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That Night a Mouth Roared and a Light Went Out

 

Like many others that fateful night 37 years ago, Dec. 8, 1980, I learned of John Lennon’s death from Howard Cosell. Yeah, that Howard Cosell. It was Monday night, the Patriots were in Miami, and, in 1980, Howard was still presiding — in his inimitably pedantic, overly dramatic fashion — over Monday Night Football, what in the pre-cable era was the week’s premier sports broadcasting event. Howard was respectful of the news, as respectful as his bombastic persona would allow: He treated it as he would a punt returner who has broken clear of the pack with only the kicker to beat. See that bizarre media moment, preserved for all time, here. ESPN would later weigh in with a meta-media doc, here.

My dad and I always watched MNF and we were stunned, naturally. It was legitimately stunning news delivered by a most unlikely source, in a peculiar context. The Pats’ left-footed, English place kicker — John Smith (from Leafield, Oxfordshire) — was lining up a field goal attempt when Cosell abruptly altered the narrative. The only thing that would’ve made it more bizarre? If Smith had hailed from Blackburn, Lancashire.

We called my mother into the room. She was the founding and still chief Beatles lover in our family, and John was clearly her favorite. She was 41 in 1980, essentially the same age as John Lennon. She had latched onto them from the start; indeed, my dad had teased her for digging a band whose enthusiasts were, at that stage, mainly 13- and 14-year-old girls. But my mom possesses a keen musical sensibility and her early support for their chops were more than justified in the years to come… She teared up listening to Cosell bloviate then left the room.

Not sure why, but the holiday period tends to include a lot of Beatles content on PBS. Just last week I saw that Ron Howard’s “Eight Days a Week” was featured, along with something called “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution”, as part of a fundraiser. All these years later, the Beatles are considered subject matter for the whole family, apparently. If you should get the chance, make time this month to watch the superb documentary “LENNONYC”, about his post-Beatles years in New York City (I saw it on PBS, but today you can catch it online, here). It was an eventful decade that followed hard on the band’s break-up, in 1970. For Lennon it featured a gaggle of outsized characters and spanned a remarkable procession of music-making, protesting, drug-taking, deportation-resisting, legal wrangling, breaking up, getting back together, child-rearing and, ultimately, growing up. That was the message one took away at film’s close: Here was a guy who had finally shed the latent adolescence of rock stardom and become a man, in his own right, only to be killed by a psychopath at the exact moment that maturity was to be revealed — his gorgeous new album, “Double Fantasy”, was released on Nov. 17, 1980). I don’t know that it gets much sadder than that.

With All-Cover Encores, The Feelies Advance State of the Art

Click photo to hear The Feelies pay homage to Jimi Hendrix during their encore at The Sinclair in Cambridge, Mass., Oct. 14, 2017.

Nerd rockers The Feelies played The Sinclair in Cambridge over the weekend, and for all the band’s laudable work churning out two solid sets, it was the encore that left the greater impression. This is perhaps by design, from a band that does encores like no one else and whose 21st century incarnation just happens to have played out like one long, extended encore.

Formed in 1976, this Hoboken 5-piece achieved a modest commercial success and sizeable cult following (comprising not insignificant numbers of Velvet Underground devotees) during the 1980s on the strength of four superb studio albums. Eventually it would break up (1992), re-form (2008), go out on limited tour (trademark diffidence in tow) and eventually release two new discs, including this year’s In Between.

And yet I come before you not to reflexively extoll the virtues of The Feelies sound — which I love, but about which reasonable people can disagree — but rather to applaud the remarkable structure of their shows. We’re all familiar with the two-sets-plus-appended-encore format of most club dates. Here The Feelies do not break any molds. When it comes to the content of those encores, however, they deviate from the norm to stirring effect.

I’ve long maintained that any band (even one whose original music I can’t get enough of) should be obligated, by law, to play at least one cover during a live show. Covering someone else’s material exhibits range; it provides insight into a band’s outside influences, tastes and admirations. It is at once self-effacing and evidence of a certain kind of bravado.

