Friday, February 01, 2008

Defending the Music XV: Save the Shame for Me

Marquetta didn’t turn me on to R.E.M. but she played me more R.E.M. albums than I had previously heard. At that time I had pretty much only heard the ‘Document’ album, with its muscular-sounding iconic ode to using and discarding lover after lover (or at least loved one after loved one), “The One I Love,” and luckily some other boob had made an ass of himself by calling them “Rem” in my presence before I said it out loud myself – to the mockery of other college rock fans in the room. Boy did HE look dumb. (To be fair, at some other point I declared my appreciation for a band I referred to once and once only out-loud as ‘Inks.’)

Pete Buck’s unique guitar style – he is one of the few guitarists in popular music in the latter half of the 20th C. to finger-pick as a habit – made the simple repeated riff that drives the song snag into my brain. It was catchier than any lyric that had ever come before it. The plaintive one-word chorus was wrought with guilty self-hating angst… Fuck, how could an 18 year old not love this? At first, the repeated verse seemed unimaginative. But I forgave it long enough to understand it. The repetition, it turns out was a little bit of genius. This abuse – getting what one needs and moving on, is a serial habit, to the point where one victim is no different from the last.

Here is the true magic of R.E.M. Michael Stipe’s lyrics are not merely art. They often rise to the level of high-art, being structurally sound in support of their meaning and imagery.

Douglas Coupland spawned a Gen-X trend by declaring in his seminal (and frankly rather boring) novel that countless numbers of us had memorized the lyrics to “It’s the End of the World as We Know it.” (Which is no mean feat. Just try and get them all straight!) But here’s the thing… he didn’t make it up out of whole cloth. He was merely acknowledging a genuine trend. I don’t believe it was a fad until he mentioned it. I memorized them before I had read the book because of the combined challenge and the compelling nature of the screed of stream of consciousness that it represented.

And this was all before they put it out of the park.

The Juanabees used “Losing My Religion” as the theme-song to our first show ‘We Juanabee Bigger than Jesus’ (of which religion was a major theme). By the end of that summer I would have been happy if I never heard that song again. I’ve gotten over than feeling in the intervening 16 years. It’s that good a song.

In the years that I was making beer-money busking in ‘The Wookie Co.’ with Matthew we made liberal use of R.E.M. songs. Once, pretty much as a joke, we played “Superman” (Which to be fair was a cover.) for an entire set at the Kingston Buskers’ Festival. We didn’t make much money in that set, but damn did we amuse ourselves. We had a lousy location with mediocre walk-by traffic, and from a previous set in the same place we’d found that no-one seemed compelled to stop and listen to our ‘witty banter’ at that location (honest to god, they did in other locations) due largely to a lack of decent seating for a ‘starter crowd’ to begin forming. (Funny. People will happily stand once others have started watching and listening, but try and get the first person to stay without somewhere to sit.) We figured that if people were only going to be listening for the 90 seconds it took to walk past that we may as well only play one song. Later we were told by someone who had been listening across the street that they were at first confused that we just kept on playing the same thing, then they got tired of it and bored, then a bit annoyed and eventually came to find it funny. Looooong way to go for such a high-concept joke.

We also used “Me in Honey” & “You are the Everything” to great end. …Though we never played either of them for forty five minutes straight. “You are the Everything” was one of the few songs we never made light of and actually played quite straight. It was always one of our favourites. “Me in Honey” remains one of the most heartbreaking songs ever for me.

I gotta admit that from “Monster” onwards I felt like R.E.M. was only firing on half its cylinders. But even a half-functional R.E.M. was better than most bands ever were. They remain capable of creating songs that are pure art, and stringing five of the best albums of my lifetime back to back is more than enough to earn my unflinching trust in their abilities. I’m looking forward to their first album in four years sometime in April. I’m harbouring hopes that they’ll have had a good port-polish and that engine will be putting out a full horse-power.

Oh, and in the off chance J. David ever reads this… Yes, your version of ‘Stand’ remains one of the funniest Karaoke incidents ever.

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