Part 3: So fast, so numb (Automatic For The People to New Adventures In Hi-Fi)

Part 3: So fast, so numb (Automatic For The People to New Adventures In Hi-Fi)

“I move across, innocence lost.” —R.E.M., “Bittersweet Me”

I saw R.E.M. for the first and last time on May 31, 1995 at Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, during the band’s momentous 11-month Monster tour. As you’d probably infer from a venue called “Marcus Amphitheater,” it is not a place known for its cozy intimacy or out-of-the-way obscurity. It is one of Wisconsin’s largest concert venues, a 23,000-seat capacity shed located off of Lake Michigan and just under an interstate highway. I stood with a couple thousand other people on a narrow stretch of lawn on the back perimeter, and from my vantage point the stage appeared to be approximately 27,000 feet away. But who was I to complain? R.E.M. was in the midst of its most commercially successful period, when the band released a series of multi-platinum albums starting with 1988’s Green and ending with Monster in 1994. These were R.E.M.’s salad days, a time of Grammy awards and $80-million recording contacts and visits to the White House. I just wanted to see it all happen, and I had lots and lots of company. 

I was 17 years old, and could’ve counted the number of concerts I had attended without my parents on one hand. But, strangely, I don’t remember much about my R.E.M. live experience. I know I had a good time, I’m pretty sure the weather was nice, and while I was far from the stage, it didn’t matter all that much, because R.E.M. was turning even its mellower numbers into full-blown arena-rock. 

When I say arena rock, I really mean “arena rock.” The mid-’90s was the most self-conscious period in rock history. Irony permeated everything in pop culture, but even in an age of omnipresent cocked eyebrows, irreverence was noticeably pronounced in rock music. The Monster tour was preceded by 1) U2’s ZooTV, the smashingly profitable live spectacle where Bono treated rock theater as a dirty joke, masking his self-aggrandizing in knowing self-awareness; and 2) the rise of grunge, the most popular rock subgenre ever to openly question the validity of popular rock subgenres. 

Monster—described by Peter Buck as “a ‘rock’ record, with the rock in quotation marks”—and its subsequent supporting tour would not have existed without these influences. In keeping with the times, R.E.M. delivered the same old unsubtle levels of volume and velocity that had always defined big-time corporate rock music, only from a somewhat skewed perspective. For the kids standing 27,000 feet away, this was sometimes lost in translation. But it was nevertheless understood that R.E.M. was playing a role, even if that role was essentially indistinguishable from what it actually was: glamorous, globe-trotting, filthy-rich rock stars. 

A concert recorded at Milton Keynes’ National Bowl in Buckinghamshire, England for the Westwood One “In Concert” radio broadcast—which took place two months after I saw R.E.M.—offers a characteristic snapshot of the band during this period. From the start of the set opener “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” R.E.M. smothers the songs in a mountain of fuzz, buzz, mud, and bluster. Michael Stipe pushes the bright-colored ooze out into the National Bowl—a 65,000-seater, so maybe the Marcus really was a sweaty rock club after all—with hoots and hollers whenever he’s not playing the cool, detached rock-singer dude (in quotation marks). 

If R.E.M. had any misgivings about playing on the biggest stages for the largest audiences, taking on the trappings of rock superstardom at its most rarified, there are no signs of it in this performance. R.E.M. seems supremely confident in its supersonic hugeness, filling every last crack in its music with more and more sound, turning itself into an impervious wall of shining, pulsating, and seemingly insurmountable vastness towering over anybody standing within a mile radius. 

The Monster tour should’ve gone down as R.E.M.’s greatest triumph, a coronation for a band that had recently made what many considered its best record, 1992’s Automatic For The People, and was now finally re-embracing its dormant live rock ’n’ roll side after a six-year break from touring. And, in many ways, it was that. But the ’95 tour was also a last hurrah. Within a few years, the core at the center of R.E.M. would disintegrate, and several principal players pivotal to R.E.M.’s climb to superstardom—manager Jefferson Holt, record producer Scott Litt, and, most shocking of all, drummer Bill Berry—would exit under a cloud. R.E.M. was about to enter the less-popular half of its career. 

While the calamities that troubled the worldwide Monster campaign—particularly the health problems suffered by Stipe, Mike Mills, and Berry that caused many dates to be postponed—put a damper on what was otherwise the biggest tour of R.E.M.’s career, it’s not totally accurate to suggest that these incidents are responsible for derailing the band’s good fortune. After all, Berry was lucky, in a way, to suffer an onstage collapse from a near-fatal brain aneurysm in Lausanne, Switzerland, home to some of the world’s finest brain surgeons. As Buck later recalled, “We were in Taipei just the week before. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had been in Taipei when the aneurysm happened?” 

