Some of you who knew-me-when know that I was a DJ in a previous life. For 10 years (!!?!) I spun real vinyl in high school, two college radio stations, and oh-so-very-briefly in a NYC club on the east side. To this day I sorely miss DJing, because it was a great time in my life — I was back in the United States, I got exposed to great music before it took off, was a regular at live music venues, and got to rub elbows with some amazing people. Through the years, while I’ve explored any number of genres, one of my favorites has always been alternative/punk/college rock. It was a time in my life of newfound independence, new thinking, new music, and new opportunities.
If my musical taste was a direct expression of that freedom of exploration, then R.E.M. was the embodiment of that expression. I knew about R.E.M. before they made it big; I wore out a bootleg cassette copy of their demo single “Radio Free Europe” and my copy of Chronic Town long before Murmur made Rolling Stone’s Album of the Year. When they started touring, I got to see them perform in the small venues, where it was dirty and sticky and you didn’t care because you were caught up in the electric frenzy of the live performance.
I don’t think you can live in the city without collecting your own set of “I know the guy who” stories, and the Universe is always maneuvering pawns into position. As it turned out, I became friends with a guy who came over from England to manage one of the bands I’d friended from Princeton, whom I later discovered was actually a legitimate music journalist (tangentially, it’s rather surreal having a friend with his own Wikipedia listing.) Tony crashed at my apartment his first month in New York, and we built a friendship with music, friends, DJing, outings, and even later on, our weddings. Tony would later write one of the definitive biographies on Keith Moon, The Clash, and — you guessed it — R.E.M. (of which I have a signed copy).
My life is nothing if not recursive.
For some reason known only to the Universe, R.E.M. has been a constant in the soundtrack of my life. They were the first band I followed obsessively, and their ages slightly led mine. Their IRS years were the songs of my single life, out on my own and determined to make something of myself. I played them nonstop in college; on air, they were a staple of my standing rotation. I bought every album as it came out, and when the medium (LP to cassette, cassette to CD) changed, I re-bought the back catalogue to be complete. When I left NYC to start a new chapter in my life, they made the move to Warner Bros. and the big league. I got married; they got famous. When TheCoed was a baby and learning to navigate her mobility, we used to have a huge boom box that lived on the floor. If R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” came on, she’d pull herself up by the boombox and bounce and dance. Never with any other song –and there was almost always music playing — but when she heard the opening cords of that single, it was her siren call to dance. It was almost eerie.
As kids multiplied and got older, control of the stereo passed (begrudgingly) to the younger generation and, somehow, alternative music became “old music.” CD libraries became digitized, but had to be moved to an external hard drive due to the sheer size of the collection (DJs never die, they just get lost in their music). Bill Berry left the group to pursue other interests; I left the workforce to pursue a degree.
Turning points in my life accented by turning points in their music. It was almost symmetrical.
“For me, Mike, and Peter, as R.E.M., are we still R.E.M.? I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently.” –Michael Stipe
Thirty years is a lot of influence, and a lot of music to listen to. Perhaps it’s because my roots are in AOR, or possibly it’s just that R.E.M. has always seemed like a storytelling group, but I find it difficult to select a “greatest hits” compilation as a best example of their musical profile. My mind adds those lesser known tracks in between the popular cuts, and it’s a hard habit to break. Yet again, my life is phasing once more, and giving me the opportunity to be retrospective and look back at my own greatest hits. Those tangible moments when life flows like a river through the landscape of my world. As it has been throughout, R.E.M. continues to be woven into the fabric of my life, like some sort of subtle texturing. I’ve grown older with them, and it’s been a good trip.
Nobody tells you where to go, baby
What if you rock around the clock