REM broke up yesterday. As a band that operated in near precision against convention they were an American original. I first heard them on a mix tape in the fall of my final year in Jr. High. That tape was given to me by a guy named Chuck.
Chuck was different from anybody I’d ever met.
His clothing was strange and his mannerisms were completely out of the ordinary. In 6th grade terms, Chuck was weird.
The weirdest thing about Chuck was that he was always talking about his thoughts and his feelings. I learned this when we both got into trouble at school. We spent two consecutive recess periods standing against a wall while the other kids played.
This wasn’t a big punishment for Chuck because he didn’t like sports all that much.
Normally you were allowed to stand with your back against the playground wall; watching everybody else have their 20 minutes of fun. We both had to stand facing the wall because Chuck kept talking to me.
They’d unwittingly played right into his hands.
Facing away from the “recess lady” there was no way she could see him talking. Faced up against a cinder block wall, I found Chuck’s talking became quite welcome.
Chuck would say things like, “I’m afflicted with a touch of melancholy this morning.” and “Sometimes a sack lunch can leave you feeling a little empty.”
He liked books by Shel Silverstein.
He didn’t even pretend not to cry when the teacher was reading Where The Red Fern Grows.
While we were standing on the wall that afternoon he said, “Did you know that most comic book characters are picked on as children? Some grow up to be heroes, others become villains…
I’ll probably turn out to be a villain.”
Chuck asked questions about God that made adults nervous …and we attended a Christian school.
One Monday our teacher asked us if anyone wanted to share something that happened at church over the weekend. Chuck raised his hand and matter-of-factly stated that he’d been, “compelled by the Holy Ghost to speak in an angelic tongue.”
After that he disappeared and I didn’t see him again for almost two years. I assumed he’s been sent away for blasphemy and when he wandered back into my 8th grade homeroom his appearance suggested that he’d at least been to purgatory.
He had somehow managed to find a balance between the letter of the school dress code and the spirit of Siouxsie and the Banshees… not that any of us knew anything about Siouxsie.
His Peechee Folder was scrawled with lyrical confessions:
“I feel I’m on the cross again baby…”
“I am so afraid, of living in oblivion.”
“Love will tear us apart, again”
It was 1986, I played sports, wore Bugle Boys, and listened to Van Halen. I don’t know why, but Chuck walked in and started talking to me like we were still standing against that wall. Over the next five years he regaled me about the difference between art and commerce, love and lust, even faith and religion.
When I told him that I liked Motley Crue, He told me that I should listen to REM. Then he gave me a tape filled with music that no one in their right mind could comprehend or explain. A week later he explained it to me, and I comprehended it.
By the time we graduated, my Case Logic cassette briefcase was filled with albums by Depeche Mode, Love and Rockets, Echo and the Bunnymen, and New Order.
It was music that was as vulnerable as he was.
I don’t know that I was nice to Chuck. I didn’t not like him, but I also didn’t go out of my way to make sure he was included. It isn’t heroic to say that I was nicer to him than life was.
During lunch period, some jerk announced that he was “a fruit”. He responded by pointing at a girl across the room and saying, “If you knew anything about me you’d know that I yearn for her.”
Who says stuff like that?
Honest guys do.
His dad died of a connective tissue disease before he graduated.
Who makes it through school in the face of that?
Courageous guys do.
After a year in college I lost touch with Chuck. We bumped into each other on Facebook a couple years ago. He’s still an original; blazing an honest, courageous, unique trail in pursuit of life, God, and the mysteries that can be found In Between Days.
REM and Chuck have a lot in common that way. Their honesty and courage blended with a rare vulnerability that I’ve always respected regardless of where they stood on “the issues”.
Whenever I hear REM perform “Everybody Hurts” I think about Chuck and the power that comes from a fearless vulnerability.
Anybody can do what it takes to fit in, and some people can act weird just to stand out, but only the truly courageous have the honesty to move with precision against convention by being themselves.
In the years between High School and today I learned the spiritual and moral value of honesty, courage, and vulnerability. In that, I’m grateful for REM and grateful to Chuck. Both of them touched my life in ways that changed it for the better.
Whether they knew it or not.