October 10, 2017 § Leave a comment
Automatic for the People came out 25 years ago this week, and as fond reflections pour across the Internet (see Billboard, Newsweek, Salon, Mike Mills at Stereogum, and Bryan Wawzenek’s thoughtful and layered reading at Diffuser), I find myself in the complicated position of feeling nostalgia for a record that was already swimming in nostalgia.
Automatic for the People came out when I was 17 years old, between two hospitalizations during what was a very fucked-up year, more fucked up than teen years usually turn out to be. My grandmother died that January, the day of Bill Clinton’s inauguration. As much as I was going to miss my grandmother, I would really come to miss her house. I can still smell the living room carpet, see the colored-glass spice jars set out as decoration in the window above the sink, hear the wet sound of the screen door pulled open.
Automatic gets thought of as R.E.M.’s album of mourning, partly because of its black-gray album art, partly because of the immediate connotations brought up by “Try Not to Breathe” (“I will hold my head still with my hands at my knees”) and “Everybody Hurts,” partly because of the dirgy string arrangements on the early singles, “Drive” and “Man on the Moon.” I don’t think it’s coincidental that it’s the last album in the R.E.M. catalogue that makes any real allusion to the community in the band’s hometown of Athens, Georgia, that allusion being the title, which was a service slogan of a beloved restaurant in town (now closed) called Weaver D’s Fine Foods. We had gotten to know Athens, and its characters and structures, very well during much of the band’s residency with I.R.S. Records—between Wendell Gee offering advice to the young, Peewee dishing out pearls of wisdom in back of Oddfellows Local 151, or Mr. Mekis and his split personality living in a divided house (in “Life and How to Live It”). Automatic is, in so many ways, an album about growing up and leaving home.
At night I would put the disc in my Discman and walk out in a black hoodie and black jeans and lean against a tree at the end of my street, watching the traffic, in what probably came across as an unsubtle cry for help, though no police car ever came by to shine a light. I would lean against the tree and listen to men in their thirties sing about teenage independence (“Hey kids, where are you / Nobody tells you what to do”), then allusions to the music of my parents’ generation: an opener with the lyric “rock around the clock”; a poppy third track (“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”) that cites Dr. Seuss while paying homage to The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonite”; and a tenth track that mentions Elvis idolatry amidst the name-dropping of forgotten celebrities (Montgomery Clift, Andy Kaufman, Fred Blassie) and that feels like the kind of parental insistence of how things used to be that generates an eyeroll. Oh, the way Glenn Miller played.
The band knew that, perhaps for the first time, the majority of its audience was MTV-driven and younger than they were. So the songs are tinged with brotherly advice. They arrived at a time when I was trying to figure out if my irritableness and ennui was a sign of mental imbalance (“Maybe you’re crazy in the head”) now that I had made friends on Lithium regimens, when I waiting to see if my father would survive his heart transplant (“readying to bury your father and your mother”), when I was registered to vote and starting to pay attention to the news. I was learning to manage a checkbook. “Ollie, ollie, in come free” sounded to me like “income free.” Nothing’s free, so fuck me.
Even things like pay telephones, mentioned in “Sidewinder” (‘scratches all around the coin slot”) have since fallen by the wayside, and the idea of cutting keys to give out to (and subsequently demand back from) lovers somehow feels like generational hardware. Do kids go skinny-dipping anymore? Do they hitchhike (“pick up here and chase the ride” / “none of this is going my way”)? It’s so riskless and formal now that we have an app for that.
“These things, they go away / replaced by everyday.” Packing up my grandmother’s house. Pocketing my grandfather’s Swiss army knife for myself. Ironically, one seemingly dated theme from Automatic for the People that has come back into the fold: conspiracy theories. Michael Stipe practically foretells fake news (“nonsense has a welcome ring”), and naturally, if you believe they put a man on the moon you’ll believe that the earth is round, that the adults in your life who give you this cracked advice know what they are doing.