In this respect, The Feelies consistently hit it out of the park and they do it with an emotional intensity they don’t always apply to their originals. After playing not a single cover during the first two sets at The Sinclair, they re-emerged to produce their specialty: the rare all-cover encore, a half dozen tunes that, taken together, provide a veritable window on the band’s soul:

• Astral Plane, The Modern Lovers

Paint It Black, Rolling Stones

I Can’t Stand It, Velvet Underground

Got to Get You Into My Life, The Beatles

Real Cool Time, The Stooges

Damaged by Love, Tom Petty

See No Evil, Television

Are You Experienced?, Jimi Hendrix

I watched this show with a couple certifiable Feelies Freaks who admitted afterward the two formal sets had come off as a bit labored. The band played a bunch of new material from In Between (i.e. songs still to be polished in the live setting) and while they nailed plenty of oldies from Time For a Witness, Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth, there wasn’t exactly a surfeit of energy up there. Of course, with The Feelies, stage histrionics are not what they’re selling. In any case, once the encore kicked off, they summoned reservoirs of new life. Even Glenn Mercer, the famously cadaverous and impassive lead singer/guitarist, perked up; mid-Stooges, after two sets of studied catatonia, he could be seen bouncing about the stage and rubbing his guitar against the mic stand.

I don’t know of any other bands that deliver all-cover encores (aside from those who do nothing but covers). In some small way, The Feelies are innovating here — which is ironic, for in most every other respect, they have stubbornly refused to evolve. When Yo La Tengo debuted with Ride the Tiger in 1985, these two Jersey-derived bands could easily have been mistaken for one another — a pair of similarly skilled, post-punk, Velvet-obsessed, art-house darlings. Yo La Tengo actually has a thing for covers, too. But while YLT moved on (issuing a dozen increasingly expansive, sonically adventurous albums), The Feelies have never abandoned their own specific brand of jangly, guitar-driven avant-pop, proving just how much there is to mine from such a seemingly constrictive niche.

And you know what? Their encore habits further demonstrate their desire to cling just as tightly to their earliest influences. Today, of course, there are websites devoted entirely to the fan-chronicling of set lists, even those performed by obscure bands from the 1980s. The Sinclair show has not yet been logged for all time, but here we gather from www.setlist.fm a further sampling of encore tunes from The Feelies’ Detroit show at The El, in July:

Dancing Barefoot, Patti Smith

White Light, White Heat, Velvet Underground

I’m a Believer, Neil Diamond (The Monkees didn’t write this, silly)

Everyone’s Got Something but Me and My Monkey, The Beatles (or this one)

• Child of the Moon, Rolling Stones

Take It As It Comes, The Doors

Seven Days, Bob Dylan

I’ve seen The Feelies three times now, all post 2008, and I just love the way these guys deploy their encore/cover strategy to paint for the audience (and re-experience for themselves) a rich picture of their collective musical tastes circa 1978, when the band was just getting going, young and impressionable. This gambit functions additionally as an ingenious audience-engagement strategy, for everyone at The Sinclair was at least as old as I am (53), and who in their 50s doesn’t want to hear one of their favorite bands cover Television, or Patti Smith? And I find this sorta touching: The Feelies rarely leave out the Beatles and Stones — because, honestly, how could anyone, even the most overly curated latent punk aesthete, come of age in the early 1970s and completely resist their many, many charms? After all, when The Feelies were coming up, 1969 just wasn’t that long ago.

What sort of new music are The Feelies into these days? The Lord only knows. If the contents of their encores are any guide, the answer is “not much”. They knew Tom Petty has recently passed away —  evidence of a basic musical awareness. Otherwise, the course of modern rock these last 25 years would appear to have made little to no impression on their song choices. They’re a band whose predilections and influences, like their own sound (even today), remain frozen in amber. And it’s hard not to love them for it.

Bowie’s Impact, Departure Still Sinking In

Bowie’s Impact, Departure Still Sinking In

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As was the case with many artists of the 1970s, David Bowie was introduced to me via my older sister. Janet brought home Hunky Dory at some point late in the Nixon Administration and when she wasn’t playing it to death, I played it to death. In truth I hardly ever bothered with Side 2 because that’s how my primitive musical mind operated at the time. Side 1 had everything I thought I needed: the radio song, “Changes”; a screamer that Janet and I used to goof on together during car trips (“Oh, You Pretty Things”); and my favorite track, the always haunting and beautiful “Life on Mars”. Once I got to college and lived in close quarters with a more fully developed Bowie enthusiast/savant, Dennis Carboni, I would learn that Side 2 wasn’t just superb (“Song for Bob Dylan”, “Andy Warhol”) but indicative of Bowie’s new genre-busting album and persona to come.

