…And I’m not sure how I feel about it.
It’s not that I ever stopped liking R.E.M. it’s just that I grew up and away from them. There was more out there to discover. R.E.M. was a gateway drug like shake weed, Natural Ice or glossy print porn before the world was full of disgusting Eastern European .gifs.
My first glimpse of R.E.M. was in junior high, a high-concept art school dropout video for a simple, slightly iambic spoken word(ish) song called, “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).” Up till then the pop songs I knew had simple one- or two-word titles like, “Don’t Stop”, “Rosanna” or “Overkill”. This certainly was different.
What was also different is the video didn’t show the band, like at all. There might as well have not been a band. It was like the aliens from the Time Life Mysteries of the Unknown series dropped from the sky and took the human form of P.E. ditchers Michael Stipe, Bill Berry and Peter Buck. Their music was more experimental than purposeful, by design. A crackling, secret transmission of warning from adult world coming from some government bunker.
The video featured a kid, about my age, his skateboard, his skater haircut that my mom wouldn’t let me get, and his dog. They were in an abandoned home. Maybe the apocalypse had already touched down. Maybe his parents had worked multiple jobs and never returned. Maybe it was somewhere in his vast backyard, Secret Garden-style. A neglected parcel rotting behind a hidden gate that was unlocked with a hidden key.
No matter what is was or where it was, it was his. My pre-teen brain could process that much.
He showed toward the camera stuff he used to play with and bounced around and kicked junk all over the floor. He conducted nature from an empty doorway like an orchestra and his elemental world seemed at once future-less with possibility limitless. He wouldn’t ever have to grow up or get a job or leave in the morning and come back at night defeated.
This was a future I could relate to.
All I wanted was to kick it in an abandoned two-story home with the second floor above me rotted out, sunlight filtering through the sagging rooftop next to a window with three or four panes broken out holding up a black and white picture of my grandfather in his youth while scuffing up the dust from a dirt floor with cows grazing unknowing in a pasture in the backdrop as I kicked a rusted globe piggy bank around and lay on the ground next to my puppy in my scuffed black Jordans with the blue swoosh.
…Now that i think about it, that’s all I want now.
Other seemingly equally powerful drugs have come in the wake of R.E.M. In a quasi-linear timeline, they include: New Order, Mudhoney, A Tribe Called Quest, the Pixies, Nirvana, Lush, Ministry, Radiohead, Gorillaz, LCD, Sleigh Bells, Bon Iver, Father John Misty, Kendrick Lamar and Cherry Glazerr — but none match that initial syrupy hit.
I hesitated at first to get back into R.E.M. as much as their warnings from thirty years ago fit the current mood.
Going there, to me, would be like when I walked into CBGBs for the first and last time. I was in New York during the nothing fall of 2006, ostensibly there for the 5th anniversary of 9/11. I was hanging around the East Village checking boxes and trying to walk off a visit to Katz’s and there it was, Hilly Kristal’s legendary biker bar turned punk club that spawned, inspired and/or debuted all the acts that mattered including The Police, the Misfits, Television, Patti Smith Group, the Dead Boys, the Dictators, the Fleshtones, the Cramps, the B-52’s, Blondie, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, the Shirts, and Talking Heads, the effing Ramones.
By then the neighborhood was starting to resemble something in Tucson, mostly because of rent disputes and a sort of blasé changeover to boutique shops (the CBGB space has been occupied for the last decade by John Varvatos, a high-end men’s clothing retailer) and sidewalk cafes fronted by cleverish chalkboard sandwich boards.
Anyway, nothing gold (or new wave) can stay, and that’s fine.
Though it was only 2 p.m., I walked into the erstwhile club hoping upon entry to get that taste of sweat and safety pin scratches and missing someone and morning-after spilled beer that I’d only read about.
I instantly shed any remnant of midday Manhattan sun and that made me hopeful, but that hope soon faded into the black walls. By then the old CBGB venue was called CBGB Fashions — a retail store, ech. I considered the purchase of a T-shirt, a memento — to take a chunk of it home with me, I think. But it seemed wrong. The sweat and grime and the broken teeth aura was gone. Incense that smelled like Berkeley was burning from an unseen locale. An angry looking girl was trying to figure out something on her flip phone behind a case containing a few stray stickers and patches. She looked at me like someone had just walked in from North Dakota to take her home. I walked out. No shirt.
By the time I got there, I had already missed it.
