R.E.M.

September 28, 2011

R.E.M. announced their end last week and it’s taken me until now to ponder that news. That alone is evidence of how much I’d lost touch of a band that, for a good half decade or so, was a fixture in my world.

Now that I do reflect on the career of the Athens, Georgia quartet, I realize that R.E.M. was arguably the ultimate college rock act for me and, like a lot of people from that period of higher education, we simply went in separate directions, unable to maintain a once seemingly unbreakable connection.

I’m unable to place exactly when I was introduced to Michael Stipe and company.

I discovered the modern rock of 97X during the autumn of 1983, six months or so following the release of R.E.M.’s debut Murmur. The station was undoubtedly playing Radio Free Europe and Talk About The Passion and I’m sure that, on those evenings when I could get reception, I heard the songs, but to little effect on me.

I do know that by the following spring, when Reckoning was issued, my buddy Bosco sing the band’s praises and I was reading about the band in Rolling Stone.

Still, R.E.M. and I existed in blissful ignorance of one another.

By the summer of 1985, I had begun to hear R.E.M. on the radio as one of the rock stations I was listening to gave some airplay to Driver 8 and Cant Get There From Here from Fables Of The Reconstruction.

Neither song really resonated with me and neither did the critical adulation. However, it didn’t go unnoticed that my girlfriend’s older brother, home from college for the summer, was enthusuiastic about R.E.M.

A summer later, Lifes Rich Pageant was issued and as I headed to college that fall, R.E.M. had finally connected with me through the songs Fall On Me and Superman, the latter a cover of a song by ’60s band The Clique.

I was hearing the songs in the dorm and at parties, seeing the videos on MTV, and reading about them in each and every music magazine I’d pick up.

Oddly enough, though I was now in college, I didn’t have access to a modern rock station as I had in high school, so my growing interest in R.E.M. wasn’t being nurtured by radio even though the group was a cornerstone of the burgeoning college radio boom of the ’80s.

R.E.M. was definitely a part of my world for the next four years and change as the group broke through to the mainstream with hits like The One I Love and Stand but remained eccentric and enigmatic enough to be cool to me and my college peers.

I went back and purchased much of the band’s catalog.

We all but played the life out of those albums in the record store where I worked. When I worked a shift with my friend Jess, it became Pavlovian for us to catch each other’s eyes when Stipe reached “Leonid Brezhnev” in It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

We might be on opposite ends of the store, but that lyric never failed to crack us up.

The classic Out Of Time reached the store in 1991. I can still, vividly, picture the rainy spring day that I took home the CD, sprawled out on the couch of my last college apartment, and listened to it for the first time.

By summer, Losing My Religion had helped Out Of Time become the R.E.M.’s biggest-selling album and I, having graduated the previous December, had relocated, the cassette probably in the Walkman.

Automatic For The People was a deservedly feted album and a cassette dubbed from the CD spent a lot of time in my Walkman as I trudged to work in late 1992, but it was clear that the relationship had changed in some undefinable way.

It was like the friendships with college friends that were reducing to phone conversations which were less frequent, more brief, and increasingly disconnected.

I hung with R.E.M. through Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but, when Up arrived in 1998, I was living in London with little money and I didn’t even bother.

I’m not sure what I’ve missed in the past decade from R.E.M. Reviews I’ve read lead me to believe that the years that the band has soldiered on without drummer Bill Berry and me have been a mixed bag.

R.E.M. and I weren’t destined to grow old together. Like most of my college friends, it was meant to be a brief relationship, providing more than a few songs to the soundtrack of that time.

I can’t say I’ve listened to much R.E.M. in quite some time aside from a track popping up on shuffle. I was a bit surprised to find that I had near two hundred songs from the band.

It might be time for a reunion.

Here are a half-dozen that caught my eye…

R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe
from Murmur (1983)

I had to have heard Radio Free Europe on 97X, but I can’t recall. If I try to imagine what I would have thought of the song as a fifteen-year old kid, I’m picture myself shrugging, puzzled.

Of course, Michael Stipe’s vocals and/or lyrics were oft noted as being indecipherable and inscrutible. Radio Free Europe is an excellent example, but the song bristles with garage rock energy and I find myself singing the words that I do know.

R.E.M. – So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)
from Reckoning (1984)

The jangly, mysterious So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry) has long been a must on any R.E.M. compilation and I’ve always loved the lyric “Go build yourself another dream, this choice isn’t mine.”

R.E.M. – Superman
from Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)

R.E.M. performed a lot of covers during their career – everyone from Leonard Cohen to Cyndi Lauper – but it was their take on a song by a far more obscure band from Texas called The Clique that provided the band with one of its best-known early songs.

