For almost fifteen years, the partnership of Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe held a big place in my life. A friend first introduced us. Sitting in his car, he slipped in a tape. “Listen to this,” he said. It was Murmur. We played the whole thing from start to finish. The next day I raced down to the record store to get myself a copy.
Unlike the Beatles, REM was a band of my time. Unlike Bruce Cockburn, they did not enter my life with a sizable back catalogue waiting to be explored, taking some pressure off any anticipation I felt about the next release. Unlike the Smiths, the band was not near the end when that first listen took place. REM was unlike a lot of things, actually, and this, in many ways, made them mine.
What a ride it was! From a tiny college band that only fringe-dwellers had heard of to million-selling superstars, the arc of their career through that decade and a half was exhilarating. The release of Reckoning - my first new album! A grainy promo clip on Friday Night Videos. Interviews in Rolling Stone. Shows in the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t go, but just knowing they were near was a thrill. Confusion over Document. A first viewing of the amazing video for ‘Losing My Religion’. All those t-shirts at the MTV Music Awards. While I certainly enjoyed both their time in the underground and the commercial apex of Out of Time and Automatic for the People, for me the band’s peak came right in the middle, right as they straddled these two worlds - in 1986 with Life’s Rich Pageant.
This was the sound of a band doing it all: crunching guitars (‘Begin the Begin’), heart-string ballads (‘Fall On Me’), insightful covers (‘Superman’), with a bit of weirdness (‘Underneath the Bunker’) tossed in for wonderful measure. It was the soundtrack of a summer for me. I listened to it endlessly - on my turntable at home or in the tape deck of the car. Our local college radio station offered up generous portions of Pageant alongside the 10,000 Maniacs, Husker Du, Camper Van Beethoven. Even recently, when the band chose a song from this album to play during their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the opening chords raised the hair on my arms.
It was more the sum of this record than any one particular thing that gripped me. This was the thing with REM: they really were a group. They really were to be taken as a whole. And, as a whole, those early records felt so damn good. The mix of vocals and harmonies, guitar and drums - there was a sense of longing in this I could relate to. There was also a familiar kind of loneliness in their sound. A shadowy ache that they somehow infused with a little light, a little hope.
And light and hope have not always been abundant in my life.
One of the more difficult inheritances of my childhood has been a sense of the world as a dark and threatening place. It is a dangerous place, populated by the lurking promise of doom. It is certainly not a place of light and hope. I suspect there are many reasons for my being held by such forbidding feelings. One of these has been standing out of late.
It’s funny in a ‘ha ha that’s not really funny’ kind of way - if you had asked three years ago, “Were you ever bullied as a kid?” I likely would have shrugged my shoulders and shook my head. “No,” I would have answered. “Not really.” Lately, however, my perspective on this part of my life has changed. It’s like I am seeing familiar events through different eyes; beneath this new focus, what I perceive is far different.
There was a core pack of four or five guys. They were all older than me by a couple years. They were all bigger, rougher. They used to taunt me as I left home and the school grounds. There were names and threats. Rocks were thrown, clumps of sod. I was pushed about, roughed up, robbed. Once, while being chased, I crouched beneath a bush in an effort to hide. At the snap of a twig I turned to find a rifle barrel inches from my face. One of my tormentors bared his teeth behind the stock of that gun. A knuckle whitened on the trigger. I didn’t know it was an air gun at this point. I didn’t know packed earth would soon explode out of its muzzle instead of buckshot. The soil and rock stung as they met my flesh. I can still hear his laughter as he ran away.
But specifics were really not the worst of this. It was the chronic fear, the ongoing dread. It was the heartbeat pounding in my ears as I readied for the run to and from school each day; the edgy panic racing through my veins as legs pumped my way toward safety. Mostly it was the message all of this insinuated into my system, mixed into my bones and blood: this world is not safe.
I notice with disturbing frequency stories like this in the media. An adolescent commits suicide because of such treatment. “Life held such promise for them,” others are sometimes quoted as saying. But this misses the point. Life too often does not hold “such promise” for these kids, not in my experience. Life instead holds sick terror for these children. In the face of this, killing oneself can quite honestly seem a pretty reasonable solution.
