A farewell to R.E.M.

Some reflections on R.E.M. from the staff of The A.V. Club.

Noel Murray: I wrote about my personal history with R.E.M. a couple of years ago in my Popless essay “There Shall Come A Reckoning,” though that piece ends around 1984, and doesn’t get into how it felt to hear “Driver 8” and “Can’t Get There From Here” on album-rock radio for the first time, or what it was like when Lifes Rich Pageant broke wide, or my memories of being a freshman at the University Of Georgia when Green came out. I also didn’t write about the three times I saw R.E.M. in concert: once in Vanderbilt’s gymnasium on the Fables Of The Reconstruction tour (with 10,000 Maniacs opening, and a guest appearance by Jason Ringenberg of Jason & The Scorchers, who sang “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” and the Scorchers’ “Broken Whiskey Glass” as duets with Michael Stipe); once at The Grand Ole Opry House on the Lifes Rich Pageant tour (where the band debuted future hit “The One I Love”); and once at the Omni on the Green tour (during which Stipe frequently dashed backstage and then ran back to the mic muttering “candygram”). I haven’t written much about seeing the members of R.E.M. around town while I was attending UGA, which made them seem like part of the vital community of Georgia musicians and artists, or how listening to the later R.E.M. albums after I graduated in ’92 made me pine for Athens, even though I knew most of the band had long since moved away.

I became an R.E.M. fan at 13, and I’ve remained a fan for all these years, even though I go through cycles where I respect the band more than I love them. From a critical point of view, I could argue that R.E.M. overachieved, and that they probably should’ve stayed at the level of “biggest band on college radio,” rather than becoming arena-rockers. (Frankly, the charms of the band’s music tended to get swallowed up the more it tried to boom it out to the back row, though it certainly gave it a more than fair shot.) But I never felt protective of R.E.M. the way I’ve felt about other favorite acts that have tried to move from the minors to the majors. Because I found the band at a time when I was mostly listening to classic rock with a sprinkling of radio-friendly new wave, I wanted it to be big, and felt validated when it happened. And I think the band members handled success reasonably well—“candygrams” aside. They tried to push their sound in different directions to suit their level of fame, always looking for ways to make their records more artful, not necessarily more popular. It was fascinating, too, to watch the evolution of Stipe, who was a mysterious mumbler in the band’s earlier days, but developed such control over his instrument over the decades that by the end, his vocals were a pleasure to listen to even when the songs were less memorable. That said, over the past few years R.E.M. has released two studio albums and one live record that have stayed in heavy rotation with me, much more so than Reveal or Around The Sun ever did. So I’d say the band’s going out on a high note, in my opinion, leaving behind a catalog where the songs from 2011 are as personal and beguiling in their way as the songs from 1981.

Scott Tobias: R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant is the oldest CD I have in my collection. Not the first—that would be Huey Lewis And The News’ 1982 album Picture This, which met a bad end—but the one that forged a musical path that my 15-year-old self would follow for the next 25 years (and beyond). Knowing next to nothing about music, other than maybe The Beatles’ discography, I ordered the album randomly off a Columbia House catalog, which just had a thumbnail of the cover and a one-sentence write-up. I couldn’t articulate why the music meant so much to me, any more than I could articulate what Michael Stipe was saying half the time, but it struck a nerve at a time when I felt alienated from Top 40 and high-school classmates walking the halls in their oversized hair-metal concert T-shirts. When I left the Atlanta suburbs to go to the University Of Georgia in Athens, R.E.M. was the primary draw for me, the beginnings of a musical education that continued at Wuxtry Records, the 40 Watt, and other hallowed institutions. And now, as a pitiful Gen-X nostalgist, the band’s music is so strongly linked to friendships and memories that it can’t be extracted from them. No other band I’ve known, save maybe for The Replacements, has that kind of power.

Keith Phipps: To realize how long this band has meant so much to me I only have to reflect on the devices I’ve used to listen to its albums, and when, and with whom. I heard this year’s Collapse Into Now mostly through headphones and via an iPod plugged into a car stereo, at least once on the way to a doctor’s appointment with my wife while she was pregnant with our daughter. I listened to Up on a CD boombox placed on a shelf near my bed in Madison, Wisconsin. It was released in the fall of 1998. I was alone when it came out, but it went back into heavy rotation when I met the woman I’d later marry and discovered how much we both liked it. It may have been the same CD player I used to listen to Automatic For The People in my dorm as a college sophomore in 1992. Clinton was on the verge of being elected and the promise of change was in the air. No, that one had two tape decks. I remember using them to put a recording of the group’s Unplugged cover of “Love Is All Around” on a mixtape made for someone I wanted to hear it but who lived many miles away. Years before that, a friend gave me a dub of Document he’d recorded from a tape checked out of the library. I already liked “The One I Love.” When I popped it into my GE-brand Walkman knockoff with its fuzzy, tear-prone headphones, I didn’t yet know how much more there was to discover, or imagine I’d still be thinking about that album so many years later. Some music you hear. Some music marks you, and shows you where you’re headed before you even know.

