“How serious can you be about a pop band?” —Michael Stipe, 1989
When you love a band—especially when you’re young—you end up forming a weird, sacred, and irrational bond that’s entirely one-sided and exists only in your mind. Even when that love lasts for years and years, outlasting “real” friendships and romantic entanglements and living on as one of the only constants in your life outside of family (and maybe not even family), it’s still essentially a construction you’ve made up for the sake of entertainment. Bands can’t love you back; the best they can offer is an abstract, “Hello Cleveland!” kind of appreciation.
Being a fan is a more socially acceptable version for having an imaginary friend.
Last year, shortly after R.E.M. announced that it was breaking up after 31 years, I interviewed the band’s bassist, Mike Mills. As an R.E.M. fan since the late ’80s, I had “known” Mills for nearly 25 years. In that time I listened to his band more than practically any other. R.E.M. was a constant companion throughout my teen years and college; I related so intensely with R.E.M. that any slight to the band was perceived as a slight to me, and undermined my self-image. If there had been Internet message boards in the ’90s (or ones I knew about, anyway), I would’ve been on them laying waste to R.E.M.’s detractors, and by extension asserting my own worthiness. On the flipside, R.E.M.’s triumphs were my triumphs, validating all of the time, thought, and emotion I had put into this band. My fandom cut to the very heart of my identity, in ways I didn’t fully recognize or would’ve ever admitted if I had.
R.E.M and I fell out of touch in my 20s, but we got friendly again in my 30s, and it was like we never left each other. I came to view my relationship with R.E.M. as a marriage—there were ups and downs, periods of love and commitment alternating with periods of boredom and estrangement, but there was no getting rid of each other. The connection simply could never be broken; there was too much history that refused to be set aside and forgotten.
Of course, it’s not like I could talk about any of this with Mike Mills. It would be… strange. I imagine that the members of R.E.M. see no longer having to talk to 34-year-old guys about their childhood love of Automatic For The People as a major perk of no longer being together. Talking to Mills was already strange enough. I interview musicians I admire fairly often, but this was like chatting up the poster I had on my wall when I was 14.
Fans like to fantasize about hanging out with their favorite band backstage, where the drinks are always cold and the pizza is always hot. What we don’t realize is that we’re not fantasizing about the actual band; what we want is the image in our heads that’s formed by favorite songs and liner-notes photos, and rounded out by our own desires and experiences. My image of R.E.M. is made up of tiny, clandestine pockets in the band’s music that I claimed long ago and still feel like they belong to me: Bill Berry’s drumming on “Wolves, Lower”; Michael Stipe’s mournful, extended “oh’s” at the end of “Sweetness Follows”; the way Peter Buck gives his guitar an extra-hard strum before the final verse of “Welcome To The Occupation”; the sound of Mills’ backing vocal in the closing moments of “Binky The Doormat” (the unsung masterpiece of the band’s career).
I could’ve spent 20 minutes talking to Mills about my favorite group moment in R.E.M.’s entire catalog: That part near the end of “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” that I rewound a million times (it starts at 2:55), when the music drops out and Mills and Stipe sing over each other before Buck’s revved-up guitar and Berry’s stomping drums bring it all home.
That’s what R.E.M. is to me. Not only do certain songs evoke vast stretches of my own history, they never stopped making me feel that connection, even after I grew up and left most of my childhood loves behind. This sort of thing is dismissed as nostalgia, and maybe it is on some level. But the stuff that’s really meaningful—be it a song, movie, love affair, or some other transformative event—doesn’t have an expiration date after which time you simply move on. We don’t have to rip out the back pages of our lives to make way for the new. Those pages are the foundation that gives richness to our lives, explaining where we came from and how we got here. Sometimes, those old storylines even end up having extra chapters we didn’t anticipate.
At any rate, my feelings about R.E.M. and what it represented had nothing to do with Mills. He was, in a way, just an innocent bystander. Besides, the only reason this genial fiftysomething millionaire was talking to me in the first place was his interest in promoting R.E.M.’s new greatest-hits album, the release of which was timed suspiciously close to the band’s break-up announcement. In spite of two well-received albums in recent years, 2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse Into Now, R.E.M. was now nearly 20 years past its prime as a commercial powerhouse. Breaking up had predictably renewed the public’s interest in R.E.M.’s music, and it was important to strike while the iron was hot.