[I wouldn’t dream of posting anything regarding Bowie without Dennis’ input. His annotative comments appear below, bolded and bracketed.]

It’s been more than a year since Dennis and I spoke of this and many other things the Tuesday following Bowie’s death, in January 2016. He confirmed what I remember us discussing all those years ago, in the wee hours, confined only by the sterile cinderblock walls of dorm life — namely, that Bowie wasn’t just consistently 2-3 years ahead of every other rock ‘n’ roll artist in terms of musical direction and fashion sense; he normally hinted at his next departure on the back end (Side 2) of his previous album.

[I like how you wrote, “Dennis and I spoke of this and many other things,” which recalls the lyric, We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when — from “The Man Who Sold The World.”]

On the generally ethereal Hunky Dory, that clue was the propulsive and utterly sublime “Queen Bitch”, which heralded the coming of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, one of the great, pure rock (and proto-punk) albums of the decade. To say that Ziggy himself was one of the great “roles” played by any rocker of the period is not necessary, for no one else even attempted this sort of serial shape-shifting back then. Bowie turned this trick 4-5 times throughout the decade (hippie folkster to Ziggy to glam rocker to blue-eyed soul man to Thin White Duke) and competed in this regard only with himself.

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Bowie’s career didn’t begin with Space Oddity in 1969. He’d been around since 1965, when this shot was taken. Pretty mainstream, for the time, and a reminder that these icons we associate with a particular decade didn’t arrive fully formed from the brow of Zeus.

[I’ve been reading the blog, “Pushing Ahead of the Dame.” You may know it, but check it out if you don’t. It’s fascinating. Yes, “Queen Bitch” is perfect because it starts with the acoustic guitar C-G-F progression à la Hunky Dory, then switches right to an electric C-G-F à la Ziggy.]

My sister didn’t own the Ziggy album; indeed, while I knew several cuts well (from FM radio play) I wouldn’t fully absorb it until the early 1980s. She did, however, possess one more Bowie LP: David Live, Bowie’s first official concert release where, once again, he shows us a transition in the making: from the hard-edged glam of Diamond Dogs to the Philly soul sound of Young Americans. I am not ashamed to admit that I love this particular Bowie period, this dalliance in what he later, somewhat ambivalently referred to as “plastic soul”. It does shame me to admit, however, that until I was 12-13 years old, I thought this dude’s name was David Live.

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Silver Tribute Ends 23 Years of Jazz-Search Futility

Silver Tribute Ends 23 Years of Jazz-Search Futility

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Played the Peace Fair on Brunswick green Saturday. Our mando player Ben’s mother, a German war bride and longtime social justice activist, administers this event, which annually draws a healthy cross-section of southern Maine’s aged hippie population. This year, for these unreconstructed lefties, we performed a Pete Seeger tribute/sing-along. The crowd was big (for a peace fair, in August) and the weather held off. But the big deal came before I had played a note. Ben’s brother Matt, a gifted pianist, was up for the event and brought along a fellow Nutmegger  on sax. They started our set (we followed a five piece that featured two steel drums) with a four-piece tribute to the recently departed Horace Silver (above), a jazz name I sorta knew but not really. The song they chose, appropriately, was “Peace”, and it transported me.

In the early 1990s, I was news editor at a couple of daily newspapers in Massachusetts. The life was somewhat nocturnal: I’d arrive a 5 p.m., put the paper on the press at 2 a.m., and go home — unless the paper crowd had gathered for very late-night revelry. Even a ridiculous schedule like this can become routine: I’d arrive in the newsroom and flip on NPR out of WGBH in Boston. The first two hours of the work “day” were a mix of gay banter, serious story planning, photo assessment (from what had been shot that day), and assignment (to be shot that night) and front page/section layout. All this took place with All Things Considered as soundtrack.

At 7 p.m., things got more down to business. Reporters were headed off to meetings or coming back from accidents/crime scenes/sporting events to begin filing stories — stories that I would read/edit before sending the final layout to the paste-up/press operation a few towns over.

