Wednesday, February 01, 2006

It’ll be a few months before the actual anniversary date (mid-August), but I moved to Seattle for the first time in 1996, ten years ago. I was sick of Minneapolis in a nebulous sort of way, had no real idea what I was doing with my life. I was cooking in restaurants then, and left town after a rather convoluted work history; after a year and a half at Figlio, doing prep, appetizers, and pantry, I bounced around something like eight jobs in eight months before heading off. The trip was initially going to involve several people that were living in and around my friend Jeremy. I had moved into the house where he lived in February 1995, near MCAD (Minneapolis College of Art & Design), a big white structure with two floors and an attic loft that had a notorious reputation as a party house. In fact, the only time it wasn’t a party house was when I was living there, which figured. Jeremy got a house next door with a friend and I took over his room. Jeremy was, he explained, a little tired of living in a place where people came and went at all hours. But he also attracted it--Jeremy’s a tall, very quiet, mystically-inclined fellow with a kind of beatific calm around him who at the time seemed to know everyone in Minneapolis. (He’s in Seattle now as well--has been since 1999--but I’ve only seen him a couple times. He’s married and has a daughter. He emailed me a while back and I haven’t responded yet; I probably should. I’m terrible about that kind of thing; I never know what to say to old friends I haven’t seen in a long time, unable to figure out if I should tell them everything or if I should just leave it alone. Both options have their uses, but the latter tends to make me less friendly than I’d prefer.) When Jeremy and his roommate got into the house next door it soon took on the same aspect his prior residence had: Soon between four and six people were living there at any given time, rooming in walk-in closets or anterooms. The rent was something like $700 a month and splitting it further let everyone do basically nothing for a living and still survive. Jeremy took it all in with his usual eyebrow-cocked stoicism. I visited sometimes, a lot more so after I’d left the white party house to room with an interior designer at his condo closer to Uptown. I slept at Jeremy’s frequently, sometimes in the same bed if the couch was being crashed upon, which it often was.

Jeremy decorated minimally, thriftily, with scarved lampshades and incense being key components. Nothing was ever too brightly lit. His house was the first place I ever smoked weed, a couple weeks prior to my 21st birthday. It scared the shit out of me, especially when he kept changing the music to try to enhance its effects--whatever was playing, then “Dark Star” from Live/Dead, then Loveless, which felt like a black hole in that condition (I got over it), like that. It was very typical college-boho stuff, but I was uptight and intense, and his place and his presence was a marvelous corrective. Despite, or maybe because, I didn’t go to college, I dreamed fugitively of what I thought might be the intellectual life--intense late-night arguments and the like--and knew I was only a visitor to his skater/stoner friends’ milieu, where arguments tended not to be about the kinds of things I cared about. (I remember one guy getting mad that I called War Heroes a second-rate Hendrix album; it was his favorite.) There were pretensions galore there, of course--one guy in particular who looked like Art Garfunkel in a ratty sweater and rolled his own cigarettes spoke so haltingly that he sounded rehearsed, and I smelled a passive-aggressive rat, though at the time I was still too unsure of myself to just call him out and get it over with. (Another friend I met much later, who also knew the guy, informed me that he came out of his shell big-time in the later ’90s, after he’d discovered cocaine.)

Jeremy worshiped the Beats in a fairly obvious way that I was too self-conscious to let go and do myself. We got to talking one day about hitting the road, and on the spur of the moment we decided to do it. The idea was that several of the folks in the house would go in on a van and we’d drive to San Francisco. We began saving up. Naturally, I spent a bunch of what I had on records anyway.

One by one, the principals dropped out. It ended up being Jeremy, a woman he’d started dating, and myself. The van was cheap and broke down a lot, and so did relations between Jeremy and his girlfriend, not to mention between her and myself. As a couple, they encouraged each other’s passive-aggression and insularity, and as a disintegrating couple it was even worse. Not to mention that they played Dead Can Dance and Rusted Root in the van all the time, which made me want to kill myself. Nevertheless, some of the trip was rather wonderful. I wrote an enormous review of some James Brown reissues for Paul Williams’ Crawdaddy! newsletter (he’d brought it back a couple years earlier as a kind of homemade samizdat, and had printed a letter I’d sent him a year earlier; it was the first place outside of school publications for which I wrote about music or anything else) at Jeremy’s uncle’s place in South Dakota, on their computer in the basement, something like 20,000 words--very repetitive, which sort of fit the subject. I’d be embarrassed to see it today--I think this is the first time I’ve mentioned it anywhere online since going pro, as it were--but I did it in one sitting, which is how I thought everybody wrote everything back then; if they didn’t, I reasoned, it wasn’t “real.” (I had all kinds of made-up rules about writing that experience would dash to the rocks, starting with that one.) The Black Mountains at night were nice and properly spooky; so they were also in the day. Hanging out in the city below Mount Rushmore was breathtaking, a friendly small town set in the midst of endless acres of pine green; I still harbor fantasies of going there to write a book someday. Driving through the Colorado mountains with the sun setting behind the mountains in front of us, collectively holding our breath that the car would hitchlessly make it uphill, listening to L.A. Woman. Almost no record has ever sounded better in my life than that one did at that moment. Mostly, though, I was freaked out by the newness of the experience, as well as the obvious tension between the drivers (I still haven’t learned to drive), and acted whiny and uncooperative without meaning to. Upon mutual agreement, I parted company with them in Boulder and made my way to Seattle by Greyhound. When I arrived, my luggage was missing. I stayed at the Green Tortoise hostel, then located in Lower Queen Anne on 2nd and Roy, three blocks from where I live now; six to a room (three bunk beds) about the size of my bedroom in my current apartment. I’ve always turned in my sleep, and I’ve always kept very late hours; one night/morning I went to sleep to have my upper bunk rattled every time I shifted a hair. Then the guy, a mean alcoholic who lived at the hostel when he wasn’t in Alaska fishing, lean down and said, “If you move another muscle, I swear to God I’m going to beat the living shit out of you.” I silently gripped a loose plank above my mattress, intending to bash his face in if he came near me. A day later, I moved into a house near 100th and Aurora, with a short, black dominatrix who got us all kicked out after not paying the rent for the three months I lived there.

