(From Stick: Glenn has been pestering me to write something about R.E.M. and I don’t wanna. Instead, I’ll have him do it himself, the sentimental mop. I’ll be back soon with more derision and crass remarks. Okay, G, have it off, you jerk-bag.)
I remember my last serious conversation about R.E.M. before the announcement that they were ceasing their career.
It was just a few weeks ago, as I drove across Oregon. I had, that day, purchased the recent CD remaster of Life’s Rich Pageant before driving out of Portland toward an afternoon in the Willamette Valley. I saved the CD for the part of the drive after leaving the freeway. As the first notes of “Begin The Begin” entered the rental car, I recall my right arm reflexively shooting to the volume knob and twisting it clockwise as far as it would go, hitting maximum just as the opening riff gave way to the most sure-footed and exciting rhythm section of the 1980s. Sure enough – pay dirt. I had spiked exactly the right vein. My favorite R.E.M. album, one I hadn’t listened to for maybe a year, and now sonically improved, sent a shock up my spine that I can feel right now. It reminded me of two things: First, of how much Pageant meant to me in the summer of ’86. This was the record that confirmed what a powerhouse R.E.M. really was, not just in live shows (I had already seen a few), but on record, too. And it made clear that these guys weren’t going anywhere. If they were this good on the fourth album, I was now confident I could count on them for years to come. The other thing I reminded myself was not to play my favorite albums too much. If you do, you see, you might sacrifice the electric shock to redundancy, no matter how loud you play it. As it turned out, I got a near-perfect listening experience. As Pageant played, I was getting into what each song offered me that very moment in that place, more than just recalling what these songs had done for me twenty-five years ago.
My wife was with me, and I told her how I loved every moment of this album, that it was the most important record to me in a time when records meant everything. And she, being just old enough to remember how fertile that time was, and clearly smart enough to know a killer record when she hears one, smiled and nodded in perfect understanding.
But I also remember the another recent conversation about R.E.M. It came about a week after the release of this year’s Collapse Into Now. I was talking about the album with another long-time fan. He found the record sort of ordinary and uninspiring. Collapse had arrived with more fanfare and critical raves than some of the other R.E.M. albums of the last 10 years, as if the critics were willing it to be great. It really didn’t deliver that many thrills, though a buyer’s money isn’t wasted on it. You get the feeling that it might age nicely, as many records do, benefiting from the way that changes in the culture and listeners’ new experiences expose things that were overlooked earlier, or place lyrics in new context. But just out of the box, Collapse Into Now didn’t turn out to be the record that we wanted: Something to save us from an often-dreary, near-recessionary summer.
In the past, my loyalty would have kicked in when my friend dismissed this new R.E.M. album, and I might defend it as I had Around The Sun in similar conversations (“Well, you can’t judge it YET, man!” or “Hey, compare it to other new stuff… It’s still better than most”, that kind of thing). But instead, for the first time ever, I found myself saying that I no longer expected R.E.M. to make a truly great album again. My friend did not disagree with me, and we changed the subject to baseball, searching for disagreement to keep the conversation moving.
If you don’t believe a band that has done so very much for all of us can do that again, then you really can’t be surprised when they punch out. In fact, you have to applaud them for doing so, and many did.
So this past week’s announcement from Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills that they were disbanding did not come as a shock, really. Neither did it create a shockwave any greater than the average central Californian micro-tremor. Sure, there was a heavy load of opinion and recollections to be found on most every music-related forum and blog, but what doesn’t cause that to happen, nowadays? And you can bet every time-waster on the block decided to Tweet the news as if they were the first to be informed (I’m no less guilty, e-mailing a dozen people as soon as I discovered the announcement, which at the time was 10 minutes old). But little genuine weeping and gnashing of teeth was to be found. Nobody used the phrase “Say it ain’t so!” I was a little surprised when the story made the NBC Nightly News, where it got about 30 seconds nearly 20 minutes into the show, in the segment where soft news is usually placed… a long with obituaries. Of course, if Brian Williams, clearly a rock fan, weren’t at the desk, the news probably would have been restricted to music circles, and left out of network reporting.
The juxtaposition of R.E.M.’s press release with the Troy Davis case, a crucial drama playing out in the band’s home state, did put them in a slightly dimmer light for what is ostensibly their last act as a band. Surely the band’s announcement took a moment away from a fight that literally needed every moment it could get. Whatever the truth about Davis, it would be in better step with R.E.M.’s political history if they had waited until Georgia’s collective mind was in less turmoil.
Regardless of the ill timing of the event, the end of this band isn’t surprising when you look over your shoulder. After 31 years and a recent run of good but less-than-unique albums, R.E.M. really did not mean that much anymore. There didn’t seem to be a lot of wind in their sails, and their absence won’t create a void. “Irrelevant”, wrote one forum contributor, and you couldn’t say he was dead wrong. A band that once pulled rock music in their direction as surely as the moon influences the tides had recently seemed insecure, repetitive and static. It was like they kept looking for some new roads to travel and found only roundabouts.