But nothing serious got done, not at my desk anyway, until 7:04. WGBH aired a jazz program starting each night at 7 called “Eric in the Evening”. The show theme was this beautiful piece of jazz that dripped from the radio each night, by itself, at exactly 7 p.m. The routine of its play provided the perfect respite and regathering moment before the radio got turned off and we all transitioned to the mania of another night on deadline.

I’m not a huge jazz guy. I like a massive cross-section of the genre, though when I pin myself down, I can see how the influence of Charlie Brown and Vince Guaraldi shaped this particular aspect of my musical taste. Dave Brubeck. Bill Evans. That’s the stuff I’m drawn to apparently: white guys from the late ‘50s and early 60s. Very uncool, I’m afraid. Just the way it is.

I left the Marlboro Enterprise and Hudson Daily Sun in 1992. I never did get the name of that theme music to “Eric in the Evening”. Every couple years it would jump into my brain — not because I’d heard it, but because I’d remember just how resonant and important it was to me, at one time. I googled “Eric in the Evening theme” one time, with no luck. Eric Jackson still does a jazz show on WGBH radio, but it seems he’s gone off the regular-theme thing and just excerpts bits from that night’s guest or spotlight artist.

Well, that Silver piece, “Peace”, is in fact Eric’s old theme. I knew it the moment I heard it on Saturday, by the start of the second bar.

Here’s is Silver’s original version, from 1959 (right in my wheelhouse; I should have been cast in the movie, “Diner”, as I dig that period couture, as well). Sadly, after scouring iTunes and youtube.com, I have determined this is not the arrangement Eric deployed back in the early ‘90s. That was a more saucy, piano-centric and sax-featuring recording. And so the search continues, but at least I know the name of the fucking song. Only took me 23 years.

 

My Long and Winding Road to Built-to-Spill Fandom
Built to Spill, rockin' The State Theater in Portland, Maine on Aug. 30, 2012

My Long and Winding Road to Built-to-Spill Fandom

Built to Spill, rockin’ The State Theater in Portland, Maine on Aug. 30, 2012

 

The path I followed from first discovering Built to Spill, back in 2002, to my place front and center at Portland’s State Theater last Thursday night is nothing if not post modern. The way we find and consume musical media today seems hilariously random to this late 40something, raised and educated in such matters on 45s and LPs, college radio, live shows, mixed tapes and the ever-vital personal loaning of vinyl.

Here’s how I went from Built to Spill ignoramus to devoted fan: Early in the millennium I dabbled in Limewire, a web-based, Napster-like, file-sharing community where one could search band and song names for download. The first thing I did, upon appreciated the enormity of what Limewire enabled, was reacquire most every 45 I had possessed in the 1970s (this effort yielded some real gems: It never rains in California, by Albert Hammond; Brand New Key, by Melanie; Rubber Band Man, by the Spinners).

The next phase allowed me to sift through contemporary artists I knew way too little about, folks like Ben Folds, Weakerthans, Fountains of Wayne and Dressy Bessy. Soon it became clear that individual treasure troves from all manner of music fans — meaning those thousands who had digitized their vinyl, all their live bootlegged tapes, and transferred all their CDs and random mp3s to the computer — were available, too. This meant older tracks were fair game.

Now, I came of age musically in the 1980s, or, I should say I came into my own at that time. College, an all-vinyl and mixed-tape experience, ended for me in the spring of 1986, when I moved to Boston and there indulged in the Hub’s potent alt/indie scene. There were several bands we followed in earnest, taking in live shows at TT the Bears, The Rat, Club III, The Channel and Nightstage, among others. One band, Big Dipper, came and went all too quickly, and so, 15 years later, I was eager to see what live performances and otherwise obscure files I might procure via Limewire, to augment or otherwise fill out my own digital library.

Yet every time I searched Big Dipper, I got nothing. Nothing, that is, but a song entitled Big Dipper, by this band called Built to Spill, about which I knew nothing. This happened a couple separate times — it was worth Limewiring intermittently on the same subject; one never knew who might be online to share files at any particular time — before curiosity overcame me. I downloaded the BTS version. Listen to that fateful tune here.

