REM: Photographs on the dashboard, taken years ago.
It is fall, 1989, and I am a freshman at Bowling Green State University. When I begin the year, REM is on my radar only as that band who sang “The One I Love” and “Stand.” Although I am introduced to piles of amazing new alternative music that year, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” is the only REM song that comes into heavy rotation on my all-time favorites list, and I buy Document on tape at Madhatter Music Co. just for this song. Several years later, after my dad died, I got behind the wheel of the 1982 Corvette he had bought when I was a senior in high school, not long after he’d lost a kidney to cancer. It was the last time I drove that car, and I removed the T-tops, put this song on the tape deck, headed out between the cornfields and sang at the top of my lungs while the wind pulled drops from the corners of my eyes.
It is my sophomore year at Bowling Green, 1990-91. A girl I know introduces me to the beauty of Reckoning, with its Harborcoat and its Seven Chinese Brothers and Don’t Go Back to Rockville, and she lets me make a copy of her CD onto a cassette tape. These songs are tied to memories of my single-occupancy dorm room in Rodgers Quad and parts of the summer of 1991 where I’m living in an upstairs apartment with my friend Ivan and driving my beat-up Mazda station wagon around northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan, and this is my second-favorite REM album.
That same year, I become good friends with a girl who loves Out of Time. We also hang out in the summer of 1991 and go dancing a couple times at the local alternative nightclub. On one trip, we wind up bouncing around to “Shiny Happy People”; on another visit, I try unsuccessfully to convince the DJ to play “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” She smiles and makes it happen.
When Automatic for the People is released in October of 1992, I am submerged in the Dark Times and am in an unhealthy, destructive, alienating relationship. She gets pissed off because I go and buy this album the day it comes out, while she is at work. Over the next year and a half of my early twenties, this album will sit in my bloodstream, brooding and slow and angry and sad. When I move to Florida with this girl, Automatic keeps me company on those beautiful nights when she is at work and I sit on the back porch of our crappy apartment with a chemical-smelling mosquito repellent coil burning next to me on an overturned bucket while I try – and fail – to become an alcoholic writer who doesn’t write very much.
Somehow my Out of Time friend and I remain in touch, and when she visits me once on a trip to Florida, we talk about how great Automatic is, and how “Nightswimming” is the best, best, best REM song ever, and that’s the last time I see her alive, and this is the last REM album she will ever hear.
No other album hits me like this ever again. It occurs to me now that it is very likely none ever will, given how closely I associate it with that time of the chaotic tides of life and emotion – and of course, I am still in its grip when I emerge from the dark times and meet Jenn. When we listen to Automatic together, the world gets better.
REM releases Monster in 1994, I am working in the composing room of The Orlando Sentinel. I associate this loud, feedback wail sound with working the second shift and staying up to go to Denny’s until 3 a.m., and Jenn and I sharing our first home – half a duplex with a 1950s kitchen and a scrubby front yard on a busy street. Nearly a year later, we get up one morning at 3:30 a.m. to drive to the nearest Ticketmaster outlet and camp outside the doors to await the sales of REM tickets to a show in St. Petersburg. We are the third or fourth group in line. Months later, we attend the only REM concert either of us will ever see, on the band’s last tour with Bill Berry. “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” is the show-opener, and hearing those chords still gives me memory-induced goosebumps, and that song will never sound the same to me again. Jenn and I dance and scream and smile uncontrollably and get married eight months later.
There are other albums, and songs which make me grin kind of sadly (“Electrolite”) and others which beg me to roll down the car windows and say the hell with hearing loss (“Let Me In”,”Living Well is the Best Revenge”), but none which pull at me as completely as those I listened to almost 20 years ago.
Which is why, last Wednesday, after hearing about REM calling it quits – and I love, by the way, The AV Club’s description of Automatic as “the Pet Sounds of the alternative era” – I was glad to have an evening appointment which meant a half-hour drive each way out on some dark, quiet roads. Perfect for cracking the windows and singing along: The photograph reflects, every streetlight a reminder…