I used to hide under my covers at night. Everything pulled tight about my body, this was an attempt to protect myself from the dangers of the surrounding dark. It didn’t work. The winds outside used to terrify me. The loud, brittle rustling of bone-dry Arbutus leaves would ignite a grip in my stomach that resonated through every cell. Laying there rigid with dread and burning with fear, I heard this sound as some kind of threat.
As memories of the above resolve into clearer focus, though, I wonder if threat was really what these leaves, those trees, that wind was offering. Is this this really what the world wants to give a young boy scared beneath his covers, scared pretty much all the time? More and more I have been noticing that I often impose my learned terror where it isn’t really warranted. There was no threat in the phone call I took a few moments ago, though I certainly felt there was. Same with an email that arrived yesterday. A familiar name with a blank subject line; it took me all day to even open the thing. “Hi,” began a friendly note.
So I am wondering about those rustling leaves. Was their message really danger and threat? Or was the world actually reaching out with something more nurturing? Comfort and assurance, perhaps? A gentle, ‘It’s okay’? I have begun to suspect the latter options are more likely the case. Feeling this way, I have wanted to return to the neighborhood of my youth and listen to those leaves again. More accurately, I have felt drawn. It is as if something in me needs to go back there.
But the trees are all gone, long since removed to make way for monster homes and cul-de-sacs. Sure one or two still remain for decorative purposes - leaning lonely in a backyard or over the front walk. For the most part, however, they are no more. Realizing this I feel weight in my heart. Understanding I will never again be able to listen to the exact ‘words’ of those exact trees, never have the chance to discover if I did, in fact, misunderstand all those years ago, I feel tremendous sorrow.
What if the landscapes of our past hold something for us? What if those trees or that rock face or that meadow act as some sort of caretaker, holding childhood parts of ourselves until we are ready to return and reclaim them? I could not hear the world as caring way back when, but perhaps I could today - given the chance. Maybe this is actually something I have to do in order to heal and move on. Quite possibly it is something we all have to do. But when we go back to find the meadow has become another shopping mall and the rock has been ground into gravel, what then?
“You can’t go home again,” the saying goes. Perhaps the transformation of rural wood lots into suburban enclaves is just another reminder of this fact. Like the lines we catch etching our faces. Or a news piece announcing the breakup of a band we haven’t listened to in years.
All day I’ve been singing bits and pieces of REM songs to myself. I think about going over to the turntable and putting on something like Fables of the Reconstruction, but there’s really no need. ‘Rockville’ and ‘Passion’ and ‘Driver 8’ - these songs are so deeply worn into the grooves of my being, it’s as if I have my ipod on random shuffle, as if the battery on this day has endless juice.
Through all this I have been remembering how troubled I was in that long ago time. To be honest, I have been realizing how troubled I remain - for the horrific shadows of childhood still fall long over my life at times, casting everything in awful tones that insist, ‘This world is not a safe place.’ As I’ve been ‘listening’ to Michael Stipe’s mumbled lyrics and Mike Mills’ gorgeous harmonies, as I’ve been ‘hearing’ the shimmer of Peter Buck’s guitar and the heartbeat of Bill Berry’s drums, I have been remembering too the little glimpses of light and hope these four guys from Athens, Georgia brought into my life again and again. Even though my sense then of the darkness being illuminated was muted, I did feel the light in songs like ‘Shiny Happy People’. I did feel the hope and it made a difference. Replaying snippets of ‘Wendell Gee’ as I type, I have been feeling some of these again today. It’s really quite a gift and a wonderful send-off. So for the umpteenth time guys, I give thanks.
Scouring YouTube in search of the perfect song to end this piece I came upon the following live recording of ‘Everybody Hurts’. I had wanted something a little older, to be honest - this originally appeared on 1992’s Automatic For The People. I had also wanted something that included Bill Berry, who to me was an essential part of REM. This clip from 1999 is just wonderful though and surprisingly appropriate given the above. It was written primarily by Berry, so his presence looms large. Enjoy!
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