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Tuesday
Sep272011

Walked. Hunted. Danced. Sang. R.E.M.'s "Lifes Rich Pageant" at 25

 

In high school they made us cover our textbooks in protective wrapping.  It was a beginning-of-the-year ritual: lay your books out on the kitchen table, cut up some paper grocery bags, fold the edges over to make flaps, slip the covers in.  If we had my old books before us now, you'd see that on the homemade brown jackets had been scrawled, in all manner of size and script, lyrics and quotes from my favorite musicians.  You would note immediately that they were mainly from David Byrne, to be sure.  But nose-for-nose with him would be Michael Stipe, lyricist and frontman for R.E.M., the band whose images also competed for every inch of wall-space in my teenage bedroom.  Many of the best quotes came from "Lifes Rich Pageant" (I suppose I wont use the apostrophe, since they didnt.)  I can see them now: "A pistol hot cup of rhyme."  "What noisy cats are we."  "Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold." 

Lately I've been listening to the 25th anniversary re-issue of "Lifes Rich Pageant" and thinking of my teenage heroes a lot, even before they decided to call it quits last week.

I became an R.E.M. fan thanks to my cousin Jeff, who turned me on to them at a family reunion in the summer of 1985, the summer before I began high school.  I was 14.  When I came in, "Fables of the Reconstruction" (or was it "Reconstruction of the Fables"?) was the current album.  The atmospherics of "Feeling Gravity's Pull" was like an afternoon when you can sense a storm is going to break, there's a rustling in the trees, an electricity in the air, a faint metallic taste on the tongue.  It's going to be some kind of a sweet undertow, full of heat lightning.  Music like "Maps and Legends" and "Green Grow the Rushes" felt refreshing in a way that was almost physical, like a breeze blowing over a meadow while you lie in the tall grass.  I went back to "Murmur" and "Reckoning" and "Chronic Town" and the sound was so fresh and immediate.  I first heard "Radio Free Europe" on a Walkman.  I remember I just had to keep rewinding the tape and playing it over and over.  

"Lifes Rich Pageant" was the first record to come out while I was a fan.  It was 1986.  I had it on vinyl, of course.  (Part of the fun of R.E.M. was flipping the album cover around in your hands, puzzling over the imagery and looking for the cryptic, self-reflexive text, which might comment playfully on its context, that could be found also on the sleeve, the label, even the spine). 

Then you'd drop the needle.  Peter Buck's clarion riff would announce the album, but it was quickly swallowed by a maelstrom of churning guitar, out of which a throbbing howl of feedback swelled; as it crested, Michael Stipe's rich baritone growl kicked in.  "The insurgency began and you missed it," Stipe teased, riding in on the music.  I didn't want to miss it.  (I think that line was inscribed on a book cover as well).  "Let's begin again, begin the begin." (The pun on "Begin the Beguine" was completetly lost on teenage Pfeiffer, of course).   

 

So many of the lines were anthemic for me, a soundtrack to teenage Pfeiffer's political awakening.  I can't separate "Lifes Rich Pageant" from the politics of the time, with the vile spirt of Reaganism ascendant.  Hearing just a few lines of "These Days" brings to mind Reagan's cold eyes, his mean snapping-turtle visage: "We are young despite the years/We are concern/We are hope despite the times."  It didn't seem like hubris at the time, just a statement of facts.  "Silence means security, silence means approval."  Not speaking out may be the safe thing to do, but by not speaking out you're tacitly approving what's going on, what is being done around the world in your name. 

"Trust in your calling/make sure that your calling's true." 

"We have found a way to talk around the problem."    

In an album so full of statements of purpose, there was irony and self-deprecating humor as well.  "I believe my throat hurts," Stipe offered as an aside.  "Look to me for reason, it's not there/I can't even rhyme."  There was the gentle "Flowers of Guatemala", the odd, rhythmic Spaghetti Western theme, "Underneath the Bunker."

The stirring "Cuyahoga" proposed, quite modestly, "Let's put our heads together/and start a new country up."  Look to the beginning to find a way forward.  What powerful singing from Stipe on the gorgeous environmental anthem "Fall On Me", what sweet backing vocals from Mills.  (And I love it when Mike takes the bridge.)  The album was a battle cry, a call to arms against Reagan and everything he represented.  R.E.M. was the band that showed me that rock & roll is at least as much about stance and attitude and politics as it is about music...or rather that all of that is indivisible from the essence of the music. 

(At the end of the day they were liberals and not revolutionaries, of course; in the early 90s I become a young radical and became impatient with my former heroes' politics.  It's all well and good to espouse good causes and endorse Democratic candidates, thought hardass Pfeiffer, who in his early twenties yearned only to proclaim with Lenin, "Onward!", but where are the ruthless denunciations of capitalism?  Ah, well.  As a great man once said, I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.)    

  

The rave-up "Just a Touch" ended with Stipe howling "I'm so young, I'm so goddammnn youuunnggg," which for me was as transcendent a moment as Lennon's plaint "I've got blisters on my fingers!!" must have been to a prior generation.  (It would be years before I'd realize this was Stipe's homage to his hero Patti Smith.  When I finally heard Patti do it on her version of "My Generation", it would always seem to me like she was echoing Stipe.  That's the sort of cognitive dislocation you get when you're of an awkwardly-timed generation, rock & roll-wise, and you hear things out of chronological order.)