Well. These guys were awesome. More specific searches and downloads revealed just the sort of alternative rock I like best, a mix of Dinosaur Jr.’s driving garage sound, Pavement’s unpredictable song structures, the Pixies’ rumbling melodies, and Neil Young’s wistful lyrics/vocals and guitar godliness (a goodly portion of all that thanks to BTS front man supreme Doug Martsch, who gives an interesting interview here). I reveled in this totally new band and the dozens of songs I had come into, each one as interesting as the last. The weird thing was that this band had pretty much come and gone by 2004. Or so I thought. They’d enjoyed their heyday in the ‘90s and appeared broken up, diverted into side projects or put on permanent hold due to solo efforts from Martsch. Or so I learned by reading up on them online.

Built to Spill remained a self-contained obsession. My son Silas adopted them whole-heartedly but hardly anyone else I knew had heard of them or cared much to get on board. I desperately wanted to see them live but figured I was 5 years late to the party.

But then, as happens almost continuously nowadays, the band reformed and started touring again. I saw them at Citi on Landsdowne Street in Boston circa 2006, then again in 2010 at the Paradise. When they scheduled Portland earlier this year, I snapped up two tickets for Silas and myself. Last April, in Seattle, we visited the Experience Music Project museum at the base of the Space Needle. Great freakin’ museum. Spent three hours in there and greatly enjoyed the super-expansive, highly-interactive exhibit on grunge, which included a particular exhibit on the regional scenes across the Northwest — including Boise, from whence BTS hails. Did you know Martsch was also in Treepeople? Probably not.

The Aug. 30 show at The State was predictably thrilling and the less-than-full-capacity crowd, while it might preclude a return engagement, enabled great viewing from a small riser, center stage, just 25 feet from Doug. We stood next to a guy who could not have been 30 years of age, so I asked him how he got into this band from the ‘90s. He was a metal guy. Someone had recommended Built to Spill, and he YouTubed them. The rest was history.

YouTube didn’t exist in 2002, of course. Had it, I might have come by Big Dipper and ultimately BTS with more alacrity. But as they say, better late than never.

Lost and Found: Demi-Icons from the Vinyl Age

Lost and Found: Demi-Icons from the Vinyl Age

Sometimes it’s what you don’t write. Case in point: An otherwise solid piece in the Wesleyan alumni magazine (“Wesleyan Rocks”) recently fleshed out the stories of two Wes-derived bands, MGMT and Das Racist, along with a bit of Wes-spawned band history and a detailing of other contemporary outfits trying to make it similarly big. Everyone knows about Dar Williams ’89, but did you know the folkist Highwaymen were Wesboys? I sorta did but was glad to be reminded.

However, the historical rundown of Wes bands stood out to me for a couple ’80s-era omissions that deserve their place in the pantheon, such as it is. Actually, after a little digging, I’ve learned only one omission is legit, but their stories remain intertwined — through me anyway.

Been thinking a lot about vinyl lately. We’re throwing a Vinyl Halloween party in a couple weeks, whereby guests bring an album and dress from the album. Going through the vinyl in search of costume inspiration drove home the fact that record albums, their sound and visual aesthetics, were so very central to my early life, through college but especially at Wesleyan. I had arrived at school with a few records, maybe 10? But to this  freshman single, a tiny cubicle in Butterfield C, I had brought from home only a “box” (this was before briefcase-sized radio/tapedeck/speaker combos even claimed to boom), i.e. nothing to play vinyl upon.

Luckily, the double two doors down was occupied by two guys I’d end up living with the next four years, plus a few thereafter. One Dave Rose ’86 brought the stereo to the table. Actually, the turntable sat atop a standard dorm-issue dresser that was, now that I think back on it, the perfect height — chest high, a somewhat novel but ingenious arrangement, as it made the manipulation of the record and needle far more facile, optimal even.

It was in this dorm room that I gathered and otherwise brazenly co-opted a huge chunk of music and, ultimately, my musical sensibility. Rose was responsible for the entire stereo and a goodly portion of new bands I would absorb. He naturally saw patterns in the stuff I took to, and I remember him suggesting this band called Dumptruck, from Boston. It must have been played, something off that one album Rose had, Positively, but I don’t remember it making any impact on me.

After college we all moved to Boston, well… Somerville and Medford. At some stage that first year out of school, Rose’s brother Tom had gone to see Dumptruck at Jack’s in Cambridge. Said they kicked ass. When visiting Rose in Somerville I placed Positively on the turntable in his apartment and it was great. See here an extraordinary video from that era, one that could have been filmed in our basement, at 388 Medford Street. And here’s another. “Dumptruck is really good,” I told Rose, who replied with mild exasperation: Yeah, I’ve been saying you’d like them. For years.

