Friday, September 23, 2011

Life and How to Live It

My favorite band broke up. The preceding sentence is true but also a woefully inadequate description of the importance of R.E.M. in my life. It sounds like hyperbole, but my life would be completely different if I had never heard R.E.M.

Until I was twelve, I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa. My mom likes classical music and my dad likes country music. Despite this, the music that I mostly remember them playing for me on the stereo was “The Weavers at Carnegie Hall.”

I liked the record and still listen to it. My brother, who is 10 years older than me, liked Led Zeppelin and the Who. I did not, and do not, like those bands. Today, I would describe their music as pompous but back then I probably did not like it because it seemed loud. My oldest sister, who is 9 years older than me, liked the Top 40 music of the time, particularly singer/songwriters like Jim Croce and Cat Stephens. That stuff was all right but doesn't really grab the listener. Even when they were new, one would here those songs in the dentist’s office

When I was four or five, one of the big three networks broadcast the movie Yellow Submarine. I loved that movie, probably because it was a cartoon. In any event, because of the movie the Beatles became my favorite band. I don’t think I ever got to pick a radio station when I was that young but if I did, I probably picked KCFI, a top 40 station owned by the father of a friend of mine.

When I was twelve we moved to Topeka, Kansas. I was very apprehensive about moving Topeka. However, it turned out that we moved into a very friendly neighborhood. In fact, our next door neighbors included a boy my age who, along with one of his older brothers, also liked the Beatles and we became fast friends. That family essentially treated me like I was one of their family. As a result, even though I was not from Topeka, I never felt out of place there.

Two weeks before the start of high school we moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I was not happy about leaving Topeka but, as kids will do, I sort of assumed that the experience would mirror the one in Topeka. It did not.

For whatever reason it took a really long time to really find friends to whom I felt a connection. This was n0t because the kids in my high school were particularly mean to me, they were not. In fact, some of my classmates were very friendly and I am friends with them nearly 30 years after graduation. However, I did not connect with anyone in Oshkosh the way I had in Topeka or Cedar Falls.

I think one of the reasons for the lack of connection was it seemed like everyone’s taste in music was so much different than mine. The big radio station in the Fox Valley was WAPL, “The RockinAPL.” It played the hard rock tunes that were popular in the late 70s and early 80s: .38 Special, Van Halen, Styx, Boston, Zeppelin. I hated most of that music. Thus, instead of listening to the RockinAPL, I was listening to bands that were contemporaries of the Beatles. Of those bands, I liked the Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful the most. Unlike say, Eddie Van Halen’s, the guitar solos by George Harrison, Roger McGuinn, and Zal Yanovsky were melodic to the point one could hum them. They appealed to me in a way that the finger-tapping histrionics of Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen did not. Those guys made me hate guitar solos.

While I had music I liked, I also thought that listening exclusively to music written before I was born was not a particularly good way to live. While I liked some of the New Wave music that was making its way to Oshkosh, I could not relate to the way those bands looked and I really did not care for synthesizers and electronic drums.

In the spring of my senior year, I went to a party. There were some kids from Wausau, Wisconsin at the party. I was making small talk with one of the girls at the party when we started talking about music. She started by talking about hardcore punk bands like the Dead Kennedys and Hüsker . I was familiar with them but did not really like punk that much. Those bands were not big on melodies, and all the punk fans I knew seemed to think they had to dress and look the same. I did not care for that either.

Anyway, we continued to discuss bands and this girl mentioned one called R.E.M. She and one of her friends started raving about their albums. I don’t recall the adjectives they used but whatever adjectives they used did not help me get a sense of what the music was like. So the next day I went down to the Mad Hatter, alocal record store, to see if any of their albums were available. At the time the band had just put out their second full length record, Reckoning.

Because in those days I thought record covers could give some insight into the music, I stared at the cover a long time. The back cover of the album showed a guy with a goatee (unusual at the time) playing a piano, a guy wearing a beret, and two normal looking guys. The cover to the other album, Murmur, did not have a band picture at all. Instead it had black and white pictures of a kudzu-covered field and of a trestle.

I thought to myself, “this does not look like it would sound like the Dead Kennedy’s, maybe the piano means they are jazz-based.” On that particular day, I was unwilling to throw down an hard-earned 7 bucks on either record. Mostly because I was joining the Navy in a couple of weeks and would not be able to really listen to the records much before then.