Whereas once I played the record out into the open air in my bedroom, now, 25 years down the line, my 40-year-old ass has this new remastered version on the ol' iPod.  What immediately becomes clear is that Bill Berry's headlong drumming is what they always lacked in the later years.  We've  always known that in theory: this music makes it fact, as implacable and irrefutable as the rising of the sun.  I air-drum as I walk down the street, becoming again the teenage drummer I was, endangering passers-by as Bill's drumming compels me to flail my arms around, thrashing along with him.  They made a lot of music in the years after Bill left, much of it forgettable, some of it beautiful...but they were never really the same again.  I find that I hold with the idea that when a band loses its drummer, it loses its soul.  That said, it was always good to see them live, and I was expecting them to tour behind that last record. 

"Lifes Rich Pageant" wasn't the album that finally popped them loose commercially (that would be the follow-up, "Document"), but it did mark the point where some people who hadn't been able to hear them before, either figuratively or literally, started to get it.  It was a conscious attempt to be more direct than they ever had been before: "loud and clear" might have been its guiding principle.  And yet at the same time they found a way to reconcile that approach with their signature sound: Pete's chiming guitar lines, which I always tried to play whenever I'd pick up a guitar, Mike's melodic, muscular bass work and sweet harmonies.  

And Stipe still was doing fun things with words.  When I first became a fan, I remember Stipe was often accused of being a mumble-mouth, which annoyed me; the band themselves said they felt "Fables" was too slow and murky, an opinion I also didn't share.  I remember Michael's friend Natalie Merchant being quoted right before "Pageant" came out to the effect that she was worried that R.E.M. was preparing to put out a heavy metal album.  It does sound to me like part of the idea was to capture the energy of the live show on record.  I used to have an incendiary bootleg on cassette of a show from the early 80s that had a really dangerous "Pretty Persuasion" on it.  It fell through the cracks somewhere down the years.  I still look for that tape sometimes.

 

"Superman," the infectious, exhilarating garage pop-rock confection tacked on at the end of the record, was the one that did it for a lot of people.  I remember listening through the wall that separated our bedrooms as my kid sister, who'd always regarded R.E.M. as her big brother's music, played that one for her own pleasure.  Good for her, I remember thinking.  (She became a loyal fan who stayed with them even through some periods when I was on to other things, you know.  Still, even if I took a year or two off here and there, I did always come back to R.E.M.) 

Years later, "Pageant" was the R.E.M. album I chose when I mailed my young step-daughter some CDs after she and her mom moved away, hoping to give her something inspiring and good for her spirit.  Was I thinking of an aside from Stipe on "Hyena"?: "Beautiful young lady."

And it was during the "Pageant" period that R.E.M. began appearing on magazine covers under the banner, "America's Best Rock & Roll Band", and it was at this moment that the title was theirs, as much as they scoffed at the idea (I remember Buck saying something at the time to the effect that, from night to night, America's best rock & roll band is in some bar somewhere).  A lot of my favorite imagery came from this era as well: the magazine covers you see here are ones I remember having on my wall.  Peter Buck's look in these images pretty much embodied my idea of cool-ass rock & roll god.

He'd really gone from duckling to swan.  I was just thinking of  the very first time I saw Pete and Mike on TV, before I'd heard their music or even heard of them: it must have been 1984 or early '85.  They were being interviewed on MTV.  I couldn't believe how squirrely they looked.  I didn't think you were allowed to be on TV and be that squirrelly.  They didn't have the feathered hair that you had to have to be popular at my school (a look with which my hair absolutely refused to cooperate).  Their hair was stringy and dirty...and Mike actually wore glasses!  To a squirrely, bespectacled little nerd like me, this was quite heady stuff.

Around the time of "Lifes Rich Pageant" I got a letter from a friend who'd moved away, a talented artist.  In the middle of the notebook paper he'd drawn a portrait of R.E.M. in pencil.  BUCK BERRY MILLS STIPE, he'd written under it, the way they always enumerated themselves.  Picture Mount Rushmore, but with our boys substituted, and you'll get the idea of the drawing.  They were like that for us. 

The bonus CD in this new reissue package, "The Athens Demos" CD is a joy: a loose, garagey, headlong rush.  It's very evocative of the spirit of the indie rock of the time (though I don't remember we ever called it "indie rock": we were much more likely to call it "alternative," or later "progressive," a term I never liked.  Progressive means, like, Yes and ELP, I always thought).  It's full of garagey energy.  It has some really exciting numbers, like "All The Right Friends", "Mystery to Me" and "March Song (King of Birds)", an instrumental.  An early version of "Bad Day" is full of joie de vivre.  One track, "Jazz (Rotary 10)", sounds a bit like "Watching the Detectives."  

And so farewell to my teenage heroes, R.E.M., and thank you for the music, and thank you for helping form me into the person I am today.  I'm blasting "Lifes Rich Pageant" as I write this.  It is about honor and integrity and honesty and rocking out and being young and tearing it up.  And about building something new.  It is a promise, a promise I feel being kept when I see what, say, the Wall Street protestors are doing.  They are hope despite the times.  And it will always be my music.  "When I was young and full of grace and spirited a rattlesnake".  I will always be 15 when I play it. 

"Nighttime fell like the opening/In the final act of the beginning of time."

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