were driving up to Alpine Valley in Wisconsin to see the Rolling Stones on their Steel Wheels tour.  My parents were pretty cool (again, something I probably wouldn't have admitted at the time) but piling into a car with friends that hadn't been driving very long and driving a couple hours north was not something they were agreeable to.  But to soften the blow, they did say that I could find another concert that wasn't quite so far away and they'd let me go.  Then a friend mentions that R.E.M. was about to play a show in Champaign, which was only about 90 minutes away.  The P's still weren't up for letting me ride with friends, but since we knew guys at U of I that were going to the show, we had an apartment where my Dad could sit while I went to the show with my friends (an aside -- I was cool for a short time because I'd been the one to get the group together to go see R.E.M. -- life was good).  Again, my parents are pretty cool....looking at this now as I'm just about to turn 39, I can't believe my Dad did this just so I could go to a concert.

If my life didn't change the first time I heard an R.E.M. song, it did the first time I saw them live.  To this day -- and I realize that it has been built up over the years in my mind -- I still hold the memory of this concert very close to my heart.  They played most of the songs that I wanted to hear (though sadly not "Driver 8") and played several more that have since become favorites (such as "Perfect Circle").  But without a doubt, this is the point where I went from being an R.E.M. fan to being an R.E.M. obsessive.  If there was an album I didn't have yet, I bought and/or copied it.  I fell asleep most nights with a pair of headphones on and an R.E.M. album playing.  I started listening to other bands that were in the same vein -- we called it college rock back then.  I found a lot of great music, much of which I still love today and that takes me back to that time whenever I hear it.  But there was never a band that compared with R.E.M.

It only got worse in college....I annoyed, then converted my roommate freshman year.  I begged another friend to drive me the 16 miles from campus to the closest record store to buy a copy of Out of Time the day it was released.  A friend and I would sit in the quad playing our guitars -- the only two truly recognizable songs we could play were "Driver 8" and the Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine" -- which is what we'd play if anyone that we knew came along and asked us to play something.  Junior year brought Automatic for the People and me convincing my then girlfriend (and now wife) to go stand in line with me for the midnight sale that the new record store was holding.  She bought a copy, too, and still loves many of those songs (though we both really still hate "Everybody Hurts").  Another midnight sale for Monster (and my second R.E.M. concert), which I initially loved, but is now my least favorite album featuring Bill Berry.

By the time New Adventures in Hi Fi came out in 1996, I had just moved to the Chicago area and seen my tastes shift a bit towards "jam bands".....but, of course, I still stopped at Tower Records on my lunch break to get my copy and still spent the afternoon in my cube at work trying to look busy while listening to the album.  Not long after, Bill Berry quit the band, and I fully expected them to be done.  But Up soon followed, coming out just days before I got married.  Thanks to the wedding and the ensuing honeymoon, this was the first time since Green...and last....time that I would not buy an R.E.M. album on the day that it came out.  This album and the next 2 don't really merit much more mention.  I don't hate any of the 3, and while I think they all have some great tracks, I always lump them together as R.E.M.'s lost period -- as I'm sure many of my fellow fans do.  I do recall, however, that when the band stopped in the Chicago area during this tour, I convinced my wife that we needed to go because I was fairly certain this would be my last chance to see them.  Didn't think they had more than a year or two left.

So that leaves Accelerate (along with my final R.E.M. show) and Collapse Into Now.  These albums were not as good as the ones that I was obsessed with in the late 80's/early 90's, but they were a welcome change after previous 3 post-Berry releases.  And their Chicago stop in support of Accelerate is easily the 2nd best concert of the 4 that I've seen.  Collapse saw me as excited for a new R.E.M. album as I'd been since Hi Fi.  And today, I'm listening to it in a new light -- especially the song "All the Best" -- "I'll do this one more time".....

I recall reading several reviews that suggested that this might be R.E.M.'s swan song, but I refused to believe that could be true.  But of course, that is exactly what it turned out to be.  And, honestly, it isn't a bad way to go out.  Once the news of their break-up hit, I was following twitter looking for that sense of community that you have when you have a shared love for a band.  As you'd expect, mixed in were the typical comments slamming the band -- everything from "they haven't been good since (fill in IRS era record) or (Automatic)" to "I hated 'Losing My Religion'" to "So tragic to say goodbye to a band that hasn't been relevant in at least 10 years."  Actually, that last one really pisses me off -- first of all, R.E.M. meant a great deal to a lot of us.  I'm sure there are an infinite number of stories out there similar to mine (though I doubt many of them are as long winded).  And since when did relevant = greatness?  It seems relevant is the same as hit songs to many people -- and by that logic that means Demi Lovato, LMFAO, Maroon 5 and Lady GaGa are a bigger deal than R.E.M.  Ok, perhaps this particular moment in time, they are, but check back in 5 or 10 years -- I think R.E.M.'s work will hold up while many of the hitmakers of today will be just as anonymous as all of those bands that were big 2 or 3 years ago but are now long forgotten by anyone that isn't a die hard fan.  So basically, you can stick your relevance up your.....

Sorry -- soap box.  And so, 9/21/2011 is the day we bid R.E.M. a fond farewell.  It's a sad day in many ways, but the music will live on (and will undoubtedly annoy the crap out of my wife as I'm sure to be playing it non-stop for the next few days -- though I'm sure she'll be thankful that this puts an end to my Pearl Jam fixation that's been with me since the PJ20 shows at Alpine Valley a few weeks ago).  As I said in the little disclaimer at the top of the post, this one isn't really being written for anyone but me.  R.E.M. has been the soundtrack to my life for the last 24 years.  Even the albums that I first heard several years after their initial release trigger memories of a particular person, experience or place.  Maybe they stuck around a bit too long.  Maybe listening to R.E.M. isn't the badge of honor that it once was.  Doesn't matter, because right now, I just want to say thanks.  It feels like I should say more, but I don't know what that would be.  I'll never, ever, love another band the way that I love R.E.M.  And while I'm sad that I don't have much more than a new greatest hits album to look forward to...and that I never got to hear them play "Driver 8" live...I'm so thankful that I have 15+ albums worth of music that is so much more than lyrics and melody....It's a time machine...a window into my life at any given time.  And to that one guy on twitter -- that's why so many people are lamenting that band that you think is no longer relevant.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading and indulging me for a little while.  (in my head, "Find the River" is providing a fitting close to this post).  Oh, and if you didn't know, the title of this post is taken from a lyric for "It's a Free World, Baby".

No comments:

Post a Comment