Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: R.E.M.

The simple truth is that R.E.M. saved my life. I first heard them when I was in junior high, on a new wave radio show I found when I was spinning the dial on a Sunday afternoon. They played “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)”, and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard, and I begged my mom to take me out to the mall to buy a copy of their debut EP, Chronic Town. Their first full-length LP, Murmur, came out less than a year later and I snatched it up right away, and scratched it all to hell lifting and dropping the needle with my thumb over and over again to listen to “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still” nonstop. For the former, I’d jump around the room playing air guitar, and for the latter I’d hold an invisible microphone to my mouth, close my eyes and try to blend in with harmony on the chorus – “I-I-I believe” – and waves of well-being would cascade up and down my spine. It was like being hugged by God.

            Then things changed very quickly for me. My mom got a job in Denver, and when I boarded the bus for my first day of school in the big city, everyone laughed at me. This was a time when every teen movie had a pathetic nerd in it, and with my big horned-rim glasses, I looked the part. Laughter followed me through the halls of school, and the other kids called me “Waldorf” and “Melvin.” I had to do something about it, so I went punk. I made my mom drive me to Wax Trax to buy a bunch of T-shirts and I took my jeans and ground them against the pavement in front of our house to make holes in the knees and I stopped combing my hair. I started smoking pot. My buddy Andy and I formed a punk band called Rellik (“killer” spelled backward). Andy played guitar and I gyrated and screamed. We went without a drummer and bass player for the better part of the summer, and when we finally found a couple competent players we celebrated by smoking a whole bunch of weed that I’m pretty sure was laced with PCP, which turned out to be a lot more than my 16-year-old psyche could handle. While the band played, I sat on the dining room table in Andy’s house staring at my reflection in a plate-glass window, watching it melt and transform into versions of myself at all the different ages of my life – little boy, teenager, old man – and at each stage I was a pathetic fool. The nightmare didn’t end when I came down. I started my sophomore year literally unable to bear the sight of my own shadow. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror, couldn’t stand the sound of my voice, and I tried not to be alone for any significant stretch of time out of fear of what I might do to myself. The only things that brought relief were music, and writing and making art. I pulled out the banged up copy of Murmur that I’d neglected during my punk-only phase, played “Sitting Still” incessantly, wailing along with such determination that the “I-I-I believe!” chorus began to ring true.
            I picked up a copy of Reckoning, and it was a godsend. I could not stop listening to it. When I was at school or away from of my record player for more than a few hours, I’d start to crave it, especially the beginning, the way “Harborcoat” burst into its driving beat and jangling guitar riff and the soaring harmony of the chorus. The vocals are so strong on that album that even when you’re not singing along it feels as though the words and notes are rising out of your solar plexus. R.E.M. played at Macky Auditorium that fall, and I drove up there from Aurora in my little blue bug, listening to Peter Buck guest deejay on KBCO. I remember he played a tune by The Band, and the deejay asked him why, and he said something like, “Because they’re the great American band,” and I made a mental note to check them out. Every day, I’d listen to Reckoning constantly and draw or write stories for the school newspaper, where I’d struck up a friendship with the editors, a couple of sexy senior girls named Allison and Rachel. They had good taste in music, too, and Rachel shared my love for R.E.M., and pretty soon she was listening to it with me in my room, and we’d stop making out only long enough to flip the record over. She was my first girlfriend, and I regained my ability to look myself in the mirror the moment we first kissed.
            I wish I could say I’ve been a loyal R.E.M. fan ever since, but I abandoned them my junior year, when I went all-in for acid rock. They rolled through Boulder again in autumn of that year, right at the cusp of my transformation, and a friend of mine scored front-row seats. I went on two hits of acid, and I kept wishing that Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix would step onto the stage. It wasn’t until I started buying vinyl again that I got back into them. On Record Store Day this year, I picked up a copy of Reckoning for the nostalgia of it and I discovered all over again that it’s an amazing record. When I moved to Georgia in late July, I found myself listening to it a lot, along with Fables of the Reconstruction, and staring out the windows at the kudzu vines and the magnolia trees, feeling the spirit of this great and strange state brought to life in this gorgeous music. So I got all their other records from the 80s, and I’ve been listening to them all weekend, reliving a decade of music that I missed the first time around, thrilled at the prospect of the new life that lies ahead.   

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