Music needs the right setting, creates a world around itself, and becomes intrinsically part of it. Right now, sitting here wondering how people that I loved got so far away from me and themselves, there is nothing else I want to listen to other than Jeff Buckley. I have had a bad case of nostalgia recently. Suzanne Vega singing Solitude Standing has me on a metropolitan crossing, a young mother, two babies, feeling alive and fit and vital and free, waiting for the walking green, dodging cars skipping along on a buoyant cloud of happiness and air and love and life. Shura No Hana: Kaji Meiko’s voice crying about geta and rain and rivers and death and revenge, takes me to a quiet evening in my Tokyo apartment, talking gently to Grandpa about enka and shibuii, cooking curry and rice and drinking umeshu on ice. I can’t hear Dead Flowers without feeling the Martin in my hands and laughing opposite my oldest dearest friend, as I try to learn how to play those six strings. I just want to celebrate by Rare Earth has me dancing around a living room in my socks and my hair long and pinned up, wearing a silly motherly-uncool stitch teeshirt and Eddie Bauer jeans, holding the hands of a small Boy who proclaims it is the best song ever written as he laughs and calls me Tree. I can’t listen to Janis. It is too painful. Me and Bobby McGee: dreams lost. Crosstown Traffic sexy dirty cosmic blues with Hendrix in a small bedroom drinking my parent’s vodka, wishing I had been born in another time.
REM on a highway in the USA. Document on my walkman. Sitting in the backseat, thunder and lightning, never seen America or a highway before, my mouth gaping as the country opened up in front of me: the slick black roads, the lights and the motels, the palm trees and the grandiose Floridian weather, the all night diners and the freaks and gaggles of extravagantly sized people and shopping malls. The groups of young men standing on corners and in gas stations, an uneasy threatening feeling of danger. So recognizable, so movie-ready, so beautiful in it’s wet, and heat and dirt and alien landscape. The four lanes of traffic on the interstate, getting stuck on the turnpike, looking for the train tracks and Woody Guthrie and failing as the sirens and the hugeness of the new world spread before me, ripe for the picking.
The taste of chlorine in the water, like drinking a swimming pool, only bearable when it was iced, served in smokey tan plastic cups by mean-featured women who were all blonde and who chewed on their pen tops in unison, like some food serving water-ballet dancers, in synchronicity at a thousand tables full to groaning with all the excess and luxury America had to offer. Grinning plastically, mechanically polite as they took orders for behemoth pizzas that I wouldn’t eat, and the too sweet marinara sauce on the cheese sticks that I decided were the closest thing Ild get to reliably vegetarian food in that part of the world. I was wrong. There were anchovies in there. The whipped honey butter and the exotic sweetly spiced bread covered in icing. Pancakes not only on shrove Tuesday, but every day in pillowy stacks smothered in sweetened butter. What could possibly be wrong with a country that had pancakes every day, and more than that, made them thick and decadent, and covered with syrup, not thin and lacy with dull lemon and granulated sugar. A parrot tried to talk to me in a bar, holding his intelligent head to one side, bright blue and saturated with words, none of them polite. I collected sand dollars and brought them back to the car, and when an alligator stared dully at me, I stared right back and wondered if it was true what the survival books said about running in zig zags. I was in love.
I suppose I was prepared to love America, primed to tumble head over heels, despite my carefully cultivated old world dedication to not loving Hollywood and glitz, the fake-seeming American bright white smile of welcome, and an uneasy feeling that something dark beat beneath this fragile surface of excess and space and happiness and brilliance. I was sure of it. Michael Stipe had been singing about a Disturbance At the Heron House. It felt as if I could claw away the sweet candied exterior to the real-er, darker and stranger center just waiting for me to fall into.
