Thursday, September 22, 2011

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The Atlantic makes the argument that R.E.M. was "America's Greatest Band":
Try naming another rock group without a traditional sex symbol on its roster that released only very-good albums for its first 16 years of existence—albums that were willfully arty and seemingly uncommercial and yet continually built the band's following. That's a lot to do, for what amounts to an incredibly long time in the fickle world of pop music.
I won't say they were the greatest band (though the article qualifies this by adding up longevity of career, longevity of quality, and depth of influence--Nirvana? Wilco? the Decemberists? should I go on?--making a good argument), but they were undoubtedly my favorite, and the first band I became really obsessed with. When I got my first guitar, I spent hours in the basement, trying to teach myself "It's the End of the World"; and the absolute joy I felt when I figured out Peter Buck was using droning string on "7 Chinese Bros." is probably never going to be paralleled, at least in terms of playing music--so simple, but there it was.

Yeah, that's about how I'm feeling right now.
There was this one Friday, in May of 1992, which changed my life. I was thirteen, and stuck in junior high. Now, my cousin gave me her tapes of Green and Out of Time, since she'd replaced them with cds. And so I played them, and loved them, but didn't really go beyond that. And then I saw R.E.M. on a rerun of Unplugged. Disregard the ultimate quality of the performance--me, I hate the sound of those amplified acoustic guitars that sound so nylon-y--because that's not what's important. I heard "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" for the first time.

And I was mesmerized by the rapid fire of words and images. The next day I took my allowance money, walked to the Ames the next town over--because this was all before Amazon and Napster, and hell, I lived in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, and the closest record store was a Sam Goodies at the Coventry Mall ten miles away--and bought a cassette tape of Document.  This was the first album I ever bought. I spent an entire weekend trying to memorize the lyrics, constantly rewinding and replaying the song. Over and over again. Mesmerized.  And because of that, I wanted to learn guitar, and I wanted to form a band. Music suddenly seemed like more than silly pop songs about love. Music had meaning, music could make you think, music was an overload. Music could promulgate ideas. From this song, I suddenly dived into the world of rock and roll, and my whole world, the old order, collapsed. Music was no longer a thing in the background , or something you have to sing in church. It was something that took you over, possessed you.

And R.E.M. sang about a world that was, in some ways, familiar; rural Pennsylvania in the late 80s-early 90s was probably a little closer to the Southern Gothic (right down to Confederate flags, which were and are unnervingly popular in the area) they sang about than anything I heard coming from the radio in 1991 (with the obvious example of Nirvana's Nevemind, which hit home in a somewhat different way--but the twenty years since that album's release is something for another post). I can practically feel the humidity just thinking about long, hot summers walking around the small town I lived in, walkman playing Fables or Reckoning. And I think I'll always associate Murmur with autumn, not only because of that famous cover of kudzu, but because of when I bought it and played the tape until it began to warp.

It's a little weird to think about how much R.E.M. formed me: I started reading Faulkner because the band said Fables of the Reconstruction was greatly influenced by him, especially The Sound and the Fury (which then became a favorite, if confusing, book). I started reading the Beats for the same reason--because R.E.M. talked about Kerouac and On the Road in interviews. I got into Big Star and the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith and Television and hell, I even learned to look past the songs about cars and surfing and girls to discover how awesome and sad and gorgeous the Beach Boys songs really were, all because of R.E.M.  I bought the Replacements' Let It Be because Peter Buck played on one track--"I Will Dare", which fourteen years later would be played at my wedding--and was subsequently sucked into that band's mythology.

And yeah, I could talk about politics, because they were undoubtedly political, but I think I would have turned out a liberal anyway; I was already on that road. Besides, I think getting your politics from artists isn't always the best idea.

So I can't help but ignore people who say "Well, they sucked now anyway." Because for me, R.E.M. aren't just the last few lackluster albums. They're the band I was listening to, thirteen and lonely and trying to figure out who I was. They're the band that introduced me to music and books and art, the band that made me who I am today.

Well, them and repeated watchings of the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises. But that's a different story.

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