Sunday, April 6, 2008

Our Strange Musical Loyalties

These Days - R.E.M. (mp3)

Sometimes our ties to music are stronger than the bonds of logic or love. If you have ever found moments where music became a timestamp on your life, you'll understand.

I had a roommate in college whose first sexual encounter with a girlfriend happened while Don Henley's "In a New York Minute" was playing on his stereo. That song became their song. So what if the song is about a family man jumping in front of a subway train. Yes, a song about suicide, imploring us to enjoy each fragile minute became, in the minds of two people for a short time, a song about the way they felt towards one another. Deep down, he knew it was screwed up to have this song as their special song. But they bumped fuzzies to it, so logic and lyrics flew out the window.

(Obviously the relationship was doomed. All those couples who thought "Under the Bridge" was their special song have long gotten divorced by now, too. Hell, I didn't even go into the bad choice of choosing a song titled "In a New York Minute" for your LuvMakin' song. Why not use "Mack the Knife" while you're at it?)

In an odd way, a 25-year-old Athens band has just such an irrational hold on me. R.E.M. is like the church I've attended my whole life but for whom I would rarely evangelize. Stipe's quartet is so interwoven into the fabric of my adolescent life that, even if I could somehow manage to admit I didn't think they were all that stupendous, I still couldn't dissect myself from them. This kind of musical attachment is proof that nicotine and alcohol aren't the only substances that can instill lifelong addictions if we start young and impressionable enough.

In 8th grade, the first girl I ever kissed introduced me to R.E.M. Technically, I didn't kiss her. It depends on what your definition of "kiss" is.

She was the girlfriend of a classmate. They prank called my house on a weekend night, and I amused her so much she called me back after her beau left. And then she invited me to visit her the very next night. She would be mere blocks away, babysitting.

Having never been invited for such a rendezvous, and having no clue just how over my head I was about to get, of course I went. I was so excited about it I don't even know if I slept that night. After she got the kids down, we sat in this living room and talked about our lives while listening over and over to her brand new LP of Life's Rich Pageant. A lot of guys at school talked about R.E.M., but I wasn't cool and was still listening to radio crap like Lionel Richie and Tears for Fears. By the time both sides had played through several times -- with a few extra spins of "Superman" for good measure -- it was time for me to leave.

She asked me for a goodnight kiss. She might as well have asked me to rebuild a car engine, since neither was something I'd done before. To say I was nervous painfully understates it. I was practically wetting myself and truly vibrating with nerves. But I went for it. I closed my eyes, leaned towards her, and ended up firmly planting my lips just above her right collarbone.

The shame of my bad aim had me running tuck-tailed out the door and fleeing on my bike homeward. But not before my chain snapped going down the driveway, sending me sailing over the handlebars. Not only had I humiliated myself by being less sexually experienced than most first graders, but I had also caused her to further pity me with a move straight out of Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

It wasn't a perfect First Kiss memory, but it at least helped keep my future expectations with the fairer sex very low.

The precious silver lining was that she lighted my alternative rock path. Life's Rich Pageant was just the first step in my adolescent musical evolution, but a crucial one. The equivalent of the tadpole crawling up on the shore before sprouting legs.

R.E.M.'s significance doesn't even stop there.

Their Green Tour was my second concert. Ever. The Indigo Girls opened up for them, which meant Stipe & Co. were also responsible for introducing me to my favorite pair of songwriting lesbians on the planet.

Along with the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun," R.E.M.'s "Radio Free Europe" was easily the most played song for our school dances, so I owe Stipe et al the few and precious opportunities to dance with girls, even if our dancing was more like bad scenes from The Breakfast Club. But even that was an oasis in my sex-starved desert of high school, so my gratitude is painfully valid.

Like my New York Minuteman, I was hopelessly devoted to R.E.M. The fact that Document and Green continued to amaze me (even as they began pushing away the cooler kids who claimed the band had sold out) only further cemented my loyalties. I remained loyal through New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which is easily one of the more underrated albums of the mid-90s. Monster sounded like the band really wanted to be cool like those young Seattle grungy people who had overtaken their hipness, but Hi-Fi sounded like they just wanted to have fun again, play around with sound and take some silly risks.

R.E.M. has always been at their best when their shoe-gazing and heavy lyrics are a secondary priority to making really catchy (and, preferably, primarily upbeat) music. I didn't buy UP because it was so decidedly not up. It was the first album of theirs I did not purchase. I have to this day listened to maybe two songs from it, not out of protest, but because I never got the feeling I was missing much.

I did purchase Reveal and spent the next month wondering why I did, so I sure as hell wasn't paying for Around the Sun. I was done with R.E.M. I had finally broken away from them and their pull on my nonsensical emotions.

So why the hell am I sitting here and typing this while Accelerate plays on my iTunes, you ask? Because they brought back these things called drums. And they brought back this thing called tempo. And they apparently realized that heavy-handed castor oil never goes down well without a spoonful of sugar. R.E.M. went and pulled a U2. They returned to the well from which they found their greatest successes. They accepted the painful reality that they can't be all things to all people, but that they also suck when they don't care about being anything to anyone but themselves.

You break up with that girl you love because she's no longer what you fell in love with, or because you've changed and she hasn't, or some other incompatibility bullshit. Well, R.E.M. started working out again. They lost all that weight they'd gained. They saw a therapist. They found themselves again and came back to my door asking for forgiveness, begging for a second try.

I bought Accelerate because sometimes our ties to music are stronger than the bonds of logic or love. Nine bucks to reward a nod to their glory days and reinvigorate a 20-year romance. Money well spent.

Leave - R.E.M. (mp3)

"These Days" is from Life's Rich Pageant. "Leave" is from New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Billy didn't include a song from Accelerate because he figures R.E.M. and the corporate giants for whom they toil have magic fingers and eyes, and we don't want to get spanked. But if I were to post a single song from the album, it would prolly be "Hollow Man. "Just sayin'. You can purchase Accelerate at Amazon for $8.99 or at iTunes for an over-inflated $13.99.


Anonymous said...

I miss that little banjo thing at the start of "These Days." What a album this is!

Billy said...

Actually, the banjo's at the beginning of "I Believe," which was a cloooose runner-up when deciding which LRP song to post. Mostly 'cuz of the banjo.

Bob said...

You're right. I'm glad I posted anonymously 'cause I'm a dumbass.


Tommy D said...

R.E.M. never did it for me, but love the write-up Billy. Was "bumping fuzzies" really necessary though?...Deirdre just threw up in her mouth. At some point, I need to see a shout out to: a) The Cure, b) the greatest 80's movie ever, and c) 4 Men in Black

Bob said...

Tommy, I don't think you were an American in the '80s. That might have something to do with it.