Tuesday, March 01, 2011

How R.E.M. changed my life

I'm not sure that writing 1,500 words about R.E.M. is in my official job description... then again, they recorded their first two full-length albums at Reflection Studios in Charlotte, so there's a bit of a local angle. But the main reason is, this just started coming out, so here it is.

I did not come from a land of musical adventure.

At home my mom and dad listened to country. It was the best kind of country -- Hank, George Jones, Loretta Lynn -- but back then that's what the country stations played. At some point I drifted over to the pop station, and for a while I taped Casey Kasem's Top 40 every week and wrote down the charts in a notebook. By high school my tastes had broadened a little -- I liked the Molly Hatchet the potheads played at the ball park across from my house, and the R&B I heard at dances and parties. There was one party, at a condo complex with a pond, where ducks came waddling through the living room while "Let It Whip" thumped on the stereo. I'll always associate "Let It Whip" with ducks.

But all that music was in the middle of the mainstream -- even if kids didn't like all of it, they knew about all of it. I went to a summer program before my senior year of high school; at a dance the first night, they played "Rock Lobster." All the kids from Atlanta knew it by heart. I'd never heard it, or anything like it.

The day I arrived at the University of Georgia, in 1982, somebody was blasting Atlanta Rhythm Section from speakers in a dorm window. There was a guy everybody called The Nuge because he worshiped Ted Nugent. Most days you could hear somebody playing Rick James or the Police or Ronnie Milsap -- the same stuff I heard back home.

But then I started seeing fliers on telephone poles for bands with names like Love Tractor. I'd never heard of ANY of these bands. I wondered if the posters were some kind of prank -- we'd get there for the show, and the seniors would come out and laugh at us. "Love Tractor?" they'd say. "You thought that was a REAL band?"

I made some friends right away, and we went to football games and stayed up late drinking beer and eating popcorn. But I didn't feel comfortable on that big campus. Not handsome enough, not smart enough, most definitely not cool enough.

I had a bizarre roommate, a junior named Matt. The legend was that he had never changed his bedsheet in three years on campus. You could see the outline of his body on the sheet. We called it the Shroud of Matt. He would have loud fights with his girlfriend, and louder makeup sex. I stayed out of my dorm room as much as possible.

But one day when I was there, he put a record on the turntable. It had been out only a couple of weeks. He said "Listen to this," and handed me the sleeve.

This is what I heard:

It sounded even weirder than "Rock Lobster." The recording felt homemade. The guitar line careened like a wagon about to run into the ditch. And that singer... I couldn't make out the words, but it didn't matter. There were five songs on the album, all dark and murky and incomprehensible. Which was perfect, because my life felt dark and murky and incomprehensible. This band I had never heard of was saying what I never knew I needed to hear.

They were a local band. Back home, "local band" meant some guys who played at the talent show once they learned "Free Bird." But these four guys wrote their own stuff. They were right there in Athens among us. We saw Michael Stipe, the singer, at the Gyro Wrap downtown. We saw Bill Berry, the drummer, and Mike Mills, the bass player, in a guitar shop. I took a leak next to Pete Buck, the guitarist, at a Jason and the Scorchers show.

They played a free concert on campus and a couple of thousand people showed up. But when I went home for Christmas, no one had heard of them. They were still listening to Molly Hatchet and "Let It Whip."

For the first time in my life, I was on the front edge of something cool. R.E.M. was playing clubs all over the country by that point, and picking up fans a roomful at a time, but they were still this little musical cult. And I belonged.

That spring, they put out their first full-length album, "Murmur." Rolling Stone reviewed it -- Rolling Stone? Reviewing our guys? -- and gave it four out of five stars. A re-recording of their first single, "Radio Free Europe," made the Billboard pop chart. And driving home on break, a couple of months later, I flipped to a Savannah rock station -- the kind of station that played Skynyrd and Styx -- and they were playing R.E.M. on the radio.

That summer, staying up late one night, I saw the video on MTV.

It was the most bittersweet feeling. I was thrilled for my guys. But I knew they weren't really mine anymore.

I can track those years by R.E.M. records. My sophomore year, clearer and happier -- that was "Reckoning." A lost summer in Jacksonville -- "Fables of the Reconstruction." A road trip, the tape deck cranked up as loud as it would go -- that's "Lifes Rich Pageant."

But by then we didn't see them around town as much. They still lived in Athens, and sometimes they'd play there under a fake name -- one gig I remember, they were Hornets Attack Victor Mature. But word spreads fast in a college town, and Hornets Attack Victor Mature packed the club.

By the time I left school and got my first newspaper job, everybody knew about R.E.M. "The One I Love" was a hit single, "Losing My Religion" was an even bigger hit, Rolling Stone called them the best band in the world, they went from clubs to theaters to arenas. They made lots of money. Bill Berry had a brain aneurysm onstage and later retired. The other three played on.

