Still in Rotation is a feature that lets talented writers tell Midlife Mixtape readers what album they discovered years ago that’s still on the stereo/iPod/mixtape player all the time, and why it has such staying power. Want to play? Email email@example.com with “Guest Post” in the subject line.
Today’s guest post is by my delightful friend Elizabeth McGuire. We met last year at BlogHer ’11 and, I don’t want to brag, but I will…based on this stunning post I nominated her as a BlogHer Voice of the Year 2012. She won. She’s one of a handful of exemplary bloggers who will read their work in front of an audience of 4,500 attendees this summer at BlogHer ’12 in NYC. Liz is also an acolyte of Tami Taylor of Friday Night Lights fame, and can often be found wondering “What Would Tami Do?” I’ll tell ya what she’d do: play some R.E.M. and work through it.
I found one of the lushest, most expansive relationships of my life out in West Texas, in one of the driest, most insulated places I have known.
It was the late ’80s, during an era when the original Friday Night Lights author was down the road dissecting what defined and inspired our dusty, oil-rich community. In a nutshell: football and religion, yes. Rock ‘n’ roll, not so much.
We had radio, sure. And eventually MTV. We had Janet Jackson and Beastie Boys and New Order and of course plenty of Garth Brooks, but the one (national-chain) music store in town wasn’t exactly in touch with what was brewing in the college radio scene. Honestly, I was happy enough with the music in my life…in the same way that I was happy enough with the city where I had lived since I was 13. You don’t always know what you’re missing until suddenly you do.
When R.E.M. came into my world, I realized exactly what I lacked. I crushed hard when their Green album was released in 1988, and I immediately started backtracking and devouring all six albums that came before. Their music was energetic and bold, sometimes frantic, sometimes fluid, but always mesmerizing in its sincerity. I had little idea what Michael Stipe’s famously cryptic lyrics meant and I didn’t really care. I knew their work resonated with me on some unseen level and that was more than enough.
These guys were both poets and punks. In interviews and videos they were down to earth and funny and sometimes a little geeky. They were, without fail, unapologetically themselves. No matter the setting, R.E.M. somehow always came across as both earnest and cool. I was hooked. That they would later become one of the world’s greatest alternative-rock bands was a happy coincidence in my view. I would have followed them regardless…would have stood in many a line for record releases or concert tickets. Would have seen them perform every chance I got. Would have read their interviews, joined their fan club, frequented their chat rooms. Would have done it all. In fact, I did do it all. For 25 years. There is no other band I’ve followed in this way. My simplest explanation is that R.E.M. never once stopped inspiring me.
I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite R.E.M. album any more than I could pick a favorite child, but I will tell you that when I think about their early work, I return most often to Lifes Rich Pageant, which was released in 1986.
What strikes me most about this album is how much audacious optimism lies within. They manage to bring songs about politics, oppression and pollution, and still leave listeners uplifted.
This truth appears in the vitality of These Days (“We are young despite the years we are concern/We are hope despite the times/All of the sudden these days/Happy throngs take this joy wherever, wherever”) and the agility of Hyena (“The only thing to fear is fearlessness/The bigger the weapon, the greater the fear”).
Lifes Rich Pageant also boasts one of my top favorite R.E.M. songs: Fall on Me, whose first few notes slay me every time. The stunning vocals are a perfect showcase of the Stipe-Mills genius. (“Buy the sky and sell the sky and lift your arms up to the sky/And ask the sky and ask the sky.”)
Flowers of Guatemala, one of the band’s lesser known songs, is also one of the prettiest pieces they ever recorded. I Believe follows it as an exuberant anthem for resilience. (“Trust in your calling/Make sure your calling’s true.”)
It’s the undaunted hopefulness of this entire album that transfixed me then and still does today.
Listening to Lifes Rich Pageant for so long makes me realize how much my life has come full circle. Keeping this album in rotation assures me that I’m actually living the life I once imagined for myself–not necessarily in the details, but certainly in the spirit I hoped to bring to my days. I can’t think of a more reaffirming anchor to carry with me for the next 25 years.
Speaking of yesterday meeting today…here’s a stellar, unplugged version of Cuyahoga, performed several years after it was recorded on Lifes Rich Pageant.
Elizabeth McGuire is a writer, photographer and mother of three. After years as a communications consultant, she now trains her eye on the people nearest to her heart. Her blog, Peace, Love and Guacamole, captures the small moments that tell the big stories of family life. She and her family live in Austin, Texas. (Hot tip: If you “like” her Facebook page before July 15, you have a chance to win one of her popular photographs.)