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The Vanishing Point Appears: Life Score By R.E.M. – Part 1

8 Oct

I’ve spent several days batting around different metaphors trying to find one adequate enough to convey the swirling thoughts and feelings that I have about the recently announced end of the road for R.E.M. Progress has been slow, though. Distractions and other issues all together have allowed the official break-up, something that a rational person should be able to keep in perspective and shrug off, free to sting like a punch to the gut which leaves the recipient windless.

At thirty-five I’ve learned to appreciate and love things and people who I’ve developed a trust and familiarity with over a long period of time. The problem with this tendency, though, is that, regardless of how long the relationship has existed and regardless of the quality and joy that long-time trust brings, the object or person in who that trust is invested, eventually moves on or ceases to exist. I’ve learned to put him off for periods of time, but, the greek philosopher Heraclitus who once said, “the only constant in life is change,” is always there, in a dark corner of the room quietly listening to the conversation and waiting for just the right moment to interrupt.

As hard as I try I can’t nail down one particular time that R.E.M. struck me definitively as the first time. Instead, I have a handful of memories born in the very late eighties that have several tracks from the IRS to Warner Brothers transition years surgically attached to them. My first experiences with R.E.M.’s oldest songs are set in our kitchen as a teenager doing dishes in the summer time and listening to my ex-girlfriend’s older sister’s copy of EPONYMOUS. It was the first time that I heard “Driver 8,” a song that I now claim as the quintessential R.E.M. song that, if I could only keep one, would be safe by my side for the duration. “Gardening At Night,” “Radio Free Europe,” and “Talk About The Passion,” also established fresh roots at that time that would help to hold the soil of my musical taste in place for years to come.

“Its The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” though, was the whole reason I borrowed the CD in the first place. Stipe’s rapid-fire delivery in combination with the rousing chorus is an infectiously unique song. The video for the song is one of the defining moments, though, that helped me to realize that this was a band that fit me. I could easily imagine myself as the central character in the video thrashing around the rustic and trash-strewn rural structure. I could relate to that kind of setting personally much more easily than I could the slew of other settings being presented for consumption of teenage consumers. It wasn’t foreign and ridiculously out of touch with my experience the way everything else was, but, it was intelligent and it did begin to pry at the shuttered windows of my life experience so that the new, fresh air of growth could enter and circulate. It was a few more years, though, before the song would have its most memorable effect on my life.

In the autumn of 1998 a low-grade pineal gland brain tumor ruptured causing serious bleeding and hydrocephalus in my brain. The pain was enormous and sudden (probably a lot like the brain aneurism that Bill Berry experienced on the MONSTER tour not long before) and resulted in an ambulance trip to the hospital where I would spend the next few days in intensive care before ending my ten-day stay in a normal room. It was in the operating room, just prior to the surgery that was being done to install a VP shunt to relieve fluid and pressure from my brain that I was on the operating table and noticing the stereo speakers on the walls. They seemed to me to be somewhat out of place, but, I have a very distinct memory of laying there on the table getting ready to breath in through the mask that would deliver the anesthesia as “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” was being piped into the operating room through speakers. Nice. I couldn’t make this up because of how unbelievably ironic and, at the same time, perfect the situation was.

But, the albums that really set the foundation for a twenty-plus year friendship with the band’s music were GREEN and OUT OF TIME. It was the slightly older, much more cultured, Canadian neighbor who lived across the road from our summer cottage in Eganville, Ontario that made cassette copies from her vinyl GREEN
and OUT OF TIME LP’s that opened the door to the beauty of R.E.M. and let me in as a high school freshman. To this day, “You Are The Everything,” “World Leader Pretend,” “I Remember California, and “The Wrong Child” deliver me back to time spent eating breakfast sitting at the end of the fishing dock and looking out over the lily pads on Wilbur Lake while the cassette in my Walkman delivered Stipe’s poetic tales of insecurity, time, and place set to the peerless background magic created by Buck, Berry, and Mills.
Of course, OUT OF TIME was familiar to everyone by that point due to the popularity of tracks such as “Losing My Religion,” and “Shiny Happy People,” but, the tracks that struck me the most for one reason or another were “Half A World Away,” “Country Feedback,” “Low,” and “Belong.” In fact, it was, OUT OF TIME that happened to be on in the car on a dark, wet morning in June 2003 when my wife’s water broke four weeks early and we were driving anxiously to the local hospital so that my first child, my daughter who is now eight, could enter the world. Every time I listen to “Belong,” distinct and clear memories rise to the surface in which I can clearly see the rain drops on the windshield and the particular bridge that we were driving over as the lyrics so fittingly cut through the swirling emotions that my wife and I were experiencing to define the moment so well lyrically as well as on an almost spiritual level. Now my son and daughter both know why that song is significant in our family and both enthusiastically sing along to it (and, of course, “Shiny Happy People,” too).

To Be Continued…

Career-spanning retrospective with three new R.E.M. songs available 11/15/11 on and elsewhere