It’s true that 1995 was a sort of plateau in R.E.M.’s history, after which point the band’s trajectory started to level off into an extended wind-down period that would last for the next 16 years. But R.E.M. was caught up in a sea change far bigger than any single band. Alt-rock was headed toward extinction, with groups like Live and Bush picking at the bones left behind by bands that died (Nirvana), were in the process of dying (Soundgarden), or were retreating into cult status (Pearl Jam). 

But even that was just part of a larger landscape of decay. Rock’s audience wasn’t just shrinking; it was splintering, and by the dawn of the 21st century, submitting to a group experience at a big arena show or rock festival would no longer be as appealing as finding your own niche and burrowing in online. Believing that any one band could somehow transcend that and unite the audience once again under a single banner seemed increasingly like a fantasy no group could afford to indulge in.

Leave it to an astute student of rock history like Buck to recognize this as it was happening. As David Buckley writes in R.E.M. Fiction: An Alternative Biography, Buck was the band member most committed to locking R.E.M. into a long-term, lucrative contract before the release of 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi because he “predicted that the current massive commercial success for his band … was unusual in terms of how the industry operated, and might not endure.” The record-setting deal with Warner Bros. gave R.E.M. the security it needed as rock music underwent severe growing pains over the next several years. The group cashed in its chips right when new R.E.M. music was about to be phased off the radio; by 2000, the band was, in Stipe’s words, making music “for a radio market that doesn’t exist anymore. We are just completely out of step with what’s happening.” 

Oddly enough, being completely out of step with what’s happening had, in the early ’90s anyway, been R.E.M.’s recipe for success. Automatic For The People certainly was not the kind of album that the Next Big Things of the time were making. In a Rolling Stone interview with Anthony DeCurtis that took place at the beginning of the Automatic sessions, Stipe described R.E.M.’s new music as “very mid-tempo, pretty fucking weird,” and “more acoustic, more organ based, less drums.” 

A more cynical music press might’ve accused R.E.M. of going soft, but by this time, rock critics were treating the group as practically the embodiment of musical excellence. This attitude was reflected in the reverential tone of the questions posed by DeCurtis, who at one point posited that “R.E.M.’s success suggests that mainstream pop fans are quite willing to accept new music and new ideas, that they’re much smarter than most bands and record companies take them for.” Incredibly, liking R.E.M. was now perceived by the media as a sign of intelligence. The mid-tempo, pretty-fucking-weirdness of Automatic might’ve seemed outwardly like a risky left turn, but it was precisely the sort of “smart” move expected from R.E.M. at the time.

A great deal of this unadulterated reverence stemmed from R.E.M. being among the last major bands from its generation still standing. “The world that we had been involved in had disappeared,” Buck said, “the world of Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, all that had gone, all those bands were broken up or in the process of breaking up. We were just in a different place and that worked its way out musically.” 

The feeling that R.E.M.’s peers had been reduced to ghosts carried over to the songs, which are populated by dead celebrities and incidents from a long-lost past that appear more vivid than anything in the present tense. Automatic For The People is a record that appears, to borrow a phrase from its predecessor, to exist “out of time,” with a bird’s-eye view on life that’s warmly bemused and prepared for the darkness up ahead. 

Automatic For The People might be the most quietly serene rock record about loss ever made. There is no fear in this music; death is the album’s main character, but he’s presented as a vehicle for self-empowerment (“Try Not To Breathe”), immortality (“Man On The Moon”), and spiritual fulfillment (“Find The River”). On “Nightswimming,” death returns to his home in the past, and memory is revealed as the last light emanating from a star that has burned out. 

Automatic For The People didn’t sell as well as Out Of Time, but it outsold every other R.E.M. record, eventually moving more than 3.5 million units in the U.S. alone. Kurt Cobain was among the many young turks who gravitated to the album. He spoke in interviews about wanting to emulate its spooky tones in his own music; later, when his body was found, a copy of Automatic was discovered in a nearby CD player. I’m not suggesting that Automatic made suicide more palatable for Cobain, or that it glorifies death. But it is a record that puts the inevitability of life’s fade into a philosophical perspective that’s akin to gospel music, only with a less-certain destination.

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The members of R.E.M. at the time of Automatic For The People had fallen into a regular routine of rehearsing and settling into separate home lives. Still years away from touring, R.E.M. came together to play and work on songs four or five times a week, Buck told Spin. “We’re just always writing songs and don’t really know why, other than—again, it’s what we do. If I were a furniture builder or something, you’d probably ask why I made so many tables.”