Instead of spending 20 minutes on one minute’s worth of music that R.E.M. recorded during the Reagan administration, I asked Mills what he thought about the end of R.E.M. (mixed emotions, but mostly happy), his favorite R.E.M. album (Reveal, though I suspect he was just being contrary), and what he was going to do next (play in a Big Star cover band with Chris Stamey from The dB’s, which is exactly what a man who retires in his early 50s ought to do). It was a perfectly fine conversation. But I never got to ask what I really wanted to know.
Why did R.E.M. mean so much to me?
Let’s set R.E.M. off to the side for a moment. What does any of the stuff we love matter? Why do we feel that unshakeable loyalty toward people and institutions that make music, write books, score touchdowns, or do whatever else captured our imaginations at one time and won’t let go? Why do we buy records we don’t like or attend shows we’re too tired to enjoy? Why do we watch television shows for years after they stopped being good, and gladly enter into arguments about why the later, underappreciated seasons are secretly great? Why do we pay good money to see sequels that we suspect are probably terrible on opening night, buying into that old bull about carrying on “the mythology” of the original when it’s really just another shabby rehash?
Because we will feel guilty if we don’t. It will make us “fair-weather” fans, and that is unacceptable. We will have betrayed something that has given us so much pleasure. These things deserve more than that. Our pretend relationships have to be honored. We made a vow, if only in our own hearts.
Perfect Circle is a six-part story about R.E.M. told via the experiences and impressions of a nearly lifelong fan. It’s my hope (and suspicion) that my experiences are utterly typical and therefore relatable for people who not only love this band but love anything with a fierce loyalty that’s neither explicable nor breakable. After all, while the players in every love story are different, the broad strokes tend to be the same.
I’m going to be writing about every R.E.M. album, and telling a story about how a little band from a sleepy Southern college town came to embody both the idealism of the rock underground and the compromises and betrayals inherent in achieving major rock stardom. I want to emphasize that this is a story about R.E.M. I don’t claim to be telling the story, not that I believe that such a thing could ever exist anyway. Perfect Circle will bear the stamp of my biases and personal perspective, and because I’m also interested in the nature of fandom (particularly my fandom, though again, my feelings certainly won’t be unique), I’ve shaped the arc of the story to suit my needs.
In terms of R.E.M.’s chronology, Perfect Circle will be told slightly out of order. We’re starting in the late ’80s, because that’s when my story with R.E.M. starts. The early years, Chronic Town through Reckoning, will be covered in Part 2, and then I’ll jump back to the ’90s for the band’s arena-rock period. Things will follow a fairly straight path after that, though Fables Of The Reconstruction will have its own chapter toward the end. I promise it will all make sense once I’m finished, but if some of you are irritated by the structure or by what I’ve decided to focus (or not focus) on, I understand. You’re fans, too, and you have your own versions of this story. I promise my story won’t negate yours.
Telling the R.E.M. story from a fan’s perspective isn’t only a matter of convenience or severe myopia; this band cared deeply about how it was perceived by its followers, and consciously tried to shape that perception throughout its career, from early interviews to the final break-up announcement. Just as my R.E.M. fandom formed part of my identity, the band saw itself partly through the eyes of fans—as it is with all bands, I suppose, whether they admit it or not—who early on embraced R.E.M. as proud unprofessionals that somehow managed to produce bright, tuneful records and make a series of wise career choices that helped grow its audience with each new release. R.E.M. built a lasting career out of claiming not to care about a lasting career.