It’s a little bit like that diving back into the R.E.M. catalog. Or maybe it’s like this: I recently discovered a box of letters from college in my mother’s garage. Some were from exes, some were from high school classmates, some were from one or two dates turned temporary pen pals. This was before email. That is how old I am now.
It was too painful to read through those letters beyond a cursory line or two and not just because of the grammar and tone (actually, most of us were more polished writers then than we probably are today.) It was because the content wasn’t as profound as I once thought or maybe as much as I thought it should have been. The daily musings of a 19-year-old during a time of relative peace and comfort are sometimes funny, sometimes charming, but they’re never as important upon re-inspection two decades later as they seemed to be then, so the box went away.
Similarly, as I make my way through the R.E.M. songbook, the standards don’t hold up so well. “Pop Song 89” doesn’t puff up with the same stoic urgency of armpit hair. “Stand” seems unironic and plastic. “Losing My Religion” is just kind of annoying. But dig a few tracks deeper and there are the timeless nuggets, the crystalline siren call of the departed and love never found in “So. Central Rain”. The why-didn’t-I-get-this-before(?) open sore lament of lost love of “Fall on Me”. The made for college radio dreaminess of “Driver 8”. The similar urgencies, though minted decades apart, of “Radio Free Europe” and “Drive”. The greatest Andy Kaufman tribute in song, verse, or film in “Man on the Moon”. The sexy harbinger of days gone by and taken for granted in “Nightswimming”.
See, listening to R.E.M. even makes me write like I’ve been listening to R.E.M.
Fuck the hits and the B-sides, listen to their entire overlooked 2011 album “Collapse into Now”. It sounds more like they’re banging all the kitchen cabinets at once at dusk. Above all things, it tastes very R.E.M., not rebranded or for Millennials or pandering to Gen-X who’s getting too tired to listen to pop and is content to “discover” Mingus, Charlie Parker and Satchmo — but R.E.M., neat. R.E.M. for the people who remember what it was like to be raised by basic cable and still want to be doing handplants on a dirt floor among the detritus of their elders.
This administration and its hangers-on are the worst. You know this by now, right? The Kushners are about to pocket $400 million off a building (appropriately with the address of 666) in Manhattan, selling it to a company that is a very badly disguised version of the Chinese government. Trump just rounded up and fired fucking every U.S. attorney with the ability to prosecute him as if they were Vince Neil after a failed mission to get a cookie dough gelato shop off the ground in Midtown.
There is no end to the captivatingly punishing greed-meets-incompetence chewed up piece of tangerine gum that rules us, that now defines us. It’s is a country run by the worst for the worst. Go ahead, watch “The Devil’s Rejects” or “Hostel” or the original “Saw” again and think about the torturers in Double Windsors and slicked-back bangs. We have been punctured by insensitivity, chained up and teased and prodded by a workmanlike dismantling of the truth, of quiet discourse — everything a lie or at least devoid of meaning. We are so fucking starved for empathy that even menial gestures, like opening a door for someone who looks a little different than you, makes one the hero of the fucking internet for a day.
But it’s not just the evil in charge. It’s everyday things are byproducts of having too much and not knowing what to do with it, or what is even inherently good anymore. Too much TV. Too many books. Too many e-newsletters. Too many people on your feed complaining about menial things that will never change, that are just a part of living and maybe if you just did the damn thing instead of posting about it …oh, nevermind. All that and not enough time to sit and think about gay cows and saggy, dying trees and when it’s going to rain like this again. It’s basically like we’re living in a Guy Ritchie film with all of the quick-cut confusion and none of the quick-cut resolution or girl with the single strand of hair framing her pug nose and razor cheeks to tell us with sleepy eyes to trust her even though we know we shouldn’t.
No Statham either.
There is no great reward for the common man, never has been. This we know. The Wall Street Robber Barons, the sniveling tech disruptors making nothing but a distractor from human touch pop up shiny out of your black screen.
It’s like R.E.M. discovered all this long ago in an underground fun house in Athens, a college town where there’s “a lot of kids trying to waste time, creatively, I guess,” Peter Buck told Letterman during their first TV appearance. And then there’s Stipe, Muppet-haired, chiseled and full-lipped in borrowed business casual khakis like he’s going out for a job interview at Kinko’s.
I guess that’s all of us now. Still trying to create in this vacuum. Still trying to do the right thing even if it’s out of boredom and with all the wrong intentions. Maybe it’ll work out. Maybe we’ll start writing letters again or re-open CBGBs or grow our hair back long and forget to tuck in the back half of our shirt.
Nah, probably not. But at least for now the music exists to take us there when we need a fix.