R.E.M. and the Work of Mourning


Atlanta, Georgia

By T. Hugh Crawford

Music has a way of making, marking, and ultimately erasing time. It fixes a moment in a particular place, and lets you come back to stand there even after decades have slipped by.

R.E.M. recently released the 25th-anniversary edition of their 1992 album, “Automatic for the People.” Questioning how we experience time is a thread that runs through all R.E.M.’s music, but I was still shocked to realize it had been 25 years. I first saw them in 1983, opening for the English Beat. Michael Stipe sang songs from “Murmur” and “Reckoning,” the merest boy, hair covering his face, sprawling on the floor mumbling incomprehensible lyrics to incredible melodies. For years, they remained a quirky but enchanting band which regularly implored me not to go back to Rockville (though I never quite understood why).

Then, 22 years ago, they taught me how to mourn.

My father died. It was unexpected. At the time, I was living with my family out in the country near Lexington in the Valley of Virginia. Although my dad lived on the other side of the state, his best friend’s farm was just up the road from me. A gravel lane crossed a clanging cattle guard, then wound upward into a narrow valley — that pure green of a close-cropped sheep pasture. The farmhouse was a place of plenty. For years, our families gathered there for Thanksgiving, always celebrated a day late because on turkey day, we were at Victory Stadium in Roanoke watching the annual VMI/VPI football game. In those days, all the students in both schools were in the corps of cadets and would march onto the field prior to kickoff. The next day, up on the farm, we would chase the sheep, fall into the creek, and then address ourselves to the food heaped high on the old-fashioned dining room table.

The day after my father died, we gathered there, keeping clear of the sheep and creek and eating in the reserved manner of Southern mourning. Friends and family gathered, including my newly born youngest son. Dad lived long enough to meet and hold him, sitting in spring blossom time on an old-fashioned bench I had built around the apple tree in the middle of our front yard — a common feature in the valley countryside. I found myself leaving the gathering, returning home to retrieve something forgotten. Our house, an old train depot, had two lawn chairs of stamped sheet-metal (remnants from earlier tenants) on what had been the loading dock. The bent-pipe legs were rusted, so rocking always felt as if it would soon be accompanied by collapse. Across the yard and up a hill — the property line measured by the distance it took a four-horse team to turn around — was the slowly deteriorating, abandoned hulk of the community general store, framed by four massive oak trees. What had once been the commercial center of a rural village was now a yard, garden, some empty outbuildings, and the ghosts of farmers who years before would stop to get their mail, catch the train to Staunton, or buy moonshine from the cellar beneath the store.

Mourning is a precarious business. The old-school silence of the Southern male at some point wins out, in my case triggered by that moment of solitude in a place of simple but haunted beauty, and by music — the melancholy sound of two great songs on “Automatic”: “Everybody Hurts” and “Sweetness Follows.”

Mourning is about loss, about what is now irrevocably past, but equally about the future, how to continue living. In that moment, my thoughts were directed toward my father, his ghostly presence on the apple-tree bench, but also toward my three young sons who would run across that yard, pelting each other with acorns from those old oaks. Sitting there in a creaking, collapsing lawn chair, I listened to “Automatic for the People,” hearing what is perhaps the best rule of parenting, a resolution of mourning, and ultimately a moral imperative. Michael Stipe enjoins us to live “a life full of joy and wonder.”

Now, another holiday season has passed, and I am grateful those words still echo.