Without R.E.M., my adolescence would have been different. Without Automatic for the People, I would never have known the joy of being a whiny, introspective emo kid, who shut herself into her bedroom all day to listen to music and write lyrics in her journal. I would maybe also have had a boyfriend, rather than saving myself for a probably-gay rock star, but hey, them’s the breaks. In retrospect, modelling myself on Michael Stipe probably wasn’t the best move in terms of my already shaky high-school reputation, but I did it, and let’s face it: I would probably do it again.
Without Reveal, my first summer with Terry would’ve been different, too. It was the soundtrack to that summer, in the same way that the R.E.M. back catalogue became the soundtrack to various other stages of my life, after I’d gone out and tracked down every single thing they’d ever released, and arranged them in chronological order in my bedroom.
In my last year of high school, I had to do a creative writing course as part of my English mark, and I decided to be a little brat about it. For one thing, I refused to allow anyone to read my stuff. (To this day, the only people who ever read those stories – with the exception of one of them, which I grudgingly allowed my teacher to see – are the examiners who marked them.), and for another, I announced that I COULD NOT BE CREATIVE unless I was listening to music AT ALL TIMES. Then I tried to flounce from the course in protest at the OMGHORROR that was being inflicted upon me. (You would’ve hated me as a teenager, seriously. If you think I’m bad now, you should read my journals from my R.E.M. stage…) To my absolute amazement, the school called my bluff on this, and I was allowed to sit in class listening to R.E.M and Smashing Pumpkins on my headphones (Yes! I was the bitch with the tinny headphone music! If I could go back in time and slap myself, I would. And not just for that, either.), and I extended this to listening to those bands (and some others) at all other times, too. I would wake up in the morning and switch on the stereo before I did anything else. I would walk to school with my earphones in, and I wouldn’t take them out until I was back home, at which point it was back to the stereo. My parents realised they were powerless to stop this: all they could do was beg me not to play THAT Kristen Hersh album more than once per day. (During this time, I also converted my parents to R.E.M. They gave in at the point where they realised they knew all the songs anyway, having been forced to listen to them approximately 3,986,285 times in any given week.)
I sometimes miss those days, when my life was seeped in music, and I felt like I couldn’t function without it. Life is quieter now. I can’t concentrate on writing if there’s music playing (I listen too hard and start typing out the lyrics. That’s probably what I did in my creative writing class, now I come to think of it.), and because I’m writing more or less all the time, music has become relegated to in the car, when I’m out running (which doesn’t happen very often at the moment) and occasional other times. And that makes me sad.
In my second year of university, R.E.M came to Edinburgh. None of my friends would come to see them (The concert was during the summer, and most of them had gone home. And also, they hated them.), so I got up at the crack of dawn one morning and stood in a phone box on South Bridge Street, dialling and redialling the ticket hotline until I finally got through and secured a ticket. (I have no idea why I did this, by the way: I mean, we had a phone in the flat? I think it might have been that I had an early lecture, and that was the closest phone, but that would mean I was actually ATTENDING early morning lectures at that point and, well, let’s just say that doesn’t sound like me after first year.)
The concert was on one of those rare, blazing hot summer days. I got the train into the city early, and got myself a spot near the stage, where I proceeded to have my scalp burnt to a crisp by the sun for the hours that I waited there patiently. I remember I had planned this so badly that not only had I failed to bring sunscreen, I’d also failed to bring a book, or anything else to pass the time. So I just sat there with my thoughts. If I’d been a normal person, this story would end with me bonding with my fellow R.E.M. fans and forming lifelong friendships with them, but I was too shy, so I just sat there and hoped no one would try to speak to me. It was worth it, though. The support act was Belly (who I also loved), and during their set, Michael Stipe just casually walked out onto the stage, a few feet away from me.
I. ALMOST. DIED.
When the band came on, the crowd surged forward, and the crush was too much for me to survive at the front of the stage for a full concert, so I wormed my way out and went to get a drink. And when I came back, they played So. Central Rain, which was – and is – one of my favourite tracks of theirs (Did you never call? I waited on your call. These rivers of suggestion are driving me away…) and I danced on my own at the edge of the crowd and felt completely happy, and only a little bit self-conscious.
As I said on Twitter yesterday, I’m glad they waited until now to break up. If it had happened in my teens, or my early twenties, I don’t think I’d have handled it well. I imagine the band all sitting around a table saying, “No, no, we can’t break up NOW: Amber’s still too young (mentally). We’ll have to wait until she leaves high school. Until she leaves university. Until she gets married. Until… you know, we can’t wait forever here: let’s just do it.”
And so they did, and I’m a little sad. But at least I still have all of those CDs, arranged in chronological order…
(I also know that Michael Stipe still loves me, really, even although he rejected my Facebook friends request that one time. Here’s how I know:
RUBIN HAT! And OK, it’s really a panda. But at least he’s trying, you know?)