In 1991, this is how I got an early to listen to something from R.E.M.’s new album: My friend Ed had a friend Joe who lived in Lansing, which, as a college town, was the place that record companies would release stuff early to see how it did. So they played “Losing My Religion” on the radio in Lansing before they did anywhere else, and Joe recorded the song off the radio onto a cassette tape. Then he made a copy of that cassette tape, which Ed received when he drove to Lansing to see Joe. Then Ed came back to Grand Rapids and went to the coffee shop at Calvin College, where he plopped down a Sony Walkman that actually had a tiny speaker on it in the middle of the table. And so we who were lucky enough to be present for it gathered around to listen to the song, which we repeated, transfixed, at least five times in a row.
I remember that around this time, R.E.M. did an interview where Michael Stipe was asked just how long they thought this band of theirs would stay together. He answered “not forever,” but Peter Buck interjected that he thought it would be cool if they lasted until the year 2000 so they could do a big new millenium concert. And then break up maybe. I remember that seeming an impossibly long way away.
Now, in 2011, I heard about the latest R.E.M. pre-release from my friend Jonathan thanks to his Facebook update. (He had happened by that 1991 listening party and was delighted at his good fortune, as I recall.) Though I missed the live stream on NPR yesterday, they are still streaming it all day today, so I’m listening to it right now on the speakers in my living room which are wirelessly connected to my computer in the basement. When I leave home in a few minutes I’ll be able to listen to it again by hooking up my phone to my car stereo and streaming from the same website while driving down the street.
In 1991, listening to that song over and over on the tinny Walkman, I felt like it was changing my life each time I heard it. And I still know every twist and turn of every track on that album like the back of my hand. This new one is good, better than anything they’ve done in a while, but even if Collapse Into Now objectively blows Out of Time out of the water, there’s no way it could ever make the same impression on me now that that one did back then.
The new ways to get it, and to hear it, are super-duper cool and amazing. 1991-me would be thrilled to learn that someday such thing would be possible. But 2011-me is thinking he’d trade away all that tech for the ability to feel about an album the way he felt in 1991.