Bass player Mike Mills took the lead vocals on Superman, and though the lyrics were as moody as their originals, the music was ridiculously upbeat and catchy.

R.E.M. – Orange Crush
from Green (1988)

Orange Crush was about Vietnam, the title a reference to Agent Orange. The political overtones of the song allowed a lot of us at the time to feel politically active by listening to the groovy, rocking song which featured some cool, jagged, chiming guitars courtesy of Peter Buck.

It was a win/win.

R.E.M. – Belong
from Out Of Time (1991)

Probably my favorite of all R.E.M. songs, Belong was the song that caused me to hit repeat the first time I listened to Out Of Time. The song drew me in.

It’s a dreamy, spoken-word fable with thumping bass, ringing guitar and soaring, wordless harmonies.

R.E.M. – Fretless
from Until The End Of The World soundtrack (1991)

Fretless was included on the soundtrack to the little-seen Until The End Of The World, a fascinating and flawed, futuristic road trip of a movie from the director of the classic Wings Of Desire.

A stellar array of alternative acts contributed songs specifically written for the film, resulting in one of my favorite soundtracks. For their part, R.E.M. bestowed the lovely, downbeat Fretless .

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“The Biggest Man You Ever Seen”

June 21, 2011

It was June 9, 1984 – a Saturday – that I made it into Cincinnati and bought a copy of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band’s Born In The U.S.A, which had been released five days earlier.

Though I knew a handful of songs by Springsteen from the radio, Born In The U.S.A. was his first album released with the E Street Band since I had become obsessed with music.

It was their first album where I was there.

It was the first album by the already-legendary band that I would own.

I was hardly alone as Springsteen brought a lot of new fans into the fold as Born In The U.S.A. sold millions, dominated the musical landscape, and the band embarked on a sell-out tour that seemed to last forever.

At that age, for me, it did seem like forever.

I had just finished my sophomore year of high school that Saturday when I purchased Born In The U.S.A. and I was making plans to come home for Thanksgiving from my first semester at college when the sprawling Live/1975–85 set was released at the tour’s culmination.

A year later, Tunnel Of Love arrived and though it was a success, there was no possibilty of maintaining the fervor that had surrounded Springsteen and a portion of that audience – for whom the music might have been no more than a trendy accessory – had moved on.

I was in for the long haul.

Oh, I didn’t become one of those Springsteen fans that can recite setlists at will, but each new release was anticipated and, as those releases became catalog, the music was cherished.

I wouldn’t see Springsteen live until ’96 when Paloma and I caught a show on his acoustic, solo tour for The Ghost Of Tom Joad. It was memorable, but, after years of reading of and seeing clips of Springsteen performing with the E Street Band…

Finally, in 2000, I had the chance to see the E Street Band on their reunion tour.

It was everything I’d read of, heard of, or been told of for twenty-some years and though it was the joyous three-hour celebration I’d been promised, but perhaps the most memorable moment had been the performance of the sparse, solemn If I Should Fall Behind near the end.

One by one, Bruce, Steve, Nils, and Patti stepped up to the mic, sang a portion of the song and stepped aside for a bandmate before surrendering the spotlight to Clarence, playing the sax and singing with Bruce.

It ended with the five of them crowded around that one mic together.

Of the however many hundreds of shows I’ve attended, I have never seen a band that seemed so genuinely happy to be together. There was a love and devotion between this somewhat disparate group of people that was palpable even from the cheap seats.

I left the arena that night knowing that – trademarked self-anointments be damned – I had just seen the greatest rock and roll band in the world.

(not to mention what must have been one really cool gang to be in)

I had one last chance to see them together, sharing a show with Paloma eight years later.

I’ve been surprised at how truly sad I have felt at the passing of The Big Man.

Maybe it’s because the E Street Band loomed so large during my sixteenth summer.

Maybe it’s because it seems as though this collection of scrappy underdogs has always been there and it seemed that they always would be.

Maybe it’s the stark reminder that not even The Boss is immune from the inexorable march of time.

And maybe it’s the realization that there is no more E Street Band.

Hours I’ve spent the past few days reading the recollections of fans and those tributes rightfully mention Springsteen classics like Rosalita, Thunder Road, Born To Run, and Jungleland, songs that were made transcendent by the sound of Clarence Clemons’ saxophone.

But it was none of those songs that I heard in my head upon learning of Clarence’s death.

Instead, the song that came to mind was one from Springsteen’s 1995 Greatest Hits set that had been newly recorded by the reunited E Street Band.

