R.E.M.

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.

9-9

R.E.M. – 9-9 (live at the 9:30 Club, 3/18/83)

Raise your hand if you remember the old 9:30 Club at 930 F St. N.W. in Washington, D.C. I lived in DC from 1991-1994 and I spent many, many nights there. I loved that dark, smelly hole in the wall. I’ve been to the new 9:30 Club at least once, maybe twice, and in many respects it’s a better club, but it will never take the place of the old club in my heart. The list of bands I saw play there is long and varied but when I tried to find a video from any of those shows to use here, I struck out. I contemplated using any one of the videos from inside the club I did find just to illustrate a point but I went with this version of  9-9 instead since today is 9-9 and it was recorded there, just audio only.

The point I wanted to make was about the ubiquity of cell phone cameras at shows these days. Back in June I went to see the Joy Formidable at a club and there were more people filming the show than there were dancing. When the person most likely to try and get a pit going is the 45-year-old mother of two kids (that’s me) and not the dozens of 20-something-year-old guys, you’re doing it wrong. I suppose to each their own and maybe they’ll enjoy their crappy cell phone videos with people singing along loudly and off key, but I’d rather dance.

Now, I’m not a Luddite and I have been known to grab a quick picture at most of the shows I’ve been to since getting a smart phone. Usually in between songs and just a still, not video, and mostly because I don’t want to be trying to get some great video when I could be dancing or paying attention and just being in the moment. But of all the annoying concert behaviors out there, I find the constant filming to be far less intrusive* than the drunken bros hollering stupid comments or the amount of talking taking place when the band, that we’ve all paid money to come see, is playing. Those drive me much more crazy than someone watching the show through a 4″ screen instead of the real life thing in front of them. I just feel like those people are missing out.

At first the filming really bothered me. But how many shows have I been to since this trend took off where I went online the next day to try and find videos of the show? Quite a few. And didn’t I just download the whole mp3 set from the Replacements first reunion show in Toronto and watch the videos people posted from there? You bet I did. I don’t want to be taking those videos myself, and lots of the ones you find are just awful and not worth watching because your own view was better, or the person holding the camera is shouting and singing and ugh. But I do so love having some live footage to be able to go back to if it’s done well.

Which is where the old 9:30 Club comes in. If you want to see some footage from inside the old 9:30 Club, just look up any live video of the mid-80s DC hardcore bands like Minor Threat, and you’ll find some. Most of the old footage you find will be taken from the video camera that someone used to operate up on top of this pole in the middle of the floor. There were these pillars placed in really inconvenient spots, architecturally holding up the building no doubt but when you were in the mosh pit, you had to be mindful of where they were. Some employee would get hoisted up into the crow’s nest spot on the top of that pole with a video camera and shoot the whole show. I’ve heard conflicting reports of what became of those tapes. One was that they just had it on closed circuit as it played what was happening on stage to small tv sets in the back bar and downstairs and there weren’t tapes of every show. The other was that they all burned in a fire at a house where they’d been stored after the club moved up to V St. Either way, the ones that made it to YouTube are rare, rare videos, and a real treasure. I always thought that would have been a cool second job but in reality the poor person up there was probably close to passing out every night as smoking was still allowed and it was easily 100 degrees or more at that height on some nights.

Here’s what I would love to see become the norm at clubs and concert halls. People could take a couple of pictures here and there, sure. But if the club could film it, from some unobstructed spot like they did at the old 9:30 Club, then make that available somehow, maybe people would go back to enjoying the show in person. I don’t know how you could work it out so no one is short changing the bands**, and I’d like for it to still be something special, that you were really there and not just watching the video of it. I have a fair number of old bootleg audio tapes from shows back in the day. Some I acquired just because they were offered to me but the ones I really loved were the ones of shows I’d been to. And if there were video from a couple of those shows? I would give a lot of things for video clips from a handful of those shows. A whole lot.

* I’m on the short side and I like to get as close to the front in a GA setting as possible so I can see the band and not just some big guy’s back. For the most part, I haven’t had my view obstructed by hundreds of cameras held aloft just because I’ve put myself where that’s not much of a problem. If I ran a club, I’d want a sloped floor so that the short girls can still see farther back (the TLA in Philadelphia is like this as it was a movie theater before – I saw movies there in college – and when they ripped out the seats to turn it into a club, they kept the sloped floor). Ideally I’d relegate people who insist on filming to the sides, maybe up on a slightly raised floor, out of the way of the people who really want to dance/watch/listen. And people who take pictures of themselves with their friends and the stage in the background? They are just losers.

** One thought was maybe it could be made available after the tour ended so as to not give the whole thing away or give people a reason to not pay to see the show in person. For me any video is never going to be as good as being there and even when I’ve seen a stream of a concert while it’s taking place (like Coachella, 12-12-12, etc.), it’s not even close to the experience of seeing it live. That said, this exists and it’s so freaking incredible.

Talk About the Passion


R.E.M. – Talk About the Passion

It isn’t often that I’m tempted to think about the 1980s as a time of hope and promise. My high school and college years took place during the Reagan years and everything seemed bleak and hopeless. My first presidential election is a day I’d really rather forget but never will. It felt like the beginning of the end (and in some ways, it was).