As early as 1983, Buck was telling interviewers that R.E.M. was not your typical out-for-glory rock band: “We do this for fun,” he says in one grainy backstage video. “We don’t feel we have to live up to that whole rock-star image of going onstage, like U2, being melodramatic or whatever.” That deliberate setting-apart of R.E.M. from the clichés of rock stardom was echoed in the press release announcing the band’s dissolution nearly 30 years later: “We feel kind of like pioneers in this—there’s no disharmony here, no falling-outs, no lawyers squaring-off,” Mills wrote, setting the tone for a message he and Stipe would stress again and again in their post break-up interviews. “We’ve made this decision together, amicably and with each other’s best interests at heart. The time just feels right.”
From the beginning of its career right on through to the end, R.E.M. tried to do the right thing, and then pointed it out in the press. I’m not questioning the band’s motivations, and this doesn’t discount what R.E.M. was able to do, which is re-invent what a big-time rock group could be. But it does show that R.E.M. played a primary role in creating its own mythology, which continued to expand even as some of the band’s early fans felt alienated by its growing popularity.
I don’t remember what my first R.E.M. album was. It might have been Eponymous, the 1988 best-of covering the band’s early years with indie label IRS, which soundtracked numerous bike rides around my neighborhood at dusk in the summertime. But my early memories are also a jumble of songs from 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, 1987’s Document, and 1988’s Green, R.E.M.’s first gold, platinum, and multi-platinum albums, respectively. I’m pretty sure I got into R.E.M. because of the video for “Stand,” though I remember the arty “The One I Love” video—so dark and sexy in ways I wasn’t prepared to understand yet—giving me a stomach-ache. It was too mysterious, too adult, for me at the time. The self-aware smart-kid bubblegum of “Stand” was more my speed.
If you saw R.E.M. playing T. Rex covers at Tyrone’s in Athens years before Chronic Town was released, or bought Murmur because you were obsessed with the “Radio Free Europe”/"Sitting Still" 7-inch, my introduction to the band might ring a little hollow. “Stand” is probably the one R.E.M. song you don’t like. Just the fact that little kids like me even knew who R.E.M. was spoke volumes about how far the band had come since forming in 1980. Certainly the R.E.M. I knew was much different from the band that made Murmur. Even if Lifes Rich Pageant included songs that predated Murmur—including the hyperactive rocker “Just A Touch” and the anthemic “What If We Give It Away,” a re-worked version of the early demo “Get On Their Way”—it was much more of a regular “rock” record, with a robust drum sound and shout-along choruses tailor-made for mass consumption. (The album’s producer, Don Gehman, also oversaw John Mellencamp’s mid-’80s output, and later helmed Hootie And The Blowfish’s Fairweather Johnson.)
As much as I liked “Radio Free Europe”—the original Hib-Tone version kicked off Eponymous—R.E.M. as I knew it was defined by “These Days,” the second song on Lifes Rich Pageant. Storming in on a clatter of barnstorming drums and skyrocketing guitar, “These Days” begins with one of my favorite Michael Stipe one-liners (“I will re-arrange your scales”) and lifts off on the back of Mills’ high country backing vocal in the chorus. “These Days” was obscure enough to be cool (I still have no clue what it is about, though Stipe later claimed that it was “a bit of a epiphanal song for me”), but it wasn’t a chore to listen to. It actually wasn’t that far removed from the oldies station my dad played in the car. “These Days” was more energetic and ragged than the Top 40 pop songs I heard on the radio and MTV, but it wasn’t that ragged. It was melodic, catchy, and easy to like. To a listener with very vague notions of what “underground” music was supposed to be, R.E.M. was—to quote Buck—the “acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff.”
That quote comes from a 1987 Rolling Stone story that helped introduce me to R.E.M. When I was 11 or 12, I started educating myself on rock history by paging through stacks of Rolling Stone issues at the library. The R.E.M. issue caught my eye because the cover headline was so bold: “America’s Best Rock ’N’ Roll Band.” In retrospect, it seems even bolder. I can’t imagine any publication making the same proclamation about a band today; only in the days of a limited, closed-off media could you pretend to have that kind of all-knowing authority. Today, that headline would be accused of arrogant hubris. R.E.M. was too male, too white, too classic rock—why is that kind of band considered the best in the whole U.S.A.?
