"Calling out...in transit - calling out...in transit..."
Those garbled words coming out of a garbled car stereo speaker were the first time I heard them. That year marked the first time a lot of people heard them. I was ten.
My dad and I were exiting the parking lot of the Carytown plaza in Richmond, Virginia.
"Who is it?" I wanted to know, glaring at the radio dial, tuned to a local college station.
"I don't know," said my Dad "One of those new bands like The Clash or something."
I listened closely to the rest of the song, the jangly guitar, the rocking beat, and "What was he saying?" - greatly enjoying the tune, but also eagerly awaiting its end, so that the DJ would tell me the name of my newest favorite thing.
Radio Free Europe - by R.E.M.
Again, I was ten. These names made no sense to me, but they were unique - and that sound was really cool!
It would be a couple of years before I started buying cassettes of my own, but I still paid attention. This was the early 1980s after all, and I was a radio freak. I listened to most of the local stations; pop, top 40, some R&B, the newly emerging "classic rock" format - and often I would be subversive enough to turn my bedroom radio down really low when I went to bed at night and tune it to the university station. I knew what R.E.M. was up to - and wondered if this "Athens" place was in a different Georgia than I was familiar with.
When the paper route money stated rolling in (I was netting a fortune - about 20 bucks a week), I started collecting tapes. Murmur, Reckoning, Fables Of The Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant - these got me through middle and the first part of high school. I didn't know who The Smiths were, and had barely listened to U2, but I knew R.E.M.
Then, in 1987 - Document.
That was the one that got most of the world interested. Of course, by then, I was an aficionado: "Well, of course 'The One I Love' is a great song, but it's not actually a love song if you pay attention to the lyrics. Also, if you like 'It's The End Of The World And We Know It (And I Feel Fine)' - you should listen to 'Can't Get There From Here'. Oh, and they put out a compilation album earlier this year called Dead Letter Office that's really neat too - Pete Buck wrote the liner notes and everything..."
I didn't drink or do drugs at all in high school. I listened to music.
It was only later in life that I learned to multi-task.
The night of Friday, October 9th, 1987 left me feeling quite inebriated, however. I saw them live for the first time, at William and Mary Hall in Williamsburg. There would be more R.E.M. concerts through the years - all amazing, from Richmond to Tampa to Seattle - but that first one, in '87 left me utterly flabbergasted and eternally inspired.
In '87, I started my first real band.
There were two major influences that led me to pick up a guitar and learn to play; one was my Mom, who also played a bit - the other was R.E.M.
As the years passed, my relationship with my Mother became a bit scatter-shot, while my admiration for R.E.M. was steadfast. I was at the record store the day the albums came out, picking up magazines featuring interviews, and finding friends who would dance along to 'Orange Crush' or 'Near Wild Heaven' at parties.
When my Mom died in 1993, I rode a Greyhound Bus from St. Augustine, Florida to Richmond, Virginia for the funeral. Blocking out the remainder of my fellow passengers, I listened to a cassette I had recorded from my LP of Automatic For The People about 2 dozen times during the trip there and back. I took comfort in the easiness of that record, nothing too flashy, just good, emotional music. It was if my mourning was absorbed within the songs themselves - I would have erupted without that album.
I barely cried at my Mother's memorial service. Upon playing that record again in my apartment a few months later - I bawled my eyes out and my throat sore.
As years went by, I still paid attention. I formed other bands. I worried when Bill Berry got ill and left. I was relieved to see the remaining 3 continue to be vibrant; adding stellar musicians to their live shows and on subsequent albums. As I grew older, their music changed as well. At times, it took some getting used to - variations in relationships always do. Despite the alterations, their new sounds became welcome to my ears and heart.
Some bands are just bands. Some music is just music. Sometimes though, a band's music grabs you in such a way that it becomes a part of your life, a friend that gets you when no one else does, invigorating and molding you into whom you become in life.
I'm a record collector who first heard of the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Robyn Hitchcock, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Radiohead because of R.E.M.
More importantly, I'm a musician. A singer, songwriter, guitar slinger. Playing music is the thrill of my life - there is no pleasure comparable to channeling ones spirit through song. A small band from Georgia taught me that, and I can never thank them enough.
The Dispatch From Escalatorville
Find the river, Sweetness follows