March 22, 2008

What's He Saying?

The year was 1988. Summer had been spent swimming, staying up late to watch 120 Minutes on MTV, and trying to figure out the lyrics to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” But now it was the beginning of high school freshman year and there were much more important things to figure out.

Like what to wear. I mean this in all seriousness. After 8 years of catholic school uniforms I finally had my chance to show my real identity beyond belligerent acts of too long earrings or purposely mismatched socks. But just what was that identity? I flip flopped between long hippy skirts, goth-y tops, trendy pants – most times unsuccessfully merging all three. I’m sure I looked a mess.

I had to ride the bus. No license yet. No parents or older friends willing to drive into the city every morning. The bus came early and took a circuitous route through the suburbs – plenty of time (I would later learn) to catch up on homework left undone or papers only half-written. Enough time to listen to most cassettes end to end. Which is what I did every morning.

There were two older students on my bus whose sullen faces made it obvious that this was not their preferred method of transportation either. Francie used her time to apply layer upon layer of makeup. Foundation, eyeliner, blush, mascara – she was a woman transformed by the time we arrived. Kevin, like me, slunk into his seat with his walkman on, eyes closed. Maybe he was trying to figure out the words too.

One day, he decided to talk to me. “What are you listening to?” I can’t remember my response but I do remember being smug in the answering. For the purposes of this essay, let’s say it was Echo and the Bunnymen or some other appropriately alternative name. He was impressed. “What are you listening to?” I asked. “Only the greatest band ever. R.E.M.”

I knew about R.E.M. or at least I thought I did. They wrote the song that drove me crazy with lyrics I couldn’t decipher and a video of the skater who I couldn’t decide was hot or not. The lead singer had long hair and came off as kind of a dick when interviewed. He was always being asked about how he felt about their newfound commercial success. I honestly didn’t know they existed before their newfound commercial success. Sure I had Document. Who didn’t? It was a 120 Minutes staple and whatever 120 Minutes sold, I was buying.

Once Kevin decided he could trust me (?) the daily exchange of tapes began. Reckoning for Crocodiles. Murmur for The Head on the Door. Dead Letter Office required some negotiation until Kevin was satisfied that he was receiving something of equal value. None of our tapes were originals. They were recorded from CDs or other tapes or other recordings of CD’s or tapes, making Michael Stipe’s words all the more illegible. I always felt like I was furrowing my brow and really, really listening to try to get the mystery out of these tapes.

The stash that I was NEVER privy too was Kevin’s collection of bootleg performances that he and another upperclassmen were apparently in competition to collect. These guys were hell-bent on amassing one-off performances, tracking rumours of unannounced shows. Any city, any club where Stipe was alleged to appear, they were somehow tracking down, trying to get a copy of the show. I have no idea how they did it. I picture a clandestine network or R.E.M. fans slipping unmarked manila envelopes in the mail to each other under the cover of darkness.

Frankly, I still didn’t get it, but the tunes were catchy and their obsession was fascinating. I kept listening. And I listened enough to know that I wanted Green for Christmas and needed to tape Eponymous off a friend. I never saw R.E.M. as masterful lyricists, but keep in mind, I could barely make out the words. Years later, as I give Murmur a proper listen, I can finally give it its rightful respect.


Eurowags said...

My, you were way hipper than I was in 1988. I was either Top 40 radio or hair metal, mostly because of the somewhat redneck neighborhood in which I lived. Guns n Roses Appetite for Destruction was probably the hippest thing going for me at the time.
It's funny how many of us associate R.E.M. with that 88-90 period and have gone so many years without really exploring before that. Yes, they had some good tracks at the time, but there was something in their image and sound that suggested they were more a MTV phenomena. I was a bit off put after a while by their relative ubiquitousness as well. With that said, I am glad now to have given Murmur a good listen and, like Venerableseed says, although i am not yearning to reevaluate Automatic for the People and give it greater propers, I look forward to hearing more of REM's back catalogue.

polchic said...

eurowags, totally agreed - what drew me to R.E.M. was the mania of these older boys' obsession with their pre-MTV existence. That somehow changed the context and made them more interesting. I'm not sure about my hipness quotient back in the day. In fact, I think I was pretty gullible and willing to buy into most MTV phenomena, especially if the word "alternative" was attached. When I think of the stack of sh*t CDs I bought after 1 single or a brief mention on 120 minutes, I just cringe. Material Issue anyone? Trashcan Sinatras? Yeah, well, if you want them, I've got 'em.