Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Quiet Passing of R.E.M.--a Eulogy

In the fall of 1996, when I was 18 and didn't know the first damn thing about the publishing world or copyright (and precious little about writing), I was convinced that my liberal use of song lyrics (and especially R.E.M. song lyrics) in my poetry would get me in trouble when I got big and famous. O for the ignorance of youth. . .

Anyway, I called directory assistance for Athens, Georgia and got the number for Jefferson Holt, the longtime legal council for the band (yes, I was fan enough that I knew nerdy things like that)--I called him right up (nb: I either have no shame or huevos grande--or a little of both).  I got his wife, who said he was no longer working with the band (this was not yet common knowledge) but that I should call Bertis Downs, the manager.  I did and, after my questions about "getting published real soon" or whatever bumkin junk I said, he told me to send my stuff along and they would check it out.  Like a nerd, I did.  He called me back some weeks later and said the band thought it was fine if I quoted them.  Now, I've no idea if Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe ever saw my work--I doubt they did--but the story ought to tell you a bit about how I felt about R.E.M.  I was the "buy every album on vinyl, tape, CD, and special release CD, go to the first-or-midnight release (Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and UP) kind of fan.  Unfortunately, they only toured once that I could see them (I wasn't going to see them without Bill Berry--sorry, gents) which had done the previous fall with my ex-girlfriend who (for all I could tell) hated me though I still madly loved her--things got really uncomfortable when Michael Stipe told us all to take our shirts off.

My first R.E.M. experience was listening to "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" on a church road trip when I was 12 or so.  Unfortunately, that was 1990, and the radio and MTV were full of Madonna's "Vogue" and Wilson Phillips "Hold On."  But then came that day when I was glued to my MTV and a dark set appeared, rain drizzling and people ducking and then the clear knife of a mandolin.  I had no idea what I was listening to--or if I even liked it--but I had to keep listening; every time (which wasn't a lot in '91--yet) "Losing My Religion" came on MTV I watched.  My mom got me a CD player for Christmas and I ordered Out of Time out of the BMG music club (along with some dozen other awesome [Men At Work's Business as Usual] and awful [I think there was some Bryan Adams in there] albums).  Unfortunately, the CD player had a program function, so I just made it play the songs I liked.  I pined for new albums by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, whose tracks made the rounds later that year but had to pay that big BMG bill first.

In my freshman year, however, I got involved in a band, The Actual Size.  My bandmates, Tommy and Loyal, came over to my house and went through my CDs--and thought I was a dork until they came across Out of Time.  They asked how I liked "Belong."  I didn't know what they were talking about.  They made me listen--it was amazing.  We listened to the whole album.  Loyal then played Green and Document for me.  I was hooked.  Hooked more than my friends were, in fact.  Though The Actual Size had long since broken up (in a parking lot, close to a woman throwing bottles at her man wailing "I love ya but you're scarin' me!"), we spent that Christmas in Tommy's huge house, playing pool and drinking Crystal Pepsi.  I gave Loyal a copy of Murmur.  By this time I had bought all the albums on tape or CD (Automatic for the People had just come out and excuse my hipster, but I loved "Everybody Hurts" before there was that cool video) and was in the process of tracking them down on vinyl (Neil Young told us that everything sounded better on vinyl).  I dreamed about them going back out on tour so I could catch them live--it would be just like Pop Screen!

Sophomore year I dated Sara (a senior--aww yeah), who was a bigger R.E.M. fan that I was.  She completed my early music education (everything pre-Blues and Bluegrass), filling out my knowledge with bootleg concerts of Stipe and Natalie Merchant, Sisters of Mercy, Morrissey, "Kinko the Kid-Lovin' Clown," and The Velvet Underground.  We found a pink album called So Much Younger Then with songs like "I Want to be a Narrator (for the Jacques Cousteau Show)" from some unnamed 1980 show.  That homeless summer I crashed on the couch of my buddy Kris's Air Stream in a Cuervo and clove-induced haze and listened to my vinyl Life's Rich Pageant more times than there were mosquitos in the air.

When Monster came, I was ready--I learned "What's the Frequency Kenneth" on guitar (with the help of my bassist), wished I could get a star t-shirt, skipped school to buy the album on the day it was released (we didn't have midnight release parties in Tampa yet--at least not for R.E.M.), and even learned the words to "Tongue"--I was overjoyed when they said they were finally going to tour.  Even the aforementioned awkwardness didn't stop me from enjoying the show (and getting the set list).

The story was pretty much the same with New Adventures but as a better guitarist, I sat down and figured out all the songs myself--if I had had faster internet access and typing skills, I could have tabbed the whole thing out for everyone on day one--falling slap in love with "Electrolite" and hoping it spoke of the new direction the band would take.  I played it with confidence at open mikes and apartment concerts--it even "got me the girl" once (though not "The Girl"--she doesn't really like R.E.M.).

Though I didn't think the band would survive Bill Berry's departure (after all, he had written "Perfect Circle" and "Everybody Hurts" among other songs), I looked forward to the release of UP.  I was running a pirate radio morning show at the time and we played, critiqued, and analyzed each track.  Though it was a good album with some fun songs (I still love "Lotus") it just wasn't R.E.M.  The other Mike of the Mike and Mike morning show quipped "well, they're just falling into the Depeche Mode maxim"--the limit of a band sounding like Depeche Mode approaches infinity as the band progresses in age.

Reveal came out and it was awful.  Maybe it was good music, you might think so--but it wasn't R.E.M.  The soul of "Don't Go Back to Rockville" and "So Fast, So Numb" had died.  Around the Sun was worse.  They tried with Accelerate and I tried to love it but the songs faded as fast as they lasted--and sounded like they were written that quickly as well.

I didn't even know they released Collapse Into Now earlier this year.

While it's true one can grow out of a band (much as I used to love "Ghost" by the Indigo Girls I can't even approach that level of angst as a happily married father of three--it's simply laughable) I think R.E.M.'s announcement today proves what everybody knew in 1998--R.E.M. wasn't a band--or at least wasn't a great band--without Bill Berry.

It's not that I'll miss them--you can't miss what hasn't been fresh in 15 years (half the band's life)--but I do mourn the passing of what could have been.

Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time to Begin the Begin--and end with a Perfect Circle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well done, Michael. I appreciated the walk through my formative years in your recollections of the music.