R.E.M.

Welcome to the Occupation

R.E.M. – Welcome to the Occupation

Of course. Did you expect anything else?

My radio alarm clock went off this morning and, as if by fate, the first few notes of Orange Crush came blaring out. I hadn’t really thought about it before but, man, so appropriate.

But this song amazes me. It came out 30 years ago and yet is every bit as relevant as it was in 1987. In some ways we have come so far since then and I take solace in that. In other ways though, we still have a Congress that propagates confusion, we have never had a less qualified person as president, and cabinet nominees who are eager to destroy the agencies they want to oversee.

I know it sounds melodramatic but I really do feel like we are being occupied. These people are not what this country has been about, they are not representative of the majority of my fellow citizens. I hope against hope that this is the last dying gasp of an old, feeble power structure that we can lay to rest if we are awake and active enough.

I have a feeling that I’m going to be listening to this album a lot in the coming months. The whole thing, but especially the first (Page) side, is great for bolstering your courage to fight the good fight. We are on the right side of history and I will be there to protest and witness. I will do what I can to protect what we have and hold accountable those who would strip away our rights. I am raising my children to be vigilant and to demand truth.

This album and I are 30 years older but the passion and the vision are still the same. Back then it was with the first flush of understanding myself as a political being, now it’s with the sobering resolve to stand up for decency, justice, and equality, no matter the consequences.

Wolves, Lower

R.E.M. – Wolves, Lower

A friend of mine recently wondered “what WOULD be the R.E.M. song you’d send into outer space?*” even allowing for two or three songs if you had trouble nailing it down to one. I am unable to narrow it down to the single digits.

But the question reminded me of a musical challenge that a friend posed a few years ago. He had gone on a road trip with his wife and in preparation, he had decided to make a bunch of mixed CDs to take along. Some were based on a theme but a few were just music by one band. Not exactly a greatest hits, because sometimes the big hits are not your favorites (cough), but more of a personal best of. The sort of compilation you might make if trying to show an uninitiated friend why this band is great.

As he made these CDs, he spent too much time on the themed ones and left himself not enough time before their trip to give the band specific ones the kind of thought he felt they deserved. So he came up with some rules to get it done in time, the house on fire method of creating a best of CD. 1) Spend no more than 10 minutes on each band, 2) arrange the songs in chronological order, 3) if more than one song from an album, put them in the order they appear on the album, 4) include every album in the band’s catalog (but not compilations, live tracks, or B-sides), 5) when conflicted, go with the song that is a better road trip tune. My challenge was to follow these rules and make one CD for R.E.M. (and later, Radiohead), then we would compare setlists. Part B of the challenge was for each of us to take all the time you need and throw out all the rules except for it must fit on one CD and see how different the results were from your 10-minute version.

As someone who used to spend days, if not weeks, crafting mixes to fit a particular theme, endlessly refining the setlist and adding up the minutes to fit perfectly within the confines of a 90 minute tape (there’s a few in the TapeDeckTuesday category for old time’s sake), I was up for the challenge. The 10-minute rule was going to be tough but the point was to not overthink it, that was what the part B challenge was for. We later discussed the merits of doing a third round, when you specifically geared it for driving rather than a best of, but we never got that far.

I allowed myself a day or two of reconnaissance as I hadn’t really listened to the three-legged-dog albums** in years and had never committed them to memory like the earlier ones. The whole process is infinitely easier than it used to be because now there is iTunes (we traded them in Rdio, sniff! still miss you Rdio!) so you can just drag and drop and the minutes are added up for you. Still, it was not an easy task. I was so pleased with myself when I completed it in the 10 minutes allotted, only to go back and realize I’d inadvertently dropped two albums (Monster and Up) when trying to adjust for the 80-minute cut off of one CD. I readjusted it to include those so maybe it took 11 minutes. My mix was pretty good and I thought the flow from one song to the next was not bad, all things considered. It was a fun exercise and it was interesting to see where our choices overlapped. If you’re bored or need a diversion from the horrors of the day, I highly recommend giving this a try.

Part B was hard. Surprisingly hard given the rules were relaxed. The old master tape maker in me felt it had to be perfect. Without the rule about including every album I ejected five of the records so I had room for more favorites. Even then, my first pass ran close to three hours and I was hopelessly stuck on which songs I could sacrifice and still have a perfect best of. In the end I scrapped what I had and took a different angle, going for the personal more so than the best of. Which songs did I feel really expressed not just why this band was great, but why they were great to me. The insider’s mix, if you will. There were a few repeats from the 10-minute version but the “real” (versus the “house on fire”) version is really great. I still listen to it.