I had gone into a record store in a mall, making my friend pull over, and picked up a copy of Green, in a long American sleeve, on cd I think. It might have been cassette tape. Out of Time. Green. This was pre- Automatic for the people. I came across Dead Letter Office, and bought that too. I had my little perch by the window, sitting behind the passenger seat, face pressed up against the windows, headphones over my head, the opening riff of Stand melting with the lights and the rain, the neon and the gas stations and the little dramas and the parking lot battles. Green exists perpetually at 7pm at night, in the Floridian rain, jetlagged and lost, with the blacktop rushing under the wheels of a rental car, the window open, to let in that heavy smell of a deep southern thunderstorm, the lightning cracking the sky. Uncanny, mysterious, swampy, Michael’s voice melting into the band kicking tightly behind him, loudhailer echoing, singing about Orange Crush, and pretend world leaders, and a world that I didn’t yet know, but hinting at what was behind the windows and the walls of Miami as we drove through.
When many years later, I found myself back in America, after I had found the darkness I had been looking for, after I had pushed my hands into the underbelly and pulled them out, bloodied; after I realized the little tragedies and dream-o-rama dramas of the small towns and the people that populate them, after I realized that a country this large could not really be mundane. People encase themselves in small towns, in tiny scenes, in artificial carapaces. However hard they try, America is too vast, too unknown, too new, propelled too hard by the dreams of those who had come here seeking freedom, looking for space, hunting out a new experience, do or die, launching themselves on the mercy of its land to either make it or go under, whilst holding onto the sure knowledge that something better is here. That pioneer spirit of the seekers and the searchers for their own little slice of dream-heaven, is soaked into the very ground and stones, the air and the water of the country, and into the music of one of the best bands of the ’90s. No one can listen to OK Computer on a highway and fly along, and not want to drive off the nearest cliff into the Pacific ocean. REM keeps eyes glued to the road and the scenery and the trip. America is infused into every note and word, every burst of energy shared with a crowd, every time their words reach out through speakers and tell you to hold on, despite the fact it might well be the end of the world as we know it…because Michael and the boys feel fine, and so do we. Not only is it the end of the world, Michael name-drops Lester Bangs, and each and every time he does I swoon. Anyone who loves Lester is fine fine fine by me. I would never have read Bangs if it wasn’t for REM and Document, and my naive teenage fandom obsessive desire to know what was being said. Before I knew it, I was head-down in old issues of Creem (what I would give to still have them!), getting to know what was going down, a few years after the fact, with Lester the Commander of music critics who only led me astray a few times. I can forgive him Black Oak Arkansas just for that review on Van Morrison.
Everybody loves to hate America, even those who are here inexorably embedded into American life, kvetch and bitch. “Buy a jingle, buy America’ exclaims Michael, and I know he is right. Everyone is on the hustle, everyone is looking to go Exhuming McCarthy. “Have you no sense of decency, Sir?” exclaims Joseph Welch, sampled from the McCarthy hearings. As much as it is unfashionable and distasteful, it became apparent to me that American exceptionalism was reality, it has no sense of decency, it barely knows itself, any decent person living within its shining shores feels queasy at the thought of Yankee supremacy, despite the undeniable reality that this is a very special place indeed, full of very special people doing things that sometimes are superlative. If you don’t make it in America, you won’t make it anywhere, to borrow and misquote a phrase. I feel dirty just writing that.
There is something different, something almost preternatural, something that isn’t in other countries, and while no one wants to dust off McCarthy, it is apparent that he was never quite laid to rest. This did not bode well. I shoved Document into the CD player, ignoring the bile of the driver (not number 8) shouting at me that he didn’t want to hear it because Michael was gay. I turned around and told him to shut it with his religioso rightwing Christian conservative bigotry, I have no desire to have the Bible shoved in my face, being gay was not a sin I told him, in tones I usually reserved for missing the exit.