Well, when you’re right, you’re right. About that time, late 1986, we came by (okay, Rose purchased) a new Dumptruck album, For the Country. Even better. Not sure they or anyone knew it at the time, but these guys were playing really solid, driving, garage-inflected alt country in the mold of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and Wilco. But, of course, Dumptruck anticipated the mold.

For the Country did well but the band and their label soon parted ways, in no way amicably. They sued each other and Dumptruck were effectively barred from any further recording, pending resolution of the actions. So they toured, and we went to see them as often as possible, must have been 10-15 times. They were a tremendous live act, urgent and tight, playing all our faves and a raft of inspired covers (Dylan, Neil Young, Procol Harum).

One drunken night when the Butterfield C boys were living together in Somerville, we decided Dumptruck needed a legal defense fund. We wrote them a note briefly detailing our simplistic legal strategy and enclosed a check for $50. To our shock, we got a letter back from Dumptruck front man Seth Tiven, who addressed the letter to “Somerville Dudes”. Couldn’t have been nicer. Offered a few pleasantries and included a cassette tape of their embargoed new material, which we loved and played to death. There was even a back-up tape made because, well, they were temperamental, fragile bastards those TDKs.

Sometime shortly thereafter we caught Dumptruck at the legendary bandbox Cambridge club TT the Bear’s. It was, on several levels, one of the finest club shows I’ve ever seen. Galaxie 500 opened; I bought their album On Fire the very next day… Dumptruck killed and played all their songs from the demo tape. Only we Somerville Dudes knew the words, of course, and I thought for a moment Tiven looked our way when perhaps he could hear someone singing the high harmony on Ghost Town.

We said hello backstage, after the show, and though we saw them a bunch more times, we never had any real contact thereafter. By the early 1990s, the band’s moment had come and gone. The label lost the suit, ultimately, but the damage was done. That incarnation of Dumptruck would never record another album. Tiven moved to Austin in the early ‘90s and recorded some of the demo songs along with his newer material. I believe the album was called Terminal. The name Dumptruck was employed, as it would on some future releases, but it was Tiven and a whole new line-up.

There would be a Dumptruck reunion at SXSW, in 2007. I recall hearing about this shortly after the fact and being very angry we didn’t go down to Austin. They did another in 2011, and while I wasn’t at all aware that was happening, it’s possible this gig occasioned the Dumptruck retrospective I read online somewhere this past spring. It was in this retelling of the band’s saga that it was revealed Seth Tiven had gone to Wesleyan. Could this be true? Yep. A Bachelor of Arts in Music, class of 1980.

I emailed Rose: “Did we know this?” No, he confirmed we had not. But we agreed it was damned cool. So, I think I speak for Rose and other followers of the Boston club scene in the late 1980s when I say, Seth Tiven merited inclusion in the Wes alumni magazine story. He might even deserve a place here among noted Wes alums (skip down to the Music header).

Sadly, while Seth Tiven has been added to my own personal pantheon, there’s one Wes music luminary I must let go. That night at TT’s, I thought for sure I had recognized another Weskid, Naomi, the sullen-cool bassist for Galaxie 500. I spotted her immediately and was convinced we had shared least a couple English classes back in the day, at Fiske Hall, though I can’t claim to have known her really. For more than 20 years I’ve accepted this as fact, that the bassist for Galaxie 500 had Wesroots. However, in researching this piece I’ve come across quite a bit of info to the contrary. Naomi Yang, who would go on to record several more albums post-Galaxie as part of a new line-up, Damon & Naomi, went to Harvard apparently. I am trying to accept this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indie Godfathers R.E.M. Won’t Waste Another Year

Indie Godfathers R.E.M. Won’t Waste Another Year

How to take the fact that R.E.M. have apparently broken up? It’s not with sadness or shock exactly. Thirty-one years from a band that, at one time, carried the flag for the “alternative” or the “indie” would conceivably inspire, well… something else.

There was an integrity to R.E.M., however, a sense that the band was always doing pretty much what they wanted to do, not what the market, nor the recording industry, nor even their loyal following wanted or expected. And while they were in certain ways pioneering in their sound — a fusion of the jingle-jangle with folk and post-punk — I don’t think anyone would assert they invented anything. “Alternative” rock? I don’t think so. There were always, even in their earliest days, lotsa bands that introduced more and spit more ardently in the face of the establishment that these mellow neo-hippies from Athens.

