Thursday, September 22, 2011

R.E.M. is over

In an announcement on their web site, R.E.M. has announced that it is over and they have called it a day.  It's hard to say just how much this band meant to me, especially in the late 80s - early 90s, which were their peak years.  Like many of my generation, I discovered them when I got to college.  As great of a rock town as Philly is, in the 80's, the city only had classic rock stations and I couldn't get any college stations were I lived so while I had heard "Fall On Me" and I had "Fables of the Reconstruction", they had never really clicked with me. 

Then I got to college and discovered "Life's Rich Pageant" and it was all I listened to for about three months.  It was their most aggressive album, which appealed to me, young rocker that I was.  It felt free and political and not too weird but just weird enough to be different from the Led Zep and The Cult that I was listening to.  This was also one of the first times that I felt this band was my little secret and only a select few knew about them.  Elitist, perhaps, and indicative of that hipster, "they're cool if they're unknown" attitude but I was in college, so forgive me.

A year later, "Document", their last album on the indie label IRS, blew up, at least at college.  It was on at every party that first semester and even the people that weren't into "college music" (that's what we called alternative back then) owned it but we didn't mind.  Something that good had too be shared so we all dunkenly bopped around to "It's the End of the World As We Know It" and misinterpreted the meaning of "One I Love" until we actually listened to the lyrics.  I went to see them for the first time at The Spectrum that tour, which was maybe half-full, so they still didn't really feel BIG.  I don't remember a lot of that show except a loose feeling unlike that of other arena shows I had seen and a cover of Lou Gramm's "Midnight Blue" which I wasn't quite sure if they were being ironic or not but they played balls out and like they meant it.

A year later (1988) they went BIG with "Green" the first album after their big payday from Warner Brothers.  For some reason, I didn't feel like they sold out.  The album still sounded like them and it featured loud, aggressive music like "Orange Crush" and "Turn You Inside Out" along with some beautiful and sad songs like "You Are the Everything", "The Wrong Child" and "I Remember California".  I saw them at the beginning of the tour for that album and then again toward the end.  It was a massive tour and I remember feeling after the second show (at the Mann Music Center) that they seemed tired.  I hoped the grind of the big label album/tour/album cycle wouldn't be their ruin.

"I Remember California" sent me off to my summer in LA and that summer I really began to dig into their older albums, "Murmur" and "Reckoning", especially "Murmur".  I listened to "Murmur" a lot that summer on a crummy cassette with Pete Townshend's "All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes".  "Murmur"'s indescipherable lyrics and swampy sound (made swampier by the bad cassette) were a resting place within the glitz and neon colors of LA.  I especially remember listening to "Murmur" while I say on Huntigton Beach on the 4th of July, watching surfers and drinking beer and feeling like I was in the right place at the right time, right now.  "Perfect Circle" still give me chills and almost brings me to tears.

"I Remember California" brought me back to the East Coast for my senior year and R.E.M. disappeared for a while and then came out with what I think is their masterpiece, "Out of Time".  This was one of those albums that was the right album at the right time and seemed to be speaking right to me.  I had graduated in June but was still living on College Hill, not in school, but not feeling completely out either.  I was adrift, unsure what I was going to do, unsure of where I stood at the time and where I would go in the future.  I don't know if the band felt the same ambivilance, on a major label but still trying to keep indie cred.  But the songs on the album seemed to reflect what I was feeling ("Low", "Country Feedback", "Half a World Away", "Losing My Religion") and put me at ease about it ("Belong", "Shiny Happy People").

"Automatic for the People" was next. I was in radio at the time and the day that we got the single "Drive" in, I ran into an office and threw it into the CD player, incredibly excited to hear it before anyone else.  It sucked you in slowly, lyrically and musically, before exploding with guitars.  I listened to it a number of times in a row and just reveled in it, letting it envelop me.  This was my radio album, as I heard the hits many times while on the air, but I never got sick of them and I would always turn it up.  They felt like a respite from the anger and aggression of the grunge music at the time ("Everybody Hurts" - "so hold on....hold on") but also fit in and didn't feel out of place.  And "Nightswimming" still stands as one their most beatiful songs.

Their last great album "Monster" followed in '94.  They had seemed to embrace some of the aggression of the grunge movement but also harkened back to some of that swampy, blurry sound of some of their earlier albums. 

"New Adventures in Hi-Fi" was next.  Perhaps the fact that is was made on tour made it feel a bit casual to me and it didn't really click with me as much as previous albums.

Then the drummer, Bill Berry, quit, and the band just never sounded as interested after that.  The albums would still have a few great songs, but they seemed inconsistent and while I enjoyed them, they wouldn't really click with me.  Perhaps time and the inevitable biography's will have the band tell us if they felt different too.  Perhaps when Bill left is stopped feeling like four friends against the world and more like a job or a business where they hired people to fill his place for an album or a tour.

But the slow decline of the band can't take away their impact on me and my generation.  The hippies would talk about the Beatles and the Stones and though I love those bands, they could never be mine.  They weren't the bands that I grew up with and grew with.  They weren't the bands that I waited with anticipation for the new album from and then played the album over and over again, trying to decipher where the band was and what they meant and what the songs meant to me and my life.  R.E.M. was one of those bands, one of my bands and they always will be.

Berry, Buck, Mills & Stipe.  A Perfect Circle of aquaintances and friends.  R.E.M.  R.I.P.

Tony Jordan