Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gardening At Night: Another Record Store Memory

I'm a bit of an Anglophile when it comes to music and I blame my parents for that.

My biological father had an amazing record collection when I was a kid but it should be noted that the collection consisted entirely of doo wop, soul, rhythm-and-blues, and blues records; I think the only white artists he listened to were Frankie Valli and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap (!).

So, yeah, I had a great education as a little kid, and I knew more about The Drifters than any white 8-year-old should know in 1975 but all the other stuff that I now enjoy I had to discover on my own.

My mom had similar tastes, and was not hostile to the current disco hits of the 1970s, but she, like my father, didn't really like The Beatles; she owned one Beatles single, "Help!", from her time working at WPCG (a D.C. Top 40 radio station) in the mid-1960s and that was only because of the magnificent flip-side of "I'm Down".

So, by the time I was 16, I was sick of most American music after having so much of it played in multiple households during my youth. It was time for me to explore all of the British acts that I saw on TV in clips as a little kid: The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, and so on.

However, even in the midst of all that English stuff, it was impossible to ignore the magnificence of current American band, R.E.M..

Admittedly, I got into them in 1984 after reading about them in Trouser Press and Rolling Stone and seeing them perform "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" on some cheesy TV show.

R.E.M. "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)"

I had been listening to The Byrds that summer but not many other American bands so I recognized that chime in Peter Buck's guitar line but the vocals, their delivery, and the whole presentation was quite a bit different from the Who and U2 anthems I had been playing on my boombox all spring.

For a kid who would sit down and transcribe Elvis Costello lyrics, this sort of thing was entirely foreign: "What was he saying? What was he singing?" And why was it as powerful as any witty Difford-and-Tilbrook line?

Apart from X and Devo, I had pretty much ignored most American bands at the time and now felt myself obsessing over R.E.M. for a summer.

The first thing I purchased was current Top 40 album, Reckoning, and then I got the year-old Murmur and recognized "Radio Free Europe" from local alternative station WHFS.

(It should be noted that this was the summer of 1984 when WHFS still mattered and driving up to the station in Annapolis for handfuls of bumper stickers -- to spread the gospel of alternative rock [?] -- was a rite of passage. Here's a bit of background on the once-proud station. And here's a link to some downloads from the station circa 1982 and 1983 [Thanks Satch!])

Sometime that fall, I special-ordered from a local Sam Goody mall record store, the band's first release on cassette (I was done with vinyl even in 1984): Chronic Town.

Side one, with opener "Wolves, Lower" (love the e.e. cummings-esque unnecessary comma!) and closer "Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)" was the preferred side.

But the jewel of the E.P. was "Gardening at Night" with its opening Byrdsian guitar riff prefiguring just about every C-86 British band I would be into a mere 3 years later.

(I think my love of the first Aztec Camera album, received the Christmas before, had primed me for the sort of sound I was going to hear on these early R.E.M. releases.)

Additionally, I think you could probably trace a direct line from that guitar riff to Johnny Marr's work in The Smiths but I digress.

I moved on from R.E.M. to other Southern rock bands that fall, namely Let's Active (I got Cypress on cassette that Christmas) and The Swimming Pool Q's -- who don't even warrant a Wikipedia page!?! -- as the Q's were the opening act for Lou Reed in the fall of 1984 at my first real rock concert that didn't involve my father and his kind of music.

Flash-forward 20+ years and imagine my shock when the band kicked into the song during their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony performance!

R.E.M. "Gardening at Night" 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

The good news is that drummer Bill Berry has reunited with some members of the band after retiring for health reasons a few years ago.

I never saw R.E.M. live even though I think I had free tickets to see them in 1989 during their Green tour thanks to my Record Co-Op job but I didn't go because I got sick of the band after hearing "Stand" so many times at work and on the radio (this was before it was used as the theme song to the genius TV show, Get A Life).

And as soon as 1986, I was obsessing over other American bands (The Replacements, Husker Du, and Lone Justice), so R.E.M. seemed less mysterious with each subsequent release.

Still, I can't hear those first few seconds of "Gardening at Night" without thinking of the pleasure of waiting for my Chronic Town tape to arrive at the store.