“What are you doing here on your day off?” Steve The Manager couldn’t fool me. His tone was harsh but his eyes smiled behind his thick glasses.
“I’m a customer today.”
“Well, don’t bother any of your friends. They’re working.”
I flipped through the record bins, not sure what I was looking for. Maybe a prestige purchase — something that would impress Alex when he rang me up. He was a Springsteen fan. I wasn’t sure how to impress a Springsteen fan. Or I could go the bulky route. My vinyl collection didn’t even fill a crate, so something thick would pad it nicely. The box set wasn’t in fashion yet, though. The fattest album we had was Chicago At Carnegie Hall, a four record set.
“Hey, Steve, is this any good?”
He looked up from his inventory clipboard. “Oh, James. You can do better than that.”
Flip, flip, flip. Nothing was jumping out at me, and then in the R’s I hit that iconic black and white photograph of dried, tangled vines. They were the same vines that crept quietly across my own landscape, consuming trees and fences, pulling down abandoned structures. Parents teased children to keep their windows closed at night else the creepy green tendrils carry them away. The vine was kudzu, the album R.E.M.’s Murmur. Its cover photo could have been taken in my backyard.
I passed that album cover every day, biking the quiet roads of the Piedmont. I stepped through that album night after night with my best friend Lee G., on our way to climb the skeleton of the abandoned trestle bridge crumbling above Mud Creek. We’d sit on the steel girders, watch the moon dance on the water’s surface and listen to the music made by the Carolina woods.
“Hey, Alex, do you know anything about these guys?” I pointed the album cover toward the front counter.
“They’re kind of like a new wave Byrds.”
Steve The Manager didn’t even look up from his clipboard this time. “Why waste your money on mediocre pop records when there is so much good music available?” he asked. But I knew better for no other reason than I lived in that album cover, so I ponied up $5.65 and took my new record home. From the opening one-two-three-crash of “Radio Free Europe” I knew I’d struck gold. Peter Buck’s jangly Rickenbacker was a tether to the past, but at same time it was something new. Bill Berry’s beats were the boom-boom-bap of the era, but they weren’t. And that adenoidal voice mumbling cryptic lines — this guy was the anti-Ken Nordine, not that I was searching for the anti-Nordine.
Much has been made of Michael Stipe’s early lyrics, but even then I took them as no more than voice-as-instrument. If “we could gather throw up beer” made the sounds that fit the song, then that was good enough. That isn’t a real R.E.M. lyric but I thought it was for years, along with “straight up the butt” and “Westchester fields.” The latter was particularly stupid on my part, as that lyric comes from the song “West Of The Fields.”
Murmur immediately became my new favorite album. No music ever felt so right to me. R.E.M.’s home base was just a couple of hours down the road in Athens, Georgia. “This is the only place that this music could be made,” I told Lee G. “It’s full of kudzu and red clay and humidity and pine trees. It fits our environment perfectly because it comes from here.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Think about it. Can you imagine making “I Wanna Be Sedated” here, or “London Calling?”
“Okay, I agree that region has some influence but I think you’re taking it too far.”
I even tried to get my mother on board. One morning she gave me a ride a to school and I popped “Perfect Circle” into the tape deck. Maybe it wasn’t so much R.E.M. that I wanted her to validate, I don’t know. See, Ma, I like ballads, too. You might not need to worry so much about me going to Hell, after all. When the song ended I stopped the tape and looked at her. “That would be a very pretty song if that man could sing,” she said.
So that is how I accidentally bought the most important album of the last thirty years. For all intents and purposes it was the first giant leap toward the mainstream for college radio, and college radio brought Husker Du, The Replacements, Violent Femmes, et. al. to the masses. That foundation led to bands like Jane’s Addiction getting major label deals, and Jane’s leads to Lollapalooza, which begat “alternative music,” which slayed the shitty music dragon, at least for a little while.
And three short years later I would be near the mixing board at the back of a gymnasium while at the other end Michael mumbled and Peter jangled. Alone in the back of a school gym, dancing with her.