When R.E.M.’s Green was released, thirty years ago, on 8th November 1988, I was 14. It was my first R.E.M. album and it is the first album that I loved at the time that I still love. This is a thing that happens with R.E.M. albums – which one you hear first is important. You get imprinted.
I don’t recall when exactly I heard Green first. I knew ‘The One I Love’ from Document before I heard ‘Stand’, but I hadn’t heard of any of the I.R.S. albums and I knew nothing about the band. The first piece on R.E.M. that I ever read was in Time in late ’88 and I misread it, or at least the accompanying photo. I must have assumed that the one with the most charismatic eyebrows was the singer. When they came on stage in the RDS in June 1989 I was surprised to see Bill Berry go behind the drums and the man who turned out to be Michael Stipe take the front of the stage.
This was before I would inhale every interview and internalise every utterance but that came quickly. In a Hot Press interview in 1989 Stipe used the term “fucker” to describe George H.W. Bush. This was so cool a term of abuse that I decided to adopt it. Not everyone was impressed. Stipe harangued Exxon that night in the RDS because of the Exxon Valdez and he set me off on a fifteen-year absolute boycott of Esso garages. I was only driving for the last five of those years and their share price did not suffer, but they must have wondered why they were selling so few Loop the Loops.
That night in the RDS Stipe sang ‘You Are The Everything‘ wrapped around the mic stand with his back to the audience. I thought this was mysterious behaviour and that there must be something incredibly powerful about the song, still, for Stipe himself, that he couldn’t even look at us. The guy standing just to my right thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen. I have never forgotten this stranger’s yell of pure joy (“AMAZING!!”) with arms outstretched as Stipe composed himself and turned back to us at the end. I think my neighbour’s yell stayed with me: Wow, look what music can do.
Green is the most important album of my lifetime and I sometimes wonder how it, not Doolittle, not The Joshua Tree, not Disintegration, acquired that status. It is partly the imprinting and partly that it is such an endlessly beautiful record made by geniuses that even a 44 year old who has heard it hundreds of times, and who tries to make a point not to live in the musical distant past, can always find something fresh there.
Green wasn’t the first album that I went back to again and again. That was The Joshua Tree because I was a 13 year old boy in a class full of 13 year old boys in 1987 and because ‘Running to Stand Still’ touched a nerve I didn’t know I had; the first song I compulsively played, lifting and re-lifting the needle on Born in the USA, was ‘Downbound Train’. But Green was the first album that I connected with properly, personally, in my own way. I met Stipe in 1999 at an Up aftershow. It’s important to tell artists how much they mean to you, even people who hear it all the time, so I shuffled over. “You know Green kind of changed my life,” I said. “Only kind of?” he replied.
Green provided a template for the kind of music I would seek out for years afterwards. I loved melody but prioritised lyrics (so it took some time to cop on to MBV, for instance). I enjoyed the feeling of not understanding “I am not the type of dog that would keep you waiting for no good reason / Run a carbon black test on my jaw” while also understanding. I wanted more of the admiring shock of that moment when I realised he’d replaced “raise” with “raze” in ‘World Leader Pretend’. Raze!
I wanted singers with character. I wanted heart and poetry and preferably some pain. I went down the lo-fi mournful music path, signposted by Green’s side two, exhaustively (American Music Club, Smog, Big Star’s Third and Music for a New Society were the touchstones). I think I went too far down that road. I spent too much time with songs that emphasised loss, rejection, and failure to the point of why even try, because that position seemed true and somehow morally superior. Sigh. Anyway. Great albums, those – just not on the bus in the morning every single day, I would now argue.
After Green I simultaneously wanted risks and freedom and playfulness, for it not to matter so much. I loved that R.E.M. swapped instruments on ‘Untitled’ and that Bill Berry couldn’t play the drum part that Peter Buck came up with because it was too amateurish, so Peter played it. I loved that mistakes could stay in. I loved that the backing vocals added to the narrative, that it was a conversation (“Dreams they complicate my life / (Dreams they complement my life)”. I loved Mike Mills’ voice.
My relationship with Green evolves. I change and what I hear in it changes. I read recently that ‘Untitled’ (“All I really want to say is / Hold her and keep him strong“) was Stipe’s love song to his parents. I didn’t know that and it would not have occurred to me at 14 that you could sing a love song to your parents. Now I know I’ll think of my mum and dad whenever I hear Peter Buck’s rickety intro and “This world is big / And so awake / I stayed up late / To hear your voice“. I’ll feel gratitude, to my folks and to this band.
It took my own turn at parenthood to personalise ‘You Are The Everything’ so concretely. I always heard the song from the child’s perspective and I always placed myself in the back seat laying down, the windows wrapped around to the sound of the travel and the engine. It always took a leap of imagination to inhabit the song. No bad thing, but then I found myself driving near home with the CD on and my daughter, then six-ish, in the back seat humming along. For now that’s how I hear it, from the perspective of my kids and of myself as their happy and incredulous and fearful dad. The two boys stopped me turning off ‘The Wrong Child’ last week. “No! I love that song!” they said as one. That was a complicated moment. ‘The Wrong Child’ is the Green song that embedded most deeply in me, but I wouldn’t necessarily want them to inhabit that one.
‘The Wrong Child’ is sung from the perspective of a child with a disability who is suffering. I always pictured a boy but that’s not clear from the song. “Tell me what it’s like to go outside“, it goes, “I’ve never been / Tell me what it’s like to just go outside… Hey those kids are laughing at me“. I connect the song to Christopher Nolan and Stipe said, I think, that Nolan’s Under the Eye of the Clock was an influence. Because I knew this back story I long thought I was lyrically distanced somehow from the song. If the song is explicitly about someone in a highly specific situation that is not my situation then it’s not about me.
I was right about this and also wrong. ‘The Wrong Child’ was in a real sense not one bit about me, and it was an early lesson in the song as an act of empathy. A mistake I made in ensuing years that I have tried to correct was to demand that songs were directly relatable. Morrissey hung the DJ because the music that they constantly played said nothing to him about his life – why should it? Why not other people’s lives? What is so endlessly fascinating about ourselves?
But I was shaken by ‘The Wrong Child’, mesmerised by it, permeated by it. I had Green on tape and I rewound and rewound that moment when Stipe makes the first vocal leap, that first “I’m not supposed to be like this / But it’s OK“. It’s so sudden, and Stipe deliberately doesn’t quite land on that leaping high note. He just misses, straining too far, wavering around it. Listening to it writing this I found myself contorting, bending my body as he sings, mimicking his bending of that high note, like if I alter the angle of my ears the note will settle back where it’s supposed to be. It’s such a physical moment of uncontained emotional urgency. And I was identifying alright.
I suspect now that I connected with Green over all other albums because your band chooses you as much as you choose them. I was 14 when I heard ‘The Wrong Child’ and losing my old friends and not making new ones and just beginning to regard music as a liferaft. I was 14 and I needed to hear “I’m not supposed to be like this / But it’s OK” sung by Michael Stipe with love and hope and solace. Every so often, I still do.