06 June 2006

R.E.M.: Murmur

When I wrote last week about my seminal album, I should have mentioned that Murmur is a very close second to Sgt. Pepper’s.

I’ve been aware of R.E.M. since around 1981, when I worked at WRAS, Georgia State University’s radio station. R.E.M. opened up for a lot of acts we saw at 688 and the Agora Ballroom. And I was familiar with the “Radio Free Europe”/”Sitting Still” Hibtone single since it was a playlist staple. I thought they were a pretty good local band, but I wasn’t yet in love with them. Not even Chronic Town hooked me at the time; I was still into British New Wave — Squeeze, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and Nick Lowe, in particular.

And then Murmur was released in April 1983, starting a love affair that hasn’t wavered or disappointed in 23 years. That album connected with me like no other album had in years or has since. Listening to it still fills me with complete joy. I can’t describe what it does for me. There isn’t a song on the album I don’t like. Michael’s voice, Peter’s guitar, Mike’s musical brilliance, Bill’s beat. It’s such a Southern album. It was something new. I’m sounding like a pretentious college newspaper record reviewer, aren’t I? Damn, I wish I could come up with the words to describe what I feel when I listen to Murmur. I just want to jump up and dance that Athens dance and spin and forget about everything else but the happiness and youthfulness I feel.

But maybe it was the timing. The summer of 1983 was one of the best summers of my life, my last summer as a kid. OK, I was 24, but it was my last summer of complete freedom and no responsibilities. Renae and I had started hanging out again, after I freaked out about Holly and Randy getting married that summer. Renae was living in a cool apartment at The Belvedere, in Pershing Point. For a brief moment, that triangle at Peachtree and West Peachtree was our city’s Village, with funky neighbors and little galleries everywhere. I went over there nearly every night after work and spent most of my weekends there. We’d put on a record, sit on her balcony, drink lots of jug wine, sing and dance, spy on a particularly weird neighbor, and enjoy the summer. Or we were at Fellini’s for a slice and a flirt with Clay and Nelson. And Murmur was usually playing.

It was at Renae’s where I met Simeon, who was such a large part of my life for so many years (and is still one of my very favorite people I’ve ever known). Simeon was a music nut like me — probably more than me — and we were obsessed with R.E.M. We listened to Murmur and Chronic Town all the time. We started hanging out with Shawn, a guy who went to high school with Renae and me (and whose heart I had to stomp when he was a freshman) and worked with Simeon at Sam Flax (which was around the corner from Renae’s at the time). The four of us went dancing, saw movies, looked at art books, hung out. Every time I listen to Murmur, I’m transported back to that summer and that neighborhood.

Simeon and I went to see R.E.M. together that August at, of all places, the parking lot at Six Flags. My boys performed on a stage that looked like a flatbed trailer; I seem to remember their parents were seated on the stage. Simeon and I danced the entire show; most people just stood around. Simeon correctly predicted that those idiots wouldn’t move until they heard “Radio Free Europe.” He was right — everyone jumped up and danced as soon as it started — so Sim refused to dance to show his disgust. He stood completely still in the middle of the crowd … although his foot was a-tapping. I loved him for that. It was a waste, too, because I adored the way Simeon slammed his legs when he danced to “Radio Free Europe.” I danced, of course; I have no scruples when it comes to dancing along with Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe.

We next saw R.E.M. in October, when they performed a free concert on UGA's Legion Field (now a parking deck between the freshman dorms). The band played “So. Central Rain” for the first time; the Letterman appearance was three days later. I loved the Legion Field shows — crisp fall weather, the freedom of dancing in the field, getting in trouble for flirting with cute young boys. Damn, it was fun.

I have this great memory of driving in Athens with Renae the following spring. The sunroof was open, “Sitting Still” was playing, and we were singing at the top of our lungs — completely different words. It was such a silly, happy moment. I love mumbling Michael; the beauty of singing along with him was nobody could say you were singing the wrong words.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, I still love R.E.M. as much as I did that summer. I’ve seen them perform more than 20 times. I’ve bought every album the day it came out, or (beginning with “Automatic for the People”) at midnight the night before in Athens at the band’s release party. I’ve been a proud fan club member for years. I’ve read most of their interviews, watched every video, defended them to those who were dismissive of their brilliance. Michael eye-flirted with me in the mid-1980s and flirted with my beau in the mid-1990s. Peter’s given me the “hi” eye numerous times, and uttered many a "how's it going?" as he walked by. I once told Mike Mills how much his music means to me, and pissed off his girlfriend another time because he kept checking me out. And Bill Berry ... well, he had the best damn arms in Athens.

So, this isn’t a record review; it's ramblings of the memories that Murmur brings me. But isn’t that what a great album is supposed to do?