He dug his heels in and refused to allow me to put Document in the cd player. “Think of the children” he cried, while I snorted in fury, screaming at him that I wasn’t raising mine to be redneck potato heads. I wheeled out some verse I had memorized to show him that Jesus healed some Roman’s boyfriend, and besides, I told him, dude, I reminded him, you lived with your boyfriend, that cute little artist, the one and only that you used to wear matching clothes with and take naked showers together. I caught you guys snapping towels at each other’s asses! “I was drunk. I repented.” he replied snarkily. I almost snapped back “what drunk for a year!” but a year drunk was far from impossible for Billy. “Listen, this morning we put on Bowie. Jagger last night. You adore Little Richard! “Little Richard was not gay!” he protested. My voice rose, “Tutti Fruitti, sweet Patootie!” I screeched while the children ducked their heads and giggled. “You had no problem with them, you religious nut!” I was playing with fire: the Bible and fear of an angry G-d and a kitsch tearstained Jesus in a white suit was the only thing standing between Billy, his Higher Power bullshit, and falling off the booze and crank wagon.
But I had gone too far pointing out his sweet little domestic scene where I went round one night to find his ‘friend’ in a snit because he was late and had bought a chick with him, and supper was ruined, as I realized I was very much a third wheel and needed to split, and it was time to back off. Besides, somehow, as is always the way with guys, my bisexuality was ‘hot’ objectified and dismissed as something for their titillation only, to be put away in a closet when it didn’t suit them. I would have fucked his wife just to get back at him, but even I didn’t have the stomach for that kinda redemption job.
I’ll veto fucking John Kay and everything Steppenwolf ever put out if you don’t leave Michael alone right now, and let me put Document on. I held the trump card. I had never used my veto, and I was going to go for the big guns. I was gunning for the ‘biggest cock of the barnyard’, as Lester put it, and I would not back down. In fact I would put on Tom Petty , since both of our vetos would be used up, and sing it all the way to Aberdeen. He relented. Poor deluded self hating schmuck, total jerk. Brainwashed by AA. Stupid old bastard. My oldest friend. I thought I could save him.
Somehow it always came around to this. To my needing to repent like he had: that everyone I cared about needed to repent for our unholy ways. That somehow the biggest drunk on the west coast was the holiest and most righteous of them all, and moreover, since all sins were forgiven, all that needed to happen was some magic formula repetition and dedication to some good ole Christianese. I whispered apologies to the air, to Michael, to REM, to the precious disc that I had taken with me, for years and years on this trip and that. If I was riding along highways there was a basic and deep need for REM. REM makes the blacktop go under wheels faster, turns endless roads into pleasure cruises, and makes everything sparklier, everything deeper, everything more FUN.
This music was my bible, comfort, my roadmap to America’s confused strange soul. My precious. My rope along a cliff face. My security blanket. I needed Michael, and Berry, Buck and Mills (who I had a sweet little teenage crush on back in the day, before men ruined everything – must have been that candy-coated, uncanny surfy jangle he got out of his bass guitar and that cheekily innocent look he always wore like indie-boy armor). After years locked away in Tokyo, I had The Fear big time. Everything was too large, everything was too open. Everything was too vast. REM was my cocoon, my engine of forward propulsion. REM was a necessary ingredient for the road, for my own little band of ‘followers of Chaos out of control’.
I hadn’t managed to bring a copy of Out of Time with me, and I had a deep and burning need to listen to it as we headed up the 101 towards Washington State. We pulled into a small strip mall, with a few shops, including one little used record store. I couldn’t take it any more. Forget buying lunch. I needed sustenance for the soul. I needed a bigger gun. I needed a line straight to the heart of America’s twisted soul if I was going to ride the white lines of the highway. It was a choice between Dead Letter Office and Out of Time. I sighed and bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t buy both, and I sure as shit wasn’t going to try and steal from some little record store in the armpit of Oregon. I might be scum, but I never stole. At least not here and now. Well, not more than Billy’s pills. Patting Out of Time, like an old friend, with its gorgeous Country Feedback, and the sweet Me In Honey, I put it back on the shelf. It could wait. These were Dead Letter Office days.