Point of Reckoning

The dreamscapes of R.E.M.’s best album

From the first moment, from the opening notes, it was like being toe to toe again with the playground bully, or like the paralysis of sitting across the table from the ex-lover you’ve never really gotten over. I was struck speechless and stupid with the same unnamable longings, with vertigo and fear and dread, but this was none of those things. This was “Harborcoat” by R.E.M. from their 1984 album Reckoning, and so there was for me also a sort of mystical, morphine-like stupor close to religious awe. Part may be attributed to my having awoken only moments before from the deathly heavy sleep of an early evening nap — punctuated by bewildering dreams of old cars of mine — and being already disoriented. And feeling empty, as though beneath a reverberating wall of drugs. Enough of it stems from the music, however, that some explication is in order.

A little background on the significance of this record in my life might explain what this is all about. To me, R.E.M. were first and foremost the band that single-handedly turned me on to music — music as something more than pleasant distraction or silence-filler. They awakened me to the potential of music to give voice to life, to its joys and despair and discontents. They were the band that first spoke to me — and seemingly to many people my age — with intelligence and sensitivity and passion. Even if none of us were sure exactly what it was they were saying, that was somehow part of the charm and the secrecy, the urgency and inscrutability of their music.

They were also — for me and for so many others — the gateway to a whole subterranean world of challenging, exciting, deeply affecting music. “Like marijuana leads to heroin,” as Tom Waits mockingly crooned years later in his score for The Black Rider, R.E.M. led me unerringly to Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, the Minutemen and miles beyond into perpetually uncharted territory. They introduced me to the quest for the ever-receding horizon, that elusive satori somewhere on the hazy border of music and spirit. In fact, Reckoning was the first record I ever went into a store to actually buy with my own money — a habit that has since taken over so much of my life that … well, the less said of that, the better, perhaps.

It was, pointedly, that very same copy of Reckoning that I listened to tonight. I have never replaced that record and I’m pretty sure now that I never will. The first song — in an avalanche of overlapping ways — is “Harborcoat,” and I bought the record because of that song. I had seen them in concert just days before, in my last weeks before turning 14, and while it might seem laughable, it is hard for me now not to see that show as a rite of passage. The song that stayed with me, echoing through my mind for days after, was “Harborcoat,” and tonight, when I heard it once again I was hit with the cumulative weight of all the years since that first show.

When I was back visiting Rochester last summer, my friend Jason told me that he had recently heard something by R.E.M. from the same period, maybe “Pretty Persuasion.” In retrospect, he said, he found it empty and insincere, so he had done some rethinking as regards their relevance and merit as a band. After our conversation, a nagging doubt had crept into me as well. Perhaps it was that challenge, or maybe simple nostalgia, that led me to throw Reckoning on the turntable tonight; but something else took over as soon as the sound filled the room. It was implosive, compelling, exuberant in its magnetism, despairing in its gravity. More than 15 years later, I am a musician myself and a compulsive music fan/amateur critic besides, and for the life of me I cannot discern just what it is they did to capture the sounds I hear on some of these songs. This music is forever shrouded in mystery, an alien sort of beauty.

I can’t tell if this feeling stems from the way the vocals were recorded (Stipe’s efforts in this period to deliberately obscure his lyrics are legendary), or from Peter Buck’s elegantly primitive guitar playing, or from the way multiple tracks are subtly layered on many songs so as to render the piano (for example) eerily, almost subliminally, effective. Then again, maybe it’s all from the way this music transports me to a deeply muddled time in my life. As an adolescent I felt utterly stultified most of the time, harassed by some persistent static in between the world and me. I was removed and disjointed, out of touch with everything happening around me, and I had a difficult time putting two coherent thoughts together. I had no sense of historical context — I could not have told you what century Beethoven lived in or whether the Magna Carta came before or after the fall of the Roman Empire. To me the world was a blur of unrelated bits of information with no sense or sensibility, no connecting themes, no order. Maybe this was only a projection of my inner feelings of mute anger, of chaos and powerlessness. Small wonder that music was such a balm to me then — it was the only thing that could penetrate my mental fog in any meaningful way and put me in touch with human sense, with feeling.

Understand, then, that my initial connection to the music had much to do with a personal sense of vagueness and uncertainty. The further fact that the music itself is murky and indeterminate, evocative of dream-states and half-understood turns of phrase — this only refracts the picture into a hall of mirrors. Was I unconsciously drawn to the music for that reason? Was there something in the spirit of the times that brought on these feelings in artists and audiences alike? All I can say for certain is that, there is something magical and breathlessly rare to me about the music R.E.M. made in the mid-’80s.

As the dark bucolic rumble of “Harborcoat” rolled majestically from my stereo speakers tonight, there was no doubting that feeling. There are textures and moods to this music that are not without precedent yet which are somehow utterly unique and impossible to reproduce. That, I think, was the point all along — to create sounds and evoke feelings somewhere on the edge of consciousness, rich and poignant and somehow in between the places that register cleanly. This music was an attempt to uncover hidden and unexplored space, to strike tones somehow ineffable, mercurial, defying analysis or explication.

To this day there are moments on this record that announce themselves unassumingly but which lock immediately into deep furrows of memory, of sound as sculpture, of psychic landscape. I think especially of the repetitive and almost Bernard Herrmann-esque pounding of one haunting piano chord over the end of “South Central Rain,” and the ambient harmonic roll of the chiming riff to “Seven Chinese Brothers” (later inverted for “Green Grow the Rushes”). Most of all I think of the shimmering cascade of raindrop-like arpeggiated notes played over the beginning of “Pretty Persuasion,” and the barreling, hot guitar chords toward the end. And atop it all the plaintive, resonant moan of Michael Stipe’s voice, that voice whose effect my friend Ken once captured perfectly when he told me that it had become so familiar it was like hearing the voice of the brother that he — that we — had never had.

Sometimes a nearly anemic moan, sometimes a keening wail of despair, sometimes reedy and brittle, there is truly an indescribable quality to Stipe’s singing. There is something deeply Southern, gothic, and mythical about his voice. A feeling of unspeakable loss or amnesia is never far away when he sings; some sense of the long road and its litany of disconnected images washes forth. The things he sings about have stories of their own to tell; they want to expand, but never get the chance. It is that mesmerizing quality of his voice that threads the entire tapestry together.

This is not at all to discount the other members’ contributions. With his astounding versatility and steely, driving precision, Bill Berry was one of the most underrated drummers of the ’80s, while Mike Mills is one of rock’s great melodic bassists and his yearning, sometimes baroque harmonies provided a perfect counterpoint to Stipe’s vocals. Peter Buck made their music most immediately distinctive and recognizable with his bell-like playing, but somehow it was Stipe who captured and distilled the essence of R.E.M., who focused all of the other elements into something like a new language.

I am loathe to go in so blithely for the myth of the charismatic, unifying frontman, which is not exactly what Stipe is anyway — but in the case of R.E.M. there does seem to be some alchemy at work in Michael Stipe’s performances. Whatever it is the band as a whole was driving at, it found its crystallization, its truest expression with the addition of his voice. It was that hushed, melancholic instrument and the fractured yet endlessly evocative strains of image it poured forth that painted the backdrop for the other players to act against, an interesting inversion of the usual band arrangement that also served to distinguish them from most of their peers.

This subtle redefinition of the band dynamic is also a large part of R.E.M.’s legacy. It was a subversion of the notion that the singer should be the center of attention, the ringleader of the rock circus. It is difficult to think of other influential acts in rock music wherein the singer’s role was not to draw the audience’s attention to himself, or to articulate some kind of clear message, but rather to mystify and obfuscate. This approach has the effect of throwing the audience’s attention more fully on the music as a communal, collaborative creation, a democratic process. When the lyrics are not immediately penetrable, the voice becomes less demagogic and takes on the quality of another instrument. We read it in context as another element of the music, more deeply integrated with the other instruments than it would otherwise be.

What we are left with, then, as ways of approaching the music, are nonlinear, nonrational modes of appreciation. We are thrown back from our customary methods of entering a song and must hear the music in terms of mood and suggestion, texture and energy. We must become detectives of the gesture that is felt rather than clearly observed — we have to, in a sense, “see” these songs out of the corners of our eyes rather than head-on. In order to go where these songs take us, we must trust them implicitly and surrender to them.

It is probably not by chance that the band took its name from the scientific term for the facial tics that indicate a person has reached the level of sleep in which dreams occur, and if it is, then it is poetically apt chance, since their songs deal in the ambiguous, never-quite-resolved speech of dream images, which — to borrow from Odilon Redon’s explanation of his own art — “speak to those who yield, quietly and without the assistance of sterile explanations, to the secret and mysterious laws of the sensibility of the heart.”

Toward an appreciation of R.E.M. on their own terms, then, I offer the lyrics (as far as I know) to “Harborcoat,” a heady brew, indeed:

They crowded up to Lenin with their noses worn off
A handshake is worthy if it’s all that you’ve got
Metal shoes on wood push through our back
There’s a splinter in your eye and it reads “react”
They shifted the statues for harboring ghosts
Reddened their necks, collared their clothes
Then we danced the dance till the menace got out
She gathered the corners and called it her gown
Please find my Harborcoat, can’t go outside without it
Find my Harborcoat, can’t go outside without it