Chronic Town and the jangle
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R.E.M. released their debut EP Chronic Town 40 years ago, so I'm gonna need a minute.
(The last time I felt like this was when I learned that the little brother in “Good Times” turned 61 this year….)
It was only five songs, and on the surface it seemed innocent enough. Four guys about the same age as us, jangling like mad with vocals buried so deep in the mix you could make out maybe half of each line. Half the fun was arguing over the other half. (years later singer Michael Stipe had to do internet searches to re-remember his lyrics, and even he wasn't sure if what he found was correct)
It was a strange time of synths and huge drums and really bad hair and "Eye of the Tiger" on the radio, and here was a band of scruffy looking kids from Athens, Georgia who sounded more like a garage-band version of the Byrds than anything else...riding around the country in a semi-broken down van, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the music they were making hadn't been played on the radio in decades. Their bass player looked 12 years old. "College radio" wasn't a thing yet, and only in retrospect did we realize that they were in the process of creating it. R.E.M. sort of creeped up on the 1980s, and by the end of the decade were trailed by scores of lesser bands re-tracing their footsteps. One bar. One club. One frat party at a time. Eventually Michael Stipe's mumbling drove everybody mad, and a select few started doing heroin to cope, and turned up the amps way too loud, which kick-started grunge, which in turn drove Stipe into the arms of “Olive the Other Reindeer” (one of the greatest Xmas shows EVER).
That's my take on it anyway. You’re free to have your own, obviously.
The songs Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars) and Gardening at Night were insanely catchy and changed the world despite making absolutely no sense whatsoever.....and R.E.M. because the first band that everybody mumbled along to without fear that the one guy who knew the actual lyrics to Tiny Dancer and Rocketman was going to call them out.
In 1982 I was a high school sophomore in a deep depression because the Who had announced a farewell tour and at the time I just sorta naively believed them. If you had told me that I would see the Who at Woodstock 40 years later I might have assumed the infamous brown acid had lingered in your system from the original festival. But times were more innocent back then....and my musical tastes were transitioning from Nugent's "Double Live Gonzo" to Townshend's "Empty Glass", which is an even larger leap than it seems. Part of growing up is realizing that "Cat Scratch Fever" might have lived in your head a little too long.
We still listened to the radio at the time. And we bought records. And 45s. We devoured music magazines. Rolling Stone and Musician and Record and Spin. My bedroom wall eschewed the pin-up posts of the day, as I did not care to be reminded of my epic failures in that regard. It would not be until a year later that my heart was ground up in the proverbial wood-chipper by a blond cheerleader, so I was not yet obsessed anyway.
Instead, musician pics covered my walls….pictured torn out of magazines and scotch-taped haphazardly, as if I was trying to ward off evil spirits with pictures of a bloody-fingered maniacal Townshend leaping in the air next to ones of him beatifically smiling while wearing his Meher Baba pendant. Eventually the wall made room for a scissor-kicking Peter Buck, who wore his cool like a Keith Richard's skull ring, and by the time I started college I was one of those obnoxious twits who hated everybody who was joining the R.E.M. party only after they had been certified cool by the influencers of our day. I forget who they were but they were every bit as annoying as the ones we have now, albeit not as ubiquitous.
This is all a long winded way of wishing "Chronic Town" a happy anniversary, while at the same time reminding myself that somehow I have grown old despite still feeling like a pimply teenager when I hear "Wolves, Lower".
I don't know if another R.E.M. is possible in 2022. A professional musician friend of mine will introduce one of his songs in concert today and say "you can get this wherever it is you steal music" and the line always gets one of those laughs that launches guilt into the air in the form of spittle. Which is to say that the "music business" doesn't really exist anymore, so the payoff to those endless drives in the van are vague, and those old bars probably feature line dancing and trivia anyway. And since there’s no such thing as traditional radio anymore, “college radio” is a bit of an oxymoron.
But there's still a lot of vans out there. And lots of scruffy kids with guitars. Gas it up. Slide Chronic Town in the CD player. See where the road leads….
Maybe towards the jangle.
In a bit…