R.E.M.’s Fables (and my own)

Jul 16 2010 Published by under Music, Personal

REM's "Fables of the Reconstruction" cover

At the end of the day, when there are no friends, when there are no lovers, who are you going to call for?  What do you have to change?

–R.E.M., “Good Advices”

R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction was given the deluxe edition treatment this week–a remastered original CD and an extra CD featuring demos the band did in Athens just before flying to London to record the work with Joe Boyd.  As deluxe editions go, this one is excellent simply because the second disk is not only a great listen but previously unreleased (for the most part), therefore making the whole thing worth purchasing even if you already own the album.  And, yes, I bought my copy.  When the first notes of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” started up, I was suddenly taken back in time to 1985, to a point in my own musical history that has few parallels.

I still remember the first time I heard about R.E.M.  It was at a party in Iceland during the summer of 1984.  I was one of 30 American exchange students who spent the summer on that island.  I was also one of the youngest in the group (15; most were 17 or 18–and when you’re that age, two or three years age difference means everything).  I was a very socially awkward kid.  I desperately wanted to belong.  I wanted to take risks and be the life of the party and hang out with the cool kids and be accepted–but every time I tried something, took a risk, tried hanging out with coolness, I ended up saying or doing something incredibly stupid and embarrassing myself.  I couldn’t help it.  I was awkward; I was confused; I was naive.  And yes, I know that made me a regular teenager, but that’s a fact only appreciated (or understood) much later.  At the time, I was an aspirant, and I wanted nothing more than to be cool.

So at this party, there were two guys (one Icelander, one American) who were both obviously older and cooler than me.  They were studying an article about R.E.M. in a local Icelandic magazine.  I stood nearby listening in, not really understanding a word but fully aware that these guys were better than me because they knew something I didn’t.  As I listened to them talk, I grew slowly terrified of my ignorance.  It wasn’t my lack of knowledge of R.E.M. that frightened me; it was the realization that this was only the beginning–there was a whole world of bands, books, ideas that I was entirely unaware of.  How could I possibly catch up?

I should say that my musical knowledge, at that time, was incredibly limited.  My favorite bands were Men at Work, Duran Duran, and The Police.  Anything that went beyond the bounds of MTV was simply alien to my experience.  And, yes, over the next year or so I did grow and expand my musical palate (Springsteen, Prince, stuff like that).  For whatever reason, though, I never got around to R.E.M.

Then Fables came out during the summer of 1985, and I decided, finally, to find out who and what they were.  My first response upon listening was… what the hell?  Why is the lead singer mumbling?  Why does everything sound so muddled?  Was it called Fables of the Reconstruction or Reconstruction of the Fables (some still ask that question)?  The music puzzled me, but I couldn’t stop listening.  I listened over and over and over; slowly but surely the music started to make sense, a lot of sense.  I’d never heard anything like this.  It was odd, beautiful, clunky, and groovy all at once.

Listening today, I understand exactly why I had such a strong attachment to this record back then.  It’s wonderful collection of wonderful, weird songs.  I love the harmonies on “Maps and Legends,” the country funk of “Can’t Get There from Here,” the strange lyrics throughout, pastoral beauty of side two (especially “Good Advices”).  It’s just a great album.  And yes I am aware that people thought the album was derivative of their earlier works; that it pales in comparison to Murmur and even to Document or Out of Time or Automatic for the People.  But I still think it’s better than those because it most captures the spirit of this band: eclectic, personal, intelligent, and harmonious.

But even more important than the album itself, Fables opened a door to a whole musical world.  From R.E.M., I discovered other post-punk American bands like The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, The Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Bad Brains, and on and on.  The fact that Joe Boyd produced Fables led me to discover Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson and the whole English folk rock scene of the 1960s (Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Incredible String Band, etc).  R.E.M.’s inspiration also came from the bands of the 1960s–not just the Stones and Beatles and Dylan but The Byrds, The Who, The Kinks, and a hundred other acts I could name.  And, yes, I had heard of the Beatles and Stones and all these acts, but I had little depth of knowledge about that music.  R.E.M. became the catalyst for me to delve further into their works.  Even more, the fact that I began to devour all things music gave me a focus in life: to write like Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh and the other cool rock journalists.  And while I never actually ended up doing that, by a strange, circuitous route that even I don’t quite understand, this impulse to study and to learn pushed me through college and into graduate school, pushed me to write about sound and music and technology in my dissertation, to study music production and music creation, to create albums, and to write articles and reviews for my own websites and for Stylus and other magazines–and to write this very article here on the Inkbottle.  And it’s kept me listening, searching, seeking out interesting, exciting, and wonderful music wherever it might come from.  I can trace all of that back to R.E.M.’s little album.

Fables, then, is my Year Zero, a touchstone out of which the bulk of my life can be mapped.  That’s why it matters to me, and that’s why I celebrate this album’s big, fancy reissue.

So what is the album that has most shaped your life?  I’d love to hear your answers in the comments below.

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