The song captured the bond between Bruce and his bandmates that, for me, made them a band for the ages and makes me grateful I got to witness some of it.

Buon viaggio, Big Man

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Blood Brothers
from Greatest Hits


Transcendent

October 16, 2010

God only knows how many live shows that I have had the good fortune to see over the years – several hundred, at least.

From local bands in dingy clubs to major bands at stadium shows and festivals, there are few acts that I could have reasonably hoped to see live that I have not had the opportunity to do so.

And, if asked to choose one that I’d wish to traverse time to experience again, I wouldn’t hesitate in an answer.

Peter Gabriel.

My initial exposure to the one-time Genesis frontman was during my musical formative years when Shock The Monkey became an unexpected pop hit.

As I continued through high school, I came to know songs like Games Without Frontiers, I Go Swimming, and even Walk Through The Fire (a track from the Against All Odds soundtrack) from the rock and alternative stations I listened to.

I purchased Gabriel’s commercial breakthrough So upon release and began delving into his self-titled back catalog even snagging a copy of the soundtrack to Birdy on which the singer reworked some of his previously released tracks.

By the time Passion, Gabriel’s stunningly evocative collection of music from and inspired by the movie The Last Temptation Of Christ arrived in ’89, I was completely on board and awaiting each new release.

Of course, I soon learned that waiting for new music from Peter Gabriel was almost as maddening as waiting for Godot, but arrive the next album did when he released Us in autumn of 1992.

It was on the subsequent tour for Us that a friend from the record store where I was working snagged a handful of tickets on the day of show and six of us made a three-hour road trip.

The band – featuring long-time members like bassist Tony Levin and guitarist David Rhodes as well as newer members like drummer Manu Katché and violinist Shankar – was stellar and Gabriel was riveting.

Of all those shows I’ve seen, over all these years, I have never seen a performer absolutely own an audience as Peter Gabriel that night. There were some visual effects, but they were minimal, unobtrusive, and perfectly complimented the music.

The focal point was the man and the music.

At several points during the show, I vividly recall scanning the sold-out arena and being amazed at how transfixed the entire crowd was, all eyes set on the singer.

Afterwards, my friends and I huddled outside on the concourse, smoking cigarettes and discussing what we had just witnessed. The most effusive praise coming from our receiving clerk, a tall, burly character with long, stringy hair.

The guy was a punk rock fan, had once been a road manager for Scottish punk group The Exploited, and liked relatively little music outside the genre. A good fifteen years older than most of us, he was old enough to claim to have seen Jimi Hendrix in concert.

He declared it to be the best show he’d ever seen.

I couldn’t argue otherwise.

Here are four songs Peter Gabriel performed that night which I recall as being particularly memorable…

Peter Gabriel – Solsbury Hill
from Shaking The Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats

If I ever took on the daunting task of compiling a list of personal favorite songs, I would have to think that the poignant, spiritual, and subtly anthemic Solsbury Hill would be a strong candidate for the top ten.

No matter how many times the song might serve as the musical accompaniment to a trailer for yet another vapid romantic comedy, nothing can diminish the power of the song or wear out its welcome with me.

Peter Gabriel – Family Snapshot
from Peter Gabriel

Gabriel enters the headspace of an assasin drawing on the unsuccessful attempt on George Wallace’s life and the actual murder of John Kennedy for inspiration and imagery. Each and every line resonates, upping the ante and pushing the song to its harrowing climax as the music builds.

And then, Gabriel reverts to the imagined childhood of the protagonist, witnessing the carnage as his family crumbles and offering the heartbreaking plea, “Come back mum and dad, you’re growing apart, you know that I’m growing up sad.”

Peter Gabriel – Secret World
from Secret World Live

Us had a focus on relationships in various states of disrepair none more so than Secret World which closed the album.

Live, Gabriel used the song to close the show. Walking to the front of the stage, he opened a large suitcase and, one by one, each member of the band climbed into the container and dropped out of sight as the song ended.

Gabriel then closed the suitcase and brought a conclusion to the main set.

Peter Gabriel – Here Comes The Flood
from Shaking The Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats

After ending the main set with Secret World, Gabriel and the band returned to the stage – along with with Congolese singer Papa Wemba, who had been the opening act, and his band – for encores of In Your Eyes and Biko.

At that point, the crowd of musicians bade the audience farewell, leaving Gabriel alone again. Bathed in a ghostly light, accompanying himself on keyboards, he delivered one final song – a stunning, haunting version of the sparse Here Come The Flood.