Feeling Gravity's Pull: A Personal Tribute to R.E.M.

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Feeling Gravity's Pull: A Personal Tribute to R.E.M.

I heard somewhere that the part of the brain that processes sound is right next to the part of the brain that deals with memory, and that this is why certain music evokes such powerful memories. What then of the sounds that we constantly replay in our heads—ever-shifting, ever evolving:

I am not the kind of dog that will keep you waiting for no good reason…
I can swing my megaphone, and long-arm the rest
It’s easier and better to just beat it from the chest
Of desire

Suburban Philadelphia, 1985. Something was happening to me. I was looking for something that wasn’t anywhere in my immediate vicinity. I had no idea what that might be. I tried hardcore punk, and while I respected the ethos, the lack of musicality didn’t resonate with my North Carolinian ears, weaned, as they were, on CCR, Allmans, et al.

It was in a car coming back from a show by an obscure Philly hardcore band called The Little Gentlemen, that a cassette was inserted. It was one of those summer nights. Have you seen the photos on Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation; the ones of the band sweltering in a NYC summer? Humid, fecund—it was like that that night driving alongside the Schuylkill river hearing Reckoning for the first time, hearing R.E.M. for the first time.

Here’s a scene: You’re in the backseat laying down
The windows wrap around
To sound of the travel and the engine
All you hear is time stand still in travel
And feel such peace and absolute
The stillness still that doesn’t end
—“You Are The Everything”

The next day I went to Plastic Fantastic and bought: Reckoning, Fables, Murmur and Chronic Town. The clerk gave me an arched eye of approval. My sputtering hardcore days were over. My days of searching out anything and everything R.E.M. had started (these days continue).

As an incipient guitar player, I felt a gravitational pull towards Peter Buck. Everyone talks about the “jangle,” but it wasn’t that for me. As I later learned (as I became a better guitar player), it’s really the harmonic overtones and implied chords that he uses that give the sound its distinctive aural patina. It’s a style of playing that leaves room for your brain to fill in the notes that the harmonic overtones imply. In so doing, you become a collaborator of sorts. Given the fact that Michael Stipe’s lyrics worked in the same manner, it became not a stretch for me to imagine myself as a co-conspirator. Even though they didn’t know it, I was now in the band.

Speak in tongues
But it’s with a broken lip
Your hate, clipped and distant
Your love of pilgramage…
This pilgramage has gained momentum
Take a turn
Take a fortune

As the fifth member, I had certain responsibilities to live up to. These not only included the obvious ones like learning all the songs, and making certain that all of my schoolbooks and clothes had obtuse lyrics scrawled on them, but it also meant making sure that I knew the requisite points of reference in order to better hang with my “bandmates.”

Mr. Stipe was in something of his sphinx-state at that point; on the rare occasions he spoke, it was in sort of riddles (riddles, which, I of course made it my mission to solve). No, it was Mr. Buck who was the more effusive, and he was fairly effusive.

Pre-Internet, you had to write away for fanzines and magazines from overseas. It took days for The Bob to show up, and weeks for The Face to show up, but, eventually, show they would. It was in these interviews that I learned of the following from Mr. Buck (partial list):

The Byrds
Patty Smith
Jack Kerouak
Oscar Wilde
Television (the band)
Howard Finster
SST Records (and, thus, the Meat Puppets)
Flannery O’Connor

Now, you’re thinking, “Well, everyone knows about that stuff.” I must remind you: This is suburban Philadelphia, c. 1986. No one knew about this stuff. Looking at the list, with eyes that have seen more than two decades in the interim, I still think it’s a darn good list. Peter Buck was the older brother I never had, and he led me the right way.

Down the way the road’s divided
Paint me the places you have seen
Those who know what I don’t know
Refer to the yellow, red, and green…
—“Maps and Legends”

I listened to Life’s Rich Pageant every day in its entirety for one solid year from the day it came out. As brilliant as the predecessor records are, and while it doesn’t have my favorite R.E.M. song on it, Pageant is my favorite album. Partly, it’s because I saw the band for the first time on this tour. No one can tell me that the double-shot opener (both on the record and on most of the dates of this tour) of “Begin the Begin” into “These Days” isn’t as potent as it gets. Those rockers aside, it’s the weird ones on that record that kill me: “Swan Swan H” and “Underneath the Bunkers” remain to me, in many respects, definitive R.E.M. moments: obtuse, catchy, literate, dark. When people use phrases like “Southern Gothic,” these songs are the musical equivalent of the phrase.

I, of course, brought the vinyl and cassettes with me when I left for college the following Fall, and, upon, securing my side of my dorm room I immediately put up my massive (5’ x 8’) poster of the cover of Chronic Town. If anyone was unclear about exactly what I stood for, and who I was, all it took was one peek into my dorm room to find out.

For those who might not have had access to my dorm room, I had a sort of sartorial Shibboleth that would inform fellow travelers of my values. On pretty much every article of clothing I’d write something along the lines of:

“I felt gravity pull”
“Hurrah! We’re all Free Now”

Fellow travelers abounded, and many a night was spent butchering Driver 8 in some dorm room.