Once said to be like The Beatles because they grew in creativity and popularity at the same time, the last third of R.E.M.’s long career may have shown us what surely would have happened to The Fabs at some point. I always likened early R.E.M. to the early albums of Band, because there was so much mystery in their sound. When that lifted, though, about the time of Monster, their momentum began to slow. New Adventures In Hi-Fi restored some depth and imagination, but bit-by-bit, great albums gave way to simply good ones with a few great songs.
Where once they brought a beautiful obscurity to rock and roll, in this century, after the departure of founding drummer Bill Berry, they became proliferators of melancholy. So clear was the romantic element in their post-2000 music, that it almost (almost) started to seem cheap. They began to use “baby” in their lyrics. I still believe R.E.M. never made a lousy album, but the clarity of recent records now seems to be their creative undoing (Albums like Reveal will surely get more shrift in upcoming days; Breaking up is always a nice way to focus more sympathetic light on recent records).
Putting an end to their activities as a working band now seems a wise acknowledgement that their gas tank was empty. So many other acts have failed to recognize this point, and always suffer for it.
That said, we have to question what “break up” really means anymore, anyway. It’s very hard to name any major rock act that hasn’t found their way back to stages and studios sometime after they said they were packing it in, no matter how acrimonious the split. When you consider that R.E.M. made an amicable decision to put a halt to things, it just raises the odds of some kind of reunion somewhere down the road.
Very few rock bands stay broken up forever. R.E.M. might never return to daily business, and that’s fine. But I wouldn’t bet a dollar with 10-to-1 odds that they don’t find themselves on stage in some incidental setting within a couple of years. I also like to think that, with time on their hands, they’ll become bigger fans of their own band, and curate presents in the form of live albums, and suitable collections of their tons of B-sides and covers. And the collector in me will be very grateful.
I think that a band’s breakup in this day may only mean that they have decided to forego their obligations. Maybe it just means that you’ve told your fans that the ‘closed’ sign is on the door. In other words, for right now, don’t expect anything.
That’s not a cynical act, if you ask me. If you’re in neutral, sooner or later, it’s better to just turn off the car, even if you think you might be going somewhere later.
Only after settling on the situation, and assessing R.E.M. at this point, can we take the moment to look back at their history. Rather than glorifying the usual aspects, it’s worth putting a little light on some things that may overlooked in the accolades that will surely claim R.E.M. as the fathers of indie rock.
R.E.M. quickly thanked their fans in their goodbye, and such statements should be brief. But if they wanted to pull an Oscar time-breaker, the way Michael Stipe used to go on forever with each MTV award, the first place for them to start would be college radio. And not today’s college radio, either. Their thanks would have to go to those college stations that gave them full, unparalleled support from the release of Murmur until they broke through to commercial radio and signed with Warner Brothers. And those of us who were a part of college radio back then would reply “Right back atcha!”, because this band gave us a lot.
I was a college DJ between 1984 and 1987, and I can tell you that no other band was so universally beloved among my fellow jocks and our audience as R.E.M. And it didn’t take long to find that this mania stretched coast-to-coast. It became a mission, somehow, to push this band – OUR band – as far as our tiny transmitters and nasally voices could take them. And R.E.M. certainly helped us help them. Each release offered a full slate of great tunes and you could interpret any of them to suit your own needs. They were fantastic, and yet there was nothing intimidating about them. R.E.M. were a punk band, they were an art band, they were a garage band, they were revivalists, they were fresh air. They sounded like The Byrds one minute, and they were scary as hell the next. There was something for everybody, every minute of each LP. Fun to listen to, and fun to pore over, and we couldn’t play them frequently enough.
Each year of college radio’s investment in R.E.M. paid off in spades. They never ripped us off. Not only did we get a giant playlist from every release, we got nifty B-sides. And you could see the band in the right kind of venue pretty easily. But more importantly, R.E.M.’s momentum triggered a reaction from independent labels that led to a host of terrific new groups getting their chance at… Well, not the big time, really; But a chance at something. R.E.M. presented the example that bands could move the ball forward slowly and with less compromise than they might have expected.
Most importantly, though, their connection to college radio validated the tastes of thousands of DJs and listeners. As R.E.M. sold more and more records, eventually moving to a major label, and still delivering (first the grand Green), each of us that helped to make them stars took satisfaction that our generation had banked on a winner. Many of us thought, “Well, if those guys can conduct themselves fairly, and with less compromises than usual, maybe I can too.”