Not sure why the audio at the beginning of this video sounds warped but I couldn’t pass up the video. So Much Younger Then. Happy birthday, Michael. This is one of the few songs that made it onto both versions of my best of CD.

* Prompted by this video that was part of the Out of Time 25th anniversary promotional blitz.

** Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun. This was how Peter Buck described the albums they first did as a trio after Bill Berry left the band and I have always thought it was a very apt description.

Belong

R.E.M. – Belong

The 25th anniversary edition of Out of Time came out today.

SIGH.

This is hard. Sometimes I envy people who do not have emotional attachments to music this way. Other times I think I would have died a long time ago if I hadn’t had these songs to sustain me.

SIGH.

Do you know what it feels like to have a friendship that is unlike any you’d had before, that is more intense than any of the crushes or hook-ups of your life to that point, but to be in a precarious position, completely paralyzed with fear of fucking it up and losing everything? Desperate to take it to what seems like the inevitable next step but to feel like it’s too big a risk to act? So you leave words hanging in the air that surely can’t be misconstrued and try to leave the door wide open for something, anything, and yet, things remain … unchanged.

Now, have Out of Time be the album that is the soundtrack for that time. Brutal. It’s just one song of heartache after another.The only song on the album that didn’t make me weak was “Shiny Happy People” and that wasn’t exactly a comfort. But it wasn’t like I could just not listen to the album. I had to listen to it. It was like an addiction, so dangerous for my well being but I couldn’t do without it. Every song was perfectly describing some piece of my life at that moment and I craved it.

As I mentioned the other day, I hated Green when it came out. Eventually I came around but the way that album had exposed the band to the greater public, and consequently put me in a position of having to share them with people I felt didn’t understand or deserve them, was like a punch in the gut. Out of Time took that feeling to a much higher level. Here was an album that felt like a chronicle of my innermost self, playing to millions of people. Millions of people who couldn’t possibly understand the significance of it and how deeply it affected me, were mindlessly, cheerfully, singing along, in public! “Losing My Religion” was word-for-word my life in the summer of 1991 and this was R.E.M. and this was Michael Stipe singing those words and YOU DO NOT SING ALONG IN PUBLIC. No. And it was a huge hit. I can’t tell you how many times I had to just walk out of some place because it came on the radio and I could not take it. But “Country Feedback” was the killer. Absolutely destroyed me. It’s twenty five years later and I still can’t listen to it without getting choked up.

So much of this album for me is rooted in that time and place but somewhere along the way the song that transcended all of that is “Belong.” After a while it spoke to me in a new way and told me, it’s ok, you belong here. You belong with us but there is also more out there for you and don’t be afraid. In that way it even inspired my funeral playlist.

Since getting married and having kids, I feel like now I’m the woman telling her child, “Belong.” Watching and worrying, as parents do, but knowing that she also needs to find her way and feel a part of something bigger. With the world collapsing around our ears, I feel like this is more important than ever.

You Are the Everything

R.E.M. – You Are the Everything

So, the other reason I was superstitious about this election is that it falls on the same day as my first presidential election, November 8, 1988. That one didn’t turn out so well.

At this point the prospect of having George H.W. Bush would be a godsend in comparison to what seems poised to happen here tonight. I’m not going to wait up to find out. Not that I think I’ll sleep but I’m going to stop watching.

This album came out 28 years ago today. I hated it. I hated it, hated it, hated it. I won’t say that I thought they sold out but it was not the album I wanted them to make. And I hated that people who had made fun of me for the way I looked and the things I felt were important, suddenly were listening to R.E.M. This was my band and how dare they like them now. I felt like I’d lost a lot that night. I’d lost the election, and I’d lost my favorite band to something that I didn’t understand.

I’m very scared for this world but there is still beauty out there. Deep breaths.

Pop Song 89

R.E.M. – Pop Song 89

Between the first big snow storm of 2016 and the impending Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, I’ve heard nothing but talk about the weather and the government for the last few days. Unsurprisingly, I’ve had this song stuck in my head on repeat. See also, this New Yorker cartoon.

