Tuesday, August 6, 2019

REM, Murmur, and Solace in Hard Times

I took my parents to the airport this morning, which means after two weeks of enjoyable distraction I have lost my last remaining shield against the horror of the recent news cycle. In the summer, when I am not immersed in the constant crisis mode of teaching, I find myself on Twitter way too much, more deeply engaged in the happenings of the world. 

In times like this, to quote Alex Chilton and Big Star, it's hard to hold on, but the guns wait to be stuck by. I have resolved to spend the rest of my summer engaged in the struggle, but that also requires having a refuge to escape to. My favorite has always been music.

This hit home on Sunday, when I took my parents on a short day trip to Princeton. While there we made sure to visit the Princeton Record Exchange, my favorite record store in the entire Tri-State area. My parents, who are not part of the current wave of streaming, got some used CDs at bargain prices. I found a copy of REM's Murmur on vinyl and quickly snatched it up and have been listening to it endlessly.

It's an album I first bought on cassette in August of 1991, since at that time back catalog albums were especially cheap in that format and cars still only had tape decks in them. (I later bought it on CD, so this is one of a handful of albums I own in all three formats.) That summer I had become an REM superfan after buying Out of Time with some lawnmowing money in the spring. By winter I owned the band's entire back catalog (except Dead Letter Office) and played it incessantly. 

Murmur was special to me because it sounded, and still sounds, like nothing else ever made. I usually listened to it late at night in the dark on my Walkman, lying on my bed and giving it my full attention. With my other senses dimmed I felt transported into some kind of dream world, one that was as mysterious as it was comforting. Michael Stipe's infamously mumbled lyrics (which are not as illegible as sometimes claimed) allowed me to derive the meaning of the songs by intuition, much like looking at an abstract painting. In those moments listening in the dark I felt more calm and at ease than my volatile teenage emotions ever let me feel in the agitating light of day.

The following school year, my sophomore year of high school, would be a crucial one in my life. I started to gain back the confidence that was beaten out of me in the 8th grade when my "friends" decided I wasn't cool enough to hang out with them. I was too dorky even for the nerds, but embraced competitive debate and started winning. I have a very clear memory of riding a school bus back from a tournament in Omaha to my hometown. I had managed to get to the semifinals, and I listened to Murmur in the antediluvian December darkness of a rural Nebraska night all the way. It was the best way to savor my first feeling of accomplishment in years.

And so I listen to it again, 28 years later and feel that same warm embrace. Just as it gave me comfort in the worst slough of my teenage emotions, it is giving me solace in the midst of the worst slough this nation has fallen into in my lifetime. We need to fight, but we need to draw strength and protection, too. I hope you find it where you can, because we are all going to need it.

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