R.E.M.

Can’t Get There From Here

R.E.M. – Can’t Get There From Here

I am on the train to Maine. Let me say that again. I AM ON THE TRAIN TO MAINE!!! I have waited 34 years for this day so I am just a little bit excited.

In 1983, my mother got a new job up in Maine and those of us still at home moved from our New York City suburb to a small town in Maine. Up to that point in my life I had never given public transportation much thought. Every kid I knew had a father who took the commuter train into the city to an office job. That’s what my dad had done up until my parents got divorced and his company transferred him to their LA office. My mother’s job situation had been bad and the cost of living in New York was high. Moving up to Maine for a better job and into a less expensive house came along at just the right time.

We’d spent our childhood summers at a tiny beach town up in Maine and I think my mother had dreams that life would become as idyllic as those summers had been. Those summers were idyllic. But summer in Maine and winter in Maine are two very different things. I can’t speak for my older and younger sister who made the move with me but I was not looking forward to moving at all. I was 15 and my mother’s rule about going into New York City had been that once you were 16, you could take the train into the city with a friend and without an adult, so long as the friend knew their way around and she knew where we were going and what we were doing. I was just a few months shy of my 16th birthday and suddenly the promise of that freedom was gone.

Life in Maine took some getting used to. It wasn’t just the snow and the fact that everyone looked like they walked out of the LL Bean catalog. We were city girls by the standards of the Mainers in our high school. We dressed differently, we listened to different music, I remember one kid commenting that he had never seen a girl wearing nail polish before I came to school. The place where I probably experienced the biggest culture shocks was in my German class. I’d taken Latin in New York but the Maine high school didn’t have a Latin class at the level I was at so I started over and took German 1. If you’ve ever taken a foreign language, you know that you start with very basic things. Our German teacher was a funny little man from an Austrian skiing village. Teaching us about the seasons he mentioned that spring in Austria and Germany came in March with gradually warmer temperatures and flowers starting to sprout and bloom. The other kids took this information in as if they’d never experienced spring before. Little did I know it was because they hadn’t, not in March and not gradually anyway. When we learned about different modes of transportation, he talked about how the cities are all connected by trains and how much people relied upon trains to get to work. One kid raised his hand and asked if that didn’t cause a lot of traffic jams with the cars having to stop for the trains to cross the streets to get to the station. I think that was the moment when I thought, holy shit, I am really living in East Bumfuck now. We had train tracks in town but only the occasional freight train would use them. The gates would come down and stop traffic so the long, lumbering freight trains could creak their way through. These kids had never seen passenger trains. Had never seen commuter trains with dedicated tracks and tunnels so they never needed to cross the roads.

I went off to college outside of Philadelphia where two different train lines made stops on campus. I took the train into Philadelphia as often as I could, became a master at hopping the local trains up to New York City, and the Amtrak to destinations far away. I fell in love with 30th Street Station. After college I returned to my mother’s house in Maine. Shortly afterwards, there was a bus strike. I hadn’t gotten my driver’s license yet because I hadn’t needed it but suddenly I felt trapped. There was no way to get out of that small town if you didn’t have a car. I longed for a train to come and deliver me from the small town that felt so remote. Never had the words to this song felt more appropriate.

Ten years ago or so, they started an Amtrak train to Portland. Now it goes all the way to my mother’s town. You can easily walk to the train station from her house. It’s my dream come true. I never managed to do it before because now we are a family of four and it’s easier and less expensive to drive when we go to visit. But this time I am travelling alone and my car needs a new clutch so it was the perfect opportunity. There is still a little of that can’t get there from here element because you have to switch not just trains but train stations in Boston and, just to make sure I really appreciate the final leg of this trip, they put us on buses for the stretch between Boston and the first stop the train makes because of track work this weekend. I took a train, a subway, a bus, and finally the train that will take me all the way to my mother’s house. It took twice as long as driving does but it was worth every minute.

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The Great Beyond

The Great Beyond

From before Twitler took office, I have felt that he would get us all killed. Today we dropped a massive bomb on Afghanistan, apparently, and are making threats to North Korea. So it seemed like maybe I should not keep holding on to my memorial service playlist but that the time is right to share it. After all, if we’re going to have World War III, I may as well make sure this is out there.

However, the caveat is not all of these songs are available online in the versions that I would actually like to use and it varies between Spotify and YouTube which ones had to be substituted. For that reason, I’m running down the list below. I also can’t help the visuals on some of these videos, which is why I prefer an audio only experience for this, but life could be short so I’m over it. YouTube above, Spotify below.

The Great Beyond
1. Angelika Suspended – Poi Dog Pondering (Spotify has the preferred version)
2. Just Breathe – Pearl Jam
3. If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out – Cat Stevens (here the YouTube is worth it for the Harold and Maude clips since that’s key to its selection)
4. Belong – R.E.M.
5. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi – Radiohead (Spotify for the studio version, though I like the Scotch Mist version fine, it’s not the “right” one)
6. Treefingers – Radiohead (optional – serves as a transition but could also be cut or used as music while people are milling about before things get started)
7. Blood of Eden – Peter Gabriel (YouTube is the correct version from Until the End of the World)
8. Calling All Angels – Jane Siberry with k.d.lang
9. Heaven – Talking Heads
10. Wendell Gee – R.E.M.
11. Untitled – R.E.M.
12. This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) – Talking Heads

While there are a lot of songs that you might think I would have on a playlist for my memorial service, this is meant to be something you can actually play for assembled grieving friends and family and not bum people out too much. It shouldn’t make people feel worse. At the same time, sometimes it’s good to cry and let it out. The idea is that this should be in place of any hymns or prayers since I am not religious, though there are some songs that gesture toward that, after all I have a number of church-going family members, including my aunt the nun.

In the days to come I’ll take each one as a separate post with more details but for now I’ll let it speak for itself.

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.