The snow is coming down now, after a late start, and we even received a robo-call from the electric company telling us to be prepared for power outages. You all know I really hate snow but it’s only supposed to be 4-8″ this time around, a manageable amount. But the power outages are what I really worry about. Having lived through a power outage caused by a blizzard once before, I am scarred. I get nervous and make sure every available source of power is fully charged. This morning, before the snow started, I went to the grocery store and bought, not milk and bread, but a 9-volt battery for a hallway nightlight and some sterno cans. Mostly I am worried about our fish. My husband is allergic to all furry or hairy animals so we have a few fish that require water between 70-80 degrees. Based on our prior experience of being in this house without heat in the winter, they will not survive if the power goes out. I’m kind of hoping I could rig something up with the sterno cans in a pinch but I’m mostly just hoping we don’t lose power.

As for the politics, it’s just getting crazier by the day. I should probably disengage because I thought to myself the other day, this Republican field is so disastrous I wonder why there isn’t some independent candidate like Bloomberg looking to get into the race. And now look what’s happened. With 28-year-old songs* being as relevant today as they ever were, it’s not likely that I’ll be able to do that though.

*I did the math. Though titled “Pop Song 89”, it’s on Green, which was released on Election Day, 1988. My first presidential election. A dark day.

Just a Touch

R.E.M. – Just a Touch

Only rarely can you point to something, a song, a book, a speech, an album, a concert, and say, that was it. That was the moment things changed.

Maybe that doesn’t happen for everyone. Or maybe it comes in varying degrees of intensity so for some people, it represents a blip-like pinging in your consciousness while for others, it’s nothing short of an epiphany.

Life and How to Live It

R.E.M. – Life and How to Live It

My favorite album, Fables of the Reconstruction, is thirty years old today (according to Wikipedia). I decided to write an essay about how important this album has been in my life and give Medium a try at the same time. You can read the whole story here: Thirty Years of Fables.

When R.E.M. disbanded, after my initial shock subsided, the first thought that came to me was, “there wasn’t even time to say, Goodbye to Wendell Gee.” I’d been gearing myself up to go see them live for a tour behind the new album (Collapse Into Now). I hadn’t been to an R.E.M. concert since the Green tour, in part because there weren’t any tours for the first two albums in the 90s. By the time they toured again for Monster, I couldn’t handle the crowds of people that would have been in attendance. R.E.M. had been such an incredibly personal and powerful influence in my life and I didn’t like sharing them with people who only knew the hits from the more recent albums.

By 2011 though, I felt the other people who would come out to see them were probably long-time fans like me. Instead I would have to be content with the concerts I’d been to in the 80s. And I am. My memories of those shows are perfect and I’m lucky to have seen them so many times back then.

One benefit of the band calling it a day is that they’ve gone on to other projects that don’t command such a draw. Last summer The Baseball Project played at an outdoor art park not far from where I live. For $15. The last time I’d paid $15 to see Mike Mills play was 1986. I’m not a big baseball person but you don’t pass up an opportunity like that. There were maybe 200 people there. I loved it.

wpid-img_20150610_115901.jpgAfter the show the band stepped off the stage and people gathered to have them sign baseballs and the like. I ran to my car and got my Fables journal. A year or so earlier, I’d won a free Vintage Vinyl Journal and I’d sent in a scratched up copy of Fables that I’d bought from my local record store for $3. I waited my turn and then went up to Mike Mills to get him to sign my journal. I’ve never been an autograph seeker but I felt like I’d regret it if I didn’t do it. We had a short conversation and I got the chance to thank him for making my favorite album and he shook my hand. It’s so fantastic when your musical heroes live up to the impression you’ve built up about them over the years.

I no longer feel like I missed out on a chance to say goodbye on some final tour. Instead other lines from songs on Fables seem appropriate. “Ok, we won’t say goodbye, so long is so much more,” and “time and distance are out of place here.” Here’s to 30 years of Fables.

Cuyahoga

R.E.M. – Cuyahoga

I didn’t post yesterday. I had been thinking of a post in my head during the day but by the time I got home from work, we’d put the kids to bed, I talked with my mother about Thanksgiving travel plans, and I finally could get a chance to write, I felt I had nothing to say. I was disgusted by the grand jury decision in Missouri yet anything I thought of to write felt like too little too late. I stayed up late reading articles and watching Twitter and kept coming up short when I tried to find the right words.

