Remembering R.E.M.

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.

Thanks guys.

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6 responses to “Remembering R.E.M.

  1. My McNutt/REM memory is stopping at what I believe was a Best Buy as we were traveling through the U.S. in what was probably either 1997 or 2000 (which seems more likely), and you discovering and purchasing various IRS-years albums that you had never seen available otherwise.

    Ah, the days before iTunes.

  2. Thank you. This was fantastic and mirrors in so many ways my own experiences with REM that started a few years earlier than yours, but nevertheless included joining Columbia House specifically just so i could own all of their old CDs.

    it’s been so great today seeing how many people share the view, for example, that New Adventures is severely underrated by just about any standard, or that Daysleeper was a hypnotic masterpiece to rival just about anything post 1990.

    i was fortunate enough to see them 4 times, once on the Green tour, once on the Monster tour, once again on the Up tour, and then finally with Bruce/Bright Eyes/Fogerty on the Vote for Change tour. each one were very different, but always a very joyous experience, and that’s what i’ll remember most.

  3. oh, i also did want to mention my first real exposure to REM. it came as a young headbanger and Aerosmith fan who just had to hear this version of Toys in the Attic that the band who did the song with all the words about the end of the world did.

  4. My first exposure was a used tape of Dead Letter Office. I really liked it and figured that if I enjoyed the various cast-off songs and covers that much, I’m probably really going to love this band when they are giving 110%. I even forced myself to appreciate Fables of the Reconstruction by making myself listen to it nightly when I was in university (which only took a couple of weeks). Besides rounding out the rest of the discography, I also bought all the VHS tapes I could find when I went to see them play in Montreal on the Monster tour. The departure of Bill Berry and the release of the lopsided Up was when the relationship started to slowly drift apart for me.

  5. Ryan, I don’t think we ever met. But Sue, for whom you wrote at The Coast, told me about this personal essay around the time of the band’s announcement.

    I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it. It’s the kind of honest, insightful and thoughtful thinking that REM engendered in people.

    I’ve never quite understood some – many, really – people’s weird hangups about the band: the goofy, un-funny jokes about thinking the band had broken up 15 years ago or more, or being surprised they hadn’t already split, on Twitter. That’s just one example. Good to know, and one can always be secure in knowing, more people like REM than not.

    You’ve had such a completely different experience with the band than I have and I really appreciated reading and learning about it. Connecting via “Daysleeper” and the Up album generally is cool. Because that was almost the centrepoint in my period of disconnect with the band.

    Put simply: after Green they went in a direction that I felt, almost personally, left me behind.

    Green is my personal third favourite record after Life’s Rich Pageant and Fables of the Reconstruction. I did see them in Montreal on the Green tour (driving there and getting drunk and even more euphoric about finally seeing the band with a bunch of friends from Ottawa). So seeing them play and loving the album generally was a powerful thing.

    There was a moment when the band was finishing “I Remember California” (with the repeating “At the end…of a continent”) that will stay in my mind as an almost transcendent moment in my life via music. There were others (an ragged version of “Driver 8,” powerful deliveries of “Begin the Begin,” probably my favourite REM song, and “Welcome to the Occupation,” another favourite and on and on. “King of Birds” was lovely too I remember. “Pretty Persuasion” was delivered playfully, with Stipe singing “You’re all wrong” like he was keeping a secret. “Pilgrimage” and “Moral Kiosk” too stay with me as two occasions when I thought ‘man, I’m actually seeing the band and hearing these songs…’

    The show was at the Forum. It was big enough. An arena show. REM played Ottawa (Barrymore’s both times) that I could remember, once for Reckoning and Fables. I wasn’t yet getting into bars/clubs underage. But I remember feeling, sensing, the band was in town. I know that’s cheesy sounding. But I had a real sense that this wasn’t just another band playing town and wouldn’t it be cool to see them. My friend Mike had given me Fables (taking up most of one side of a tape) in 1985, when it came out. I wish I could remember what was on the other side. Husker Du, probably. Or The Replacements if I recall my old friend and our musical tastes clearly. I’d seen a video for “Can’t Get There from Here” and felt strange hearing this voice, and band, that was both gentle and gigantic at once, young and old at the same time. Before that, my brother Kev (with whom I’ve discovered almost all the music in my life) and I were loaned Reckoning on vinyl when it came out. I’d heard “Pretty Persuasion” on campus radio, which I was listening to by then. But the album really stilled us at a restless time: teenage years, man. “Camera” for example. I’m sure we were all stoned and using the song to get with girls (as I understand a later generation did with Elliott Smith – another fave of mine) but still it changed our listening, maybe the way we listened.

