One day in the summer of '86 I got on my bicycle, rode to the record store and bought an album. If you're under 30, the only word you probably caught there was "bicycle", but hang with me a sec.
The album was R.E.M.'s "Lifes Rich Pageant," which is being reissued today for its 25th anniversary. Sadly, I've reached the age where I mark my advancing years by the anniversary on reissues of albums I loved in high school.
Back then an album was a big purchase. Any record I bought was vetted like a potential vice presidential candidate. They had all been hailed by critics as "classics" or at the very least "must buys" -- "Darkness on the Edge of Town", "The River", "Who's Next", "Blood on the Tracks." "Lifes", however, was the first one I bought without having heard a song on it yet. My first "roll the dice" music purchase. Such was my faith in R.E.M. Growing cocky, within a few years I would be routinely buying albums on a whim. (By the way, if you're interested in a cheap copy of "Pocket Full of Kryptonite", email me.)
Full disclosure -- as much as I love R.E.M., frankly I'm not a huge Michael Stipe guy. Most bands have some singer/guitarist tension. R.E.M.'s seems to be Peter Buck's bar-band sensibility vs. the arty pretension of Stipe. Sometimes seeing R.E.M. live gives you the feeling you're watching an awesome rock trio that because of a scheduling snafu have to share the stage with an odd performance artist... who happens to have a great voice.
Well, the beauty of "Lifes Rich Pageant" is it's the album where Stipe dials back on the crazy and decides to embrace the band. His singing, which on previous albums had been as murky as the Cuyahoga River was now as clear as, well, I'm sure there has to be an unpolluted river somewhere. Maybe that Montana one where Brad Pitt did the fly-fishing? This album was pure rock, pure America. From the buffalo on the cover to the Myles Standish shout-out. It was even recorded in the Indiana heartland. Hell, they made it in John Mellencamp's studio.
The "Rolling Stone" review for "Lifes" bemoaned the fact that the closing song on each side ("Underneath the Bunker" and "Superman") was a throwaway that marred an otherwise perfect album. First off, "Superman" is awesome. An obscure song by The Clique that I never would have heard if it weren't for this cover. R.E.M. wasn't just a band; they were also the cool friends giving you a great song to check out.
I'll concede "Bunker" is silly. To me the song feels like a pitcher who has a perfect game going inexplicably deciding to issue an intentional walk. But they left it on because they weren't trying to make a perfect album. R.E.M. had always been great, but now they were fun.
"I Believe" sounded like a Springsteen anthem. Bill Berry's thundering drums on "These Days" erased the "R.E.M.'s for wussies" charge you'd hear from some of your, uhh, less- progressive friends. Buck went so far as to call the album "our Bryan Adams record." And I don't think he meant it as a bad thing. It was as if R.E.M., having spent their first three albums telling kids it's okay to be left-of-center, were using "Lifes Rich Pageant" to let us kids know that it's okay to still be a little mainstream as well.
This was the album that married my upbringing in a Springsteen-obsessed house with the new stuff my generation was alt-ing to. This was the band that marked the transition when you go from listening alone in your room to sharing music with your friends. When you and your buddies find something to talk about besides sports.
I don't recall a single detail about my high school graduation (or the party that night, STAY GOLD CLASS OF '87!!!!), but I will never forget the moment I got home from the record store, put the needle down and heard the first few notes of "Begin the Begin." When I listen to it now, I am sent back decades to that stereo, that room. With apologies to all you Trekkies and Marty McFly fanboys, musical moments like that remain the closest our civilization has ever gotten to time travel. Time travel so powerful it can even take you back -- gulp -- 25 years.
Tom Ruprecht is a humor writer. You can follow him on Twitter @truprecht.