Adrian Slatcher writes poetry, fiction and criticism, and lives in Manchester.
It’s 25 years since R.E.M.’s breakthrough bestseller “Out of Time”. There’s a new boxset coming out, and even interviews with the band members about this – the album that took them into everyone’s living room.
R.E.M. were never a favourite growing up, but friends were mad about them, and as I’ve got older I’ve appreciated them much more – I guess at the time I was listening to more extreme stuff, and now they appear very much at least from “Murmur” through to “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” to be a classic American rock band and weirder than I perhaps appreciated at the time. That said, I always loved their “Reckoning” album and certain singles along the way.
Last year I wrote a story about them, or rather about growing up at the same time as they were around, and as it’s not found a home, I thought I’d publish it on this blog. I hope you enjoy
I didn’t think Colin knew me. I knew him, of course, or rather, I’d seen him around, either sat with Lucy, his beautiful girlfriend; or other times the centre of a group of guys talking or smoking, always the centre of attention.
He caught me in the corridor between sessions. “Aidan?”
“Yeah. Yes. Ye…es?”
Surprised, affirmative, questioning.
“Just I’m going to Rock City if you want to tag along?”
“Shit. Yeah. Didn’t know you liked them.”
“You and me the only ones who do, mate. Class.”
I met him at the bus stop and we sat at the back of the bus. He’d got a Sony Professional, and he kept fast forwarding between tracks.
In the pub he mostly just talked about the band. He’d been into them since “Chronic Town.” He’d tracked it down on import and then when the first album came out he’d been dying to see them but this, with their second album, “Reckoning”, was the first time that R.E.M. had done a proper tour of England.
“I can’t believe they’re not massive,” I said.
“They will be, Aidan, let’s just hope it’s not for a while. Keep ‘em to ourselves?”
Just before we went in to the venue he popped to the toilet and came back patting his crotch.
“You’d never know,” he said.
“The Sony,” he said. “Now put these down your socks for us be a good mate,” and he handed me two loose chrome tapes and I did as he instructed pulling the tight jeans down over them.
Inside, I acted as his gopher, getting him drinks, handing him a new tape or batteries as he recorded the show, but mostly I was able to get down the front to see Michael Stipe, drenched in sweat, and pulling the audience into a frenzy whilst Peter Buck weaved a melodic guitar backing.
That weekend I’d accompany Colin to the record fair in the Freemason’s Hall, along with Lucy, and at the end of the day he’d give me twenty quid for my trouble, a small amount compared with what he’d make off his table top of bootleg tapes. I didn’t care. For the first time I felt like I’d got a real friend and when he asked if I’d come and see them again later on the tour, I was happy enough to ditch school, tell a white lie to my parents about attending a university open day, and accompany him to Manchester or Liverpool or Leeds.
That tour was something special. With two albums under their belt (“Three!” I can still hear Colin’s interruption, never forgetting that gateway drug import record “Chronic Town” from which they played “Gardening at Night” most dates of the tour), they were already turning into a stunning live act. You have to remember these were the days when guitar bands had gone out of fashion, or the only ones who played were metallers. But now the UK had the Smiths, and America had R.E.M., and the American band had got to me and Colin first.
The One I Love
I never quite know why Colin dropped out of Manchester Poly. I’d been up there with him for gigs and he’d seemed to take to the big city more than me, but I got a phone call one night – someone called me into the kitchen where the communal phone was – and he told me he’d gone back home, that the Town Planning course he was doing wasn’t for him, that he was going to earn some money from the bootlegging and then follow R.E.M. round the world. They were touring Europe and America in the coming year, would I join him?
“Yeah man,” I said, “when I can get away from here, but you know, I need this degree.” He said “sure, sure,” but I don’t think he quite understood. Or rather I didn’t understand him. We talked until his phone card ran out, as usual, talking about favourite songs, him ribbing me for my preference for the Byrds-like pop of “Pretty Persuasion” over his new favourite, a song that hadn’t come out yet, “Oddfellows Local 151.”
That summer I didn’t see so much of him. I heard he’d got a job at the local council, something to do with financial management, but we never talked about work. Of course, he had more money than me, what with selling the tapes as well, but also I was spending a month going round Europe, and so saving for that was my priority. I met Colin just before I went off. He’d grown a beard, put on a few pounds. He’d not mentioned Lucy and when I asked he shrugged and said they weren’t seeing each other anymore. A little later he started seeing a woman called Jane who worked with him, but we never talked about that either.
“They’re only playing a few European dates,” he said, “when will you be in Paris?”
I’d planned Paris as the first stop, but it was so expensive I was just getting an overnight train rather than staying there.
