There are very few songs that throw me back to another time in my life. There are songs that have vivid memories attached to them like "We Didn't Start the Fire," my brother banging on pots and pans like a lunatic; "In My Wildest Dreams" from Mannequin, my brother dancing around like an idiot on videotape; and "Island in the Sun," my brother bopping his head in perfect syncopation with me and my sister. Totally fun moments in my life set to music. Then there's "Man on the Moon" by REM. That's different.
No matter what's going on when I hear it I'm sucked back to the same moment- I'm twelve years old again, being driven home from a babysitting gig in Upper Michigan. It's a dark winter evening and I'm silently watching the street lights go by one by one, serenaded by Michael Stipe's unmistakable tenor. Back then I watched music television like it was my job, absorbing everything I could about music. A few videos had really haunting imagery that struck a chord with me (U2's "So Far Away So Close" was one) but "Man on the Moon" was more resonant. Other than that the song held no real importance. It's not like I had my first kiss with it in the background. I just really, really dug the song and music video.
When I heard it on the air a few days ago in the car I was thrown into a little ennui, thinking about where I was when the song left its unlikely stamp on me. It happens every time I hear the it and this time I wondered what about this song does that. That moment in time was the beginning of a massive shift in my life. Michigan was quiet, isolated, and kind of lonely; my family spent a lot of time together, well, as much time as a bunch of introverts can; and I started to develop a social circle. Within a few months of that song's release we moved to the California valley; my mother started telling me about her familial unhappiness; I experienced terrible social shock; and those quiet, snowy moments that I took for granted were gone forever. And somehow REM unwittingly became the soundtrack of that transition.
I like going back to that moment. I feel centered when the song ends- like I was meditating. It's the last time I remember my life being quiet and truly comfortable- uninterrupted with the kind of hubbub one experiences in modern life. I relish hearing that song. It lets me return to the young me. Before the shit hit the fan. It's an unlikely source of comfort. But one that I welcome.