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The Vanishing Point Appears: Life Score by R.E.M. – Part 2

10 Nov

In 1992, as a fairly new R.E.M. fan, in comparison to those who latched on as early as their first show as Twisted Kites in Athens, Georgia in 1980, AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE was the first new release by the band that I was able to anticipate and look forward to prior to its release. I remember getting it as soon as it came out and thinking about how beautiful the grey/black/golden-yellow packaging was. But, it was before then, I think, that I was drawn in by the premiere of “Drive” on MTV. The video was organic, moody, and mysteriously mesmerizing like a summer evening thunderstorm and, unlike some music videos, really deepened my appreciation of the song. I never hear the song now without being reminded of Stipe rolling on top of the crowd like a boat being tossed about on the sea during a squall or the look on Buck’s face while being blasted by a fire hose. There’s also the memory of a friend and I trying to figure out just what Stipe was singing in “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight.” Twenty years later I’m still trying to get it straight. Overall, though, what I think of the most when considering AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE is how, as a sixteen or seventeen-year-old, I could just close myself in my bedroom, turn the lights off and lay on my bed staring up at the dark while listening to the album in its entirety, totally engrossed. It was because of experiences such as this that “Nightswimming” would go on to become one of my absolute favorite R.E.M. songs. It is an enduringly beautiful, deeply personal, and celebratory song that I can turn to at any time and be moved. In fact, the whole album has held up remarkably well over time. The quality of sound on the album and angle that the band took on the music itself made it, like most of their music, quite out of step with so much of what was popular then. At a time when static-laden grunge had a firm grip on the ears of American adolescents, R.E.M. put out a delicate, dark, largely acoustic album that turned out to be the defining moment of their commercial and critical success. Tracks such as “Try Not To Breath,” “The Sweetness Follows,” and (perhaps all too predictably) “Everybody Hurts,” would go on years later to touch a very real and sensitive nerve in the midst of my father’s battle with stage four glioblastoma brain cancer.
MONSTER was a good match for the period of life that I was stepping into when it was released in 1994. I went from standing still in a relatively stable, albeit introspective, under the radar lifestyle, to a state of staggering confusion in which I was fighting for footing when the floor dropped out in June of 1994. It was then that I delved into a, well, lets say “slightly more exploratory lifestyle” made possible by the fact that my parents began an extremely ugly and unsettling divorce process. I went from security, supervision, and church-bred high ideals to curiosity, depression, and frustration. Various faces and demons took advantage of this time to either move through my life with disregard or put their roots down and create schisms that would take years to recover from. It was just that kind of chaos that seemed to be a perfect match for the brazen shift that R.E.M. took with MONSTER. The lushly crafted, orchestrated and often acoustic songs that characterized OUT OF TIME and AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE were abandoned with blunt force in favor of the static-ridden, sweaty swagger of arena rock that ably matched the noise level of grunge, but in a manner that didn’t seek to replicate or fit in with the Seattle-movement. Instead, and again out of step with everybody else,  R.E.M. subverted their own recipe for success and distanced themselves from the populous combat-boot/flannel wearing crowd with a bend toward ironic glam rock. It was a bold risk that, I believe, was less indicative of who they were as a band and as people than it was about their own long-held desire to make their own rules regardless of the odds. In the big picture it’s certainly not my favorite R.E.M. album, possibly because of its association with that period of my life, but, it did yield one of my favorite songs: “What’s The Frequency Kenneth?” Being in the same room with the Nudie Suit that Mike Mills wore in the video for the song was a thrill that I would fortunately get to experience years later. Additionally, heartfelt pride swirled one morning upon hearing my daughter (six years old at the time in 2009) recite “..poured pepper in my coffee I forgot to pour…” (from “Circus Envy”) when I announced that there was something floating in my coffee. Such a smart girl with an ear for great music at such a young age. Unfortunately, my first copy of MONSTER, along with a number of other R..E.M. CDs were destroyed in a January 1996 house fire. All that I had left was a cassette copy of DOCUMENT which, eventually, would be the last part of the R.E.M. catalog finds its way back into my possession in CD form (which finally happened in 2009 thanks to the gracious generosity of Mr. Kevin O’Neil).

NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI caught me by surprise. It’s hard to imagine life without the prominence of social media and instant notification now available, make that unavoidable, from the likes of Twitter and Facebook, but, at the time, I really had no idea NEW ADVENTURES was coming until I saw it on the new release rack at the local record store. Needless to say, I snatched it up immediately and, just as quickly began to settle into what would become the most frequently played R.E.M. album that I owned up to that point. It is appropriate that the cover for the album features a photo of passing landscape NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI was an album that accompanied me on a journey of transition that covered a lot of ground between 1996 and 1998. The aimless and angst-ridden early college years gave way to a slowly maturing personal vision  wrapped in layers of experience that were equally informed by newly established friendships (that would last for the long haul), study and personal exploration in the visual arts, the beginning of my relationship with the woman who would become my wife, and my first brushes with mortality – my grandparents’ and my own.  “Bittersweet Me,” was a timely song that I would channel mentally toward a new target in my mind every time I played it. Other songs like “Undertow,” “Leave,” and “Binky The Doormat” would eventually end up fulfilling roles of  therapeutic significance as I stumbled forward through my college years. But, “Be Mine” would end up becoming the glimmer of hope that signaled a brighter future. Quite simply, it was the lines about wanting to “be your easter bunny” and “your Christmas tree,” that easily, in the most puppy-love kind of way, lent themselves to being shared with the budding romantic interest that I met in my three-dimensional design art class. Angela would eventually become my wife of eleven years (so far) and “Be Mine” quickly became our song. We’ve got the wedding reception video with it playing for our first dance to prove it.

I remember getting UP as an Easter present from my mother-in-law and immediately popping it in. “Daysleeper,” to this day, is one of my favorite R.E.M. tracks of all time. The rest of the album was a bit more of a stretch for me, but, I think this was because it was during this album’s reign as “R.E.M.’s latest” that I was out of commission for just short of a year due to my brain tumor and recovery. The whole experience made me strive for a bit more optimism in my life and to fill my time a little bit more proactively. The darker tone of UP just didn’t mix as well with where I was at the time. Their next album, though, would more than make up for it.

REVEAL is my favorite R.E.M. album for a variety of reasons that are equally emotional and out of respect and appreciation for the music itself. Throughout my relationship with the music of R.E.M. it had been a source of accompaniment acting as the background music to my daily life while also serving as an influence on my perspective more and more as time passed. But, it was the summer of 2001 when it really gripped me. After graduating with my bachelors degree from the State University Of New York College At Cortland in May 2000, getting married in June, my wife and I moved south from upstate NY to rural North Carolina where I was to begin my first year as a fourth grade teacher at a rural elementary school. All of a sudden, my wife and I were hundreds of miles from home without friends or family, experiencing the culture shock that comes when making such a big jump. Every three-day weekend found us driving 650 miles home just so that we could spend a day or two with the familiar friends and family that we missed so badly before having to return south again.

As that year progressed, though, something else started to build: anticipation for R.E.M.’s latest studio offering. Wisely, they released the album, laden with references to summertime, in May 2001. Over the next few months REVEAL served as the primary score to our summer. Closing out my first year of teaching, driving back and forth to graduate classes during the summer, lounging at home, and racking up miles on North Carolina roads as we continued to explore our still-unfamiliar new home state, songs such as “Imitation Of Life,” “I’ve Been High,” “Beat A Drum,” and “The Lifting” threaded their way through our lives, our evolving perspectives, and eventually our memories. To this day I know the album, word for word, better than any other album by anybody, let alone R.E.M. Subsequently, so do my kids. Though, they don’t really understand the part about being “hammered in the backyard shooting plywood…” I even put together a static website in tribute to the album called Summer Turns. It features notes and anecdotes as well as online video links to songs such as “Imitation Of Life,” and “I’ll Take The Rain.” But, the highlight of the site, for me, was Ken Stringfellow’s (Posies/The Disciplines/studio and touring member of R.E.M. during the REVEAL and AROUND THE SUN years) gracious contribution in which he answered questions about his involvement in the recording of REVEAL. As Mike Mills himself said when I met him at a BIG STAR tribute show in December 2010, “REVEAL is the most underrated album in the catalog.” I agree.