Issue # 33
November 28, 2000
Life On The
Murmur Trestle
(Part 2—The 1990s)
By Rich Wilhelm

It's been over a month since I documented my life as an R.E.M. fan from 1980-1989. I'm continuing that tale this week. Anyone who read the previous story surely noticed the pattern that emerged for me in the 1980s. Beginning in 1983, the year I started college, R.E.M. started releasing albums. For each year I was in school, the band put an album out and toured behind it. Every year except for 1984, I saw R.E.M. concerts, each time with some combination of friends. It was a happy routine, at least for my friends and me. I guess R.E.M. also liked it, but something eventually had to change, both for the band and for me. As the '80s faded into the '90s, these changes began.

I'd now like to pick up where I left off, in 1990. This was not a particularly easy story for me to write because, during the 1990s, R.E.M.'s music became the soundtrack for some relatively personal situations in my life, as you're about to discover. However, I think I've finally put this together in a way that makes some degree of sense, at least to me.

1990-This was a quiet year for R.E.M. There was no new album and if the band was touring, it wasn't anywhere near Philadelphia.

The new decade started pretty quietly for me also. At the beginning of 1990, I was working in the library at Neumann College and still feeling rather weird about the end of a relationship the summer before. My part-time record store job (which was, in some ways, my all-time favorite job) was coming to an end. As the summer of '90 progressed, I was feeling restless and was hoping that either a new job or a new relationship, or both, would jump-start my life.

Finally, in October, I landed a job as a technical editor, which I hold to this day. The week after I started, a co-worker of mine, Donna, introduced herself. She had been on vacation in London the day I started the job.

Donna and I began to talk and to have lunch together now and then. It seemed like we had a lot to talk about from the very beginning (Elvis Costello and Sesame Street spring to mind as early topics). As the holiday season arrived, I found that my feelings for Donna were already growing deeper, but as New Year's came and went, I had still not acted on those feelings.

1991-What does any of this have to do with R.E.M., you ask? Well, by February of '91, I felt like I was ready to take some action and I asked Donna out. We went to the movies (L.A. Story) on February 23 and it wasn't long after that when I realized I was in love. Fortunately for me, Donna was feeling that way too.

So then what did R.E.M. do? On March 21, they released Out of Time, an album full of love songs. Not all happy love songs, mind you, but love songs just the same. Propelled by the hit single, "Losing My Religion," Out of Time became a huge album for R.E.M., eventually winning them an armful of Grammy Awards. To me though, it is quite simply the R.E.M. album that was a big hit when I fell in love with the woman who would become my wife. In addition to "Losing My Religion," the album contained another hit single, "Shiny Happy People," which is generally despised by many R.E.M. fans for being much sappier than an R.E.M. song ought to be. I'll never feel that way about the song though, since I distinctly rememember myself feeling shiny and happy during the spring of 1991.

By the way, I proposed to Donna in August of 1991. She accepted and a wedding date was set for October 17, 1992.

1992-Just 11 days before Donna and I got married, R.E.M. released their classic Automatic For The People album. I bought it the day it was released and immediately began listening to it, but I think I was initially distracted from it because, well, I was getting MARRIED in 11 days. After our wedding and honeymoon, Donna and I returned home to our apartment in Northeast Philadelphia to begin our married life. I'm sure I listened a bit more to Automatic, but it wasn't until...

...1993 that I really started listening, with both ears and my mind and my soul, to Automatic For The People. It is a quiet and introspective album, which just happened to match my mood during much of 1993, a seriously transitional year for me. I enjoyed being married, but so much had happened in my life in such a short amount of time that I felt like I needed a little bit of emotional downtime. I remember spending hours at Sparkle City Laundromat, watching the clothes tumbling around in the dryer and...just thinking. Thinking and writing. Automatic was perfect for those times.

While I enjoy the entire Automatic For The People album, it's the three songs at the end, "Man On The Moon," "Nightswimming," and "Find The River" that have the greatest impact. These three songs seem to be related and I've been pondering their significance, on my own and in conversations with friends, ever since those nights at Sparkle City. "Nightswimming," a gentle piano ballad with oblique lyrics telling a story of lost innocence and memory, is especially powerful-it's the kind of song that makes grown men (and not just me!) cry.

1994-After two albums on the quiet side, R.E.M. roared back into the world of big dumb guitar rock with Monster, released September 27. Again, this album was in synch with my state of mind, as some of the mental and emotional fog around my had begun to lift by the time it was released. R.E.M. just wanted to turn those amps up to 11 and ROCK and that was fine by me.

1995-Although Monster was released in the fall of '94, it wasn't until October of '95 that R.E.M.'s massive world tour hit the U.S. east coast. This gave me the very cool and unexpected opportunity to begin and end a week in October with R.E.M. shows in different cities.

