I woke up that fateful day in September, 2011, and all was normal. Then messages and stories began to flood websites that I frequented: R.E.M., the band I grew up with, the band that means more to me than any other Ive ever heard (more on that in a bit) was retiring after 31 years! Here is the band statement:
To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.
It was a gut-punch to me: I dont get overly emotional about celebrities or performers, but this one hurt. I have had a very strong connection to the band and their music for the entire 31 years of their existence, and in the 5 years since they stepped away from the game, it still hurts. Ill tell you about my connection to the band in a moment, but first a little background
Like a lot of you out there, music has been a very important part of my life. Growing up in Georgia in the 60s, I listened to what my Mother and Father listened to: mostly country, but my Dad was really into The Man In Black, the legendary Johnny Cash. I never considered him as a country artist per se, since he started out as rock-a-billy, then had many socially conscious theme albums, and was even buddies with Bob Dylan. His music struck a chord in me, and I still listen to Johnny Cash to this day.
During my pre-teen and teen years, I gravitated to what was on the radio, and in Georgia at that time the music being played was southern rock: Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, etc. That drastically changed in 1978, when I went off to college.
The Birth of R.E.M.
I attended The University of Georgia, majoring in TV Production. Like most college students, it was a time where I was exploring all sorts of new things: different food, cultures, and music. The Athens music scene was in full swing in the late 70s, with the new wave/party band The B-52s just breaking out nationally, with dozens of new bands forming almost daily. Venues such as the 40 Watt Club and The Georgia Theater were the go-to places to see all the new bands.
Another hot-spot was Wuxtry Records, the used record store in the middle of town.
Every college town had used record stores back in the day, and cash strapped students flocked to them, always looking for a bargain. In my case, I was heavily into blues at the time, and it was a treasure trove of music from the likes of Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Freddie King, and dozens of others. But Wuxtry was more than that: it was a very social place, where I would hang out and talk music and whatever else with the other customers and the people that worked behind the counter. One of those workers was Pete Buck, the future guitarist for R.E.M. Pete met Michael Stipe (the lead singer) at Wuxtry, and they became fast friends, bonding over their love of punk music, The Velvet Underground, and the legendary Patti Smith.
My connection with the other guys in the band was school related. I chose to take some elective art classes at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at UGA, and I was fortunate enough to meet and get to know the other three band-mates a little from classes I took with them. Bill Berry (the drummer) was a bit of a live wire, Mike Mills (bass) was kinda reserved (like me), and Michael was, how shall I put this, a tad eccentric. I was witness to one of their first shows, many of which emanated from an abandoned church. I was totally blown away: in the post-disco, corporate rock musical milieu of the day, they sounded totally original.
It didnt take long before they were noticed, and their first single, Radio Free Europe was a huge hit on college radio. Here it is:
The success of the single broke through the barrier of the fragmented college radio format to widespread airplay. This also propelled their debut album Murmur to amazing critical heights, ending with Rolling Stone naming it the album of the year in 1983, besting albums by Michael Jackson, U2, and The Police.
The sound of the band was totally unique, with a blending of The Velvet Underground, the jangly guitars of The Byrds, and a quieter take on the punk and alternative music of the day. But the main mystery of mysteries was the vague lyrics and almost unintelligible singing style of Stipe. Stipe said at the time that he wanted the vocals and lyrics to be just another part of the overall sound, and that he put words together because of the way they sounded, not for any particular meaning; adding that he wanted to leave it up to the listener to ascribe meaning to the song.
Firebrands of Individualism
R.E.M. continued a meteoric rise in the music business, but they did so in a way that no one ever did before. The band was very protective of itself from the beginning. They decided from the get-go that all the music rights would be equally divided among the four members. Their rationale was that if everyone was on an equal footing, then money and jealousy would never cause a rift. Most bands, they said, broke up over money and personal beefs, not musical or creative differences.
They also stood firm on their musical vision, refusing to kowtow to producers or record labels. They made the music they wanted to make, the critics be damned. Rather than conform to the sound of the day, they did great music and watched as the fans and the industry pivoted to THEM. Their muse took them to many different places, from the pop flavored Green, to the acoustic, non-traditional arrangements on Out Of Time, which yielded their biggest hit, Losing My Religion.
Through the years I have thoroughly enjoyed all of their styles, but I was particularly touched by the album Automatic For The People. The reason? My father passed away at that time, and the mournful song Everybody Hurts was being played everywhere. For the duration of my time in Georgia for the funeral, I must have heard the song two dozen times. It tore me apart, but it also was incredibly cathartic. I know Im not the first person to turn to music during tough times, but that song literally saved my sanity. To this day, every time I hear the song I get the same rush of sadness mixed with happier memories, along with an occasional tear at the loss of my beautiful niece Jennifer, who succumbed to Cystic Fibrosis, and most recently my Mother Marie.
A Band In Crisis
Following the release of the hard rocking album Monster, the band embarked on a massive world tour. The tour was fraught with medical emergencies, chief among them being Bill Berry collapsing from a brain aneurysm in Switzerland. A few months later, Mills had to have surgery for an intestinal ailment, and then a month after that Stipe had to undergo emergency surgery to repair a hernia. Putting the fans first, the band soldiered on and completed the tour.
Once the tour ended, Berry informed the band that he was retiring from the group, with the stipulation that the band not break up. Berry had this to say:
Im just not as enthusiastic as I have been in the past about doing this anymore . . . I have the best job in the world. But Im kind of ready to sit back and reflect and maybe not be a pop star anymore.
The rest of the band reluctantly agreed to carry on, but admitted it would be a daunting task. Stipe put it this way:
For me, Mike, and Peter, as R.E.M., are we still R.E.M.? I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently.
The band continued to make music their way, and put out five albums post-Berry: Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate, and Collapse Into Now.
Berry rejoined the band for one performance: their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, playing three songs with his mates.
After lackluster sales and middling critical reviews post Berry, the band hit it big with what became their last album, Collapse Into Now. As it turns out, the 2008 tour that followed was also their swan song.
I was fortunate enough to see one of the shows on that last tour, and it was memorable for two reasons: one, I was able to take my 15 year old daughter to the show, and Im happy to report that shes a big fan. And two, the outdoor show was delayed by a horrendous rainstorm, with tornado watches and everything! The band treated the fans that stuck around by kicking off the show with the Creedence classic, Have You Ever Seen The Rain?, and tore through almost three hours of all of my favorites. I felt a certain sense of closure: I was there at the beginning and again at the end.
The legacy of R.E.M. cannot be understated: the band basically invented the college radio touring circuit, which brought many bands to the forefront, including The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. Stipe was a mentor of sorts to Kurt Cobain, and was attempting to help him through the troubles that eventually lead to his suicide.
I feel a certain kinship to the band, given that I was witness to their formation and rise to popularity, but mostly because we basically grew up together. They provided the soundtrack to my life, and for that I am forever grateful. Ill leave you with one last quote from Michael Stipe:
A wise man once said, The skill in attending a party is knowing when its time to leave. We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now were going to walk away from it. I hope our fans realize this wasnt an easy decision; but all things must end, and we wanted to do it right, to do it our way.