The Navy sent me to boot camp in San Diego, California. One of things one does in boot camp is clean the barracks. The barracks needed to be cleaned at night but also again in the morning when the rest of the recruits went to breakfast at the chow hall. While the individuals who had to do the morning cleaning had to miss breakfast, they got one thing that none of the other recruits got. They were allowed to listen to the radio while the cleaned. One of the recruits on my crew was from San Diego and would put the radio on KROQ. KROQ was a “modern rock” radio station and it played music one simply did not hear on the radio in Oshkosh.

One song that we often heard really struck a chord in me. The guitar intro kind of jangled like the Byrds, there were a lot of backing vocals going on, and the singing was not quite clear enough to make out exactly what the singer was saying. I loved hearing the song as it seemed to transport me away from boot camp for the two minutes it played. Finally, one day I heard DJ identified the song, it was “Pretty Persuasion” by R.E.M.

Pretty much the moment I got out of boot camp and had access to a stereo, I bought Reckoning” and Murmur. The music was a revelation. It combined pretty much everything I liked in music: ringing guitar, pithy guitar solos (if any), harmonies, bass playing that did not simply provide a backbeat. It also seemed to – at least implicitly—reject the things that I didn’t like. I could not imagine Eddie Van Halen or Deaf Leppard making this kind of music. The band also appeared to be regular guys.

R.E.M.’s early albums were not big sellers, around 200,000 copies (by way of contrast, Born in the USA, the biggest album of 1985, sold 10 million copies that year). However, they were critically acclaimed enough that the band would get some publicity in mainstream media. Peter Buck, the band’s guitarist, referenced this when he described the band as “We’re the acceptable edge of unacceptable stuff.” R.E.M. used this publicity in ways I had never heard of before.

For example, and in the days before the Internet, this was a big thing, if you did not live in a big city (and for all I know even if you did), it was fiendishly difficult to hear anything other than oldies or top 40 music. Essentially music that was acceptable to mainstream media. The band used that press coverage they received to sing the praises of bands they liked. I learned about the Replacements, the Dream Syndicate, 10,000 Maniacs, Camper Van Beethoven, Uncle Tupelo, and re-evaluated Hüsker as a result of R.E.M. mentioning those bands in interviews or using them as the opening acts in their shows. The band was also outspoken in espousing the “think global, act local” theory of living. In addition to the bands I mentioned, they also pointed fans to organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the Nature Conservancy.

After the Navy, I attended Marquette University in Milwaukee. I loved going to Marquette and I hope I don't do the school a disservice by suggesting that the student body there at the time was somewhat homogeneous. There were a lot of upper middle class kids, many of whom seemed to come from the suburbs of Chicago. Liking, or not liking, R.E.M. became a way of distinguishing people from that crowd. For example, I remember a guy in my first history class who struck me as a typical FIB (first definition). However, we learned of our shared interest in R.E.M. and started playing guitar together. He was, and is, a far superior musician to me and I learned so much about music from him that I will never be able to repay the debt. Similarly, a mutual love of R.E.M. turned a random dorm lunch with a guy who dressed like a Brooks Brothers catalog picture into what has become the longest friendship of my adult life.

In addition, the band propounded a philosophy that encouraged their fans to make their own art. As they seemed like regular guys, it seemed like the way they became working musicians set a template for how other bands could succeed: play small clubs around your town, get gigs in small clubs in neighboring towns, then do the same throughout your region, repeat until playing clubs nationwide, etc.

This attitude, and template, made me think that anyone could do what R.E.M. was doing. Although I already knew how to play guitar and had been in a cover band in high school, R.E.M’s music and ethos encouraged me to start writing my own music and actually try to be in a working band. Thus, when I got out of college, I formed a band.

This led to an, depending on how one counts, eight or ten year period where I was in a band. The band put out a single, a couple CDs, played a ton of shows, gotten written up in a few publications, and wrote a few songs that turned out pretty well. I don’t think many people would say we sounded like R.E.M., but in a sense R.E.M. was our biggest influence because the lesson we took, or at least the lesson that I took, from them was that our music should sound like our music and not like R.E.M.’s.

Since I spent the entirety of the 90s in the band, its fair to say that the 90s would have been a totally different decade for me without R.E.M. For example, it was because of the band that I met my wife. When we were first trying to break into Chicago, I would have my youngest sister call all her friends in Chicago and ask them to come see us. My wife was one of those friends and I met her at a gig. We would not have met if I had not been in a band and I would not have been in the band if not for R.E.M. I would not have still gotten married and had a family, but it wouldn't be the family I have.