The post I had been mulling over during the day yesterday came to me courtesy of driving my daughter to school again. It was raining heavily and I decided I could just as easily drop her off and spare her the wait for the school bus in the rain. She started telling me about a project they are doing in school. They have been divvied up into groups and each group has to start its own country. It’s an interdisciplinary project so all of her classes were taking part. In math they discussed different monetary and economic systems, in science they had debates about the impacts of genetic modification and from there, whether or not the countries they were building should allow it. In social studies they discussed different forms of government, laws, and rights.

I started singing this song then said they should use it for their country. No, she said, they had to write their own anthem, both the music and the lyrics, for the music part of the project. I wondered to myself if the social studies teacher, who organized this whole assignment, is an R.E.M. fan. In any case, I feel like congratulating him. We don’t really get to start a new country up but getting the kids to put their heads together and think about it, and understand how many different elements there are, what the ramifications of different decisions will be, I hope it will be a lesson they can take with them.

It could be a lesson for us as well. It’s clear that our system is not just flawed but skewed heavily in favor of those in power remaining in power. By any means necessary, it sometimes seems. Is this a government of the people, for the people, by the people? A police force so heavily armed it looks like it belongs on a battlefield instead of a city street?

When I was a kid we had School House Rock on Saturday mornings in between cartoons. I grew up absorbing those little history and civics lessons to catchy tunes and believing that’s how our country really worked. I can recite (or sing) the preamble to the Constitution because of it. Sing along. “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility…” Where is the justice? How can the police insure domestic tranquility when they are dressed for war?

So I go back to we the people, in order to form a more perfect union. I know it sounds sappy and simplistic but if we are ever going to achieve justice, it is going to be a lot of hard work. A lot of putting our heads together and thinking about the end results. There are no quick fixes. We need to work on the more perfect. A union that incorporates the view points of those who were left out of it when our father’s father’s father tried would be a good start. This can’t just be something we tell our kids to do for a school project. It has to be what engaged citizens just do because this land is the land of ours.

Letter Never Sent

R.E.M. – Letter Never Sent

This past weekend we were up visiting my mother so I took the opportunity to go up to her attic and have a look for some things I thought I might have left there. My mom was thrilled at the prospect of getting more junk out of the house. We hauled two big boxes down and four or five small boxes (old 8×10 B&W photographic paper boxes) that I knew were mine. One of the big boxes turned out to be my mother’s stuff so we sat on the screened porch and went through our old things together.

My boxes were full of old letters and postcards from college and my early 20s. I also found a dozen or more concert stubs that I’ve been wondering where I’d put them. My mother’s box also had old letters and pictures from her college years and early 20s. It was fun looking through them and we’d stop and show each other some of the pictures or read aloud funny parts of letters. I found a postcard from my DC days with a Victorian illustration of a Valentine’s Day card on it and on the back, written in red ink and all capital letters it said only, “THE CAPITOL CUPID HAS HIS EYES ON YOU. BE PREPARED.”

Her one box was dispensed with relatively quickly but I needed more time for all of mine. The next morning I woke up before everyone else, took some boxes out to the porch and started going through them again. Tons of old bank statements and pay stubs and college records that I have no idea why I kept but they all need to be shredded. I divided things into piles; trash, shred, keep.

The keep pile quickly took over the table. I got an empty plastic bin and started filling it up. On several occasions I opened some old letters to see what was inside and found myself taking a seat on the porch swing, reveling in these wonderful old letters. My friends and I used to write really great letters. Even the envelopes got in on the action. I have many that are hand made, true works of art, or that are covered in quotes from songs or books we were reading. Things like, “Sometimes, at a certain point in your life, you come across an artist—or anything; it could be a pastrami sandwich, I guess—and it takes on incredible significance.” – Hubert Selby. Or, “Keep away from hairdos altogether. A hairdo, by definition, always makes you look like someone else. Or think you do.” – Cynthia Heimel. I have no idea who those people are, not then nor now, but reading them today makes me smile and think of the friend that felt they were just the right finishing touch or last thought to include on a letter that had already been sealed.

And the letters themselves, filled with observations, feelings, doubts and fears, emotions and dreams, are a glorious tribute to a time when communication wasn’t instant. Several letters I re-read mentioned missing a phone call, or being unable to reach someone by phone and the resulting regret or worry it caused. No cell phones, no email, no text messages or status updates. We wrote long letters with little notes in the margins documenting time or place. One letter might cover several days, with thoughts being dropped in favor of recounting something that had just transpired then coming back to that thought a day or two later, maybe with some new perspective.