The news of late has been pretty awful. We don’t have regular television service any more so I’m not even talking about the major network news outlets (most of which I’ve had trouble stomaching ever since Peter Jennings died). It just feels like everything that I read or that comes across my screens lately is more disgusting, baffling, frustrating, sickening, shocking—yet at the same time not shocking, that I start getting really depressed.

“Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.”  Trust me, I know. And I know what you’re thinking. “For fuck’s sake! Combien de temps?! Hmm, Harry Reid?” All those empty prayers, empty mouths. This song may not have anything to do with the issues I’m incensed about today but it’s bigger than a single issue, or two or three. I want to talk about the passion. I want to talk about working toward something better. About finding some passion and doing something about it.

Today, one good thing came across the wires. For a few moments, I was reminded of a wonderful person who made a difference in so many lives. I’m talking about Mister Rogers. Today, March 20, would have been his 84th birthday. Mister Rogers not only lived his mission but he talked about it. And when you first hear his voice, especially in a serious setting like testifying before Congress, you almost chuckle to yourself thinking about how quaint and simple he sounds. But the more he talks, the more you watch everyone else get quiet. They sit, and they listen. They listen to him say things like, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.” In 1969! Talking to Congress about tackling mental health on children’s television! Or the way that he gently, and without pointing fingers, takes all of the television industry to task in his Hall of Fame induction speech (the whole thing is at the link above but if you just want to cut to the chase it’s here). Watch it. Really.

The article about Mister Rogers I linked to in the paragraph above is two pages long and has several videos, but they aren’t all that long and I promise you they are all worth taking the time to watch, and to read how and why he and his words are still relevant. In the final video included in the article, he says, “I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead…” Yes, it is tough, and we have a lot of hard work to do, and Mister Rogers isn’t here any longer to help us do it. He carried the weight of the world while we went busily about our days. We need to pick up where he left off. We have to.

Maybe it’s unfair to hold up Mister Rogers or bands like R.E.M. as examples of how we can take what we’re passionate about and try our best to spread the word and educate and inform people without getting mad or preachy. I guess I’m just hoping that we can remember those lessons and not get too discouraged. If there’s one thing I learned from the Reagan/Bush era it’s perseverance. It hurts and it’s demeaning to lose. But I, for one, need to look back at where I’ve been, what has been important to me, what helped me get through difficult times. This helps.

{If you’re wondering why I chose this early live video instead of the black and white one set to the studio track that would seem to fit perfectly, it’s because I couldn’t find a version of that without an ad and this time, I really felt like I didn’t want to subject people to a possible football ad.}

St. Swithin’s Day

Billy Bragg – St. Swithin’s Day

I was feeling a little low today and when that happens, I often try to make myself listen to the radio so I don’t fall into old habits and listen to songs I know will just allow me to feed that feeling. But the radio wouldn’t cooperate so I gave in and listened to a series of progressively sadder and sadder songs.

This evening Nancy posted a link to this interview with the author of a book called This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music. Sounds like a book I might have written. The interviewer starts out by saying “Everyone has their favorite sad song, but have you ever thought about the sad song as a whole category of music?” Uh, have you never met a Smiths fan? I don’t have a favorite sad song, I have an extensive collection of sad songs. In college I made tapes with titles like “Morrissey’s Most Moaning Melodies” and “Anguish, Fear, Lamenting” or “Does the Body Rule the Mind or Does the Mind Rule the Body?” (subtitled, I Dunno!).

I made a conscious effort in my 20s to put some distance between myself and lots of those beloved sad songs in the interest of self preservation. And it more or less worked. I still love those songs. Many of them now, with the years that have passed helping to ease the sting, I can listen to and enjoy with a smile. “Oh I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.”

So after the talk of Mozzer, why the Billy Bragg song? Because no one can touch him when it comes to songs that pierce your heart. Just listen.

Driver 8

R.E.M. – Driver 8

Southern Serves the South.

I bought train tickets today. I decided that with the cost of gas and tolls, it would be no more expensive, and maybe even cheaper, to take the train down to Philadelphia in May. I will travel the same route I’ve traveled more times than I could count, though I haven’t done it in a long time. 

In looking up the schedules and fares, I discovered that one leg of my trip happens to fall on National Train Day. National Train Day! Where was this holiday when I was in college? Events taking place in NYC at Grand Central, Chicago Union Station, Los Angeles Union Station, and Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. That’s MY station. I do love the train, but the station holds more than just the prospect of a train trip for me. It’s all the hopes and dreams, all the expectations, all the heartache, all the cool, all the sadness, all the delays, all the people watching. I’m thrilled that 30th St. made the list, and I’ll be there.

I read somewhere that all the train arrival and departure signs have been modernized and are digital now and don’t make that tell-tale clickity-clackity sound anymore. That’s a little sad, but I’ve got the train tape modernized and digitized and loaded on the iPod, the angel statue is still there, and there’s probably soft pretzels for sale in there somewhere.