Life Through Music #5: R.E.M. – Life’s Rich Pageant

My first friend in Middle School, John, recently posted R.E.M.’s EP, Chronic Town, in his Facebook retrospective. Which, instead of surprising me since this band never came up in our time together (he and I listened to a TON of music during our friendship and watched an equal number of videos and argued about just what constituted New Wave), it gave me a moment of sadness as it seems to have pointed out when that particular friendship started to end. I consider him a friend to this day and we’ve made points to see each other about a half dozen times over the past few decades but that’s more “catch-up” and less two kids who rode our bikes to the Livingston Mall to steal model paint from Sears and action figures from Kaybee Toy & Hobby (Yes, you can partially blame us for that store’s demise–oh, and we got caught, crappy thieves, we) and stood in line for Moody Blues concert tickets.
But, thanks to social media, we learned things about each other’s lives and have stayed connected. One of the things I learned was that, while I was listening to the college DJs spinning “1,000,000” on WFDU, he was exposed to the same ground breaking album by new friends. He had the Chronic Town cassette, I only heard the single and, instead of buying it, I bought Plastic Surgery Disasters by Dead Kennedys, wanna be oppositional punk of the suburbs, I.
It was years later and via a new friend, (another whom I lost touch with for a handful of years and reconnected after a span) that I was finally exposed to R.E.M. properly. Before I get to this record (and quite deeply burying the lede) I need to talk about “Murmur”, the first album by R.E.M. Not so much that I want to delve into it (even though I probably should) it has to be noted the impact that it had on so many of us, my friend especially.
Murmur had to be listened to in order. It was perfect. You couldn’t skip around, even if you wanted to because this was before CDs…until it wasn’t.
One morning I woke up in my dorm room in intense pain. Blinding, howling pain. My lower back and my…well, its a family blog/book, right? I called St. Vincent’s hospital and spoke to a nurse who, without missing a beat she diagnosed me over the phone: “You have a kidney stone.” I woke my roommate, Richard, up and begged him to help me get to the hospital. Did NYU have a place for us to go, I wonder in retrospect? Maybe. I don’t know. Richard got me downstairs, hailed a cab and went with me to the hospital. I was taken into the emergency room, put on a gurney and, the last thing I remember, was a doctor leaning over asking me how I was and me, grabbing his tie, pulling him to me and saying, “Stop the pain…or kill me.”
Then it was over. Pretty quickly, actually.
My mother retrieved me from the hospital and wanted to do something to thank my roommate for helping me. My decision? To give him a CD (which was new technology!) of Murmur. Did Richard have a CD player? Nope. But that didn’t matter to me. This just seemed right to me. He had the vinyl. He loved the album. And I was sure he would get a CD player one day and I wanted that one to be his first.
But this entry isn’t about Murmur. Which you might think strange. And it is but, although I adored that album (and Richard and I would dissect the lyrics out in Long Island when were trapped for the weekend, running sound on a senior friend’s student film) it isn’t the one that evokes the best memories of that friendship or that time. That honor goes to Life’s Rich Pageant. REM’s penultimate IRS record.
One day Richard and I decided to paint our dorm room. Not new colors, but with graffiti. A rebellious act that was unlike anything I had done before. My rebelling took the form of, I dunno, deciding to become a professional actor when all the kids I knew were striving for Ivy League educations. Or when I wore a shiny black shirt with a diagonal zipper. My math teacher thought I looked like an idiot. I never wore it again. I marched to my own beat but that might have been an undiagnosed form of high functioning autism. I was an expert on disappointing friends and a failure as a suitor. And, one day, I decided to bleach my thick, black hair. Which burned so hot that I had to wash it out, leaving my mane bright orange for a day as I raced, late, to my film history class, in a trench coat, racing down the Greenwich Village streets, lumbering along my appearance like a WWF wrestler. (I would succeed in getting it all white, eventually, and make the mistake of bleaching my eyebrows, requiring me to borrow a friend’s mascara to paint them back in.) My mother tried to pick me up at the bus stop during this period of my life but drove past because she thought was an “old woman” waiting for the bus.
Richard, an actual artist of varied media, painted glorious murals of evocative old faces on his wall. I scribbled words. And I remember none of them save what I wrote around the doorway: “I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract”. I was definitely someone who liked to quote other people’s words in the hopes that just reading them aloud would make me sound smart. (Narrator: it did, hence the ensuing disappointments).
I memorized the words to “I Believe” which, if you know Michael Stipe, you recognize this is no easy feat. I probably got many of them wrong. But I would sing them to myself from the bus stop in New Providence as I walked the 2 miles to Dr. Gash, my psychiatrist. Actually he was my mom’s psychiatrist but she asked him to see me, no doubt, influenced by the hair episode as well as my penchant for for wearing her blouses (they were billowy, like New Romantic pirate outfits) and Capezio shoes I found on the street (My father was more concerned with the fact that I was wearing shoes that didn’t belong to me. He took that to mean that he couldn’t provide. I just liked the way they looked. But, then again, I also liked Parachute Pants).
To get to the record: Life’s Rich Pageant was the album where Stipe, Buck, Mills & Berry finally showed their muscle.
Seemingly to atone for the shite that was Fables of the Reconstruction (or Reconstruction of the Fables, but, really, who cares?) REM brought in rock producer, Don Gehman, got their cause celebre on and gave their fans the album we had been waiting for. The anthem for Generation X. We almost didn’t get it. U2 decided to be the GREATEST ROCK BAND IN THE WORLD. REM decided to be artists. And a great rock band. And, oh, yeah, the voice of an entire generation. Pissed at the way the native Americans were treated. Pissed at pollution. Pissed at Reagan. Just pissed. And LRP expressed that. In bloodlettings like “These Days” and “Hyena” and “Just a Touch” they proved they had the chops and they could chop hard. In conscience tracks like “Fall on Me” and “Cuyahoga” they proved they had something to say and mumbling wouldn’t cut it anymore. They had the balls to record a cover, “I Am Superman”. They even had a sense of humor, “Underneath the Bunker” (an instrumental that became the backing track for my and richard’s first joint answering machine message. We sang our own lyrics. It was weird.) and “I Believe”.
The more I read about LRP the more I am learning just how political the album is. “Flowers of Guatemala” is about dissidents in that region who disappear. However the combination of obliqueness and mumbling makes the content of the songs more difficult to suss out, so they aren’t as important to my listening experience as a whole. It’s nice to know that “Hyena” is about government squashing other governments, though.
On Life’s Rich pageant, REM proved that they could do it on a stadium level. That’s what’s most important about LRP. It jettisoned REM from Leaders of the Alternative Pack to actual stadium rockers. With light shows and courage and anthems. They were OUR heroes. Our Springsteens. Our Zeppelins. Generation X finally had our own idols and could consign those others to “classic rock” radio.
I don’t know that R.E.M. gets it’s due as part of the lifeblood of Gen X’s youths. It’s hard to extol idolatry on men who don’t want to be idolized, their humility probably informs our reaction to them as much as their late career decline. But I’m grateful that it they have been a connection that binds me to two great men, both of them greater than myself.

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