My wife’s support was pretty crucial when I decided to leave the band and go to law school. I don’t think I would have gone, or succeeded, without her support. While I suppose, I might have gone to law school earlier if I had not been in a band, going to law school earlier probably means that Mr. Torvik and I don’t meet and this blog never happens.

In a sense the breakup is not a surprise since virtually all bands break up. Moreover, this is a band that wrote, 25 years ago, that “change is what I believe in.” I take the members at their word that they simply felt it was time to do other things. A friend of mine posted on Facebook that he was not mourning the breakup of the band, he was mourning that the good old days are over. I am not doing that. I am a little downcast because a band that had such a big influence on me is not going to be around to further inspire, delight, and, sometimes, disappoint me with new music. All things end, I just wish it didn’t have to end this week.


  1. Wow. It really brought things into perspective -- and a tear to my eye -- when you mentioned that without R.E.M. there would never have been a Gillette-Torvik blog.

  2. Adam, this is a great piece of writing and it rings true--especially how you can make unlikely friends over songs or bands. They were not necessarily my favorite band (U2 has that place) but they are/were important to me. And even in big cities like D.C. it was hard to find radio stations that played them with any regularity; when I worked my shifts at Kemp Mill records i wasn't allowed to play them until about 15 minutes before closing---Anne.

    P.s. Led zeppelin isn't that bad.

  3. BTW, how is it possible that you collectively have only 2 entries categorized in the "people are strange" category?


  4. This post makes me sorry I wrote a snotty comment on your FB page about REM breaking up. While they haven't been the band they were for a long time, I have every album through "Green" on my iPod and just about every time I hear a song from one of those albums, I think how fresh and good it sounds. I wouldn't have the musical taste I have if it weren't for you, Adam, and I guess I owe that to REM too. Thanks for posting.

  5. Ihave 4 older siblings and listened to all their music for years. Here are only a few .

    .38 Special
    Aldo Nova
    Alice Cooper
    Van Halen
    Van Morrison
    The Doors
    The Scorpions
    The Righteous Brothers
    The Beatles
    The Cardigans
    Sheryl Crow
    Stevie Ray Vaughan
    Steve Miller Band
    Roy Buchanan
    Ronny Jordan
    Lynyrd Skynyrd
    Led Zeppelin
    Eric Clapton & B.B. King
    Better Than Ezra
    Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds
    Hootie & the Blowfish
    Mary Youngblood
    Guess who i just added to my collection ? 'REM' How i missed them i will never know. Thank you for your post Adam .I like what i have heard ..


  6. I too fell in love with REM in the 1980s. One of the coolest, loveliest girls in high school let me borrow her R.E.M. cassette tape. I remember the IRS label with G-man silhouette. Reckoning and Murmur were revelations. I sang "Don't go back to Rockville" over and over in the car my sister and I shared... I also remember the first thing my wife did when I gave her a guitar for an anniversary present was pick out the first six notes of Driver 8. A great band. Their music will stand the test of time.

  7. Thanks for capturing the "Why R.E.M." for many of us longtime fans. My musical interests can be mapped to "Three Degrees of R.E.M." Most of the musicians I enjoy are linked to R.E.M., either by touring with them or by one or more of the R.E.M. guys playing with them or producing them. Best examples: Robyn Hitchcock; and among bands, Uncle Tupelo, which morphed into Son Volt and Wilco.

  8. Thanks for the kind words everyone.

    Mr. Torvik, I also got a little emotional when I realized that we had the band to thank for our blog.

    Anne, I think we can agree that there are worse things than Led Zeppelin. However, being "not that bad" is not the same as being good. I continue to believe my dislike for that band is well-founded. As for why we only have two entries in the "people are strange" catagory, I think it is because we recognized that virtually every post could fit in that catagory. But in your honor I used the tag in my latest post.

    John, the interesting thing about the record collection you list is that it includes bands that would undoubtedly claim they were inspired or influenced by the band. e.g., Nirvana, Better than Ezra, and Hootie and the Blowfish. The reference to Aldo Nova gave me flashbacks to high school. "Fantasy" was a big hit in the Fox Valley.

    Sam, I love that story.

    Anon, Uncle Tupelo is a great example of how R.E.M. could broaden one's record selection. I bought their second record, "Still Feel Gone" after reading an interview with Peter Buck where he called them his favorite country band. As you note, UT subsequently split in to two bands who have both made great music. Moreover, UT led to hearing about to a lot of other alt-country bands like Whiskeytown and Olds 97s.


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