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At 6/06/2006 12:34:00 PM, Blogger Professor Bastard said...

Wonderful post.

Bruce's "Nebraska" and U2's "The Joshua Tree", I guess, are the two that do it to me. In fact, I hardly ever listen to either one because if I were to I'd have to spend the next day or two miles and years away. Not sure I can do that right now . . .

At 6/06/2006 03:32:00 PM, Blogger Grant Miller said...

I believe "Reckoning" is overlooked because it was preceeded by "Murmur." "Reckoning" is just as good.

At 6/06/2006 03:34:00 PM, Blogger Benny said...

I like this post!!

Your tangent reminds me of my ex-boyfriend, who was obsessed with REM. The obsession came out of nowhere- his other favorite bands so different. I used to think it'd be hard to get into REM because they were always changing their sound around, and I've still never heard an album of theirs where I was impressed the whole way through, but I've really been struck by individual songs. I spent one summer before high school detassling corn, and during those afternoons the only cassettes I listened to for eight hours were my mother's Monster and Out of Time.

I went looking for the Sonic Youth on iTunes, but couldn't find it! I'll give it another shot and keep you posted. ;-)

At 6/06/2006 03:53:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy said...

Everytime I listen to any track off of Social D's Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell I can totally picture myself driving around in my old, black, truck. Young and careless. I can almost taste the beer and cigarettes.

At 6/06/2006 04:09:00 PM, Anonymous patrick said...

Excellent column. For me, it's The Replacement's Don't Tell a Soul. The first few chords in Talent Show and I'm 25 again, living the care-free life of a single guy in Atlanta. Why did we decide to grow up anyway?

At 6/06/2006 05:41:00 PM, Blogger Dan said...

Wow Patrick! Great choice! I whole-heartedly agree. Whenever I hear "Talent Show," I'm always reminded of my high school days with my motley crew of artists and musicians during our own talent show (we rocked out a great version of "Layla"). The Replacements will always have that effect on me. I also suggest "Tim" and "Pleased to Meet Me."

At 6/06/2006 09:30:00 PM, Anonymous Glassmeow said...

Awwww...you were kids with them! You saw them before they got to be G.B.R.S.'s

I can't remember listening to R.E.M. too much before "Out of Time".

The early 80's were all about Bowie, The Clash, The Talking Heads, The Police, The Pretenders, Blondie etc., etc. (and probably my friend Harmony's obsession with Adam Ant - which I didn't share). Oh yeah - and Roxy Music...how could I forget?

The album that got me was "New Adventures in Hi Fi" (which I still like the best) It's got a feeling of really "tight" and really "spontaneous" about it that I find very compelling. That & some pretty angsty/moody themes. Give me dark and complicated any day!

At 6/07/2006 03:59:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

PROFESSOR B: I was hoping you'd enjoy this post. Your predilection for great songwriting is showing. I love both "Nebraska" and "The Joshua Tree"; in fact, I think I'm going to pull up "Nebraska" to keep me company during my middle-of-the-night writing session.

GRANT MILLER: "Reckoning" is great. I think "Fables" is also overlooked, and it's an amazing album - their Southern-Gothic-meets-Nick-Drake moment.

B: I can think of nothing better than working eight hours to R.E.M. I hope the boy was a good one. (Let me know if you still can't find "Incinerate"; I can e-mail you a copy.)

JEREMY: And I was expecting "Meat Is Murder." I miss smokin' Jeremy.

PATRICK and DAN: You'll never get an argument out of me on The Replacements. But you didn't list "Let It Be." Hell, all of their albums deserve to be listed.

GLASSMEOW: I was lucky to be their age and in their state and experience it from the beginning. I think "New Adventures" is one of R.E.M.'s top five albums. And I love your '80s list; I once wanted to be Chrissie Hynde.

At 6/07/2006 08:15:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

And I'm glad that all of you enjoyed this column and got the gist of what I was trying to say.

At 6/08/2006 08:12:00 AM, Blogger Scrivener said...

I started listening to REM with Murmur too, but they weren't local for me and they didn't really become an obsession until later. The problem with REM for me is that I've continued listening to the albums enough that the memories attached to them aren't quite as strong any more--there are too many layers of memory attached to albums, so that I don't flash back to my introduction to that album in quite this way.

Maybe my causation is not quite right there. Patrick, above, asked "Why did we decide to grow up?" but for me those were horrible years and REM was in all seriousness one of a couple of forces that helped me through those realy difficult times. I mean, I have some really strong, postive images attached to listening to their music too, but there are so many painful memories I don't want to dwell on wrapped in there too.

At 6/10/2006 07:35:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

The last time I saw the boys play was at a free concert here in Toronto May 2001. They looked and sounded so great rocking the old and the new with equal passion. Your post was so evocative, loved it.


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