Josh Modell: I have a distinct memory of buying Document on vinyl at Musicland in the Bayshore Mall (Glendale, Wisconsin reprazent) sometime before Green was released, then taking it to the turntable in our basement and recording onto one side of a C-90 cassette so I could listen to it on the go. It was definitely one of the first “cool” records I bought, and I recall my much older, classic rock-loving brother scoffing and using the word “alternative” derisively. But I loved how dark and weird the record was, particularly “Oddfellows Local 151.” I went to see R.E.M. on the Green tour at Alpine Valley, and even though I was miles from the stage, I recall being floored by “Cuyahoga,” a song I’d never heard because I hadn’t yet explore the back catalog. Speaking of exploring the back catalog, I also remember being so impressed by the hidden number 4 on Green’s cover, and then joyously picking through the back catalog to see the “countdown.” I’m overjoyed that R.E.M. didn’t let the abysmal Around The Sun be its career capper. Accelerate and Collapse Into Now are both extremely worthy entries in the R.E.M. canon, so Sun feels more like a stumble than a faceplant. Overall, though—and I realize this is heresy—Up is probably my favorite.

Kyle Ryan: By the time I was getting into non-mainstream music, R.E.M. was well entrenched in the “college rock” scene that would eventually be relabeled “alternative.” This was around Green—probably close to when “Stand” became the theme song for Get A Life—and I didn’t know of a world where R.E.M. wasn’t one of the most important bands for budding music snobs to check out. It was basically like someone said “Hello, welcome to the club,” and handed you a copy of Murmur as an introduction to this new world. Over the years, I remained a casual R.E.M. fan, but the band had a habit of being around during important moments of my life—notably, at my wedding reception at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, when my wife and I used “Strange Currencies” (from 1994’s unjustly maligned Monster) for our first dance. All these years later, I look at R.E.M. like The Simpsons, which entered my life right around the same time as the band: only occasionally great in their twilight (I loved Accelerate), but I can’t imagine a world without them.

Marcus Gilmer: While I’m too young to have seen R.E.M. live during its I.R.S. heyday—be it in a small, sweaty college club supporting Murmur or in a larger theater supporting Document—I’m still old enough to have grown up with the band and been heavily influenced by its output. To this day, R.E.M. remains my favorite band and will forever be inextricably linked to many of the important milestones of my life and everything that happened in between. As a kid in North Alabama, I taped the Green and Document singles off radio (piracy!), and a few years later in junior high, I was passed a beat-up cassette copy of Out Of Time that eventually led me to the band’s more raucous back catalog. New Adventures In Hi-Fi was on constant rotation during my senior year of high school just as Reveal would punctuate the spring of my senior year of college. But the music of R.E.M. has also been something I’ve fallen back on for comfort at other times; I spent a month almost exclusively listening to Murmur (specifically, “Perfect Circle”) while evacuated from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, finding comfort in the music and my familiarity with it.

Like Noel and Josh, I’m glad the band is going out with Accelerate and Collapse Into Now, as well as the excellent Live At The Olympia. Live, the band was in fine form; I was close to the stage for R.E.M.’s Chicago show on 2008’s Accelerate tour and it played with a ferocity and energy that had been lacking on previous tours. It felt like R.E.M. still had plenty of gas left in the tank for future albums and tours. I guess I was wrong. But that’s okay. These are my last impressions of a band that soundtracked not just my adolescence, but nearly my entire life, and I’m glad they’re good ones.

Steven Hyden: Amid the orgy of Gen-X nostalgia that’s exploded online and in the media in the aftermath of R.E.M.’s break-up announcement, I’m left with two conflicting thoughts. The first is, “me, too.” All the stories about taping songs off the radio and listening to Lifes Rich Pageant and Document and Green repeatedly on battered bedroom boomboxes and staring endlessly at the band’s (frequently garish) album covers—the worst is Out Of Time, though Monster is a close second—might as well have been copied from my back pages. And here I thought I was some kind of iconoclast for riding my bike around town while listening to “Fall On Me” on headphones; turns out there were millions of kids like me, we just didn’t always live in the same towns. R.E.M. was among the first bands that I liked, and if I’m being honest, there’s probably still a part of me that looks for R.E.M. in every new band I come across. For all the reasons my colleagues have already discussed, R.E.M. is so personal and tied up in the events of my life that it’s hard to look at it as just a band. I’ve come to think of R.E.M. like an old girlfriend—we’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but our history together is eternal, and unshakeable.

That’s the fan part of me. The critic part has this other, more pragmatic thought: “Perspective, please.” The truth is this: R.E.M. was part of a generation of bands that talked about upending classic-rock tradition by not falling into old traps: excess, self-indulgence, questionable artistic decisions, putting money before creative interests. And R.E.M., to some degree, fell into those traps at times during the course of its career. I don’t fault it for making mistakes along the way, but the miscues are significant and belong in the record, along with all the well-earned superlatives. In my view, R.E.M. hasn’t made a truly great record since 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi—the band’s last with drummer Bill Berry, and a scathingly honest depiction of a group ravaged from a grueling tour and seemingly on its last legs. To me it still sounds like a swan song for the “real” R.E.M., only it came 15 years before the actual end. 

Now that R.E.M. is finished, I suspect we won’t remember much about this band after the mid-’90s. And I think that’s okay. I wouldn’t say that R.E.M. is leaving on a high note exactly—Accelerate had energy but no memorable songs, while Collapse Into Now has its moments but still ranks in the lower quarter of the band’s records—but the group does seem to have arrived at a place of peace and dignity. R.E.M. had a great run, and left behind a wonderful collection of music that’s essential to anyone curious about ’80s and ’90s rock. The party was splendid while it lasted, but the time has come to turn off the lights.