By the end of the night I’d changed my itinerary to meet Colin by the Eiffel Tower to coincide with the R.E.M. gig.
I’d say that Paris gig was the last time we felt R.E.M. were still our band. We waited outside the gig for their arrival and got to take a photograph of Colin with Bill Berry, the drummer who would leave the band a few years later. Five albums into their career they had a genuine hit with “The One I Love” and would shortly leave IRS for Warners.
We sat out in the September rain, after the gig, part of a hotch potch of fans from all over. Ex-pat Americans, a few Brits who’d travelled over, and the first few Spanish and Italian and Dutch fans as well.
Our commemorative tour t-shirts were wringing wet from the gig, and the rain felt refreshing on our faces.
“Me and Jane, we’re getting married,” said Colin, out of the blue.
“Up the duff,” he said.
“It’ll be fine,” he answered, “but this kind of thing, I’ll probably not get let out of the house again.”
“We’ve had a good run.”
“Call me if you hear they are playing, I’ll wangle something. Wherever it is. You know?”
“I know,” I said.
“I’d like to meet her.”
He shook his head, “nah, mate, she’s doesn’t like R.E.M, you’d not get on.”
I wanted to remind him that he was the one who was obsessed, not me, but some of the American guys were calling us to go to a bar and we stood up and followed.
Automatic for the People
Nobody aims to get a job near Milton Keynes but somehow I’d managed it. The whole country was streaming down south by the mid-nineties, as the economy picked up there, whilst the north and Midlands hadn’t even begun to recover from Thatcher.
New R.E.M. albums had chimed with the times. There was the shiny pop of “Green” their first album for a major, followed by the multi-million selling “Out of Time” with its breakout single “Losing My Religion,” then came “Automatic for the People” the album that had really made them the darlings of young middle class couples everywhere. I did get to meet Jane, finally, as Colin brought tickets for the two of them to join me at Milton Keynes Bowl, a vast, unhospitable place a few miles from my house, to where the success of “Automatic for the People” had brought R.E.M.
It was the first time it wasn’t just the two of us. Seems that marrying Colin had given her a crash course in becoming a R.E.M. fan, or more likely that the more mature sound of the new album appealed to a broader spectrum of fans that included her.
I couldn’t fault the performance and the emotional resonance of some of the new material, but the venue was vast, and even as I tried to get nearer the front, swathes of people pulled me back again, until I was part of this tidal wave of bodies, and all I could do was be swept along beside them. We cheered, and sang, and spent most of the time looking at the projected figures on the large screens rather than the tiny people in the far distance on the stage itself
I lost Colin for a while, him and Jane had been dragged backwards through the crowd and yet somehow I managed to find them again as they finally played an old song, “So. Central Rain”. He left his wife on the brow of the Bowl and came tumbling over to me, and for a moment it didn’t matter that there were so many tens of thousands of people there or that R.E.M. were played in every wine bar or clothes shop, it was just as it had always been, the two of us, and the music.
“You’ve given up the taping?” I said.
“Don’t be daft,” and he pointed back towards where Jane stood, pregnant with their second child, and with a microphone held up in the general direction of the massive loudspeakers.
When we heard that Bill Berry had left the band, I’m not sure which of us picked up the phone first. We hardly saw each other these days – a card at Christmas and maybe if I was visiting my family I’d have time to pop in on Colin. He had two girls, who he doted on, but I think there was always a bit of a disappointment that he hadn’t had a boy who he could take to the football and talk music with. I’d see him in their conservatory, surrounded by dolls and games and he’d reach out to me like a drowning man catching sight of a life raft.
We’d shiver in the small concrete outhouse which doubled as a store room for his music.
Cassettes were less popular than they’d used to be, as everyone switched to CD, and the duplicating tape machines which had run so regularly over the years were now all but silent. He would offer me a copy of some gig or other he’d swapped with another collector – some old tour date from Canada or the States – but I’d only a cassette in my car nowadays, and Charlotte, the woman I’d been seeing, preferred Massive Attack.
So I’d probably not spoken to him since the previous Christmas.
“It’s over, they won’t go on without him,” he said, given the news of Bill Berry leaving the band.
“He’s hardly Stipe,” I said, “a band can always get another drummer.”
“He wasn’t just drums, though, was he?” he said, reeling off the list of other instruments Berry had played in the band.
Colin was right. They were never quite the same band again. I’d pick up the new albums, play them once or twice then go back to “Fables of the Reconstruction” or “Murmur”, even “New Adventures in Hifi” the flop album (no hits!) that came out a couple of records after they’d become massive.