I don't buy the new R.E.M. record the first day it comes out anymore. The last couple I've only listened to a little. They've changed and I've changed. In one sense, music is just a business transaction -- play me something I like, I'll drop some money in the hat. But if you really love a certain band you know it's more than that. Every new song feels like a letter from a friend. If the song doesn't move you, you wonder if you should keep trying, or just move on. But you keep hoping -- at least I keep hoping -- for that moment that reminds you why you reached out in the first place.

R.E.M. has a new album coming out next week. You can hear it streamed on NPR Tuesday. I like what I've heard. I'm going to buy it, let it roll around in my head awhile. I don't expect it to hit me the way that first record hit me almost 30 years ago. But one thing R.E.M. taught me is to keep reaching out, hoping for that connection, because you can't predict where it'll come from.

I'm still not cool. But every so often, mostly because of this incredible job, I'll end up knowing about a great band or a moving film or a gifted young writer before most other people find out. There's no longer that bittersweet feeling, though. I want them all to find the right kind of fame, to make a good living and then some, because when you get to do the work that makes you happy, it adds beauty to the world.

Now I live right down the road from the studio where R.E.M. recorded "Murmur" and "Reckoning." Lately I've started to feel dark and murky and incomprehensible again, and so I've been listening to a lot of that early R.E.M., and remembering how that murkiness can bring forth something cool and beautiful. That's part of the power of music. Another part is that a great record can sell millions, but it can still feel like a secret among you and your friends. Or between you and your bizarre roommate. Or just between you and the music.


Brad said...

I love everything about this post.

Two passages of yours I want to highlight, it that's alright:

"But one thing R.E.M. taught me is to keep reaching out, hoping for that connection, because you can't predict where it'll come from."

"Which was perfect, because my life felt dark and murky and incomprehensible. This band I had never heard of was saying what I never knew I needed to hear."

I feel the same way with Dave Matthews. I find myself nodding along to his songs, thinking, Yes. That is exactly how I feel.

Music does that.

Thanks for writing.

briy said...

I heard The Reckoning in the 7th grade. The FM Rock station was playing a preview. As a 12 year old in Kentucky, it was great to hear some rock and roll sung by guys who sounded like they spoke the way I spoke that wasn't "southern rock" or country. It didn't dawn on me that was 30 years ago. (I turn 42 in 2 weeks)
Thank you Tommy for the "wake up call." Maybe I'll get the new album too.

Anonymous said...

This is like reading a page out of my own R.E.M. diary, right down the last paragraph. What a walk down memory lane!

Gary from Goose Creek said...

Here's another way REM changed my life recently. TAC Victoria in Australia did a PSA against driving drunk using REM's "Everybody Hurts" as the soundtrack. It would also apply as a warning against any type of distracted driving. I thought it was a powerful video. Watch it, and if you agree, get your teenagers to watch it too.


Anonymous said...

What an absolutely fantastic post. Thanks for sharing.

Lynne Stevenson said...

The great thing about hearing a song from your past is the fact that it automatically takes you back to where you were in life, the first time you heard it.

Whenever I hear Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver" I am 12 years old, right back in 7th grade navigating my way through the unchartered pangs of first unrequited love.

Any song of Peter Frampton's and I am 14 years old again, lying on my bed staring at his "Frampton Comes Alive" poster hanging above it. I have the CD version of it in my car right now, come to think of it.

The Police really hit it big with "Synchronicity" in 1983, when my son was about 2 years old. I still see him as a tow headed toddler wearing his blue jean overalls walking barefoot in the summer sunshine while that cassette played as we were grilling outside.

In my mind's eye whenever I hear I hear "Wrapped Around Your Finger" I still visualize Sting with all of the candles and that long flowing mane of blonde hair.

Thank you for an aural walk down "Memory Lane."

Anonymous said...

Great essay Tommy. With me, it was Lou Reed:

The image of the poet's in the breeze/Canadian geese are flying above the trees/A mist is hanging gently on the lake/My house is very beautiful at night

Dallas Reese said...

I'm doing 2pm to 6pm weekdays on 91.7 WSGE(Gaston College) online at: wsge.org and this post inspired me...just played Driver 8. Loved all that early R.E.M.....those guys along with U2 were the impetus for the Triple A Radio format(wsge is Triple A during the daytime) that so many radio stations across the country have now......of course like you said...what was alternative is now mainstream.....success does that.....but still great music....great blog ...

tommy tomlinson said...

Thanks, Dallas... That's a great station over there. Can't quite get it in uptown CLT but it's on the presets for whenever I head that way. My favorite station around here.