By my freshman year of high school, the bullying had ended. I thinned out, earned the grades I needed to be in better classes and had a growing sense of confidence about who I was and where my strengths lie — wit and humor rather than athletics. I was able to walk a thin line of the class clown that teachers actually appreciated and liked.
Still, despite the fact that I had found some semblance of stability in high school, I wanted nothing more than to be someone else — anyone else. I wanted to be anyone but a 15 year-old freshman at the ultra-generic Central York High School of York, Pennsylvania. But mostly, I wanted to be my brother. My brother was older, lived in Paris, had long hair and smoked cigarettes. He was cool in a way that could only be imagined. He listened to R.E.M.
I couldn’t move to Paris or grow my hair long (my hair grew out, not down). So instead, I listened to R.E.M. and smoked cigarettes. For whatever reason, the first album I purchased was “Fables of the Reconstruction” — a mid-catalog sleeper most notable for the classic (by early R.E.M. standards) Driver 8. I liked the album well enough, but I didn’t love it. Then, for my brother’s birthday, I bought him the first compact disc I’d ever purchased — “Murmur” — and dubbed a copy of it for myself on a cassette.
The newness of the technology, combined with the discovery of that music burned that moment in my mind forever. Taking off the cellophane wrapping; the smell of petroleum and plastic coming off the disc; setting up the stereo system to play the DVD and record it on the tape — feeling like I was was some sort of studio engineer — it was all magic. I put on a pair of puffy headphones my Dad used to listen to his classical CDs, laid down on the soft oriental rug of the living room with the lights out and hit play and record simultaneously.
When I heard the opening drums of “Radio Free Europe” followed by Mike Mills’ driving bass line and Micheal Stipe’s staccato irreconcilable lyrics, I was hooked. The track was completely foreign to my understanding of rock music at the time — it signaled that the sun did not rise on Guns ‘n Roses and set on Metallica, the bands that seemed to define Central York High School at the time. Yet, there was something in its simplicity — the idea that this really was just four slightly odd guys playing music together — that made me think, “I can do this.” After hearing the opening guitar riff to “Talk About the Passion,” I decided I needed to play the guitar.
I was barely passable as a guitar player — barely passable. I learned and was competent at playing the basic chords and could serve as your rhythm guitar player as long as you didn’t need me to play any bar chords, which basically meant I could not serve as your rhythm guitar player in any way. But I loved to play and spent hours in the basement playing and learning R.E.M. tunes. I took lessons from a classical guitar player which essentially boiled down to me bringing him R.E.M. cassettes, him listening to the songs, working out the chords of the song and teaching me how to play them. He also taught me the opening riff to “Talk About the Passion,” for which I am eternally grateful.
R.E.M., Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, 10,000 Maniacs — these were the bands that defined my early years of high school. They were still underground and between the cassettes on my Walkman and my guitar I established a solid reputation as an alt. kid. It was a comfortable and authentic fit and led me to my first girlfriend.
Lesley, was an alt. kid too. She loved the bands that I loved and she was a singer. She came over once or twice, I played and she sang. I showed her some songs I had written and she sang those as well, which thrilled me. We talked about forming a band, but we didn’t know a bassist or a drummer, or a place to play, and I was only a passable guitar player. These are the obstacles that don’t stop the truly dedicated but they kept us playing in my basement which, in the end, was just fine.
We kissed, we dated. She drove before I did and we went around in her beautiful old BMW listening to cassettes and smoking cigarettes. We kissed some more, at some point stopped playing music together and then inevitably broke up. We remained friends and then drifted apart.
Through that process I made a leap out of boyhood into something else. Certainly not adulthood, but a stage where relationships have deeper meaning, where the songs you hear have more import and the realization that what you do in life — not what you look like, or how you’re perceived — is what truly defines you.
I found a place where I could be comfortable in my own skin and it all started with the opening drums of “Radio Free Europe.”