It never quite worked out with Charlotte, but the job was doing fine, and I’d go off abroad for weekends, before at some point making the jump from industry to academia, becoming a Labour party councillor around the same time, which was where I met Marie.
Marie called the wooden cupboard at the back of the study my “Colin room.” It included all my old vinyl and cassettes and I would say “I have to keep them for when Colin comes to visit,” every time she suggested clearing it out. He never did come.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
There were other concerts, usually in vast soulless auditoriums somewhere in the Midlands or the North as it was easier for me to drive back than for Colin to come down. Our friendship survived on the reduced rations of R.E.M. concerts and albums, though as the years went on, there were also books, concert DVDs, retrospective features in “Record Collector” or “Mojo.” What once occasioned a phone call would now manifest as an email, or a flurry of texts. I don’t think either of us ever got to grips with social media – wrong generation – but I’d receive an email every now and then with some link to a video we’d never seen that had been uploaded to YouTube.
I’m glad we caught them on that last tour in 2008. I wondered if he’d come, but I got the tickets as I usually did, only to get a phone call saying could I get another for Sam, his eldest daughter.
I met them at Frankie and Benny’s in Manchester town centre and we caught the tram to the Lancashire county cricket ground.
“Is this your first concert?” I asked her.
She listed off a load of boy bands and X-Factor winners that I’d only vaguely heard of.
“The first one that matters,” said Colin, teasing, as she finished.
We’d both changed over the years. He’d put on weight, the Midlands genes kicking in, helped along by his sedentary life. It was hard to recall him as the coolest guy in school, going out with the hottest girl. Jane was pretty and sensible, and Sam was like her mother. I’d lost my hair and rather than bulking up, had found that regular gym sessions kept the fat away, so that I was more gaunt than ever.
“You look a bit like Michael Stipe,” Sam said.
“After a very bad night out, maybe,” Colin chipped in.
“We’ve grown old together with this band.”
“We’re not that old,” said Colin.
“What’s your favourite album?” I asked Sam, expecting her to say “Out of Time” or one of the recent ones.
“Reckoning” she said, “it’s got the nicest songs.”
“Now this one’s got taste,” I said, reminding Colin of our old arguments.
This would be their last tour, the last time we’d see them – after how many years? A quarter of a century and probably nearly as many gigs. There were members of my family I’d seen less times.
I left Colin and his daughter at the tram stop, as I had to catch the train down to London. It was the last time I would see him.
It was Colin’s phone number but it wasn’t Colin’s voice, and I listened as his Uncle Ted told me the bad news, ringing round on behalf of the family. Colin had been away for a few days with work, and become unwell, but had delayed going to hospital. It turned out he had peritonitis, and the delay in treatment had been what killed him. I remember years before him telling me he’d a fear of doctors. He’d died surrounded by them, but by then it was too late.
The funeral took place on a warm Wednesday afternoon. I drove to the crematorium and joined his family – the grieving Jane, the two teenage daughters, and his parents who I hadn’t seen in years. There were a few other familiar faces from school, recognisable, but only just, with the passage of thirty years. The rest of the mourners were unknown to me; colleagues from work, friends of the family.
It seemed wrong that Colin wasn’t there, somehow, though his name was constantly mentioned, and, of course, he was there, only hidden from view in the wooden coffin that was brought in to the front of the crematorium ready for the service. Jane had asked me if I had any photographs and I’d scanned in the picture of him with Bill Berry and sent it to her, and there it was, blown up to A4 size and attached to the coffin.
There was a brief eulogy from the woman priest, who mentioned his love for his family, his conscientious at work and his love of music.
Sam, brave girl, read a brief piece of poetry, and I don’t know how she managed it, for we had to hold back the tears as she spoke. Her sister stood beside her, holding a flower.
There had been some instrumental music as we entered the crematorium, and there were a couple of hymns during the service, then as the coffin slowly disappeared on a conveyor belt out of our site, a song I recognised.
“Everybody Hurts,” the maudlin hit from “Automatic for the People” started playing as the coffin disappeared.
I was taken back to the first time we’d heard the album. We were in different parts of the country by that time, but he’d rung me up as he’d got hold of a copy somehow before I had. “Listen to this,” he said, angling the phone in the direction, and playing “Everybody Hurts”. “It’s shite,” he said, pausing, “and everyone will love it.”
I wanted to stop the service, to tell them they’d got the wrong the song, that Colin had always hated this one, but as the mournful tune played over the Tannoy, it made sense. Of course, he’d not liked it, but it wasn’t meant for him, I realised, it was meant for us, the one’s left behind.
(c) 2016 Adrian Slatcher