What R.E.M. always did, without fail, was their own thing. So, perhaps we can agree they were the original “indie” band, laudable avatars of the Indie Rock Movement. I’d argue for that. They came from a backwater, stayed on the road playing backwaters well after they made it big, issued several seminal albums whose lyrics were more or less unintelligible, and, aside from offering more enunciation over time, consistently delivered the same sort of anachronistic, original work well after signing with established labels, playing bigger venues and establishing a national following. Hell they even covered Roger Miller, Tommy James, Glenn Campbell and Aerosmith (when it was totally not cool to do so). Even today, in an era when commercially viable bands never really go away, R.E.M. has gone away, on their own terms, seemingly without rancor.

In addition to serving as avatars of the indie movement, R.E.M. were, on a personal level, the beginning of my own predilection towards mournful rock, something to which my wife will attest, perhaps with a roll of her lovely blue eyes. Ditto for my housemates at college. I wore out the early R.E.M. albums, Murmur and Reckoning; one dirge off the latter, “Camera”, was a particular favorite (of mine). You just can’t beat the melancholy beauty of these tracks, most of them accented by some truly inspired high-background harmonies from bassist Mike Mills, the most underrated aspect of the R.E.M. appeal, in my view… Cuyahoga!

There were always a few radio hits off each of these first 6 to 8 R.E.M. albums, the ones to which I paid particular attention, at the time, and to which I pay particular homage here. What made these LPs so great was their depth. The longer the listening, the more they served up, and the more I tended to discover and better appreciate the deeper cuts. This is the sign of a truly great album in my book, and it’s rare — so the fact that R.E.M. did it with so many albums on the trot is noteworthy.

I’m thinking of “Camera” and “Seven Chinese Brothers” off Reckoning; “Wendell Gee” and “Green Grow the Rushes” off Fables of the Reconstruction; “World Leader Pretend” off Green; “King of Birds” off Document; “Find a River”, “Try Not to Breath” and “Ignoreland” off Automatic for the People (an underrated-but-spectacular piece of work, start to finish); “Electrolite” off New Adventures in Hi-Fi; Murmur’s “Laughing”; and “Near Wild Heaven” off Out of Time. There are dozens more…

The risk in praising R.E.M. for its indie cred is ignoring the critical acclaim and radio play they did garner, which I suppose is what makes them indie poster boys: commercial success combined with the continued disinterest they showed toward success. Some of their “radio” songs were deserving of wider marketing support: “Fall on Me” was the lynchpin of what I believe to be their finest album, full-stop: Life’s Rich Pageant (a consistently fabulous compilation of songs, keyed from the get-go by “Begin the Begin”, one of the finest album-opening riffs in rock history).

“Radio Free Europe” off the incomparable debut LP Murmur, got tons of deserved play, as did Reckoning’s “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” — one of those tunes that people of a certain age will unabashedly wail along to, if drunk enough. It’s nearly anthemic, something indie rock isn’t supposed to inspire. These two radio hits are from the early days, from the high mumbling period, and yet they still penetrated the wider culture. I remember walking through the airport in Savannah, Georgia, circa 1994, and hearing a sort of easy-listening version of another Reckoning single, “South Central Rain,” over the PA. Ten minutes later, I saw Peter Buck and a woman I presume to be his girlfriend walk past me on the way to baggage. I still regret not running him down and soliciting comment on the irony.

At the same time, there were lots of radio songs that, in light of the great depth of R.E.M. albums, fell short of these high standards: “Orange Crush”, “The One I Love” and “Losing my Religion” seemed to me repetitive and derivative compared to the broader contents of their respective LPs. The latter just got played to death, and I’m still tired of it. But then, who can really claim to extend logic to the process of choosing hit singles (indeed, they poked fun at that very dynamic with “Radio Song”, the lead cut off of Out of Time).

These are front-loaded observations. The band’s later work was, to me, largely lost in the welter of other adult interests, musical and otherwise. Maybe there are people out there who find their last 6 or 7 albums just as good, just as strong as their earlier work, but I honestly have not heard that point made, even by staunch R.E.M. freaks. As they pointed out last week, it would seem they were simply out of time.