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Song Stories: “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” by R.E.M.

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The following essay is taken from Song Stories: Music That Shaped Our Identities and Changed Our Lives. Edited by Berklee Online music business student Kyle Bylin, Song Stories is a collection of essays written by music professionals and independent artists about songs that impacted their lives

When I read about R.E.M. for the first time in Trouser Press in 1983, I had no idea that they would become one of the bands that defined my life.

Shortly after I first encountered them, I picked up their “Radio Free Europe” single, and, months later, their debut album, Murmur. At the time, the album frustrated me; I felt like I was trying to distinguish objects in an out-of-focus photograph. But one weekend near the end of 1983, I saw R.E.M. perform on Nickelodeon’s “Livewire” program, and was blown away. Seeing them perform live changed my whole perspective on them.

The second song in the set, “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars),” hooked me. This song started with the three lead instruments all playing at once. Bill Berry was pounding on his bass drum while also playing on the hi-hats, and since I was a drummer, this pulsing rhythm grabbed my attention. Then, I noticed the chiming sound of the gorgeous black guitar that Peter Buck was playing. Mike Mills was playing a Rickenbacker bass that sounded like a lead instrument on its own. Michael Stipe’s lyrics were hard for me to decipher, but none of that mattered when they reached the chorus and the background vocals came in.

I was mesmerized. The band’s sound was unique, and yet they looked like normal guys. Unfortunately, the show cut them off before they finished the song. Wanting to hear the end of this great song, I headed out to my local record shop the next week. At the time, I did not know I was searching for their Chronic Town EP. Eventually, I found the song on a 12” UK single for “Talk About the Passion” in December 1983.

In the spring of ‘84, their second album, Reckoning, was in my hands and I was quick to buy tickets to see them perform at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York in July of the same year.

Two years later, my obsession with them led me to Georgia, where the group had first formed. It turned out the place held some magic for me, too. Enrolling in the University of Georgia and moving to Athens allowed me to form the two most important relationships in my life.

First, I met my wife, Elaine, in a local bar during our last year in college. It was one of the rare nights when I was not out seeing a band, playing a show with my own band, or drinking, seeing as I was the designated driver for my gang of friends. She passed my music-fan test instantly as we chatted about music, and I invited her to my band’s next show.

Being in Athens also allowed me to meet James Williamson, the first friend I made on the UGA campus — all thanks to a pink R.E.M. “Little America Tour” shirt he wore. James and I became fast and dear friends during our freshman year while taking road trips out of Athens to see R.E.M. play shows around the Southeast. After graduation, it was comforting to have him nearby when I moved to Atlanta to be closer to Elaine.

Thirteen years later, James was there for emotional support and helped Elaine and I through the loss of our son, Owen, while also bringing me to faith. Our deep musical connection expanded as he shared a few verses of scripture to offer me guidance and then invited me to his church. This was so impactful at a time when my heart, head, and soul were dark and cloudy having gone through such a jarring loss.

Athens is still a place I have the pleasure to return to for business and I still feel its magic when I am back there. To this day, when I hear “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars),” I’m instantly transported to the first time I heard the song on TV. Only one poster hangs on my office wall. It has a screenshot of that song’s performance as a reminder of the exact moment I fell in love with this song and of what the band means to me.

Song Stories is available for purchase at Amazon.com.

About
Jay Coyle is the founder and “Music Geek” at the digital marketing firm, Music Geek Services. His company provides artist services for the music industry. He is currently working with Sloan, Letters To Cleo, Blake Babies, and The Figgs. Jay’s core focus is to help further the careers of artists while partnering with them in a “D.I.Y. +” sort of way to make sure they have long-lasting and fan-focused careers. He is also an instructor at Berklee Online, where he teaches the courses Music Marketing 101 and Music Business Trends and Strategies.
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