Updated Wed, Mar 14, 2012 3:39 pm
In high school, they made us cover our textbooks in protective wrapping. It was a beginning-of-the-year ritual: lay one's books out on the kitchen table, cut up some paper grocery bags, fold the edges over to make flaps and slip on the covers. If we had my old books before us now, you'd see lyrics and quotes scrawled on those homemade brown jackets.
You would note immediately that the quotes were from musicians, mainly from David Byrne. 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 won't use the apostrophe, since they didn't). I can see them now: "A pistol hot cup of rhyme." "What noisy cats are we."
Lately I've been listening to the 25th anniversary reissue of Lifes Rich Pageant and thinking of my teenage heroes a lot, even before they decided to call it quits on Sept. 21.
I became an R.E.M. fan thanks to my cousin Jeff, who turned me on to them in the summer of 1985, just before I started high school. At that time, Fables of the Reconstruction (or was it Reconstruction of the Fables?) was R.E.M.'s current album.
The atmospherics of "Feeling Gravitys Pull" (again, no apostrophe) 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. 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 (1983), Reckoning (1984) and Chronic Town (1982) and the sound was fresh and immediate. I first heard "Radio Free Europe" on a Walkman and kept rewinding the tape to play 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 that could also be found on the sleeve, the label and the spine).
Once the needle dropped, Peter Buck's clarion riff on "Begin the Begin" announced 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 over the music. I didn't want to miss it.
So many of the lines were anthemic for me, a soundtrack to my teenage political awakening. I can't separate Lifes Rich Pageant's lyrics from the politics of the Reagan era: "We are young despite the years/We are concern/We are hope despite the times." R.E.M. was the band that showed me that rock & roll is at least as much about stance, attitude and politics as it is about music, or rather, that all of those things are indivisible from the essence of the music.
The stirring "Cuyahoga" proposed, quite modestly, "Let's put our heads together/and start a new country up." What powerful singing from Stipe on the gorgeous environmental anthem "Fall On Me;" what sweet backing vocals from Mike Mills (and I love it when Mike takes the bridge).
Whereas once I played the LP out into the open air in my bedroom, now, 25 years down the line, my 40-year-old self has a new remastered version on the ol' iPod. From the outset, it's clear that Bill Berry's headlong drumming is what R.E.M.'s later albums lacked. 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 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 their last record, Collapse into Now.
Lifes Rich Pageant wasn't the album that finally broke them commercially (that would be the follow-up, Document), but it did mark the point where some people who hadn't heard them before, either figuratively or literally, started to get it. It was a conscious attempt to be more direct than they had ever been before. 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, and Mills' melodic, muscular bass work and sweet harmonies.
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. Right before Pageant came out, Michael's friend Natalie Merchant 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 their live show on record. I used to have a bootleg 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 my bedroom wall 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 when I went on to other things. Still, even if I took a year or two off here and there, I always came back to R.E.M.
And so farewell to my teenage heroes. Thank you for the music, and for helping form me into the person I am today. I'm blasting Lifes Rich Pageant as I write this. It's about honor, integrity, honesty, rocking out, being young and tearing it up. 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.
Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his film and music reviews at The Moving World.