While R.E.M. publicly shrugged off delusions of grandeur, it just as clearly wanted to be a band that was—for lack of a better term—heroic. At one point in the Rolling Stone story, Stipe makes an offhand remark about his disbelief that R.E.M. was “up there with Springsteen or whatever” in the wake of Document’s success. Actually, R.E.M. wasn’t up there with Springsteen (still only a few years removed from Born In The U.S.A.) quite yet, but the band was subtly positioning itself as a more tangible and less superhuman version of what the Boss’ “everyman” image had become.
“I will never tell anyone I’m in this band,” Buck says near the beginning of the article. “That’s not why I got into this. If people ask me, ‘do I know you,’ I say ‘maybe’ … I mean, who cares?” Whether you can honestly believe that being recognized doesn’t matter to you while talking to a Rolling Stone writer is debatable, but this much is true: The “America’s Best Rock ’N’ Roll Band” issue made me an R.E.M. fan. A few years later, I had that magazine cover on my bedroom wall.
What’s a hero if not someone you not only look up to but also relate to? Isn’t the hope that by emulating we might also become? R.E.M. didn’t have a large tribe of people whose fandom transformed them into a recognizable social type, like the Deadheads. It did not inspire people to dress up like the band members, like the Kiss Army. Girls didn’t scream at R.E.M. like they did for The Beatles, and it’s doubtful millions of misfits would’ve tweeted at them like Lady Gaga’s “little monsters” had Twitter existed in the ’80s and ’90s. But R.E.M.’s detachment from rock stardom, and its narrowing proximity to it, made people like me take the band’s ascendency personally.
Clearly, I was not an indie-rocker. I was just a kid in the middle of Wisconsin. But by publicly rejecting the concept of rock stardom even while pursuing it, R.E.M. taught me that there was even such a thing as a concept of rock stardom. I thought famous guys with long hair and tight pants merely appeared out of thin air and into the backseats of groupie-packed limousines to preen and be worshipped on television. It didn’t occur to me that normal people were acting like that in order to be famous, or that this might be sort of stupid.
By the time I got into them, R.E.M. didn’t look that different from the average rock band; I could tell that they weren’t Guns N’ fucking Roses, but they still looked more exotic than the twentysomething-year-old dudes I saw in my hometown. What I responded to was the idea of a meritocracy, that this band would become famous not because it was cool or glamorous or quantifiably awesome in all the old rock ’n’ roll ways, but because it wrote the best songs. I thought that’s all that mattered. Now the us-vs.-them rhetoric showed me that it wasn’t. Learning that simply being good was almost never enough proved to be a pretty valuable life lesson.
To this day, the band’s first two big sellers, Document and Green, are probably my favorite R.E.M. records. They also happen to be the best R.E.M. records, in my opinion, but they also came out right when I was discovering them, when the band was in the midst of its early infiltration into the mainstream. Like Lifes Rich Pageant, Document was a punchy rock record, though the band’s new producer Scott Litt gave Document an even tighter, wiry directness that made the ballad “The One I Love” lash out like a switchblade as it rose to No. 9 on the Hot 100. Once described by Buck as a Neil Young rip-off—it somewhat resembles “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)”—“The One I Love” tricked people into 1) thinking it was a love song, and 2) believing it had more words than it actually did. But Stipe was malicious and judicious, twisting and warping the same phrases until they resembled bloodied birds sucked into a 747 engine.
Document and the subsequent tour was such a big hit that R.E.M. was able to take most of 1988 off, finally releasing Green in November. But it was hardly a quiet year in the band’s history. R.E.M. finally was ready to climb inside the machine, signing a deal with Warner Bros. that was rumored to be in the eight-figure range. Not coincidentally, “sell out” charges started appearing in the band’s press clippings. To his credit, Stipe took the taunts in stride, telling Rolling Stone’s snarkier counterpart Spin (a publication more apt to dwell on sell-out accusations) that “when something considered secret and wonderful is revealed to the world, it becomes a little less wonderful. It’s time to find something new. That’s a legitimate and healthy cycle. But I think we’re still great, and I don’t have blinders on.”
