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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Song of the Week: R.E.M. - (Don't Go Back to) Rockville [Reckoning] 1984

Do you remember when you were first introduced to R.E.M.? I grew up in the midwest in the '80s with no access to music beyond Top 40 radio, so my first recollection of R.E.M. was the "alternative" band with downright weird (I mean purposely odd) songs like It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), Stand, and a couple of years later, Losing My Religion (Wikipedia: The phrase "losing my religion" is an expression from the southern region of the United States that means losing one's temper or civility, or "being at the end of one's rope."). You've heard of art for art's sake; well R.E.M. just seemed like weird for weird's sake. To a midwestern kid with not much in the way of older brother world wisdom, R.E.M.'s fabulosity was something I just didn't understand . . . nor did I want to.

Fast-forward 20 years and R.E.M. may be my second favorite American band of all-time, though I should disclose that I've never been much of a "band" fan; my favorites have always been the great soloists and balladeers. But R.E.M. is a legitimately great band with an unique career path. They didn't really break through nationally until Document was released in 1987, and it seems even more incongruous in hindsight that their first hit was a somewhat unR.E.M.-like The One I Love. From there it's been a string of hits ranging from the alternative, to the patently political, to the clever, and even slave to the pop scene.

Ultimately, though, R.E.M.'s legacy is the band that began the alternative rock movement, or, as All Music Guide claims, "R.E.M. mark the point when post-punk turned into alternative rock." That makes sense, right? I don't remember alternative rock before R.E.M. But here's the more relevant question:

Do you remember R.E.M. before alternative rock?

Of course not. Not unless you were growing up in northwest Georgia, close to R.E.M.'s Athens roots. OK, maybe if you were listening to the campus rock circuit back in 1983-84, then you may remember their more southern rock/country inspired style from the group's early formation at UGA. The rest of us, however, had to "discover" R.E.M.'s pre-alternative sound later in life after we were all too familiar with their entire alternative rock collection.

There are quite a few gems from the '83 Murmur and '84 Reckoning albums, but the one I've grown to love most is bassist Michael Mills' plea (Don't Go Back to) Rockville from 1984. The song was written by Mills to his then girlfriend, pleading with her not to return to her hometown of Rockville, Maryland. It was originally performed in more of a punk/thrash style, but fortunately it was recorded as a single in its more country tinged arrangement as a joke aimed at the band's manager. Minor disaster averted.

What I hear in the song is more than just a plea to a girlfriend. The implication is that it's easy to go back home where everything is comfortable and falling into the old routine becomes inevitable. Don't go back to your old friends, your high school sweetheart, start walking in your parents' footsteps, take a job in your father's factory, and close yourself off to new and interesting possibilities. Life changes on a dime, and we have to change with it.

Or maybe I'm just dead wrong. Maybe it was an entirely selfish sentiment from the writer, wanting to keep his girlfriend away from her rooted desire to return home simply because he wanted to keep her with him.

How do you keep the one you love? Box of chocolates, dozen roses, write her a song, build her a cake or something? No, according to the riddle, you don't keep her. Love is selfless, non-possessive. If you truly love someone, then you have no desire to possess them. You don't keep them ("If you love something, let it go..."). But how many of us actually believe that hippie B.S.? Of course you want to keep the one you love . . . it's only natural. So don't go back to Rockville. . .


mike watson said...

a big how-do to wessle-mania & all the rest of y'all==
as a southern-rock and country soaked high school kid in 1983 i was turned onto Stipe's gang from a friends brother who went to UGA (univ. of Georgia--Go DAWGS!)--my recollection of seeing them around that time on letterman was confirmed by a quik wiki-look--i didn't remember the song--accdng. to the article it was "south central rain (sorry)" fom reckoning as well--rockville has always been my favorite REM offering and always will be--the line "you'll wind up in some factory that's full-time filth with nowhere else to go" always made me think of a young man's fate in this town if you didn't go off to school and get ya some over-priced, overrated book-learnin'--not quite on mills topic, but it related to me....
perhaps my favorite part of the song is not a line, but an instrument's sound--whatever that little uke-ish, plinky strum that's going on-- a little mandolin or something ??-i don't know what it is--perhaps one of you learned folks can help--

in closing, i'll leave you with perhaps my #2 from them boys--call me crazy, but it's 2001's 'Radio Song" -- back up provided by KRS-One--i'm not sure why, but i love it--perhaps b/c i hear as a blast vs. soul-sucking, coporate-radio pap that fouls the airwaves--
"...The world is collapsing
Around our ears
I turned up the radio
But I can’t hear it....
...That stuff is driving me crazy
DJs communicate to the masses
Sex and violent classes
Now our children grow up prisoners
All their lives radio listeners..."

y'all come back & see us now, ya hear !?!

mike watson said...

oh yeah--almost forgot--in the earlier vein of our covers converstations--check out 10,000 maniacs cover of rockville & decide for yurself...

Chris Wesseling said...

Coach Watson: the keeper of the flame. Nice sentiments.

I checked out the 10,000 Maniacs version, and my take is that it doesn't hold a candle to the original. I'm sticking with the boys from Athens.

I'm with you on the best line: "You'll wind up in some factory that's full-time filth with nowhere else to go. . ."

I'm assuming your plinky strum is the mandolin. Doesn't most of their 80s work use the mandolin (I have no idea if they still use it)? I seem to remember "Losing My Religion" with like a 30 second solo mandolin outro.

How does KRS-One get hooked up with REM? Did they meet at Initials Anonymous?

Better question: why is KRS-One featured in an aberrant amount of Trivial Pursuit questions? He's like the Ben & Jerry's ice cream of rappers.

Chris Wesseling said...

oh, and what are those marty robbins must-haves again (besides el paso, of course)?