And yes there's R.E.M.

And then there was a summertime road trip to Madison, Wisconsin, in my friend A_____'s mom's BMW, when we realized that we couldn't get the I-Pod to plug in right and I dashed up to my apartment last minute and grabbed a few dusty CDs from a forgotten stack in the corner and then we were off on I-90, heading into a tungsten sky, beating rush-hour traffic, when I popped open the CD at the top of the stack and slid the yellow disc with black lettering into the player and this track came on. It was hot and we had debating opening up the sunroof and rolling down the windows and perhaps screaming up the road for a bit. I can't recall if we did that or not, because I was overwhelmed with the opening guitar-line to R.E.M.'s "Drive" and found myself singing along, shocked that, even after nearly 15 years since I'd last listened, I know nearly every lyric.

R.E.M. is an odd band to contemplate. They seem to have fallen entirely out of favor with the last two or three generations of music fans (depending on how you carve those sorts of things out). And my age seems to fall right at the cut-off.* I'm not sure why that is, but I suspect it has too much to do with the band hanging on for far too long and doing embarrassing things like appearing on an episode of Boston Public.** It's hard to pallate a band that is a central driving-force behind the College Radio Movement in the 80s, and then a mainstay of the MTV Era during the 90s, doing something like that once their career has clearly crossed into the realm of the Wax Works Musician.*** Certain musicians develop a level of expectation. Any and all art created by them is beloved for things beyond the simple beauty of a well-organized chord progression or a piercing vocal. Theirs is a devoted audience, one that views them as Capital "A" Artists, and as such has little to no patience for when these musicians hang on too long, put out a string of mediocre albums, or pop up on the holiday episode of a popular Fox dramedy.****

In any case, as I rode alongside A_____, I wasn't necessarily thinking of all of that. Rather, I was remembering how a song like "Nightswimming" gave me chills when I was 17, made me long for an adolescence I wasn't even done living yet, led my imagination to images of faded photographs on dashboards of rusty cars, and the blur of lust and embarrassment that might overwhelm you if you were skinny-dipping with a lovely person, and how "these things they go away / replaced by every day." I told A_____ this and then closed my eyes and listened. My thoughts drifted to the times that A_____ and I had found ourselves undressed and how it had never led to any sort of real consummation of anything and how that was actually amazing and how excited I was to be going to a lake town in Wisconsin to get sunburned and eat fried cheese with her.

Sometimes things really can slow down for a short period of time and seem almost simple in their beauty. This was one of those moments. And sometimes they happen to an actual soundtrack that still contains surprises that you'd thought you'd worked through, processed, burned up. Sometimes it is still amazing, even after all the years and ruins that stand between the memories of it and the current experience of it. But that sounds far too dry and academic. Something goes missing when I say it like that. It's more that sometimes a beautiful woman driving a borrowed BMW while the two of you listen to old songs about death and loss that you can't believe are giving you chills, even while you sing lustily along to them, your voice cracking at times when you try to hit the falsetto notes, and deepening with bravado when you do your 'Elvis,' while you sing mostly for you but also for her, can still choke you up, can still take the air from your lungs, can still leave the top of your scalp tingling.***** And yes there's R.E.M.

* Suffice it to say that the next time someone plays an R.E.M. track in a bar where I am drinking (and I am drinking almost all the time in bars), it will be the first time since the 90s.

** It's lovely to me that the Youtube clip isn't synced correctly. That, friends, is poetry. Hate it if you must.

*** Though the designation should be fairly straight-forward, here's a quick way to check if a musician is one of this lot:

  • The performer(s) won't be around much longer, so I'd best catch this show while I still can.
  • I never saw it/them when I was young, and i'd like to check them off the list
  • Oh wow, honey, they're headlining this year's Stern Wheel Regatta (Fever: Catch it!)!

If the answer to any of these questions is "Yes" (or even "Maybe"), then the musician(s) in question must be considered a museum piece and should be viewed as such.

**** To wit: for many, R.E.M's album Murmur is held in the same esteem as Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Can anyone imagine Jeff Mangum performing "Two-Headed Boy" on the holiday episode of some tee-vee dramedy?

***** Sometimes it also leads to an insanely expensive speeding ticket, since getting lost in a moment while zooming down a highway in Wisconsin does not go unnoticed by mustachioed police officers who will smirk as they inform you that speeding tickets in Wisconsin come with nasty penalties.


  1. Bonus points if you can name the song the title of this entry references.

  2. This essay perfectly illustrates how oftentimes it's not about the music itself, or the art, but rather the circumstances in which we receive it. I shared a bedroom with my sister when I was twelve and she was nine and, for months, we fell asleep to the songs of REM's Out of Time. So, wax museum or not, they'll always hold a special place in my heart, too. Thanks for sharing!