R.E.M. and College Years

Someone mentioned that we recently passed the 30 year anniversary of the release of R.E.M.’s Out of Time album. That was a watershed album for me. Indeed, R.E.M. turned out to be the soundtrack of my college years, and the years immediately after.

I knew of R.E.M. before college. In high school, during the Los Angeles Unified School District teacher’s strike of 1989, R.E.M.’s “Stand” was a kind of anthem of the silliness of that two week period when we didn’t have to go to school. But it was in college that I really come to know and appreciate R.E.M.

Prior to college my tastes in music were fairly vanilla. It was my friend Dan, who I met my very first day at U.C. Riverside, who beat a good sense of musical taste into me over a period of four years. Dan introduced me to Elvis Costello and Bad Religion and Black Flag and the Dead Kennedy’s and the Velvet Underground. For that alone I’ll forgive him his The Cure and Morrisey. But Dan also showed me that R.E.M. had albums, and quite a few of them even before Green. And they were great albums.

Out of Time came out on March 12, 1991, and I’m pretty sure the first time I heard it was when Dan played it for me during that spring of our freshman year. If I listen to that album today, I am back in the old Aberbeen-Inverness dorm. I can smell the carpets, and hear the music playing while I studied for a general chemistry test.

A year and a half later, just after the beginning of my junior year, R.E.M. came out with Automatic for the People (“Automatic for the people automatic for the people automatic,” I can hear Dan chanting) which is my favorite of all of R.E.M.’s albums. I had spend the summer working in the dorm cafeteria and wondering if it was possible to turn my mediocre grades (up to that point) into good grades. Automatic for the People was the anthem of that turnaround. I was listening to that album while studying for a political science test on European politics with my friend Shannon. That was the first test I can ever recall not sweating at all. I was prepared. I got a perfect score on it. While I sat in the lecture hall taking the test, I could hear “Try Not to Breathe”, and “Nightswimming,” and “Everybody Hurts” playing in my head.

Three months after I graduated (and started a job with a company that I remain with coming up on 27 years later), R.E.M. came out with their Monster album. We got tickets to see them in concert for that album. It was only the third concert I’d ever been to and it was fantastic. Four years later, in the midst of the crazy dot com boom, I got to see R.E.M. again, this time at the Greek Theater in L.A. as part of their Up tour. We had seats much closer to the stage and once again, it was a great show.

R.E.M. has such an eclectic variety of music. I love songs like “Perfect Circle” (Murmur) and “Camera” (Reckoning). My kids know and love songs like “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (Document) and “Superman” (Life’s Rich Pageant). I laugh and sing along with Michael Stipe’s drunken version of “King of the Road” (Dead Letter Office). And I try (usually unsuccessfully) to hit the high notes in “Tongue” (Monster).

As you might imagine, I listened to some R.E.M. while writing this post. I think I’ll listen to some more when I catch up on a week’s worth of work email this morning. And maybe I’ll throw in some Elvis Costello for yucks.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

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