R.E.M. retired this week. I became an R.E.M. fan when I was 13 years old. I saw their omnipresent video for “Losing My Religion” several times on MTV but I didn’t know any other songs. At the time I was just starting to get into buying my own music. I had joined the Columbia Record Club and ordered a bunch of cassettes, some of which I have still never paid for.
My tape collection featured about 12 cassettes, mostly yard sale finds of Neil Diamond and Billy Joel, and I knew the lyrics to every song on every album I owned. It’s funny to think about a time where that was even possible. Now I have well over 1,000 albums in my itunes folder, many I’ve only listened to a couple of times, I’ll never know the music I own as intimately as I did when I was 13.
Columbia Music Club would put their ad in the Sunday paper with about 100 or so stamps with the picture of an album cover and a code for that album beneath it. Every Sunday I would tear out the stamps of the albums I wanted, I’d tear out every album I was interested in and then I’d narrow it down until I had the four or six that was the deal for the week. I did this for months before ever subscribing to the record club, but I must have had “Losing My Religion” in my head on the week where I finally mailed in my postcard with the record stamps and I picked Automatic For The People, an R.E.M. record that did not have “Losing My Religion” on it.
In those dark pre-internet days finding out what songs were on a record meant a drive to a record store, I guessed wrong as I found out when I went to the mall a week later. The albums from Columbia took a month to arrive and in that time between ordering and arrival I tracked down a copy of Out of Time (the record with “Losing My Religion”) form my local library. I popped the cassette in, the first song was “Radio Song” and I was scared. It had a rapping bridge, it had a swear on it (damn!), it was probably one of the worst representations of R.E.M. on any of their records. I listened to “Radio Song” and “Losing My Religion” and then returned it to the library.
Weeks later when Automatic For The People showed up I hid it under my bed and didn’t listen to it. It gathered dust for months until I saw the video for “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, a song I loved instantly (though rewatching the video tonight was a little painful, it didn’t age as well as the song). I dusted off Automatic and found the song was on there. Away I went, I listened to Automatic For The People for months, well more than any other album I ever had. My next Columbia Music Club purchase was Eponymous (a collection of their best pre-major label songs) solely because the Columbia ad made it sound like it was their greatest hits. I was disappointed until I listened to it and realized that Eponymous might very well be the best collection ever.
My secret origin as a music nerd has everything to do with R.E.M. I bought albums, I bought posters, and I made copies of their b-sides from my friend Erik who I think only befriended me because I was the only kid in school who had more R.E.M. t-shirts than him. There was a point in high school where I didn’t wear shirts that weren’t of the Muppets or R.E.M. I think that would make me a lot cooler now than it did back then. I actually felt embarrassed by how much I loved R.E.M. Considering the entire hipster indie-rock scene basically sees R.E.M. as their godfathers, I guess I have no need to be embarrassed and history has vindicated weird, teenage Ron.
I’m not sure if I still would have become a musician without R.E.M. in my life. I can say that R.E.M. is probably why I like to write lyrics that are hard to explain and “Losing My Religion” is probably why all my recordings have a ridiculous amount of mandolin.