On the way to work, I thought I’d punch up the New England sportstalk superstation, in hopes of hearing about last night’s Red Sox victory over the Yankees. Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright put in a fantastic complete game effort, David Ortiz contributed two homers, plus there was tonight’s matchup of Clay Buchholz vs Sonny Gray to discuss with the Oakland Athletics coming to town. Instead, they were hopelessly obsessed with an umpire’s strike zone from two nights ago, but that being Friday night and this being Monday morning, this was their first opportunity to talk about this old news. Ah well, at least they weren’t talking football, as they are wont to do (football gets the most ears for longer, you see.)
I opted to punch up R.E.M.’s debut album “Murmur” instead. It’s truly one of my favorite albums of the 1980s, and it really sounds good to me on vibrant spring days for some reason. Perhaps it’s that warm jangly guitar blossoming out of the speakers, or the ever–so-slight psychedelic mist that shrouds the album. (I counted today as a “vibrant spring day” simply because the sun was out, though most of Southern Maine didn’t surpass the mid-50s. We’ll take anything at this point, I guess. )
So many of my favorite R.E.M. songs reside on this album: “Moral Kiosk,” “Talk About the Passion” and “Pilgramage” are always go-tos. One track, however, that always gets my blood flowing, is “Catapult.”
A quick primer on R.E.M. and I: You couldn’t escape R.E.M. in the 1990s. Neither could I. For me, they were the American U2 in terms of their bigness. I never disliked R.E.M., I just didn’t really appreciate them at the time. When “Monster” came out, I was a senior in high school, and “What’s the Frequency Kenneth” was all over the radio that fall. It was the first R.E.M. song that made me really want to crank the radio loud. That said, not much of their 80s material really grabbed me, though I kinda liked “Can’t Get There From Here” since I first heard it. Shortly before graduation, my family decided to go see R.E.M. at Great Woods in Mansfield, Massachusetts. Looking back, I wish I remembered more about the show, though I do remember Michael Stipe openly admitting to needing a stapled lyric sheet (which he held up for all to see), and Mike Mills wearing a distractingly glittery jacket. Little did I realize how significant this tour would be, as it would be the last featuring the original four, as Bill Berry would depart the group not long after.
Once in college, and once I finally started getting into bands like The Byrds and Velvet Underground, I finally started appreciating the artistry of R.E.M. I finally purchased “Murmur” in my early twenties, gave it a few listens, kinda liked it, and put it away for another year or so.
The first time I truly “heard” the album was on a crazy one-day ski trip I took for my ski reporting job in 2001. Having never skied the Berkshires before, I managed to visit Catamount, Butternut, Jiminy Peak and Berkshire East all in one day, something I’d never dare pull off in one day again. I still remember that I took two albums with me for the drive down from Lebanon, New Hampshire: “Stephen Stills and Manassas” and “Murmur.” It happened to be an abnormally warm January day, warm enough that I could get away with rolling the windows down.
For some reason, “Murmur” played loud on a 40-something day in January finally slapped me upside the head with its greatness. To add to the effect, I had just skied a surprisingly steep trail called “Catapult” for the first time at Catamount, a smallish but really cool ski area on the Massachusetts-New York border. As I was driving up Route 7 in Berkshire County, the song of the same title caught my ear and I never had really noticed the track before, hence the serendipitous click in my brain. Ever since, this tense, rumbling number has been one of my favorite R.E.M. tracks, though for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what the song’s about.
I try to make it to Catamount every couple of years or so in my ski travels, and you bet R.E.M.’s “Catapult” plays in my head on just about any Catamount trail where I get a good rhythm going.