I can’t recall the first time I heard R.E.M.
Was it encountering “Man on the Moon’s” evocative video on MuchMusic? Perhaps hearing “The One I Love” on the car radio on some random car drive with the family? Was it sometime after “Losing My Religion” became a popular standard? I honestly don’t know.
R.E.M. has always been there, both literally—the band formed in 1980, two years before I came along—and figuratively. The band’s meteoric rise from college radio mainstays to global headliners doesn’t seem as strange nowadays, since others like Radiohead and Arcade Fire have now followed in the footsteps. But R.E.M.’s ascendency laid the groundwork, and the band had already ‘made it’ by the time that I musically came of age. R.E.M. were effervescent, just there, always worthy of blog or media coverage, regardless of the quality of its most recent release.
(Put another way: I only got to know Michael Stipe the Sensitive, Long-Haired Recluse through archival photos and interviews; in my musical lifetime, I’ve known only Michael Stipe the Celebrity.)
Which is why it’s all the more strange that R.E.M. won’t be around anymore.
I suppose the curtain close of a 30-year, hall-of-fame music career should, by rights, be about celebration: after all, the remorses can’t possibly hold a candle to the accomplishments, the triumphs, the victories. And considering that R.E.M.’s late-era material never quite held a candle to the its heyday, it’s not as if there are any lingering regrets that come from a career cut short.
In fact, in the wake of today’s announcement, I expect many to argue that the band would have been wisest to break up when drummer Bill Berry left the group in 1997 following the Monster tour and the New Adventures in Hi-Fi album (still their most underrated record). In a way, I sympathize with that argument—R.E.M. never learned to run as a three-legged dog the same way it did with four legs—but frankly, I love Michael, Mike and Peter all the more because they tried. And to be completely fair, they sometimes succeeded: the two-thirds of Up that works, the record-collection summary of Collapse Into Now, and their most vital post-Berry release, 2008’s Accelerate.
But more importantly: because they tried, they ended up meaning more to me than almost any other band I’ve ever come across.
I’m guessing most R.E.M. fans didn’t start with Up. I did.
“Daysleeper” probably inspired the purchase, the song striking an unexpected nerve with my 16-year-old self. And while I’m more than willing to admit the album’s flaws, there’s still something wonderfully “16 years old” about that record to me. It dabbled in electronics just when I was beginning to discover that music didn’t need to have just bass, drums and guitar. And it was when Stipe’s ‘inspirational lyricism’ had yet to become a total cliche – the way he addressed physicality, angst and self-questioning on that album feels, even now, very teenage, and in a good way.
Had R.E.M. broken up in 1997, I’m sure I would have come across the band’s catalogue at some point; my path towards becoming a music devotee was most likely already set. But that path would have turned out very different if Up hadn’t become part of my life, its sentiments inspiring me to begin diving—and diving deep—into one of America’s most eclectic, enticing rock bands.
Like I would later do for other older artists that now also mean the world to me (Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen), I moved quickly to collect R.E.M.’s back catalogue. Automatic for the People was first on the docket – it had the big hits, after all, but it was the smaller moments that floored me: the contemplative, reflective “Find the River” and the hyper-dramatic “Nightswimming.” Eponymous then gave me the single-disc crash course on the band’s 1980s period and, from there, I devoured whatever I could get. During a road trip to the United States with the family, I found European import CD of the band’s IRS-era albums, each with a slew of bonus tracks. I bought all of them, teenage budgeting be damned.
Between 1997 and 2001, I managed to collect every single major R.E.M. release. Nowadays, this accomplishment is meaningless—point, click, download—but back then, it really meant something to me. It took work to discover R.E.M., and that work was rewarded time and time again.
Early R.E.M. sounded revelatory, coming out of nowhere, fully-formed; has ever a debut seemed as complete as Murmur? The band could have continued to make that album for years and been an underground success story—and some might argue that Reckoning sort of does that—but, instead, R.E.M. grew: deeper into Americana, then towards radio pop and arena rock, a minor detour into glam, and in later years flirting with electronica. Peter Buck learned to rock rather than just jangle, Mike Mills became one of the best backup singers in rock, Bill Berry held down the fort, and Michael Stipe learned to not only sing clearly, but to write truly important, inspiring lyrics.
