Saturday, January 8, 2011
I have never been a big fan of R.E.M. They maintained on my music periphery during the 80s, when I purchased their albums up through 1988’s Green. Aside from a few singles since then (their last release I purchased was the fantastic 1996 single with Patti Smith “E-Bow the Letter”), I haven’t been interested, nor do I own most of those older albums anymore. In fact, I don’t even hear their newest music anymore. They have managed to reach a place in the pop music hierarchy where they are so well known that no one bothers to promote their music. I am guessing that this is a shame. At any rate, I have just spent the morning reading the 33 1/3 series (Continuum) book about R.E.M.’s debut 1983 album Murmur - before "Losing My Religion" was played 4,000 times a day and before the nightmare that is "Shiny Happy People". Firstly, this series of books is fantastic, if you are unaware, I heartily recommend you rush out and find some titles you're familiar with. They are small (generally between 100 & 150 pages) tomes that are specifically about certain rock and roll albums. I have read maybe two dozen of them and they all take a different angle: from Joe Pernice’s amazing novella for The Smiths’ Meat is Murder to the oddly technical and mostly unreadable book for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Most of the books break down a bit of historical context for the artist at the time of recording, behind the scenes snapshots of the recording sessions, and so on. So far I have purchased only the books for albums that I know and love and have used the books as a tool in many cases to rediscover said album. In this case, I don’t think I’ve listened to Murmur from start to finish since 1988, so hearing it again after reading extensively about it was refreshing and it brought back some fond memories. The book is very well done, but this isn’t about that book or that album specifically. This is about the idea of the album (an idea that could be in serious jeopardy) as heard without preconceptions and unfettered by our media’s race to find the next big thing.
Having said that, I will begin with the first tangible memory I have of the album Murmur. I believe it was the fall of 1985, freshman year of high school, when Wil and I took off in the afternoon and wandered down from the school on the hilltop to Driftwood Mac’s on the south edge of Taft. As mentioned before, in a previous post “Vertigo,” these were my discovery years for music. I was just starting to earn spending money of own and finding ways of learning of new music aside from the stale radio play lists of contemporary hit radio. When Murmur was released in 1983, I’m sure my favorite records were by Men Without Hats, Thompson Twins, Men at Work and the Hall & Oates best of. Two years later, I was sitting next to Wil on the rotting bleachers of the old Taft High football field, which had long since been abandoned, looking at his freshly purchased vinyl copy of R.E.M.’s Murmur and reminiscing about when Steve was on the football team playing on that very field. We were amazed at how in just a couple of years what was once a destination for many of Lincoln City’s town folk during Autumn Friday nights, was now a forgotten overgrown and muddy shadow of its past glory (or shame in the case of Taft’s football history at the time). We compared how the otherworldly cover of Murmur – its grey wasteland covered in kudzu – was fitting for our location at the time - as the Oregon coast’s version of the kudzu plant may as well be the unstoppable tendrils of the blackberry bushes that had already nearly engulfed that field. After sitting and studying this mysterious album and discussing our developing likes and dislikes with music (among other things), we found our way back to his house, to his basement room to listen to the record. I will never forget that day, because of the time spent with my friend, and because of that discovery of hearing something new to us and different from the norm and the purity of hearing music with no expectations.
Things have changed drastically from those days. Then, being from a small town, exposure to new music was almost entirely based on word of mouth, or the odd music video that might’ve appeared on WTBS’ Night Trax or USA’s Night Flight on Friday nights (I don’t know why, but we didn’t get MTV, when they still played music videos, on the coast till late ’87). We couldn’t hop on the computer or phone to hear what so and so sounded like any time we wanted. We didn’t know what most of these artists looked like or where they were from and in some cases what they were going on about. This made these albums our lifelines. They defined us in many ways. We listened to every song on these albums because we didn’t know when the next great mystery would come along. It’s so much easier now to find whatever music we want to nowadays and part of me has a serious jealousy. I used to work so hard to find the artists that I wanted to hear, as opposed to the ones I was forced to hear on constant repeat on the radios that blared from all corners of my little world. How cool would it have been to hear one of the cool kids talking about “this new band” Husker Du and to be able to hop on the net, listen to a sampling of their songs and upon loving them, as I do, owning the songs within minutes? Even though these things happen for me now, I cannot comprehend that experience when I was 13 or 14. I most likely would’ve stolen my parent’s credit cards and driven our family into financial ruin.
Now that we can so easily pick and choose what songs we like, whenever we like, the concept of the album has declined. It is still alive and may be alive to some extent indefinitely, since bands will most likely continue to record and “release” to the public a grouping of songs that reflect their most recent efforts. But the importance of the sequencing of tracks and the ebbs and flows of that collection is vanishing. Why bother, when the potential audience can simply snag the one song they know and move on without hearing anything else? A lot of the mystery is gone and so is some of the fun.
I’d like to invite anyone that reads this to share your favorite memories of discovering new music and how it impacted your life.