While Spin hinted at “unconfirmed rumors of near-catastrophic inter-band strife” during the making of Automatic, this appears to have been a relatively stable period in R.E.M.’s history. Buck described the band in 9-to-5 workaday terms, as “shlubs that bang out some chords.” Fissures between the members were growing, but at this time they moved with the speed of shifting tectonic plates. Berry bought a farm outside of Athens and started settling down from his party-hearty ways. After Automatic, Buck moved to the other side of the country, setting up a home in Seattle, and in 1994 his wife gave birth to twins. Mills also left Athens and re-located to Los Angeles, while Stipe’s whereabouts remained in a state of flux. 

Staying off the road allowed R.E.M. to keep putting out albums at an impressive clip of every year or two. But it also chipped away at the unity that had been a given when the band was traveling in a van together for most of the year. These issues finally came to a head as R.E.M. reconvened to record Monster, so much so that the normally drama-averse band was openly discussing its problems with reporters. Once again writing for Rolling Stone, DeCurtis observed R.E.M. scrambling in an L.A. recording studio to finish up work on the album, which had been subject to uncharacteristic delays and, because it was recorded live, proved to be a bear to mix. (The recording of Monster, like the tour that followed, was also plagued by health issues: Berry had the flu, Stipe an abscessed tooth, Mills an appendectomy.) 

“Rarely were the four members of the band present in the studio at the same time,” DeCurtis wrote of the sessions. “They were all staying in different places around town and seemed to be trying to juggle finishing the album with the demands of their individual friends, families, and lovers.” He also quoted Mills, who spoke cryptically of “a band meeting after the session last night” where R.E.M. spoke about “working as a unit again, which we haven’t been doing very well lately.”

The Rolling Stone story also touched on R.E.M.’s mixed emotions about going back on the road. “At the end of the Green tour, I knew in my heart that I would never do it again,” Stipe said wearily. “That tour was incredibly hard. At the end of it, I was just blank, a shell. It was really, really, really intense.” Berry, who was pushing the strongest to play live again—ironic considering what happened later—made the most prophetic statement about the tour: “If it’s like the last one … you might not hear record out of us for a while. We may break up.”

With Monster, R.E.M. finally pulled out the “rocking” record it originally intended to make with Automatic For The People. It was conceived with large outdoor venues in mind, boasting plenty of loud guitars to please the beer-drinkers in the cheap seats. Upon the album’s release, it was frequently described as “fun” by critics, a distinction that might’ve seemed true in comparison with Automatic but otherwise betrayed a rather superficial examination of the album’s contents. The truth is, while Automatic is a “heavier” record thematically, Monster is the far darker, more disturbing work, as wrapped up in the media apocalypse of sex, celebrity, and mass insanity as Automatic was divorced from such contemporary concerns.

Buck called Monster a collection of “obsessive-creep love songs.” If that’s true, then the object of affection is fame as seen from the perspective of an entitled, emotionally unbalanced lunatic. Celebrity stalkers lurk throughout the record: The album’s first single, “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” was inspired by a bizarre incident involving Dan Rather and an attacker who struck the news anchor while repeating the titular question; the odd rock-disco track “King Of Comedy” took its title from Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film about a hacky would-be comedian who kidnaps a late-night talk-show host so that he might eventually take his place; “I Took Your Name” is a sinister drone that could be read as a riff on Mark David Chapman, who famously referred to himself as “Holden Caulfield,” after the Catcher In The Rye character, as he prepared to murder John Lennon. 

Even the sweet-sounding “Strange Currencies” had an unseemly edge to it, the chorus of “these words, you will be mine” more of a demand from a thwarted loner than a romantic invitation. 

Stipe’s lyrics on Monster are just as withering when examining obsession from the other side of the celebrity equation. On the righteously glammy “Crush With Eyeliner,” he sings in a dead-eyed, emotion-starved monotone about the pleasures of artifice; the recurring “I’m the real thing” tagline is the height of blasé. The wash of over-amped guitars on “Let Me In” was a tribute to Cobain, the poster-child for the downside of mass adoration, and it drowns out whatever words of consolation Stipe tries to offer. 

Monster debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, and sold about as well as Out Of Time and Automatic For The People. But no matter the album’s merits—which in my view are considerable—it wasn’t regarded nearly as well as R.E.M.’s other early ’90s albums. Monster’s unsightly bright orange cover art eventually became a common sight in used-CD bins. 

R.E.M.’s artistic whims were no longer lining up perfectly with its audience. Even the music press, which had been a reliable ally for years, started to turn in a different direction. When long-time manager Jefferson Holt was suddenly dismissed in 1996—a legal agreement kept the terms confidential, though the Los Angeles Times alleged that Holt (who denied the story) had sexually harassed an R.E.M. office employee—the media finally saw an opening and pounced. 

