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R.E.M.

Music resonates when there is some sense of discovery. A connection. And this begets an ongoing relationship. You trust the artist. And the artist trusts you. You almost feel jealousy when others start catching on. And then the “well where the hell were YOU all this time?” smugness comes out. You want the band to be yours, but they now belong to everybody. But THEY don’t know the deep cuts. THEY don’t know the B sides. THEY sing the wrong lyrics. Amateurs….THEY SOUND OUT THE FUCKING LETTERS! THEY only know that MTV thing…..the one where the lead singer dances funny. THEY don’t even know his NAME.

The band is so good they should NEVER be famous!

We were insufferable back then, weren’t we?

I say “back then” because the world has changed. This feeling doesn’t exist anymore. Word of mouth was half the fun, and word of mouth doesn’t exist anymore. Google killed it. Social media killed it. Spotify killed it (what is the point of buying music that isn’t wrapped in cellophane?). We don’t watch concerts anymore. We point our phones at them. Music magazines are gone, replaced by URLs. You can’t scotch tape a URL to your bedroom wall.

I can feel myself turning into the “hey you kids! get off my lawn!” guy as I type these words.

It comes in cycles…..my re-immersing myself back into R.E.M.-land. It could be triggered by anything or nothing. Maybe a year ago I saw their manager Bertis Downs was on Facebook….not with a “look at me, I’m sorta famous” account, but a regular old account like the rest of the plebes. Pictures of his kids and things like that. And the occasional mention of his old band…25 year release re-issues and the like. I hit the “friend request” button. In a day or so, he accepted it. What an odd world we live in. I could now say I was “friends” with the manager of R.E.M. and only sorta be lying.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, a few days ago Downs made a post about a new Netflix release about songwriting, and one of the episodes dealt with “Losing My Religion”. Intrigued, I checked it out Friday night. There was Stipe….and holy shit…..there was BILL BERRY, who I hadn’t seen since the 90s, looking every bit as cool as I remembered him. The best eyebrows in rock and roll. They were all discussing the iconic song…..and as it was broken down track by track, you could see them, to use a Townshend phrase, “remembering distant memories, recalling other names..” Berry was stunned to hear hand-claps in the mix, he had no recollection of them at all. It was just a really cool half hour….and it made me sad because I wanted these guys to be around forever. When Berry left the band, only the die-hards like me remained, and ironically, after being pissed that I wasn’t the only person at my college who had heard of “Reckoning”, the fact that these dolts didn’t appreciate how good 2000+ albums “Reveal” and “Accelerate” were now drove me crazy.

But “Reckoning”. This was my jump-on point. I was a degenerate reader of music magazines…..had subscriptions to them all. “Record” and “Musician” were the two I remember most. And “SPIN” too I think. Anyway…this band from Athens, Georgia was getting all this ink. They looked cool. Five star reviews. Critical darlings driving around the country in a van, playing to 7 people. This was incredibly romantic to me, because it’s exactly what I wanted to be doing. Instead I was wasting my time in college. Appalling.

Anyway, to “Ralph’s Record City” did I go. And discovered that “Reckoning” was their 2nd record. So I walked out of their with “Murmur” as well. As soon as I got home “Reckoning” went on the turntable, and I tossed “Murmur” on top of my coat, which happened to be sitting on a radiator. It soon fired itself up and melted the record, which I managed to salvage but it was now so warped that it never sounded right, and always skipped in the same places. It wasn’t until I replaced all the records with CDs years later that I heard it the way it was supposed to sound. But even melted, “Sitting Still” became my favorite R.E.M. song. (I sing along even though the only words I can make out are “waste of time sitting still…..”, which is what I suspect Stipe does as well.)

Classes resumed, and the walk-man was invented. So I’d bring “Reckoning” with me and blast it, and one day outside of a Management class, a guy heard the earphone leakage (“Pretty Persuasion” it was, my musical memory is remarkable) and tapped me on the shoulder and said “is that R.E.M.?”

How did he know? If I had Stipe’s phone number I would have called him up and screamed at him. But anyway…..the guy’s name was Vince and he was a crazy as me and pretty soon we were discussing whether it was “Fables of the Reconstruction” or “Reconstruction of the Fables”. Life was a lot simpler back then Bubba.

Anyway….fast forward. “Life’s Rich Pageant” became a favorite…..and then things got crazy with “The One I Love”, and the aforementioned “Losing My Religion” made people lose their minds. They were the biggest band in the world, which wasn’t the weird part. The weird part was that they were also the best, and those 2 stars just didn’t align anymore.

They seemed to recognize this, and decided to scale things down with a quiet weird acoustic-y record called “Automatic for the People” that might throw some of the johnny-come-lately fans off the scent. This blew up in their collective face when the record turned out to be as influential in its time as the Band’s “Big Pink” record was in its own. AFTP sold 18 million copies, or about 17,999,900 more copies than all of my records put together. The poor buggers couldn’t do anything wrong.

A few years later Bill Berry got tired of hotels and airports and fans like me and became a hay farmer…..one of the most rock and roll things ever. That doesn’t mean I’m not still pissed at him, though.

This was the best American rock and roll band ever, and if you don’t agree with me that’s fine, but you’re still wrong.

I wanted to write and mumble like Stipe and play guitar like Buck (I loved Bono’s quote saying Buck “played guitar like somebody who worked in a record store”) and sing harmony like Mills and then write an American classic like “Everybody Hurts” and walk away from it all like Berry did. Nobody will be as cool as this band ever again.

Rock and roll used to be a life-force of its own. I’d rush to get home to listen to it, and rush to get outside to act it out. Those days are over, and I wish they weren’t.

I’m reminded of something Stipe sang right out of the gate…as if he knew what he (and the rest of us) was in for.

Not everyone can carry the weight of the world…

They gave it the old college try though, didn’t they?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go listen to my un-melted version of “Murmur”

In a bit..

–tf

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