It’s these little things, they can pull you under
Live your life filled with joy and thunder
Yeah, yeah we were… altogether…
Lost in our little lives.
I bought my very first copy of “Automatic for the People” at Faneuil Hall in Boston, on the day it came out. My uncle Troy decided to take me into Boston for the day, and I was very pleased to be going to Faneuil Hall. I had made one previous trip there that resulted in a positively delicious hamburger from Frog Lane – a below-ground restaurant that charmed me with its novelty. (I was thirteen. Leave me be, thank you.) Come to think of it, I believe that I had gone there with my uncle Michael who, if memory serves, was likely trying to impress his new girlfriend with his child-handling skills. (He’ll return later, in another entry.) Either way, the burger was pretty tasty. This is, of course, neither here nor there. The best trip, by far, was this one with Troy.
At the time (1992), there used to be a great big chain music store at Faneuil Hall, and the posters for “Automatic” were beckoning from the windows. I knew that I had to have it. I had been a big fan ever since buying my first copy of Document in a local department store. (My grandmother liked to shop there, and I would sometimes go along to play on their Star Wars arcade game.) “Out of Time” was a favorite album for both my father and I, and I thought he would be thrilled to see the newest. In any case, R.E.M. used to be in the habit, as a few artists were, of releasing special edition first-day recordings. For Monster, this resulted in an all orange cd case (later ones had a black left margin). For Automatic, it was the clear-yellow cassette tape. Naturally, I bought one of these. The album went straight into my walkman, and I was instantly struck by the difference in atmosphere. This album had a somber, moody tone that was unlike anything I (or anyone) had heard from R.E.M. previously. I was positively amazed: ready to call it a masterpiece by the time “New Orleans Instrumental Number One” began to play. Then, “Sweetness Follows…”
I remember taking Julie to her first R.E.M. concert. The two-thirds mark came, and “Sweetness” began to play. The lights in the place turned that amazing deep, electric blue that only stage lights can produce, and you could feel the place holding its breath. At the time, my father’s ill health always made the opening lyric (“Readying to bury your father and your mother…”) a difficult thing to get past. Like a plunge into icy water, I had to fight to overcome the shock. Sometimes, I used to look at moments like this and wonder if I were simply too sensitive. Too susceptible to every little emotional undercurrent. And then I saw the remarkable stillness in my friend, and in those around us, and I knew I wasn’t alone. In my life, experiences like this, shared amongst thousands of strangers in the glow of an electric twilight, have shown me the depths of my soul and challenged my pessimism about the world to come.
The most beautiful moment in the song, as far as I’m concerned, comes in the last few seconds of the track. If you listen closely, as the track is fading down, you can hear Michael Stipe sob. As I’ve said, great art kills you just a little – not just the receiving and redefining, but in the creating. Is it any wonder that there are so few truly great artists that can consistently produce over a lifetime? Or, indeed, so few that live long lives? The first time I heard it, I loved that moment where Michael cries desperately. I knew he wasn’t faking. This was his soul’s work, and I got to witness. I think this profundity accounts for a considerable amount of the stillness that’s produced in the hearing. Of course, you wouldn’t expect this moment to necessarily repeat live. But it does. The concert always pauses while Michael wipes his eyes, and gets up from the ground where he kneels his way through. I still find this fascinating and beautiful.
Which is, of course, not to say that the music isn’t something on its own. Peter Buck uses feedback in a remarkably intelligent way – interweaving melodic lines of e-bow-esque feedback with a steady, drumming acoustic guitar. There’s a hypnotic effect that’s hard to deny. A really primal sort of melody that is both simple and absorbing. When R.E.M. is firing on all cylinders, this is their real specialty. (See also: “Leave,” “Country Feedback,” and “Let Me In.”)
Much as I love it, I have, for much of the last year, been terrified of playing it. Growing up, my father and I shared much of our music. In fact, until I was about twelve, all of my musical tastes were shared by my father. And it isn’t just a passive interest in music that we’re dealing with here. Neither my father nor I could stand being in a room without music. I still can’t. Life seems empty without the sensory experience that is the embrace of warm music. Over time, I learned all of my father’s moods, thoughts, and feelings simply by observing what songs he was playing. If he missed his father, he played “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” by Tom T. Hall. (You are forgiven for not knowing this record.) If he missed my mother, he played Joan Baez. If he missed himself, as we all can, he played “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits (sure to be another entry in this series). I also learned all the stories of his songs. As I said in his eulogy, I knew the story of Bruce (Springsteen) and Mary better than I knew most children’s literature. Such was our life.
Anyway, when my father would think about death, he would play “Sweetness Follows.” (Or, sometimes, “Raining in Baltimore.” We’ll get there, eventually.) I would catch him crying, and I would know he was thinking about his parents, siblings, and, well, himself. Oddly enough, these were the very things that I would come to on my own. (I’ve buried nearly two-dozen people in my short life.) Of course, this is expected, given the song, but my mind is a strange thing. For every song that I know, I can think of a hundred experiences: where I was, what I was doing, who was there, what the light was like, the air, my clothes, their texture, the colors in the room… you get the point. It’s not Synesthesia, but it’s pretty crazy. And so, in this song, I’ve carried the baggage of my father’s experiences, and mine, for quite some time. The first few times I tried to listen after my father’s funeral, I simply couldn’t. There are moments in singing (which, regrettably, I do often – how could anyone sit still, after all?) when I have to fight my way through to the next line. (“I’m not living / I’m just killing time” in “True Love Waits” by Radiohead comes to mind. That second half holds a truth I can’t deal with… at least some of the time.) These moments, hard as they are, are life-affirming. “Sweetness Follows” was/is overwhelming.
But here I am. I’ve listened to it, this evening, for the sixth time since it returned to me. And I can still see those sad things, but I can feel the song’s beauty again. And in a weird sort of way, it helps me through the pain by providing me with a perfect reference for what has been, what has been lost, and what remains. I suppose that’s what draws me to this silly writing experiment. Going back through my portable, rhythmical biography can be both soothing and educational, and I can only hope that you, dear reader, have something similar in your own life.
Time to bring this entry to a close, but, as ever, I leave you with a parting gift. One night, driving with my father (the last time I remember going out with him for fun), “Sweetness” accidentally came on. In danger of losing ourselves to a wave of introspective sadness, I calmly waited for things to finish and moved on, as I often do after this track, to the song below. I sang it to my father, as the moon shone down, and somehow, as it always does, color returned to the evening. I hope you’ll enjoy: