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Out of Time: How My Teenager Fell in Love With R.E.M.

(Photo: YouTube.com)

My son doesn’t remember the first time an R.E.M song soothed him, but I tell him the story often, much to his chagrin.

He was not even a month old, screaming his lungs out, defying sleep as only an infant can. My younger brother Philip, about 25 at the time, grabbed him from me. The song “Electrolite” was playing and Philip rocked my rapidly quieting son in rhythm, singing along softly, “Don’t be scared…you are alive.”

Not a typical lullaby, by any stretch. But I’d always been a big music lover and in particular, a lover of R.E.M.

Since 1982, R.E.M. had a song for whatever mood I was in, milestones I celebrated, or challenges I faced. In early 1997, R.E.M.’s album, New Adventures In Hi Fi was just a few months older than my son, and it eased and guided me through shifting postpartum emotions that were amplified by exhaustion. That night, as my son wondrously nodded off, I saw music settle him as it had so often settled me. It was one of the first — and one of the most precious — times I saw my music have an impact on the son I adored.

Inevitably, he fell in love with R.E.M. and with Michael Stipe’s voice, just like I did, almost 35 years ago.

At 13 or so, my son asked me if I’d ever heard of ELO. I can’t remember if it was “Mr. Blue Sky” or “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” that he was listening to, but watching how he listened to every progression and verse threw me back a few decades to my own obsession with ELO and many other bands. I pulled out my old records and he poured over them, casting aside Styxx and David Soul and appropriating Cheap Trick and Fleetwood Mac to live alongside his Neutral Milk Hotel records. One night, we stayed up well into the next day as I played him songs from The Band and Nirvana. And of course, some R.E.M.

As a teenager immersed in both art and music, he was drawn to creators who were both artists and musicians. He gravitated especially to the storytellers, who, among other things, share intricate heartache and the beauty of loss, loneliness and longing.

Inevitably, he fell in love with R.E.M. and with Michael Stipe’s voice, just like I did, almost 35 years ago.

For a while, R.E.M. received significant time in his rotation, particularly Automatic for the People, New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Monster. The last album he loved, in large part because it had been recorded so soon after the death of Kurt Cobain, was “Let Me In,” a heart-rending plea directed to Stipe’s old friend.

R.E.M. probably hit peak play in our house in 2011, when the band announced they were disbanding after 30 years. My son was angry in a way that I didn’t fully comprehend, angry at them for deciding not to make music together anymore. He was especially bitter that he’d never seen them play live and even more upset with me that I’d taken his older sister, but not him, to R.E.M concerts at Jones Beach and Madison Square Garden. I was reminded, accusingly, that I had robbed him of experiencing live the group often called “the Best Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in America.”

Over the last few years, my son has moved away from the songs I played for him to those he’s discovered for himself. He spends time scouring thrift stores and secondhand music shops for vinyl and cassette tapes, generally eschewing downloads and even CDs. He remains ecumenical in his tastes, with Joan Baez and James Taylor mingling with Blue Oyster Cult and Pink Floyd. His album collection numbers in the 100s and he owns not one, but two turntables, one portable to be brought on most trips.

His playlists no longer feature R.E.M., but instead are filled with contemporary artists like Sufjan Stevens and Titus Andronicus, legends like Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck and artists of all musical genres. The R.E.M. influence has remained, however: One of his favorite shirts is a vintage concert tee from the mid-1990s, and when I was cleaning out my own collection of faded, stretched R.E.M. concert tees, he pilfered a few from the donation pile. Even more recently, on his school trip to Atlanta, as part of the arts and music group, he went to Athens and came back with stories of having visited the record store where Peter Buck and Michael Stipe met, the converted church where they lived and the venue for some of their first shows, all from a time when he hadn’t even been born. That R.E.M. shares a musical birthplace with Neutral Milk Hotel (his favorite band of all time) matters to him. And he tells me that Stipe now lives in NYC pursuing art, photography, video and other artistic ventures, interested and appreciative, as he himself pursues many of the same.

Now 18, my son moves closer and closer to adulthood and independence and away from childhood. I know that he’s putting needed and important space between himself and me. That’s part of the journey. But that makes me treasure more deeply our shared love of and appreciation for music. Over the past few years, through him, I discovered Vampire Weekend and saw three Neutral Milk Hotel concerts. Through me, he discovered the Decemberists and the Avett Brothers. There are bands I love that he rolls his eyes at and there are artists he admires that are like nails on a chalkboard to me. But music matters, deeply, to both of us. So we sing along to the songs we love, listen intently to the ones that are emerging and at times, simply sit quietly, allowing the music to sweep over us. Music has gotten us through many road trips, family crises and rainy weekends. It’s the peace offering when we fight. It binds us.

At the end of March, we were finishing up dinner on his last night of spring break. My husband had discovered an old Jimmy Buffett song about trips around the sun, in essence, singing about making the most of each passing year. He gave props to Buffett for what he thought was unique imagery. My son and I exchanged glances and I got up from the table to play R.E.M.’s Around the Sun also recorded in 2004. Less treacly than Buffett, it has the quintessential R.E.M. chord progressions and lyrics like this: “Let my dreams set me free….Believe. Believe.”

I drove my son to the bus station that night, an hour or so from our home. As he got out of the car, he turned to me and asked, “Mom, did you ever hear of Jean-Michel Basquiat? You know, the artist?” I paused, not having thought about him in years.

I knew that I was going to love re-learning about Basquiat, again, through my son’s eyes.

3 Comments

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