Once again working with Litt, R.E.M. sounded more or less like Document on Green, only with more muscle on the rockers and lovelier weirdness on ballads like “You Are The Everything” and the winding, exploratory “Hairshirt,” which was based on a tossed-off mandolin riff created by Buck that Stipe sung mostly extemporaneous lyrics over. Green also had some of R.E.M.’s most overtly political songs, including “Orange Crush,” which referenced the Vietnam War-era chemical weapon Agent Orange. More striking was the music, which flirted with the bombastic arena-rock more associated with R.E.M.’s “melodramatic” rival, U2. It was an early preview of what lay ahead for the band in the ’90s.
R.E.M. was—to put it charitably—evolving from its previously held positions in other areas as well. Just a few years earlier, in Rolling Stone, Buck complained about the problems of playing large venues. “If we ever did a stadium tour, I would imagine it would be about the last thing we’d ever do together,” he said. And yet by 1989, during the yearlong Green tour, R.E.M. did indeed play stadiums as it crisscrossed the U.S. and the world many times. The band traveled in two buses; a “loud” bus for Buck, Berry, and Mills, and a “milk and cookies” bus for Stipe, manager Jefferson Holt, and lawyer Bertis Downs. (Buck called it the milk and cookies bus because Stipe actually kept milk and cookies in the fridge.) The Green tour was so grueling (and lucrative) that it would take three years for R.E.M. to put out another record, or the same amount of time it took for the band to put out its first three albums.
When Out Of Time finally came out in the spring of 1991, anyone who felt invested in R.E.M.’s success could finally celebrate what was now an undeniable fact: This was one of the biggest groups in the world. Out Of Time became R.E.M.’s first No. 1 album in the U.S., eventually spending two years on the charts and selling four million copies. Internationally, it sold more than 18 million. The album’s lead single, “Losing My Religion,” became R.E.M.’s most successful single, peaking at No. 4 on the U.S. chart. The song went on to win two Grammys, and Out Of Time won one more.
While in many ways the poppiest album the band ever made, Out Of Time had a rightful claim to being just as idiosyncratic as every other R.E.M. record. A jangly strummer reminiscent of ’70s California pop, “Losing My Religion” was controversial because the Southern colloquialism of the title was lost on Northern, churchy types. The smoldering “Low” was R.E.M.’s version of The Doors, while “Country Feedback” was a breathtaking live-in-the-studio jam that took the psychosexual drama of “The One I Love” to new, crushing lows. But the best parts of Out Of Time were the pure pop moments: “Near Wild Heaven” is R.E.M.’s sweetest, most effervescent melody, and though “Shiny Happy People” was maligned and helped to kick-start an R.E.M. backlash, it showed that the band was still willing to risk looking silly even when on a larger stage.
Inevitably, the success of Out Of Time caused R.E.M. to pull back, figuratively and literally. In Spin, Stipe retreated into self-reflexiveness, talking without apparent irony about “the Michael Stipe mystique.” Buck meanwhile discussed R.E.M.’s decision not to tour, and how it related to the sheer size of the group’s current operations. “As much as I love touring, it’s a big deal,” he admitted. “We start planning six months ahead of time, hiring people, and spending a quarter of a million building a stage. It’s kind of like being in the army.”
Did Buck have any sense of what the ’90s had in store for R.E.M.? Could he have predicted that, at times, it really did seem like the band was an army at war, with historic victories and bruising casualties and life-altering decisions that would both strengthen R.E.M.’s resolve to push forward and weaken it forever in the process? By 1991, R.E.M. had put everything on the line in order to give its music the audience it deserved. Those of us who believed that R.E.M. earned its hugeness were gratified, but we had no idea what that hugeness would cost, or that we might one day resent having to pay the price.
I loved R.E.M. so damn much then. By the end of the decade I wasn’t sure if I even liked them. Years after that, I publicly wished for R.E.M. to break up. But I never stopped caring. Even when I thought I had, I was still taking R.E.M. personally. I had been on a journey with this band for so long that I lost track of where I had been.
Coming up: Before R.E.M. became famous, it was just a little band playing bars and pizza parlors. I’ll look at the band’s early history, and why it initially connected with people.