There was another bonus for us all, too. For each new band that scrambled through the door that R.E.M. opened, a forgotten record also found its way to the surface, thanks to R.E.M.’s hipster endorsement. For as much as Stipe would ramble on during the band’s awards acceptances in the early 90s, Peter Buck, the one we all wanted to be, would happily go on and on at any opportunity about his obsession with all kinds of out-of-print platters. Think about it: How much do The Stooges owe these guys for frequently covering “Funhouse”, followed by Buck interviews that made sure you knew where the tune came from? The Velvet Underground, Mission of Burma, and Suicide all found new audiences (or in the case of Pylon, perhaps an audience for the first time) thanks to free ongoing promotion from a four-man Athens-based PR team. I wonder if Roger Miller ever knew how much cooler R.E.M. made him before he passed away in ’92?
Peter Buck’s reputation as a beyond-hope record freak (he is reputed to have at least 30,000 discs, still buying at least 10 per week, usually in his frequent visits to Seattle’s Easy Street Records) was confirmed from the first time I ever laid eyes on him in the flesh. Because when I did, he was in an Ann Arbor record store before an R.E.M. show – shopping for records, not sitting at a table signing them. That habit, shared to a lesser degree by Stipe, Mills, and Berry is one of the things that helped keep them fresh during their magnificent run with I.R.S. records. You could tell that you were hearing music from young wide-eyed open-minded music fans, and that convinced you to remain one. Their appetites for music meant that influences were perhaps more diverse than you might think. A fellow college DJ at my station once interviewed Buck live on the air. Leading up to the conversation, the Art Ensemble of Chicago was playing. Buck could hear this avant jazz on the telephone return line and commented that he had just seen them about a week before. As any free jazz fan will tell you, AEC shows demand more than ticket money; They demand a wide-open mind.
Everyone in R.E.M. had interesting things to say, which was refreshing. But Buck seemed to be the most affable spokesman. Which made it all the more maddening to hear him always dismiss his band’s previous album when he was promoting the new one. When pushing Document in 1987, he referred to my beloved Pageant as “our Bryan Adams album”. Of course when Pageant was first released, he’d said it was the record they always wanted to make. But he could also easily puncture the pretensions of the whole ‘alternative’ (we were so fond of that word then) scene with a great regular-guy anecdote. On a national radio show, also in ‘87, the year of Joshua Tree-mania, a caller giddily asked Buck if he knew U2 personally and what he thought of them. “Yeah, we’ve been on bills with them,” he recalled, “They’re nice guys… But I’ll tell you, their isn’t a single one of them that I couldn’t wrestle to the ground.” Looking back, that ‘yeah, we like football, too’ comment is even funnier when you remember that Bono stood up for Buck at his 2001 London trial on charges of being disruptive on an airliner (Buck was acquitted).
This was their greatest gift: R.E.M. music gave you so much to talk about. When I think back over the nearly three decades since I first heard them in 1983, I recall more about conversations about R.E.M., who those talks were with and what they meant, than I do about R.E.M. albums and performances themselves. Whatever their current direction at any given time, that direction was worth talking about. If they were rumored to be in the studio, that was grounds for conversation, and if a new record did appear, you couldn’t wait to hear the opinions of others – nearly as much as hearing the records themselves. R.E.M. albums forced questions out of you: Why were they writing about The Civil War? Where in the world is Philomath? Is Accelerate their most pop album? How did they get the idea for that song with Patti Smith on it? The best of their records easily withstood the litmus test that many people apply to movies: If you aren’t talking about it for at least 30 minutes after you’ve seen it, then it wasn’t worth your time. Sad to say my conversation about Collapse Into Now probably didn’t last that long, but most records these days get far less comment.
I can recall my first days of college and a discussion of the latest record, Reckoning, where a total stranger walked into the conversation after overhearing the topic. I remember someone looking at me in amazement when I said I had a copy of the Chronic Town EP (didn’t seem like such a big deal to me, but then I realized it was in and out of print inside a year). I can recall a great quote from a huge fan responding to someone who said they couldn’t understand the words of the songs: “That’s the fun thing about R.E.M. You can make up your own lyrics”.
But I’m most grateful for this: There’s hardly a single person truly close to me with which I have not discussed R.E.M. Even friends who claim no interest in ‘our band’ are willing to say so with respect. But as one who certainly was hooked, line and sinker, by the jangle and the mumble and the riffs and the rumble and the mystery and beauty, from “Catapult” to “Nightswimming” and from “Daysleeper” to “Discoverer”, I’m grateful that this music did so much to relieve what Stipe called, in “9-9”, ‘conversation fear’.
So, my thanks to R.E.M. for doing what the greatest artists can do. They gave us all something in common, and it brought out the best in myself and in those around me.
What else could you ask for?
Last album: Roy Orbison, The Soul of Rock and Roll, box set