New York to Los Angeles via Athens, GA
After 15 years and change of living in New York, my wife and I just decamped to Los Angeles. The entire ordeal came together relatively rapidly—discussions began for my new job in the fall, agreements were reached around Thanksgiving, we found an apartment in early December, and packed over the holidays before officially pulling up stakes just a few days into the new year. The speed with which everything had to happen did not allow for a lot of sentimentality, which was probably for the best. We knew we were making a huge change, and though both of us had grown weary of the negative social, environmental, and economic evolution of the city that allowed us to discover our adulthoods, the idea of leaving New York behind—something I once vowed I would never do—is an overwhelming concept. When I was a teen intellectually languishing in suburban Connecticut, New York was the North Star, a guiding light that represented endless possibilities. In my mind, people who lived in New York were really living, constantly enriching themselves with access to ideas and culture and food and experiences I couldn't begin to fathom. To leave New York was to admit defeat, and to acknowledge in a small way that it did not have all the answers, at least for me.
But progress was more important than nostalgia during the month of December, and the emotional gravity of the situation did not fully set in until the final days of packing up our old Brooklyn apartment. As I was making what became the final trips up and down the two flights of stairs, hauling broken down bits of discarded furniture to the sidewalk, a single snatch from one song kept looping in my mind: The lines "Leaving New York, never easy" from R.E.M.'s "Leaving New York," from their much-maligned 2004 album Around the Sun.
(Even now, just cutting and pasting the embed into this post, I kind of have a lump in my throat.)
The reason this song got stuck in my grey matter is pretty obvious and embarrassingly on-the-nose, but the more surprising thing is the fact that this song was even there to unearth itself at all. Around the Sun is perhaps the least-loved album in the R.E.M. catalog. Released in the fall of 2004, it seemed to represent the end of the grace period fans allowed the band following the departure of drummer Bill Berry, who last appeared on 1996's essential New Adventures in Hi-Fi. The first post-Berry album, 1998's Up, was given the benefit of the doubt; 2001's Reveal seemed to be a more comfortable pop-oriented version of the three-piece version of the band, and it helped that it spawned a handful of latter-day hits (particularly "All The Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star)," which had a music video that I have vivid memories of watching in heavy rotation in my college dorm room). It's unclear whether or not hardcore fans were resistant to the idea of a Berry-free R.E.M. to begin with, but the quality and effort that went into those releases could not be denied.
However, Around the Sun seemed to open the floodgates for backlogged negativity. Save for "Leaving New York" (which was the first single), the only other memorable song from that album is "The Outsiders," and that's only because it contains an embarrassing guest rap by Q-Tip. When "Leaving New York" first came out, I (like many of my rock crit compatriots) poked fun at the grammatically questionable line "Leaving was never my proud," and the rest of the album was as nakedly political as the band had been in some time, and I think it's possible the pop world was burned out on anti-Bush rhetoric by the time it landed (Around the Sun was released a month before the bamboozling-in-hindsight 2004 election, probably the most outwardly contentious of my lifetime). There are some decent pop tunes buried in there ("Electron Blue" has a nice melody), but the sleepy production mixed with fist-pumping rebellion made for an odd mix that never found a correct context.
Until now. I didn't care about "Leaving New York" until I needed it, and as I took a series of deep breaths to steady myself while I packed, I realized that for a band I don't particularly care about. R.E.M. has left an alarming number of songs tattooed on my brain. I can't remember the last time I listened to one of the band's albums on purpose, and yet my internal life is overrun with their songs: A line from "Bad Day," an oft-forgotten single from a hits compilation, tends to crop up during times of professional strife (specifically, "It's been a bad day, please don't take a picture"); periods of exhaustion tend to be punctuated with the chorus of "Daysleeper"; I just generally think about "Let Me In" a lot, mostly because an acoustic version the band delivered during an otherwise unremarkable live set was one of the five best concert moments of my life. An R.E.M. lyric even acts as the basis for a handful of my online passwords, which is weird.
My melancholy crested the morning we moved. My wife and I woke up early on a Sunday morning, freezing in a mostly-empty Brooklyn apartment. That one passage from "Leaving New York" kept running through my head as I dragged our well-worn mattress down to the street, and its internal volume peaked as we sped down the BQE in our Uber, armed with our suitcases and two cats. As I looked at the skyline in the mid-dawn light, I reached out to grab my wife's hand. We both choked back tears. New York had been good to us—we met there, made our careers there, established a community, set up a fine home. New adventures were ahead of us, but in that instant I felt the pull of a place like I never had before. We cleared the gravity of Manhattan and sped off into the unknown stratosphere of the future.
We're settling into life in Los Angeles, and I have no regrets. I did manage to slip out of New York without saying goodbye to some people, but Stipe is right—leaving was never my proud.