And somehow, almost all of it worked.
Hell, if they’d only stopped at “Losing My Religion”—certainly not their greatest song, but their closest to a standard—they’ve have achieved that most rare of pop glories: a creation that everyone knows, and that almost everyone enjoys. But their catalogue is riddled with other near-standards: “Man on the Moon,” “The One I Love,” “Radio Free Europe,” “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?”…and then there’s the slightly-hidden gems: “Little America,” “Perfect Circle,” “These Days,” “Country Feedback,” “Living Well is the Best Revenge”…and the albums, the ALBUMS: Automatic, Murmur, Hi-Fi, Lifes Rich Pageant, Document…
There may have been a point where I could have been objective about R.E.M.; I bet if I tried, I still could be today. But the sheer volume of amazing, awe-inspiring pop creations that the band has pulled out of the ether means that, frankly, I don’t ever want to.
Fourteen years after discovering them, R.E.M. still awe me. And I don’t want that to change.
I sometimes explain to people that my rock and roll bucket list consists of bands that I need to see before I die or they die. It’s a tongue-and-cheek remark that usually gets a laugh, but there’s more than a shred of truth to it: like life itself, the shifting state of a band can change suddenly, without warning.
Along these lines, today’s announcement took me by surprise. Sure, R.E.M. didn’t tour for Collapse Into Now, but that’s nothing new; the band didn’t tour Out of Time and Automatic for the People either, and those were its two most popular albums. Plus, Collapse was a rather good album, all things considered – perhaps the ‘best’ post-Berry release, even if Accelerate is more exciting and Up more interesting.
But in hindsight, the signs were there: Collapse’s publicity consisted almost entirely of in-studio performances and a series of Stipe-managed music video projects. The album itself sounded like (as one reviewer astutely put it) a greatest hits without the hits, entertainingly recalling the band’s past work but offering little suggestion of a path forward. And with the band’s members all living in different cities, it’s not as if the unit was quite the united force it once was.
Collapse’s commercial failure may have added to the drive to hang up the jangly guitars once and for all, but judging by the statements from each band member over at REMhq.com, it’s clear that these epiphanies starting coming well before Collapse hit stores. No, this is not the story of a band run off the rails; it’s the story of three men who’ve been together for 30 years and feel that they’ve run out of things to say together. They’ve come to the realization that Bill Berry did 14 years ago: they’re done.
Which is why I’m all the more glad that, in the summer of 2009, I invested the time and money to travel to Toronto to see the band for the first—and now, likely, the only—time on the Accelerate tour. I can’t help when I was born, so I have to live with having never seen the band in its ‘prime.’ But I can say that I saw R.E.M. tour its most exciting post-Berry album, in all its noisy glory, with the energy and enthusiasm of a bunch of 25-year-old kids. They opened with “These Days” from Lifes Rich Pageant, closed with “Man on the Moon” and played plenty of classics in between. Could I have asked for me? Sure. You always can. But it would have been rude of me to do so.
That’s why it’s strange, reading the band members’ statements, to see each of them thank us, the fans. I understand the reason for it: they got to make music for a living because people like me saw something in their work and were inspired enough to invest our pocket change and minor earnings towards their band. But jesus, do they really think that the time and money I’ve spent with R.E.M., in any way, comes close to what they offered in return?
R.E.M. taught me that great music was worth investing in, that skimming the surface is never as satisfying as taking time to dive deep. I learned to let music under my skin, so far that it hits a primal, elemental nerve, that it starts to feel like it’s always been there, that it’s inseparable from the self. R.E.M. were the one band, above perhaps all others, that convinced me music was about more than experience; it was about discovery.
There’s no more R.E.M. discoveries left. At the risk of being cliched, it’s the end of that world as I know it. A few tears, but mostly? I feel fine.