The week began in Norfolk, Virginia, where I was attending a meeting for work. On Sunday, I met up with a business associate of mine, Eric, and we wound up having dinner together. It was during our wide-ranging dinner conversation that Eric and I began to make the transition from "associates" to "friends." We discovered we both liked R.E.M. and decided to go see them the following night, since they happened to be playing at the nearby Hampton Coliseum. The cab ride that night to and from the show (which, like Monster was a great noisy affair with lots of electric guitar) is a story unto itself, but suffice to say for now that seeing an R.E.M. show together is a great way to launch a friendship.

Back home that Friday night, Donna and I went with our friends Matt and Sue to see R.E.M. play at the Spectrum. Now, Matt and I go way back, both as friends and as R.E.M. fans, but this Friday night show was the first time we got to see a show together. It was a great double date and a great way to celebrate Matt and Sue's upcoming wedding, which took place just two weeks later.

Incidentally, the 1995 Monster tour put three of the four members of R.E.M. in the hospital at one time or another. Bill Berry was the most seriously afflicted, suffering an aneurysm onstage while the band was touring Europe during the spring. He recovered fully and the tour plowed ahead.

1996-New Adventures In Hi Fi was released September 10, 1996. This was a transitional album for the band and, to be honest, I don't attach any specific memories of my life to the songs on it, although I do enjoy it. We were in the midst of a transition ourselves-getting ready to move out to Phoenixville in December-and I simply wasn't listening to much music at the time.

1997-A quiet year for R.E.M. but not for us. In February, we found out that Donna was expecting a baby, due in November. As the due date approached, I sat down to tape some music to play in the delivery room when the moment arrived. Much of it was classical music by Bach and Mozart, but I also included a number of pop songs, which included, "Georgia On My Mind," by Ray Charles, "In My Life," by the Beatles and, of course, "Nightswimming." The night before Jimmy was born, a couple of the nurses and doctors who popped in to check up on us commented on how much they liked the tape, which became the first music Jimmy ever heard.

Also in '97, my friend Mark and I made up separate lists of our 50 favorite songs of all time. When we compared the lists, we found only three songs that made both-"Green Onions" by Booker T. and the MG's, "Respect" by Aretha Franklin, and "Nightswimming."

1998-R.E.M. suffered a potentially fatal blow in July, when Bill Berry decided to retire. The band chose to continue as a trio, releasing Up on October 27. As R.E.M. albums go, Up managed to be both comfortably familiar and thoroughly different. The first time Jimmy walked in our apartment, a track from Up titled "Walk Unafraid" was playing on the stereo.

1999-R.E.M.'s Up tour hit Philadelphia in September, but we were in the middle of preparing to move to our newly bought house, so for the first time in many years, I missed an R.E.M. tour. I heard it was a good show though. Later that fall, the R.E.M.-scored soundtrack to Man On The Moon, the Andy Kaufman biopic, was released. It included an intriguing new R.E.M. song, "The Great Beyond." I played R.E.M. songs for Jimmy occasionally, and eventually he was asking me who the guys on my Monster tour t-shirt were. It wasn't long before Jimmy was telling me who was who on the shirt, and telling me, "Bill Berry plays the drums and rides a tractor," a reference to Berry's current life as a farmer. Believe me, anyone who plays drums AND drives a tractor is cool in my son's eyes.

2000-In January, just a few weeks after the whole Y2K thing happened with nary a hitch, I found myself on another business trip, this time in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Very early on a Thursday morning, a few hours before flying home, I walked along the beach. Looking north, I could see the launch pads at Cape Kennedy, as I listened to a homemade mix tape of songs I'd been enjoying over the last few months. "The Great Beyond" started playing and immediately it stopped me in my tracks. I crouched down, right at the edge of the water and stared out at the Atlantic Ocean as the song washed over me.

In the context of Man On The Moon, I suppose "The Great Beyond" is to be taken as a message to us from Andy Kaufman from beyond the grave (or wherever he is). However, if you broaden the context a little bit, "The Great Beyond," can be just as easily about anybody's immediate or distant future in this life. "I'm looking for answers in the great beyond," sings Stipe, and who isn't?

What happened next might be hard for readers in November 2000 to believe, but right then and there I had a moment of clarity while in the state of Florida. I listened to "The Great Beyond" as the waves lapped at my feet, and I thought about where I've been in my life, where I was at that moment, and where I was going. And I was, generally speaking, pretty happy with it all. It was a minor epiphany for me (but an epiphany just the same), made possible by the happy collision of my own feelings with the sand and the sea and the song playing in my earphones that beautiful January morning. As "The Great Beyond" ended, I stood up and, in the midst of a torrent of thoughts, it occurred to me how amazing it was that this band that I started listening to just out of high school was still giving so much back to me, half a lifetime later. "Wow," the part my brain dealing with R.E.M. at that moment thought, "Cool."

Then, I continued my walk up the beach.

(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print a hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2000 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)