In 2008, I came across an old cassette of R.E.M.’s first album, Murmur (1983). I had played it so much in the late eighties that the tape was almost literally worn out. “No music can possibly sound good after I’ve played it to death,” I told myself. Yet, out of curiosity and perhaps loyalty, I gave it a (figurative) spin.
What I heard astounded me. Flooding into my ears were sounds so fresh, rich and surprising, they could indeed be played repeatedly and always bear different results. It was music for the ages, truly—innocent yet sophisticated, melodic yet elusive, playful and plaintive simultaneously. The group’s early music is especially mysterious since it was mixed in a way that made the lyrics almost impossible to comprehend. (In the days before the Internet, there wasn’t a way of getting the lyrics, either: the group didn’t print them in their liner notes.) I believe this was deliberate on the band members’ part, creating a sonic weave that balanced voice with instruments, so that no one element dominated. The result resembled an Expressionist painting, where a recognizable shape would emerge from time to time from a bright mélange of colors. This may sound affected or needlessly arty, yet there was an emotional accessibility conveyed in R.E.M.’s hook-laden melodies and singer Michael Stipe’s voice. You felt a raw sense of yearning and ineffable longing when you heard these songs, even if you didn’t know what the singer was talking about. This in itself is instructive: it helps us realize how much meaning is conveyed by gesture, by a song’s formal qualities.
As I let myself be joyfully re-introduced to this music, I realized it wasn’t something I would outgrow, as people had assured me about rock music from time to time. Since I was young, I’d been inspired and encouraged by rock songs that expressed a moment of insight, contained a nugget of wisdom, or summed up a certain sorrow and joy. There were songs I’d play during hard times that I swear had saved my life. In Maps & Legends, I build playlists on universal themes such as love, loneliness, fire, earth, and freedom. I place a set of crashingly loud songs with 15-member ensembles screaming out vocals against a set of simple, understated tracks featuring just a guy or gal and his/her guitar. I present special shows on blues, gospel, country, and folk to trace how many streams feed into the river we call rock & roll and to honor its myriad ancestors. I also pinpoint certain elements such as vocals (in a show called “The Voice”), lyrics, and of course the all-important electric guitar. I also take time now and then just to cut loose and play; rock & roll shouldn’t get too serious!
Maps & Legends emerged to answer one burning question: What makes a good song? How is it, out of the thrum of a guitar, the rise or fall in a voice, the thud of a drum or the tweak of a dial, that a sound emerges that can make us swoon? Why do we weep at one song, prance around the room at another, nod knowingly at a third? I don’t expect I’ll ever know the answer, but the question is what drives the creation of each show. Maps & Legends debuted on KXYX in July of 2009, yet I feel it is barely getting started.