Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Rich Pageant of Life

Maria (Elke Sommer): You should get out of these clothes immediately. You'll catch your death of pneumonia, you will.

Clouseau (Peter Sellers): Yes, I probably will. But it's all part of life's rich pageant, you know?

A Shot in the Dark (1964)

Like most people, I first became aware of R.E.M. when the band released its first single in the early 1980s.

But it would be many years before I actually purchased an R.E.M. album.

It wasn't that I had any objection to R.E.M.'s music. Far from it. I found the band pleasant enough to listen to when I was driving somewhere or when, usually for lack of anything better to do, I switched on the radio in my apartment.

And I went to see them in concert once with some friends of mine.

I just never bought any of their albums — at least, in the days when recordings were still being issued in vinyl.

I bought a few R.E.M. CDs when that became the format of choice.

And I remember borrowing from a friend — and almost wearing out — an R.E.M. album that was released 25 years ago — "Lifes Rich Pageant."

At that time, R.E.M. was still regarded by most people as underground or alternative rock — not the sort of thing one heard frequently on mainstream radio.

I guess things really began to change for R.E.M. around 1987 or 1988 — when "The One I Love" was released and R.E.M., with the mainstream acceptance that single brought, became visible proponents of political causes.

(Ironically, Jason Ferguson of Paste Magazine asserts that "Lifes Rich Pageant" was the "last 'real' R.E.M. record" in an article about the 25th anniversary re–release.

(It is true that most of the band's commercial success was yet to come, but that didn't mean that R.E.M. sold out to achieve it. The music was merely packaged in ways that were more palatable for mainstream consumers.)

Mainstream acceptance was still in the future in 1986. So, too, was the occasion when I borrowed that album from my friend.

For that matter, it has been awhile since I have listened to "Lifes Rich Pageant."

But it's a funny thing. I've noticed that every time I do listen to it, I can remember precisely what I was doing, even what I was thinking, when I borrowed it all those years ago. It may sound like a cliche, but it really does seem as if it happened only yesterday when I hear that album.

My life had entered what I regard as my soap opera period at that time. I was working as a copy editor for a morning newspaper, which meant I had to work odd hours — and that fact had already been a major factor in the failure of otherwise promising relationships.

I loved my job, but there were other things I wanted to love, too, if you get my drift. It was the cause of considerable tension in my life.

Anyway, I remember a weekend in late 1986 or early 1987 when an especially attractive woman moved in next door to my apartment. I met her briefly the day she moved in — as I was leaving for work and she was bringing in her belongings.

She was accompanied by a handsome young man. I assumed he was her boyfriend. (I later confirmed that he was, in fact, her boyfriend — but not for long.)

To be honest, I didn't think much of that. I mean, beautiful people have always been attracted to other beautiful people, haven't they? Occasionally, you do see a beautiful person with an average — or, rarely, a homely — person, but that is the exception to the rule.

I thought she was very beautiful, and I also thought I wasn't in her league. Not even close. There was no reason why I should have given her another thought.

Nevertheless, I developed a kind of infatuation with her. With our schedules, we might as well have lived in different hemispheres, but, in one of life's cruel ironies, we lived right next door to each other.

This woman worked regular daytime hours — her vehicle was always gone whenever I got up, and it never returned to the apartment building before I had to leave for work, but it was usually there when I got home around 1 in the morning.

Her apartment always seemed dark when I got home during the week. Sometimes the lights would still be on when I got home on Fridays and Saturdays. And sometimes another vehicle, which I concluded must belong to her boyfriend, was parked next to hers when I got home — and I could tell, thanks to the rather thin walls in my building, that some bedroom gymnastics were taking place next door.

To drown out the sound, for a time I listened to "Lifes Rich Pageant," and my song of choice was "I Am Superman" — which, in hindsight, wasn't a great song, either musically or lyrically. But I think I was drawn to the line "I am Superman, and I know what's happening."

It was sort of my way of dealing with the pain of knowing that a woman I desired so much was giving herself so completely to someone else — just a few feet away.

My friend didn't have any trouble telling which song I favored on that album after I returned it to him — but he never knew why I preferred it over other songs that were better (and still doesn't, unless he reads this blog entry).

I listened to "I Am Superman" so many times that track was scratchy from the wear. And if I live to be 100 and that song is playing as I draw my last breath, it will still remind me of that time in my life, of the woman next door when I was in my 20s.

I've heard it said that popular music is the soundtrack of our lives. I don't know if the songs on "Lifes Rich Pageant" achieved that level of popularity, but, for awhile there, it was the soundtrack of my life.

The rich pageant of my life.