“That`s great it starts with an earthquake….”
There`s a photograph of us dancing in my room. Me, Charlie and Tommo. Howard must have been there. Howard didn`t like to miss anything. Charlie`s dressed in some kind of `60s suit. Grey jacket, white shirt, black trousers and straight narrow black tie. Laughing. I can hear his loud, dry Scouse cackle now. The cavernous rattle of someone choking on their own amusement. It almost eclipses the memory of the often dour demeanour that over took him in later years. After his mother died. He`s posing with an old camera. The kind with a cloth concertina`d front, that I must of picked up from a junk shop. That, for sure, didn`t work, and had lying around for effect. Behind me is my desk. I didn`t have much in those days, bar the desk, which was the landlord`s anyway. A mattress and stereo. Both on the floor. A stack of tapes and books against one wall. Copies of Prince`s Parade and New Order`s Technique. A guitar I couldn`t tune. And a big picture window onto the crumbling red brick alley way that ran between the terraced streets. Above the desk are two large posters, that Charlie had brought back from his year in China. One of Mao and one of Lenin. You pose yourself Left. But I have to admit that I still know little of history or politics. Save that no one is without crime. Irresponsible of me really, but they looked imposing, and made it look as if I did know. Tommo has on a blue collared sports shirt, buttoned to the top, faded jeans and Docksiders. His body, at an angle to his legs. His clenched fists level with his shoulders. Eyes closed, head tilted back, and on his face a beatific smile. We are getting ready to go somewhere. It is the end of the world as we know it.
Charlie would do stuff when you weren`t looking. Deface postcards, books, and the inserts of cassettes. Rewriting labels. Underlining and correcting passages he didn`t agree with. Setting them to his world view. I had a Haircut 100 and Orange Juice tape. A compilation I`d called “Happy At Last”. Charlie had crossed this out and written “Life is shit and then you die”.
Seven of us shared this house. The monthly rent in Hyde Park was a flat seventy pounds between us. We`d throw our money into a pot, since pooling our cash allowed us to eat better, and were each allocated a day to cook. I got Wednesdays, since Wednesday afternoons were set aside for sports, and the only time I went near the playing fields was to gather mushrooms. A slow purposeful vagabond. Patrolling the edges of the pitches. Oblivious to the athletes. Carrier bag of treasure in hand. In preparation for dinner, Howard and me would get lit and adventure across town to Morrisons. Most of us would try to outdo each other and turn in the best meal on a budget. While Howard seemed to be competing with only himself as to how much of the pot he could skim for his pocket.
Days in the library spent photocopying someone else`s lecture notes. Nights of revising on Speed. The Food Scientists drew an extravagant wall chart. Linking everything from their Microbiology and Chemistry courses. Colour-coded it was. With a lot of arrows. The logic of which was forgotten when the amphetamines ran out.
I can remember Adrian brewing tubs of wine for an end of year party. Attempting to siphon it off into bottles in the bathroom. One by one, as we returned home, we joined him, sampling the stuff. The room and the bath full with the drunken laughter of passing friends, and neighbours who had wondered what the noise was. There`s another photo. Somewhere.
= = = = = = =
Another band I discovered via the Record Library were R.E.M. I`d read an NME review of Document, and went in and borrowed everything of their`s I could find. Sophisticated tambourine-shaking, Californian Orange Sunshine, Psychedelic Nuggets & Pebbles-appreciating tunes. Marked by Michael Stipe`s personal poetry and Peter Buck`s considerable guitar chops. Bright, upbeat updates of Paisley-clad Mod Power Pop. Their musical influences made implicit by covering tracks like The Clique`s Superman.
Stipe met Buck at the Wuxtry Record Store in Athens, Georgia. Where Buck was working and Stipe was buying all the vinyl Buck had ear-marked for himself*. They shared a passion for Punk and Proto-Punk. Bonding over Patti Smith, Television and The Velvet Underground. With the addition of Bill Berry and Mike Mills, they formed R.E.M. in 1980 . Labeled as drums and bass, respectively, both Berry and Mills were in fact multi-instrumentalists. All four members of the band contributing to the songwriting process. But Buck`s playing and Stipe`s vocals characterised R.E.M.`s music. That`s what caught your attention. The chiming open strings of Buck`s Jetglo 360 brought continual, withering comparisons to Jonny Marr. While Buck admitted his debt to The Byrds` Roger McGuinn, and those The Byrds` inspired. Such as Memphis` Big Star and Robyn Hitchcock` The Soft Boys.
Stipe`s lyrics were oblique. His songs left wide open to interpretation. Dense cut-ups of lines ripped from newspaper headlines and diary pages. Ecology mixed with rallying calls for personal freedom. The shifting of the poles with manifestos for love and understanding.
“Buy the sky and sell the sky.”
“We are hope, despite the times.”
“Let`s put our heads together. Let`s start a new country up.”
“Take a picture here, take a souvenir.”
A track like Coyahoga was about Amercia`s changing landscape. Pollution and industrialisation. But it was also a song of universal nostalgia. An innocence passed, and our need to plant a flag. Tag “I was here”. To prove that we remember. That as if by doing so we too might be remembered. Stipe didn`t bother to hide his Hippy, San Francisco Digger, ideals, either. His words, like their musical backing, repackaged “Flower Power”. For want of a better description.
“What if we give it away?”
Bright, uptempo, positive and shiny, R.E.M. might have appeared at odds with the dour whining of British contemporaries, such as The Smiths. But both were angry and appealing for open minds and answers.
“Change is what I believe in.”
“I believe in time as an abstract.”
spoke to my fear of finality. Echoed the literature I was reading. That as if through thought I could cheat death. William Burroughs` idea that we could transcend our flesh. That were are “here to go”.
Consciousness and dream bellowed through a megaphone from Underneath The Bunker. Accompanied by accordions, banjoes and mandolins.
“Swan, swan, hummingbird, hoorah. We`re all free now.”
Sea shanties and pirate`s rhymes. Love, use and abuse, acid rain, Andy Kaufman and Heaven. Man Ray, the crimes committed against Native Americans, comets and lovers. Strung together like Bob Dylan`s Subterranean Homesick Blues.
I only saw R.E.M. live once, in Manchester, with Howard. His sister was studying there. We`d travelled across from Leeds on the train. Getting wrecked on the way. Furious at the state we arrived in, she`d refused to speak to us. Stipe had mumbled something about “baps” and made a derogatory comment about Morrissey. Then surrendered to boos for the rest of the set.
*Buck estimates his collection of LPs and 45s to be in excess of 20, 000.
Craft Recordings release R.E.M.`s BBC sessions and broadcasts. Eight CDs and one DVD.