This Exit: First time I ever drove a car down the street alone, R.E.M.’s second album, Reckoning, was the soundtrack. It wasn’t the radio airwaves that were broadcasting this primitive, raw, eccentric, and art-concerned brand of rock n’ roll, but a cassette that I slipped into the pocket of my goose-down green army jacket specifically for the occasion. Maybe it’s saying something about my suburban upbringing, but to me it was rebellious music. It’s true that their 1991 mainstream breakthrough “Out Of Time” made me aware of the band and got me hip to R.E.M. in the first place, but by the time the “Losing My Religion” video wasn’t the video that was airing on MTV or VH1 every time the television was turned on I had all six of the albums leading up to it, and was hooked. By that time, the only friend that I knew who knew of R.E.M. before 1991 had abandoned them because they were no longer under the radar, but from my point of view, I had simply never been exposed to any sound quite like what R.E.M. was dishing out, including the songs on “Out Of Time.”
In retrospect, I can summarize that sound as good old American garage rock on acid and with a college degree. At it’s core, R.E.M. reminds me of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and if Buddy Holly were to have survived long enough to do so, I can imagine the trailblazing intellect of the rockabilly-rock-n-roll icon evolving itself into something like “Harborcoat,” the first song on their second album, 1984’s Reckoning. Lyrically, among all American bands as popular, appealing, and universally admired, few boast a catalog of rock songs as vulnerable, puzzling, and downright unique as R.E.M. And who knows where Buddy Holly would have taken his unique vision for rock n’ roll. I doubt that a garage rock n’ roller from a small, conservative Texas town who left on his recordings the sound of serendipitous crickets chirping within the walls of his garage recoding studio and practice space while brandishing black horn-rimmed glasses and producing his own sound when it was entirely unfashionable to do any single one of those things would have looked, wrote the kinds of songs, and made the kind of music that he is now famous for doing for long. I could see Buddy Holly growing up to be Michael Stipe, if you look at it from a certain angle.