If you live long enough, everything starts to remind you of something that happened to you earlier in your life. Maybe that is the source of the regular (and unsolicited) wisdom that is shared with younger people. Two things happened in the past week that reminded me of my youth, more exactly of my high school self.
The two things were the epic collapse of my Red Sox and also the announced retirement of R.E.M. There was a time in my life in which these were two of the most important things to me. In the summer and fall of 1986, both the Red Sox and R.E.M. were unusually important to me.
In the summer of 1986 I had just completed my junior year in high school. I was seventeen and pretty certain that I knew exactly how things were going to go for me. Actually, I didn’t have any idea but I was naively confident and just knew that my intelligence would allow me to succeed on my terms. (I wonder how my seventeen year old self would react to what my forty-two year old self would tell him about his future. The living in Europe part would be pretty cool, no doubt.) Anyway, the Red Sox were in the middle of a magical season, their first exciting season since the heartbreak of 1978. Clemens fanned 20 in a game in April and the irrational confidence in New England about our team was higher than usual. In the backs of our minds we all knew that the Sox would eventually let us down, but that didn’t stop us from pretending that year would be different.
In the previous summer, I’d purchased an album called “Fables of the Reconstruction” (or maybe “Reconstruction of the Fables”) by this band called R.E.M. I’d gotten the urge to buy the album after reading a review in Rolling Stone. (That’s how long ago this was.) I thought I’d never heard of R.E.M. although I figured out later that somehow I had seen them perform “So. Central Rain” on Letterman. I still can’t figure out how that was possible. Anyway, “Fables” is probably R.E.M.’s least accessible album from their classic period. (This runs from their LP debut “Murmur” in 1983 through “Automatic for the People” in 1992. Those nine years seem like twenty-nine in my memories.) About “Fables”, I can’t deny that I was disappointed. At the time, I was very into Springsteen and Mellencamp and other classic rockers. With R.E.M., I had no idea what the lead singer was saying, there were no lyrics included with the album (and no internet to look them up on) and the music didn’t fit comfortably into any box that I knew.
Given that there are certain qualities I had at 17 that I still possess, I pretended to be into R.E.M. and asked one of my good friends if he’d ever heard of them. My relationship with this friend was very odd. Decades before “frenemy” was invented, I had that type of relationship with this guy. He was one of my best friends and I was hyper-competitive with him about stupid crap. I was also jealous of him. Naturally, he had been aware of R.E.M. for years, since their EP. (I hated this.) Still, I went on like I was an R.E.M. fan, may have purchased “Reckoning” and “Murmur” and behaved like I was the type of cool person who like bands that weren’t really popular. (Meanwhile, another friend of ours was into stuff like The Replacements and Husker Du. What a jerk I was.)
Being a Red Sox fan in New England is nothing like being an R.E.M. fan pre-“The One I Love”. In my youth, being a Red Sox fan was the easiest thing to become, although it was often difficult to persevere with. It was expected that you cared how the team performed and that you were crushed when the team inevitably failed. It was a badge of honor, like the way New Yorkers feel about the general hassles of that city. You lived and died with the Red Sox and it meant something, something important, about you, about your character and about what it means to be from New England. I haven’t lived in New England in almost twenty years but judging by what I see when I go back, it is probably still the same way.
The Red Sox season officially became special early on, April 29 to be exact, when Roger Clemens struck out 20 Seattle Mariners. In my lifetime to that point, the Red Sox had never had a dominant power pitcher like that. Since the stomach punch of 1978, the Red Sox hadn’t finished closer than 2.5 games out of first, and that was in the strike-shortened season of 1981. In the three years leading up to 1986, the team had finished 20, 18 and 18.5 games out of first. After the Red Sox won on April 29, their record was 10-8. By July 26, the club was 58-38 and we all believed.
I mention July 26 because that is the day that R.E.M.’s fourth album was released, “Lifes Rich Pageant”. Whereas “Fables” had challenged and ultimately discouraged me, “Pageant” was rewarding. From the opening of “Begin the Begin” through the goofy cover of “Superman”, the album delivered. (Coincidence that it was produced by Don Gehman who also produced four classic Mellencamp albums?) The album was accessible, the lyrics were intelligible and they rewarded paying attention. (“I can’t even rhyme”, “It’s gonna fall”, “I believe my humor’s wearing thin”.) Suddenly more classmates turned on to R.E.M. I may have gotten there after my friend but I got there before a bunch of others. When “The One I Love” hit in the fall of 1987, I was ready to recommend “Cuyahoga” and “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” and “Pilgrimage” to the newcomers.
I also had my first real girlfriend that summer. I bored her with various tracks from Springsteen’s live box set and repeated attempts to compromise her virginity. (About five years later a Springsteen song, “If I Fall Behind”, became the song for her and her then boyfriend. It didn’t even feature the E Street Band! I think that guy also got her virginity.) To that point, it was the best summer of my life.
Everyone who was a baseball fan in the 80s or knows recent baseball history or was a fan of “Seinfeld” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” knows how the Red Sox season turned out. I was watching Game Six in a hotel bar, courtesy of my girlfriend’s mother who worked there. (We were drinking soft drinks.) It got late and we had to get home. We listened to the game on the way back to my place (yes, she was driving) and the Red Sox had the lead going into the last half of the ninth. “Come on in so we can watch the Red Sox win the World Series”, I said. I refuse to take responsibility for jinxing the team as I’m pretty sure I was in good company in feeling confident.
Eighteen years later I was a married thirty-five year old resident of Brooklyn and I finally did see the Red Sox win the World Series. (My ex-girlfriend was married and raising two kids in New Jersey. Not with the jerk from before or with the guy who took her maidenhead.) I’d lost touch with R.E.M. after “Monster” although apparently they released an album that October called “Around the Sun”. Allmusic gives “Around the Sun” two stars making it the lowest rated album for R.E.M. (They also give “Out of Time” two and a half stars, the same as “Monster”. Maybe I can’t take their word for it.) In 2007 the Red Sox did it again. R.E.M. released a live album. I didn’t know about the R.E.M. album until I looked it up on allmusic.
Ultimately sports teams and bands aren’t really like each other. Sports teams last forever and often the only thing that this year’s team has in common with the team from your childhood is the same cap. Bands are finite and eventually breakup or tour in anonymity. But in the movies of our lives that we produce and star in, sometimes a band is playing on the soundtrack of the montage of your sports memories. Losing the 1986 World Series was devastating. It felt like the end of the world. A year later R.E.M. came out “It’s the End of World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. This year R.E.M. calls it quits after “Collapse into Now” and the Red Sox just collapse. These connections are arbitrary but that’s how memory works.
For the Red Sox, there’s always next year. R.E.M., on the other hand, has gone the way of trying to get to second base, of getting an older brother to buy beer, of believing in an infinite future. R.E.M. has gone the way of my youth.