    Considering all this, I’ll close on an explanation of the disconnect, the rift I felt with the band. Green ROCKED or at least showed that REM could play big, brash tunes. Buck used a Gibson Les Paul for several songs. Mills and Berry played straighter, harder rock rhythms. Tunes like “(Turn You) Inside Out,” not just “Orange Crush” were pointed in their wording. The album, the live show, combined for such a wonderful experience, but then a great expectation. Which, I felt, wasn’t nearly met with Out of Time. I knew bands weren’t supposed to meet expectations if they were any good. But I wanted more rock, more exploration of that sound which, some have said, didn’t happen until Monster. Which I rejected on first listen and for many years after. Out of Time and Automatic For the People had all the prettiness that was suggested, implied, in REM’s music. But now it was garishly shown, like bad makeup or decor. That’s what I thought then.

    I like many tracks from both those albums. But I only came around to listening to them in the last 10 or 12 years. The singles will always sound distant, almost alien, to me. But a song like “Try not to Breathe” stays with me as something akin to “Time after Time” and a period of my life that happened a little over 20 years ago. I even found myself pulling up the band’s videos on YouTube and saw the vid for “Near Wild Heaven” and recalled reading an interview with the band (because I still read their interviews even if I didn’t listen to their records) when Stipe and Mills were saying that Out of Time reminded them of Murmur, some of the arrangements, the way it was recorded.

    As you point out so well, Accelerate was such an exciting album from the band. It was pointed; it made points. I guess it scored them too for me, one of those scorekeepers who was self-appointed to the role. They had nothing to prove to a listener like me, but I feel they won me back. I remember babbling to Sue how I was experiencing a renewed love, a return to romance (a great tune off Dead Letter Office, right?) with the band. The rock, the ‘acoustic’ “Until the Day is Done.” Actually, “Man-Sized Wreath, “Accelerate” and “Supernatural Superserious” are three of my favourite songs by the band. Oh, the opener, “Living Well…” too. What a record.

    So when “Collapse into Now” came out I felt tentative. I don’t even think I wanted them to try to top Accelerate, and spent no time wondering if they had. I listened to the Collapse tracks via free streaming. But I never bought the album. Then the announcement of the breakup came.

    Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. I’d read, as I’m sure you did, that Peter Buck had a screwed-up back. That’s hard to play through. I figured touring was done. Maybe they’d become a studio band. But then, deep down, I knew that wasn’t gonna happen. So I didn’t think about it again, until hearing they were ‘calling it a day.’

    Now I feel like the lover or partner who did try to make it work again, but it didn’t, and now knows that it’s truly over. I think you do a great job showing how a fan’s awareness, not just listening habits, is affected by a band’s activity or inactivity. It’s strange (weird Wire cover on Document, eh) to think they’re just not going to be making music anymore. It alters one’s awareness, even consciousness. I feel a bit older than my, um, early 40s.

    For awhile I was putting on those two REM live albums REALLY loud. Maybe trying to recapture something, who knows. But it reminded me that a tune like “I Took Your Name” or “Leaving New York” are actually pretty good. I know I’ll never go out and buy Monster, but I probably will New Adventures…that was, as you say, a very underrated offering. As for Up, Reveal, Around the Sun and anything else I might’ve missed. Probably won’t happen. But then I wasn’t sure I’d ever see the band until a drunken night in Montreal, in April in Montreal, shortly after my 19th birthday with my friends and a girl who danced with me during Fall on Me. (We fell back into the row behind and everyone was laughing and helped us back upright.)

    Thanks for the opportunity to write something I’ve been meaning to write somewhere, sometime.

    Sean

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