R.E.M. is my favorite band of all time, and Murmur is my favorite album of all time. Murmur has my three favorite R.E.M. songs of all time on it, too. They are: Pilgrimage, 9-9, and West of the Fields. It’s a record I love so much that I really wish I could have been involved in making it.
I first heard it in my freshman year at Boston University, when Jeff Ross (yes, the very same roastmaster! I knew him by a different name then) told me he thought I’d like it. I thought it was just okay the first time I heard it, but on repeated listens, I grew obsessed with it, and eventually with the band as well. Their music became the soundtrack to about half of my life, right up until they disbanded in 2011. I never got to thank Jeff for alerting me to R.E.M., because I didn’t know at the time how much the band would come to mean to me as so many years passed, so I’d like to do it now: thank you, Jeff!
I still like Murmur (and all the rest of R.E.M.’s albums, but Murmur remains special to me), but when I listen to it now, I don’t get the same sense that a new world was dawning that I got while it was growing on me in 1983.
That’s because there’s been so much life between the release of Murmur and now. Not just for me, but for the band as well. They grew up, their sound changed, they changed as people. When they broke up, their catalogue was no longer a growing set of songs. It became fixed in rock music history, stuff for museums (which is what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is). It could now be talked about as a complete body of work, something finished, something final, something that existed from 1982 to 2011.
Meanwhile, I graduated from college, worked and played in bands in Boston for a while, spent a year in Italy after going to the World Cup there in 1990, then finally moved to Japan, where I worked several jobs before landing at the university that I still work at). I’ve been many different people since the time Murmur came out, so I don’t hear it with the same ears.
Not only that, with each subsequent R.E.M. album, my image of the band changed. That effected how I heard Murmur. I noticed that I tend to hear music as though looking back over a road I’ve been walking on. With each new adventure, with each new change of scenery, my psyche changes and I assess the past differently. As a result, though the recording itself doesn’t change, I hear it with a differently wired brain, and so it sounds different. It sounds great, but not as exciting as it did when it was R.E.M.’s only album. I now have other R.E.M. records to compare it to.
Then I read two books that I highly recommend: Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years by Robert Dean Lurie, published last year, and Party Out of Bounds: The B-52′s, R.E.M., and the Kids Who Rocked Athens, Georgia, by Rodger Lyle Brown, first published long ago, in 1991, but now re-released in its 25th anniversary edition. The descriptions of college dorm rooms, parties, and the overall fun sense of rebellion in both books brought me back to that time. While Boston was hardly the party scene that Athens, Georgia was, we did have a kind of freedom to explore and discover that seems to oddly be missing from college campuses today.
The two books, by reloading images of 1980s college parties into my brain, made me in a sense retrace my steps on that road by making me remember the frisson I felt when hearing not only Murmur, but so many more of the records that came out at the time, from Athens and everywhere else.
One of the reasons for that feeling was our youth at the time. The music was fun and hopeful, and we had our whole lives ahead of us. It seemed an unending series of blank pages that we could write anything we liked on. I think that’s why so many people cling to the music of their youth. It’s not the music they like so much as the memories of a vanished world that it brings back.
While I’ve continued to love R.E.M’s Murmur over the years, some of its allure had faded until I read the two books mentioned above. It’s not a record I listen to all that often anymore. Sometimes I’ll go back to my favorite tracks when I need a lift.
We become many different people during the span of our lives. I’ve been a student, a bass player, a Zen meditation practitioner, a teacher, and an author, among other things. If I were writing about myself, I’d have each experience represented by a different character, because in the space of a story it would be hard for a reader to believe that one character could have done all of these things!
I even think of R.E.M. as three bands: the one that recorded for I.R.S. Records from 1982-1987, the quartet that made five albums for Warner Brothers from 1988-1997, and the band that made five albums without their drummer Bill Berry from 1998-2011.
Yet we’re all like this. If we look back, we may not even recognize the person we were at certain points in our lives. After awhile, it all begins to feel like one’s life experiences are being dissolved into a great pool of being. It’s probably a good thing that we have those records…and books…to remind us!