The most unflattering thing written about R.E.M. came courtesy of Jim DeRogatis, a fan since R.E.M.’s early days who was critical of how the band had changed over the years and yet subtly manipulated the press to obscure the changes. He even questioned whether R.E.M.’s “moral compass” was off in light of the massive record contract and the its apparent compliance with Ticketmaster—despite band “advisor” Bertis Downs testifying against them with members of Pearl Jam in congressional hearings—during the Monster tour.  

“They worked very hard to become the Teflon Rockers,” DeRogatis wrote in Request, “skillfully setting the tone of press coverage by controlling access and cultivating relationships with friendly writers and editors who, if aware of any shortcomings, were nonetheless united behind a group that they saw as a true, fresh alternative to corporate-rock behemoths like Aerosmith, Van Halen, Madonna, and Michael Jackson.”

If R.E.M. thought DeRogatis was a “friendly” writer who would show his appreciation for the band’s access by writing a fawning puff piece, they were sorely mistaken. DeRogatis painted an embarrassing portrait of R.E.M. as pampered control freaks stuck in a creative rut. He described Mills as “cranky and terse as usual,” and claimed that the bassist complained about having to share a trailer with Buck for his interviews. DeRogatis also poked fun at Buck’s tendency to recycle the same phrases when talking to reporters; “Wow, that’s a great question, no one’s really asked me that before” was the most common interjection. 

But DeRogatis’ most stinging criticisms concerned how the sheer scale of R.E.M.’s current operation was suffocating the smaller, more lovable group it had started out as. The implication was that R.E.M. the business machine had overtaken R.E.M. the rock band. “R.E.M. may or may not be at the end of the line,” he wrote.  “The question is whether its members will be honest enough to admit it when they get there.”

I have to disagree with DeRogatis in at least one respect, when he describes the album Buck and Mills were trying to promote, New Adventures In Hi-Fi, as a “good, not great album.” As the first R.E.M. album to “only” go platinum in many years, New Adventures tended to garner that sort of response. But in my view it is one of R.E.M.’s best, and most moving, albums, in part because the record’s subtext is about grappling with the very question DeRogatis posed: R.E.M. had accomplished everything it set out to achieve, and the weathered sound of New Adventures suggests it was sifting through the wreckage left in the wake of this quest.

Sonically and thematically, there are some carry-overs from Monster, which is to be expected considering the songs were written on the road and, in many cases, recorded during sound-checks and live performances. The beguiling “New Test Leper” is another indictment of tabloid media, and “Wake-Up Bomb” and “Departure” are riff-heavy glam-inspired cock-rockers. But while New Adventures is as loud as Monster in places, it’s not nearly as aggressive or provocative. The band sounds worn out; Stipe’s vocals are beat up by the road, and Buck’s normally precise and melodic guitar lines are blown out and broken, spiraling and crashing and leaving low-hanging clouds of smoke.

I liken New Adventures to The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St., in terms of how it honestly portrays a band fighting through exhaustion by virtue of the centrifugal force built up from its history. R.E.M. in the mid-’90s, like the Stones in the early ’70s, was a band on the verge of collapse, and New Adventures (to its credit) doesn’t try to hide that.

Even before Berry announced his departure from R.E.M. one year later, New Adventures felt like the end of something. It certainly was for me as a fan: It was the last album I bought on the day it came out, and the last one I really loved. My favorite track on New Adventures is never mentioned on lists of all-time favorite R.E.M. songs. Recorded live toward the end of the Monster tour, at what was then known as Desert Sky Pavilion in Phoenix, “Binky The Doormat” took its name from Bobcat Goldthwait’s misanthropic 1992 comedy Shakes The Clown, about an embittered birthday-party clown who is framed for murder. (“Binky” is a fellow clown played by future Mr. Show regular and voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, Tom Kenny.) Stipe’s lyrics paint a similarly dire picture of dejection and alienation, and while they don’t make much literal sense, Stipe makes the meaning clear by how he sings over the song’s diseased, sputtering guitar riff. 

On the chorus, he’s joined by Mills, who sings (what sounds like) “fade away” as Stipe offers his face up as a doormat. At the end of the song, this becomes “go away,” which Stipe and Mills repeat six times. For a lot of R.E.M. fans, “Binky The Doormat” is just a filler track on one of the band’s less-popular records. But for me, this song captures something honest and emotional about R.E.M.—and the implosion of alt-rock—at this time. In the mid-’90s, rock stars sometimes screamed, “Go away” at groups of 20,000 people. It was never meant to be taken literally. 

Coming up: The late ’90s and early ’00s were R.E.M.’s “fat Elvis” period—a time of uncertainty and confusion. It was also when I stopped being an R.E.M. fan, and started wishing for them to break up. In Part four of Perfect Circle, I’ll look at how this happened to one of America’s great rock bands.

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