Life’s Rich Pageant

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I have a distinct memory of the first time I heard of a band called REM. It was a Saturday morning in 1984, and I was standing around with some friends after a youth league soccer game. One of my buddies who had an older brother said that he was going to a college (!) concert that night to hear a band called REM.

I had never heard of the band, but my friend made them sound like everyone who was cool knew who they were and if this band was playing at W&L, then the college kids certainly thought they were cool, which legitimized their coolness…so, it goes. I feigned coolness—“Of course I had heard of REM”—but I wasn’t allowed to go to a college concert, said. (To be honest, I don’t know if this was the case or not, but it was a convenient excuse. There was no way I would have stepped foot in a “college” concert at the age of 13, for the same reason I never trick-or-treated at college fraternities on Halloween; college kids, en mass, were scary. Of course, some of my friends had no such fear. They were cool, and I was not.)

In any case, after that one episode, REM slipped from my consciousness for a few years, until my sophomore year of high school. That previous summer, Life’s Rich Pageant had been released, and during the waning days of summer and the first days of autumn, my friends and I listened to that cassette tape non-stop. From the opening riff of “Begin the Begin,” I was hooked, transfixed by a sound that was addictive and unlike anything I had ever heard.

Now, for context, I was a relative novice, music-wise. My listening experience had been limited to listening to my parents’ record albums (ranging from The Beatles to Flatt & Scruggs, Scott Joplin to Mussorgsky . . . great, eclectic, quality stuff, yes, but The Ramones and Velvet Underground, they were not) as a kid to the stuff popular at middle school dances (think Journey and “Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine…”).

REM spoke to me, spoke to us, in a way that Morrissey and The Smiths have spoken to teenage angst across the decades. A blogger for the New York Times Magazine has described this sound as “mysterious, self-effacing, earnest, hopeful, yearning, humble.” Yes, exactly.

To me, that album remains REM’s quintessential work—because it was the album that introduced me to them, to a world I had never laid eyes (or ears) on before. And while I would come to appreciate other albums more (Murmur and Reckoning, the band’s first two releases, became the “classic” REM albums in my eyes, the ones every aficiondo appreciated best) Life’s Rich Pageant was the gateway drug, the album that screams “REM” to me more than any other.

Yet, with all that said, it was their first commercial hit, their first album to go platinum, that still delivers the strongest emotional wallop. The release of Document coincided with the clichéd but oh-so-real coming-of-age year. It was the year of driving, of going on real dates, of going to parties and all that entailed—under-aged drinking, parents out of town. It was the year a friend attempted suicide at one of those “home alone” parties.

Add to that the soundtrack of “The One I Love” and “It’s The End Of The World…” and, well, you have a combustive, emotional brew. (And as much as those two songs have become standard bearers bordering on musical chestnuts for that album and REM at that time—and no doubt contributed to how I recall those years—lesser know tunes such as “Disturbance at the Heron House” and “Lightnin’ Hopkins” instantly return me to that time and place, as well.)

With the announcement that REM is no longer, it prompts flashes of all these emotions—discovery, exuberance, possibility, young love, young heartbreak, even shock and horror.

When I was in college, I used to see Michael Stipe from time to time. He was (and I presume still is) friends with the artist Sally Mann, who lives in the town where I grew up and went to school. For a year or so, I had seen him around—walking down the street, driving in a car—but I never had the occasion to speak to him until I literally bumped into him at a big college party called Fancy Dress. I apologized before I even realized who he was; in my hazy recollection I believe I spilled a drink on him. And then I noticed that Sally, who I’ve known since I was a child, was the companion of this slight, bald, and, for W&L, unconventionally dressed guy who happened to be Michael Stipe.

I think I mumbled something to him, some platitude about how I loved his music, and that was that. Looking back, I can’t imagine anything else I would have said or done at that time. But now, with the benefit of hindsight and wisdom and sentimentality–age and time, really—I think it’s appropriate to offer a word of gratitude, of thanks, to not just Sipe, but Peter Buck and Mike Mills and Bill Berry. Thanks, not just for the memories, but for making the memories what they are.

One Response to Life’s Rich Pageant

  1. Cole Odell says:

    Man, these guys. There have been bands I listened to more, but nobody better represents the kind of music that defines my listening habits. When I was wrapping up my show at ‘RMC in 1993, without a second thought I ran a promotion to give away the complete REM discography. Because really, there was no other choice. They were the center of the college rock universe.

    “My” REM album was Murmur, which I came to late, in the fall of ’89–it was the only decent record owned by my freshman year Middlebury roommate. (He was shocked to discover that REM was widely popular–he had assumed they were a minor band that only he and his high school friends from Kansas City knew about. His other favorite band was The Rainmakers. “Government Cheese”!) Until college, I had mostly known REM through MTV and TV appearances. Murmur was so much more mysterious and melancholy than their singles. Even beyond the fuzzy lyrics, Murmur sounded like a riddle that only repeated listens could hope to unlock. Funny that within a couple of years the world has shifted so that my mom was singing “Losing My Religion” when I came home for break in ’91.

    Have you read the new Salon interview with Stipe? It’s a pretty good glimpse into where his head is at, reflecting on the breakup: http://www.salon.com/2011/11/14/michael_stipe_why_r_e_m_called_it_a_day/

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