I love that they are also to and from all kinds of different addresses. There were many sent to me c/o a relative or friend I stayed with for short stints while job hunting. Return addresses from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Montreal, Philadelphia, New Hampshire, Tennessee, North Carolina. We were young and moving around a lot but we stayed in touch the only way possible.

I miss the letter writing days. I miss the time we took, the time we had, to sit down and put pen to paper, to ponder things and write it down to share with someone far away. Whether they were really important life decisions or tales of the ordinary day-to-day, these letters are something that tell me more than just what we were up to twenty-odd years ago. There is a large measure of our personalities in them. There is trust and truth. I see what made us click.

I’ve decided to write letters again. I was once a really great correspondent, if I may be so bold, and I want to try to rediscover that pace of writing and that level of attention and observation. I may not get any in return or I may fizzle out and they’d all become letters never sent, but I think it’s worth a try.

The Music Vault has this full concert on video. The quality is amazing. Do yourself a favor and check it out on their site.

Ages of You

R.E.M. – Ages of You

Today I found out about the Amtrak Residencies for writers. I can’t tell you how perfect that is. I might cry. Right now I am listening to the train tape I made in college (the digital edition on my iPod) and I can see the backyards of America in my head, obscured now and then by the blur of greenery; interrupted by the occasional overpass. I always thought that would make an excellent anthropology thesis, America’s Backyards as Seen from the Train. That’s where the truth hangs out. The discarded bicycles, rusted red wagons, trampolines, and clotheslines.

Close by the cities, the scenery is much more industrial. Warehouses. Graffiti covered brick buildings and cement walls. Trenton Makes The World Takes. The cities give way to the suburbs, where the backyards and cemeteries make up the scenery. Depending on what train you’re taking, you might get far enough away from the built up areas to see more traditionally scenic views. I always try to sit on the right side of the train in a window seat. If you always sit on the right, you’ll see what’s on the left on your way back.

I love everything about train travel. I love the big, beautiful, historic stations. I love the smells of the engine, some kind of weird mix of diesel and electric, hot and metallic. I love the rhythm of the train swaying gently as it clatters along the tracks. I love the tracks! I have two rusted and discarded old railroad spikes saved in a bin. I have several Amtrak train ticket stubs saved alongside concert tickets. I love leaning my head against the window and trying to find a spot to put your feet that gives you just the right amount of ‘please don’t talk to me’ body language or trying to sit in such a way as to invite a little conversation. I love watching my fellow passengers, listening to them chat with their seatmate or talk with their children about what’s passing by the window. I like to sneak a peak at the book they’re reading. Watching as people meet them when they get off the train, and others saying goodbye as someone gets on.

I have taken the train as far north as Montreal, as far south as Georgia. The Adirondack. Southern Crescent. Overnight trains. Commuter trains. Sightseeing trains. Subways. I’ve been to Zoo Station. Paddington Station. Two of my proudest foreign language moments were giving directions to Salzburg’s train station in German and confirming in Czech that someone was waiting for the correct subway train in Prague. The only Czech words I can still remember are the words for beer and ‘next stop’ which is what they would announce as the subway pulled into every station.

It is hands down my favorite mode of travel. It’s not the fastest, there are usually delays on the line somewhere, but when I take the train, at least half the reason is just being on the train. It’s not the most convenient, being at the mercy of someone else’s schedule. A few years ago, Amtrak started running a train up to Maine, the Downeaster. I am dying to take that train. In order to get the train from my house to my mother’s house up in Maine would involve me getting on a train when it’s still dark in the morning and switching stations in Boston. It would take more time than driving but I’m actually contemplating buying a used car up near my mother just so I have an excuse to make that trip.

There is just something about the train that brings up all kinds of emotions for me. It’s like I feel a tiny shred of what everyone else in my car is feeling. Some people are excited, some are sad, some are hopeful, some are worried, some are exhausted, some can’t sit still. I know all those feelings and have, at different times in my life, been one of those people sitting there. So now I look around and see me on my first solo train trip, me going to visit a sister or a friend, me with my best friend on an adventure, me trying to hold it together when things aren’t working out, me on my way to a job interview, me seeing new places and remembering all my old favorite haunts. I don’t get that from any other form of travel.

This is the fourth song on the train tape. My vinyl copy of this song has a longer finger-snapping intro. I really wanted to use this version but I couldn’t get it to only play the first part.