Man, was it great. I do love me some Internet, but there was something so intimate about the exchange of information about this band that—at this point, just pre-Document, and its sort-of hit, “The One I Love”—summed up so much of what a small group of us believed. We’d collect stories and bootlegs, and try to decipher lyrics.

A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends
Drink another, coin a phrase
Heaven assumed, shoulders high in the room
Standing too soon, shoulders high in the room
—“Perfect Circle”

R.E.M. got huge. I didn’t mind. Even after hearing it a million times/seeing the video a million times, no one can deny that “Losing My Religion” is a song/video whose success we can all feel good about (sort of like we feel good about Harry Potter being a best-seller—sometimes the good guys/girls win).

They won. And they won because even after the massiveness of “Religion,” they released perhaps their most beautiful and elegiac record, Automatic for the People. For a while there, R.E.M. would release their records in the Fall, and standing in a grocery store parking lot in late-September in Providence just as dusk was falling while the radio blasted the opening notes to “Drive” is pretty much all I ever want from Fall.

Things changed after Automatic. In hindsight, I’m thinking Bill Berry may have sort of already been gone even while he was still “in the band” during Monster. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is a great song, but Monster is not a great record. It’s the first miss. New Adventures in HiFi is under-rated (“E-Bow the Letter,” “New Test Leper” and “Electrolite” sit proudly next to any of their other work), but also over-long and not great.

Thing s got sort of weird after that. The quasi-electronic records—Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun—feel different from everything else. This doesn’t mean these records don’t have their moments. “At My Most Beautiful,” “Daysleeper,” “Walk Unafraid,” (from Up), “All the Way to Reno,” “Imitation of Life,” “I’ll Take the Rain” (from Reveal), “Leaving New York,” and “Wanderlust” (Around the Sun) combined on to one record would’ve been a killer.

Even as the records changed, the live shows crushed. Mr. Stipe’s emergence as a shaved-headed charismatic front man—while somewhat startling to those who had seen him perform with his back to the audience, or with his eyes hidden behind his bangs—seemed to fit the more rocking live shows, and made the earlier songs all the more poignant when performed.

For me, during these years, I began to find real joy in playing along with the records, and even more joy in playing the songs on guitar to my—at the time—infant daughter. She’s seven now and is about to start drum lessons. I’m convinced this is because her favorite song in the world as an infant was my live acoustic version of “It’s The End of the World As We Know It.” She’d rock in her bouncy chair in perfect time as I made up the lyrics. And, to this day, when I leave my kids on a business trip, I quietly sing:

I made a list of things to say
But all I really want to say
All I really want to say is
Hold her and keep him strong
While I’m away from here
Hold her and keep him strong
While I’m away from here

Accelerate was meant to be a return to form, but we know you can’t return to something that existed so contingently upon a specific place and time. This does not mean it, or its now-nearly-impossible-to-listen-to-because-it’s-the-last-we’ll-get follow-up Collapse Into Now are bad records. If those records were released by some unknown band, they’d be lauded as masterworks. But, of course, they were released by indisputably one of the greatest bands of all time, and so they come laden with not only expectations, but also with the heft of a complicated relationship between creator and listener. In the end, they are just that: the sounds of the end.

Talk of the band’s legacy and its members’ dignity and philanthropy will be covered by many others. That’s not for me. My head is a swirl, and, yes, my heart aches. Words, and sounds and fragments (these will mean something to some; nothing to others—remember, a Shibboleth:

“boxcars (turning) out of town”
“it must be time for penitence. Gardening at night can never work.”
“Calling out on air transit”
“Did you never call?”
“She will return”
“When I’m moving too fast, where’s my new address?”
“I saw a treehouse on the outskirts of a farm”
“Stay off that highway, word is it’s not too safe”
“My carpenter’s out and running about, talking to the street”
“Courage built a bridge, jealous tore it down”
“At the end of the day, when there are no friends, when there are no lovers, who are you going to call for? What do you have to change?”
“Then whistle as the wind blows. Whistle as the wind blows.”
“Miles Standish proud”
“We are hope despite the times”
“And change is what I believe in”
“A pocketful of rhyme”
“You’re sharpening stones, walking on coals to improve your business acumen”
“Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold”
“I could turn you inside and out, what I choose not to do”
“You come to me with a bone in your hand”
“I’m not sure all these people understand”
“All the birds look down and laugh at me”
“I count your eyelashes”
“Galveston sings like that song that I love”
“Oh my heart”

They all rattle around with me every day. But there’s one, one that rattles the loudest, and that I know I’ll sing until I’m in my grave. I’ll never know precisely what it means (even having had the opportunity to thank the guys, knowing they can’t know, I couldn’t bring myself to ask):

“Can’t find my harborcoat. Can’t go outside without it.”

I don’t know if those are exactly the right words, and I don’t know exactly what a “harborcoat” is, but I do know that for me it means some form of protection from a world that can too often seem hostile and alien. R.E.M. has been my harborcoat for nearly as long as I can remember. The band’s songs and spirit have protected me from more internal storms than I care to think about, and, like a well-worn coat, its music always felt as if it was made just for me. Thank you, guys.

Follow George Howard on Twitter at @gah650