Most of my life is wondering what the hell I’m doing. These are the times when I play R.E.M. and figure out nothing except that the stars are shining and jangly guitars are the balm that soothes every suburban disturbance. But it’s enough. I’m amazed at my own ineptitude at adulthood, but spin a few R.E.M. records and I’m right back in middle school and it’s all fine, just the night sky and stars that shine, lawn glistening with evening dew. I can always be jittery/nervous/anxious kid in glasses with dreams of running through creek river waters on Sundays, leaves changing in October, buried squids at the 50 yard line… watching SNICK, autumn moths playing Kick-the-Can, the ecstasy of the twelve-year-old heart.
Can I pick a favorite album? This is an impossibility. It’s like picking my favorite toe or declaring which hair on my head is the one I’d like to keep when all the rest are gone. It can’t be done because every R.E.M. album I own is a part of my actual life, part of my skin and my memory, part of myself, both real and imaginary, every song a strand of my DNA. It’s a little scary that one band could weave itself so completely into the sinews of my existence, but there it is. I am the child of Automatic for the People, and Out of Time, and Green, and Document, and Monster, and Fables of the Reconstruction, and Murmur, and Life’s Rich Pageant. I am the child of Chronic Town. Each one painting a canvas on my brain, coloring in the lines of my existence. Think this is exaggeration?
Automatic for the People was the first CD I ever bought with my own money. It is still the album I play at the start of every summer, the album that I play when I want to remember a neverwas childhood. I bought Green and Out of Time on cassette, the first “alternative” music I owned, and I played them till they warped. They have since warped me with their elegiac, ecstatic brilliance. Monster was the soundtrack of every 8th grade party in the Fall of ‘94. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” will always and forever be Kris’s garage and the smell of cigarettes behind the pool. I wrote piles of notebooks in high school to the strains of Murmur and Life’s Rich Pageant. I sit here writing this right now to the mumbly goodness of Chronic Town.
I cannot escape R.E.M. even though Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe have decided to escape each other. R.E.M. hasn’t really been the same since Bill Berry left in ’97, but when the remaining members finally ended the band a few weeks ago, I still felt bruised. It doesn’t matter that the band is over – I haven’t bought an R.E.M. album in thirteen years. But it matters that something has ended, whether or not I can figure out why. I just know that I can feel it. I’ve still got my memories of being a kid, alone with my thoughts, sitting on the bedroom floor writing bad poetry in a spiral notebook, listening to “Find the River” on repeat, only now there’s an added twinge of loss, as if the memories have dimmed because the band that sang them into existence has ended.
I’m a writer because of a multitude of influences: C.S. Lewis, Jim Henson, Ray Bradbury, 11th Grade A.P. English. But R.E.M.’s music is the music of my pen, the music of my stories and poems. The soundtrack to my writer’s life. Everything I’ve ever written has somehow flowed from their music, both consciously and unconsciously, a flood of Sadness and Wonder. Theirs is the music that sang me into existence, tender child of eleven, looking for a music that would teach me that I wasn’t alone in my longing. Quiet Ophelia, looking for the bergamot and vetiver. I found it in the chords of a rock band from Athens, GA.