|Posted on September 23, 2011 at 2:00 PM|
"To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening." -- R.E.M.
Chances are, you heard the news that R.E.M. decided to disband this week after 31 years of making amazing music together. The irony is that apparently they arrived at this decision while going through their catalogue of 31 years of terrific music; choosing the best songs for their upcoming retrospective, gave them pause and caused them to consider that they had no more to say musically and it was time to exit the stage gracefully.
To be honest, I don’t really understand the decision to make a formal announcement that you are finished as a band. I mean, I get that at this moment in time they might feel burnt out or creatively tapped or just ready for a break, or that they’ve said all they have to say or that they feel absolutely, positively, 100-frickin'-percent CERTAIN that they will never want to play together again. But, why the announcement? In this millennium they’ve put out a total of 4 albums, so it isn’t like they were on a album-a-year deal. My friend, Craig, responded to the announcement with, "Really? They're breaking up? They were even still together?" so it isn't exactly like they were Coldplay or Black Eyed Peas or something. Why not just, you know, quietly stop making music and stop booking shows and then if at some point in the future you decide you *might* want to play again, it wouldn’t have to be this big “REUNION” show. Marketing, I suppose. But R.E.M. has never been about marketing or branding or image and that is one of the things that made them so great. I remember the photo insert on the “Eponymous” CD that has “THEY AIRBRUSHED MY FACE” written over Michael Stipe’s picture. Classic.
To look at them, you would have never figured they were a “rock” band, and, frankly, I’m not sure that “rock band” is even the correct phrase or label to describe them. But “Intellectual, artistic, meaningful prose set to guitar, bass, mandolin and drum” is certainly much harder to fit on a tag. In Stipe you had a lead singer that appeared – at least for the first few years – to shun the limelight. He would often look down or stand back in the stage shadows while singing/mumbling lyrics that were often unintelligible. And in the recent years he looked more and more like an end-stage AIDS patient/Auschwitz survivor as he grew thinner, balder, and more gaunt and Skeletor-like. Mike Mills looked like he would have been more comfortable off playing D&D or WoW or hacking into some .gov Website or something else equally nerdlinger than being up on stage in front of icky-icky girls. And Peter Buck looks like a cross between Jon Stewart and a puffy-faced, long-haired non Jon-Stewart guy and appears that he’d be more at home discussing literature or sitting on a quiet porch strumming a mandolin than rocking out to arenas filled with thousands. But, again, maybe that’s part of what made them so cool; these were guys that happened to find each other and make awesome music without having to fit a mold or stereotype or even crave the front-and-center.
I’ve written about R.E.M. in the past. About how I drove hours out of my way to eat the soulest of soul food that I’d never normally consider eating, just because it was in R.E.M.’s home town and that R.E.M. felt enough about the place to name an album after it. Automatic? Absolutely.
I’ve written about how I discovered them all on my own, seeing a cassette lying in a pile of other cassettes in a coffee shop I worked at while in high school. The writing was mostly smeared off the tape, but I could see the cool IRS Records logo and the band’s name and the name of the tape: REM “Murmur.” Intrigued by the logo, I popped it in and I was hooked. I played it over and over and over on my shifts and then took it home and copied it. (Totally legal, right?) It also didn’t hurt that “Murmur” was an amazing debut record. The lyrics were often mumbled and indistinct and both meaningful and meaningless at the same time. And it was like nothing I’d heard before. And I’ve bought (or confiscated from my friends) every R.E.M. album since.
Their album “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” is in my Top 10 albums list. I think that one of the reasons why I loved it is that it was an album completely devoid of radio hits. It was R.E.M. being classic R.E.M. and not making an album for commercial appeal but making an album filled with good music and strong, brilliant, thoughtful words.
“I know what I wanted. I know what I wanted. I know what I wanted this to be.”
R.E.M. didn’t jump from the college radio scene to mainstream overnight, and that’s one of the things that made them so inherently cool. If you were into them in the early '80s, you were in on the secret early on. You knew this great band that wasn’t being played on the radio, that everyone didn’t know, that made you feel like you were IN on something. That changed with their fifth album, Document, in 1987. With “It’s the end of the world as we know it” and “The One I Love” both getting giant airplay and introducing R.E.M. to the masses, the secret was out.
R.E.M. was one of those bands that made music that got into your soul, putting out albums that forced you to listen to them over and over. There is a hard drive out there somewhere that has the beginnings of a short story that was the result of a long night drinking glass after glass of red wine and listening to nothing but “Nightswimming” on repeat. Over and over. For hours. (It starts off in a psychiatrist’s office. A patient lying down, recalling a night years ago when something happened. Something that needs to stay forgotten but that is demanding to be remembered. I’m sure it was 85% rubbish with some sporadic bits of brilliance mixed in.)
“Nightswimming, remembering that night. September's coming soon. I'm pining for the moon. And what if there were two, side by side in orbit around the fairest sun? That bright, tight forever drum could not describe nightswimming. The photograph reflects, every streetlight a reminder. Nightswimming deserves a quiet night, deserves a quiet night...”
I was fortunate enough to see them perform live once. It was the “Green” tour at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, California. I remember Michael Stipe beginning the song “Orange Crush” by yelling into a bullhorn offstage, “BE…ALL THAT YOU CAN BE…IN THE ARRRRRRRRR-ME.” R.E.M. was one of those bands that was able to have a voice and be political and push a message without feeling like they were cramming it down your throat Bono-style. They were unabashed in their dislike for President Bush, but not to the point where you couldn’t be a Bush fan (surely there were/are some...) and still love R.E.M.
Everybody does hurt sometimes. But, this week, it’s the R.E.M. fans that are hurting the most. At least they’ve left behind years of outstanding music, and – if the band’s comments are to be believed – are parting in an amicable, non-self-immolating manner that at least leaves us the hope of hearing them again one day.
"Sometimes I feel so happy. Sometimes I feel so sad. Sometimes I feel just about everything. Lately I'm just feeling bad. Lately I'm just feeling bad. I thought of you as my mountain top. I thought of you as my peak. I thought of you as just about everything, I had but couldn't keep. I had but couldn’t keep...”
Let us now not be sad and say, "Goodbye," but let us instead say, "Thank you," and then press "Play All Artist" on our media server of choice and be instanly reminded of why they mattered to us in the first place.