The news of R.E.M.’s demise yesterday brought a sigh of relief, yet at the same time made my eyes a bit misty. Growing up in Omaha in the 1980s was pretty dire when it came to having any decent radio to listen to, or gigs to go to. It was a heaping dose of Top 40 and country, and my concert highlights to date had been relegated to the Nebraska State Fair and Rosenblatt Stadium with my family to see the likes of The Statler Brothers, Johnny Cash, Huey Lewis and the News, and The Beach Boys (the odd thing is how cool some of those names have now become again in recent years as well as my renewed appreciation of them). That is why when I heard Chronic Town for the first time in my early teens it really did change my life as far as music was concerned. I had found something that I really connected to musically. At the time I was a nerdy trumpet player who desperately wanted to be in a band, but deep down knew was never going to be in anything other than jazz bands and orchestras. Maybe it was Peter’s arpeggio guitar riffs or Michael's mumbled lyrical delivery, or perhaps the arty sleeves that looked like nothing else on the record shelves of the time that drew me in. They somehow fused the good bits of country & folk with the good bits of pop & post punk. They well and truly sounded like NOTHING else around at the time. I spent hours trying to decipher the words of Mr Stipe as there were no lyrics sheets included with their records and NO INTERNET in those days. How did we ever survive? Go on! I dare you to try and sing along to their first few records without the aid of the world wide web!
I became news editor of my High School newspaper my senior year, and that meant being able to pick and choose what I wanted to write about a bit more freely. I was delighted that I was going to be able to cover R.E.M. at Pershing Auditorium in Lincoln and possibly even meet Michael Stipe. When I told Lisa (our Editor-in-Chief) who I was going to meet and what I was planning to review, she said ‘WHO? R. E. What?’ Luckily, one of the other reporters, my friend Cindi, was a fan and suggested we go together. Being a R.E.M. fan in those days meant you were considered a bit of a weirdo, the type that wore lots of black, eyeliner, and was secretly plotting to kill your gym teacher, because, well, R.E.M. fans in those days weren't star athletes, if you catch my drift. All the cool kids were listening to a hefty diet of Madonna, Poison, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Mötley Crue, Rick Astley, Whitesnake & Bon Jovi. Whereas us R.E.M.er’s were into more uncommercial (at the the time) stuff like Joy Division, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Camper Van Beethoven, The Smiths, Depeche Mode, The Replacements, and The Sisters of Mercy. Cindi was so much cooler than me - stripy tights with short skirts, spiky hair that was very shortly cropped on the sides - and then there was yours truly, an Alex P. Keaton facsimile. ‘Nuff said. Amazing how you can connect with people through music, eh?
I remember it was a crisp late afternoon in November when Cindi dropped by my house to pick me up. To this day I cannot think of that whole episode without thinking of her first encounter with my mother going something like this: ‘Hello Cindi, don’t you look darling, can I get you some chili before you go’...(wait for it) ...‘because its chilly out there!’ As we headed down I-80 to a pre-gig house party in Lincoln, I asked Cindi if we were REALLY going to get to meet Michael Stipe and if we could still get tickets (yes, those were the days when you could still get an R.E.M. ticket the day of the show!) Oh, and yes we did get tickets...naturally, but no we didn’t get to meet Michael :( The show was amazing of course, they really could do no wrong in those days. I think the trick is that they wanted it, they worked f**king hard with years of non-stop touring, they were truly original, sounding like no one else, and, oh yeah, they were just really REALLY good. Cindi was absolutely shattered after the show and I recall not feeling too well. She asked if I would drive us home. I agreed and said a quick prayer that I wouldn’t crash her car (a far nicer car than my ’73 Pontiac Catalina) and kill us both as I was pretty tired as well; it was a 50-mile drive back and we both had school the next day. I remember she nestled up and fell asleep in my lap on the way back, not in a creepy Clark Griswold kind of way, but in that innocent way that only happens in your youth. It was a pretty fantastic evening with R.E.M. and my friend Cindi.
Since I’ve lived in the UK, the topic of R.E.M. with my British friends has often been a contentious one. You see, most of my US friends would concur that their finest body of work was on the IRS label, whereas most friends in the UK tend to prefer their major label output from Green onwards. For me the cracks in the framework started when you were able to begin to understand Michael's lyrics. It’s The End of the World was fun, Stand was questionable, but Shiny Happy People was just downright unforgivable - and don’t even even get me started on Everybody Hurts! But hey, I’m not here to bad mouth them. R.E.M. of course carried on for many more years, and as they did all of us fans grew up, got married, had kids. But now that they are gone, it makes me feel old - I feel like my youth is also well and truly gone. The great thing about music is that it means something very different to everyone but still has the power to connect us all, and the magical thing about records is they can bring you back to a particular moment in time. I’m not sure whatever became of Cindi, but whenever I put on Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, Fables, Pageant, or Document, she and I are 17 again, my Mom is still alive, we have a belly full of chili and the world is still ours for the taking.
Thanks Berry, Buck, Mills & Stipe for some pretty wonderful memories!