Homage to R.E.M.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from my sister that just said “damn” and included a link to the R.E.M. website. Oh oh, I thought.

I charged up my ipod and have been wandering around the house ever since wearing my bulky black airport headphones, listening to “Little America,” “Begin the Begin,” “Good Advices,” “Pilgrimage.” All of my favorite songs. I spent hours yesterday writing up a list of my favorites, watching videos, and I finally just had to physically restrain myself from adding anymore because it was getting ridiculous, out of control. In the end what I was left feeling was a terrible kind of genuine grief. It was felt like the kind of grief you get at a loss, that this was it, that this body of work on my ipod was complete. That the story was over, that there would be no new additions to the oeuvre.

And yes, there was also a terrible kind of grief for myself, too, that I’ve lived long enough to now be at the point for my favorite bands from my childhood to grow old and drift apart. Krist Novoselic is shockingly bald and pudgy. It will happen to everyone. Tori Amos, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen–everyone. As in:

WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE AND GROW OLD AND DECAY.

IT IS AN INEVITABLE, PLODDING MARCH.

As in:

“I will grow old. I will grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

I mean, on one hand there is still a kind of gladness, to hear Tori Amos’ daughter’s Adele-like voice on the new record, see the pictures of how she is growing up, and feel like wow, so this is what the passage of time has given us, but on the other hand there is still this very freaked out I can’t believe this feeling. I remember being in the computer lab at school, the day after my birthday in 2000, checked thedent.com (Tori Amos news and setlist website of ye days of olde) and reading that she had given birth and just feeling totally shocked, and yeah, happy even.

Mother and daughter. Is what I feel when I see these photos, or the ones of Frances Bean Cobain, similar to what my parents feel when they flip through any old moth-eaten dried-up glue photo album of our own?!

It is a strange kind of intense worship that we give to singers and songwriters in our youth: R.E.M., Tori, Bruce and Bob. My sister and I wrote their lyrics all over our hands and notebooks and agendas and trapper keepers (remember those?!). And they in turn help us mark the passage of time: albums of the 90’s, 2000’s, and onwards. Crazy to think that 1991 is the same distance away from today as 1971 one was from 1991. Does 1991 seem as old and far-away to the kids I work with, as 1971 did to me?

They were interviewing the lead singer from Wilco on NPR the other day, and he said that music helped him cope with his severe anxiety disorder because it helped him focus on the present, not on projections into the past and future, but rather right here right now, this song, music, and lyrics. Anxiety disorder or not, I think that is about a great explanation as any of how music (and reading!) is a bridge, a gateway, a form of transcending your puny, trembling w/fear at your own insecurities self.

What I will most appreciate about R.E.M. (and Tori, for that matter) is that I feel like they took the notion of making art, storytelling, narrative and characterization to an intensely higher level for me. Yeah, I totally went through my shitty cassette tape phase of Backstreet Boys, Hansen and the Titanic soundtrack (all hail the glory of being 12). But then one day we bought the Grammy’s nominee 1998 tape and everything changed. It had all these female singers on it, their names vaguely familiar from the pages of 17 and Rolling Stone that we would read sitting on the cool tile floor at the back of the library, hiding from Sports Day and swimming lesson P.E. class behind the bookshelves. Names like Fiona Apple, Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin, Sheryl Crow. You know, all those so-called “Lilith Fair” types.

So one thing led to another and in a year’s time we got To Venus and Back and NIN’s The Fragile for Christmas. I let my sister choose which one she wanted to listen to first and she chose Tori, much to my envy–I tried to listen to the sounds of the piano tinkling through the thick bedroom walls to no avail; we only had one discman between us and she was using that shitty stereo with the one broken speaker that always made the Beatles songs sound Satanic, missing an essential guitar or vocal.

The first R.E.M. album I ever bought was Out of Time and I honestly don’t remember why. I don’t remember the next one I bought, either. I just remember at some point during summer Nerd camp on the east coast, I realized that I owned pretty much half their albums, and there was hardly a weak song on any of them.

Anyway. The bigger point I am trying to make is that Tori and R.E.M. took the notion of ART to a whole ‘nother level for me. Art didn’t have to be well-liked, hip, cool, popular or big-selling. Art could be mysterious and enigmatic. Art could give you FEELINGS even if you weren’t sure what they were and what was going on, what was happening to you–what was being DONE to you. Art could have a kind of integrity, in the sense that you honored yourself and what you were making: the work came first, not anyone or anything else. My thesis advisor in college once told me not to listen to anyone else’s opinions or judgements on what was a success or what was a failure, what was good or what was bad. “Lo que vale es el trabajo,” he told me. The work is what counts. That’s how I feel about R.E.M. and Tori: for them, the work was (is) what counted.

And I guess that is my little homage mini-essay of Why I Like R.E.M. Here are some of the songs I came up with from my list and for my ipod playlist (it’s a numbered list for convenience, but the numbers really don’t mean anything):

  1. Hope” (from 1998’s Up)
  2. Try Not to Breath” (from 1992’s Automatic For the People)
  3. Maps and Legends” (from 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction)
  4. Supernatural Superserious” (from 2008’s Accelerate)
  5. World Leader Pretend” (from 1988’s Green)
  6. “I Believe” (from 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, my personal favorite R.E.M. album)
  7. Sitting Still” (from 1983’s Murmurs)
  8. Strange Currencies” (from 1994’s Monster)
  9. Country Feedback” (from 1991’s Out of Time)
  10. Green Grow the Rushes” (from 1985’s Fables)
  11. Monty Got A Raw Deal” (from 1992’s Automatic)
  12. Drive” (from 1992’s Automatic)
  13. The Lifting” (from 2001’s Reveal)
  14. ALL of 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, their best album, especially “New Test Leper,” “E-Bow the Letter,” “Bittersweet Me,” “Be Mine,” “So Fast So Numb” and “Low Desert.”
  15. The Great Beyond” (from 2003’s In Time: Greatest Hits)
  16. “The Wrong Child” (from 1988’s Green)
  17. King of Birds” (from 1987’s Document)
  18. Life and How To Live It” (from 1985’s Fables)
  19. Around the Sun” (from 2004’s Around the Sun)
  20. I’ll put “Nightswimming” here so that I can show me some CTY love…
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Filed under art, lists, music, time

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