The reason I bring all this up is that I’m playing, for the first time in probably ten years, R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It’s one of the albums I bought during the five months I was in Seattle, mid-August 1996 to mid-January 1997, and like the others--Prince’s Emancipation, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing . . . , Headz 2a & 2b, Nirvana’s From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, as well as several cassettes I’d brought with me that survived the luggage loss, it’s tied inextricably to that time and place. I liked New Adventures a lot at the time, and relistening I’m surprised at how strong some of it is; posterity hasn’t been kind to it, since it was the last album they made before Bill Berry left, at which point they more or less lost the rudder. It didn’t help that it’s by far their longest album--14 songs, 65-and-a-half minutes, most tracks five minutes or more, kind of a stylistic grab bag, mostly recorded on the Monster tour, first album of a huge-money record deal, the place where simmering backlash finally took root. I remember Jim DeRogatis’s Request feature, the first time I’d ever seen R.E.M. portrayed in an unflattering light in print; it impressed me a lot at the time, though I thought he was wrong about the album sucking.

When I got R.E.M.’s Warner Bros. expanded remasters last year, I had the opposite feeling--New Adventures was probably a lot worse than I’d known. Last week, I ripped it onto my hard drive and played “New Test Leper” loudly on headphones. In 1996 it sounded like the most comforting song in the world, and time has been wonderful to it--the delicate empathy in Stipe’s voice hasn’t gone anywhere, and if the drums shuffle more politely than I’d remembered they’re not really the point anyway. (Jeremy also loved it.) The others I played were “Departure,” whose playfulness surprised me; and “Leave,” which surprised me by not being as good as I’d remembered. (That siren noise is sort of a nuisance, isn’t it?) And “Electrolite,” the only song on here with any kind of post-album-cycle shelf life, and as perfect in a way as any of their singles, which isn’t the same as saying it’s great.

Playing it all while writing much of the above provided a few jolts, none of them too forbidding. (It’s R.E.M.; what did you expect?) “Undertow”’s “I’m drowning” refrain is a little fragmented but is still essentially as stirring as it’s meant to be. Actually, fragmentation is a theme here, as it was on Monster, as well as U2’s albums of the period--“information overload” is so mid-’90s a trope it’s almost adorable now. One of the tracks is even called (groan!) “So Fast, So Numb”--schoolmarmish warning about losing your emotions in the mediascape, ahoy! See also “The Wake Up Bomb” and, to a lesser extent, “E-Bow the Letter,” which is more about celebrity but is still one of the dumbest choices for a single ever made by any band in R.E.M.’s then-sales class.

Not that I’m offering ex-post facto advice here. But if the album sounds bloated and shaky, it’s still got a handful of songs I’m super happy to reacquaint myself with. My perfect EP condensation runs: “Departure,” “Leper,” “Undertow,” “Be Mine,” and “Electrolite.” “Be Mine” is as deliberately tossed off as anything on Monster, only it’s a straight-up power ballad, something R.E.M. were great at even if their fanbase does not wanna know.

The reason I came back, however hesitantly, to Adventures is that I’ve been pounding Automatic for the People these past couple weeks. Lots of smart people I know don’t like that one very much--too funereal, and it’s such a middlebrow choice for their best or second-best album that I can understand the impulse. But I’ve always adored the grace of the thing. At the time of its release, the whispers around the album were “AIDS elegy,” and there’s some of that for sure. (The Stipe-has-AIDS rumors are a different thing altogether.) What hits me most powerfully now, though, is something I couldn’t have heard when I first bought the album at 17: As much as anything, it’s an album about turning 30, about realizing your 20s are gone and won’t be coming back. It’s about facing middle age as much as it is about facing death. It’s about realizing the salad days were actually the salad days, because you could fuck up and it would fix itself eventually. No wonder they made Monster after this, and no wonder it sounded so awkward--older guys in youth drag. When U2 did it, they’d been so self-serious for so long it really was a change of pace and heart; R.E.M., however much Stipe’s mumbling had shrouded them in mystery, had been jumpier and lighter even when they were criticizing foreign policy. They didn’t have to get goofy because they were already fundamentally light.

Needless to say, I haven’t gone back to Monster yet. I’m still a little afraid of that one.