Saturday, December 27, 2014

Up in the Air with R.E.M.

I recently watched R.E.M. By MTV, the music channel's new feature-length video documentary, and it sent me back to R.E.M.'s vast catalog, and back in time. My self-made R.E.M. iTunes playlist is 9-plus hours, and over the course of this past week I listened, chronologically, from 1982's Chronic Town EP to the band's final single in 2011, "We All Go Back To Where We Belong." The songs' and albums' progression and forward momentum over thirty years paralleled the images in the documentary of four skinny, hungry kids with energy to burn sitting for earnest interviews giving way, inexorably, to three middle-aged men who often seemed bored and jaded, whose legendary stage shows had morphed from raw sets in front of hundreds to grand spectacles for tens of thousands.

In many cases, songwriters are more elastic than prose writers about their words' meaning; authorial intention is important to me, and I can get irritated when it's devalued or ignored. Paul McCartney famously said that he was thinking of his mother Mary—not The Mother Mary—when he wrote "Let It Be" in 1970, but that if a listener wants to think he was writing under divine inspiration and was directing the song toward the Christ Mother, that's fine by him. I usually find this objectionable, but then again I'm not a songwriter, I'm an essayist and prose writer, to whom meaning is precise and earned, and originates in specific intentions and ideas, however lyric and abstract that origin might be. And yet.

Michael Stipe is—let's not belabor this—uniquely blasé about the meaning of his early lyrics. He famously confessed to an online group that he was basically busking nonsense sounds as the lyrics on R.E.M.'s first couple of records. I've always held that the band's full-length debut Murmur is a great all-instrumental album, Stipe's words less prose and content than another wordless instrument. If you weren't around at the time Murmur was released, it's difficult to appreciate how amazing that record sounded; I walked around in a daze on the University of Maryland campus listening to the album, bumping into things. The album was new and old and knowable and unfathomable and catchy and obscure and rocking and folky and funny and somber at once. A phrase in one song, "Laughing," stuck with me: "Logic, logic, laughing too." I believed in this as a kind of faith, a twenty-something kid balancing the excess and discipline of college and romance, friendships and introversion. Yes: one needed a kind of Stoic logic to get through life, but one also needed to laugh irrationally at it all. Brilliant! I have a distinct memory of idling between classes at Maryland one day, listening to this song and half-consciously, half-unconsciously assembling its philosophy.

Decades later, I learned that what Stipe is actually singing in the song is "Lighted, lighted, laughing in tune"—which means nothing, beyond its presence in the mouth and whatever private resonance it might've had for Stipe. But when I hear "Laughing," as I did again three days ago, I sing along to the unlikely marriage of logic and laughter, remembering how reflecting on that that tenuous bond helped to get me through my absurdly volatile early 20s.


2011. Amy and I are flying from Chicago to Austin, Texas. In the plane I'm listening to Collapse Into Now, R.E.M.'s brand new, and as it turned out, final, album. Because of her fear of flying, neither Amy nor I had flown in decades, and though the flight was uneventful, our nerves were shot. I kept replaying two songs on the album that narrated both the majesty of the flight (prosaic to other frequent travelers) and my deep anxieties about flying. "Überlin" and "Walk It Back" have little to do with a plane ride (I think) and yet the ascending lilt and calm in each helped me through the flight, allowed me to appreciate the beauty of the clouds and sunlight glinting off of the jet wings, to rationalize a safe end to the journey, to calm my own nerves so that I could help calm Amy's. Again, certain of Stipe's words stood out in stark relief in each song:

From "Walk It Back":
You, don't you turn this around
I have not touched the ground in
I don't know how long
From "Überlin":
I am flying on a star into a meteor tonight
I am flying on a star, star, star
I will make it through the day
And then the day becomes the night
I will make it through the night
When I listen to these songs, the images and memories each stirs in me have less to do with the songs' compositional circumstances, or with Stipe's intentions, or to whatever head-space the band was in when they wrote and recorded them, than with where I was: 40,000 absurd feet in the air, nervous, next to a nervous girl I care deeply for who was twisting her Southwest Airlines napkin to a fine point. I was balancing logic and laughter, airborne with a soundtrack. These songs will always be up in the air with me, restorative. I'm glad that I have such deeply personal and resonant touchstones on both R.E.M.'s first and last albums.

As it turns out at SXSW, hanging with the Fleshtones' Keith Streng, I ran into Peter Buck at a bar where he was playing with the Baseball Project. He was on guard behind dark sunglasses, escaping the Texas heat. I told him that I thought that Collapse Into Now is "a great flying album." I'm not sure that he knew what I meant. It doesn't matter.

"Laughing," Murmur (1983)

 "Überlin," Collapse Into Now (2011)

"Walk It Back," Collapse Into Now (2011)

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