If You Believe: An R.E.M. Appreciation

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Sure, it didn’t carry the gut-kicking impact of The Beatles breaking up, but news of R.E.M.’s demise still clanged with a horrible sound in the souls of those who love their music.

When R.E.M. came on the scene in the ‘80s, a decade of generally underwhelming sonic offerings, they gave those of us not interested in hair metal or vapid synth rock a reason to listen the radio — particularly radio that began accepting output from independent artists and acts not easily pigeonholed.

Michael Stipe’s elliptical lyrics and keening vocals, Peter Buck’s chiming Rickenbacker chords, Mike Mills’ loping bass and high harmonies and Bill Berry’s solid time-keeping were potent lures; the songs they made together had a way of insinuating themselves into your head permanently. Not a week goes by that I don’t find my interior soundtrack replaying snippets of “Pop Song ’89,” “Man on the Moon,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Electrolite,” “Near Wild Heaven,” “Drive,” “Nightswimming,” “The One I Love,” “Stand,” “Orange Crush,” “Try Not to Breathe,” “Radio Song,” “Losing My Religion” and so many others from their catalog, including one of my all-time favorite songs ever — by any artist (including The Beatles): “Fall on Me.”

That beautiful melody and those lovely, soaring harmonies just move me. Sometimes, I have to sing along. Sometimes, I just have to stop and listen, and marvel at its purity. The tune happened to hit the airwaves at a time when deregulation was sweeping the airline industry and I was a newspaper copy editor laying out the business pages of a college-town daily. I splashed the headline, “Buy the sky and sell the sky,” over a section-front story about a major takeover, knowing few of our mainly non-student readers would get the reference. But I didn’t care. Their almost prophetic words resonated, and made perfect sense — and 25 years later, they still do. Times have changed, but the airline industry is still in turmoil — and the environmental woes the song alludes to are even more acute.

So many of R.E.M.’s songs have maintained their resonance over decades. “Man on the Moon,” a sweet epitaph for an odd character, managed to evoke the dangerous swagger of Mott the Hoople and joyful innocence and wonder of childhood while questioning the very notion of an afterlife. “Losing My Religion,” from the vastly underrated Out Of Time album, so perfectly captures the obsessiveness and insecurity of unrequited love — and Peter Buck’s lead mandolin singlehandedly turned that eight-stringed instrument into an acceptable guitar substitute in rock songs. It’s hard to believe the album earned them their only Grammys — before their widely acknowledged greatest masterpiece, Automatic for the People.

Automatic is one of my desert-island discs, among the handful I’d have to have with me if I were ever left stranded and alone.

That’s exactly how I felt when my father died, and that’s the album I had to listen to, over and over, as I mourned the loss of the only parent I’d had for most of my life. It doesn’t matter how old you are when you become an orphan, I learned, it still hurts like crazy. I used that album like an onion when I needed to cry; to this day, listening to “Everybody Hurts” in vulnerable moments can have that effect. Watching them perform it as headliners of the second Austin City Limits Festival in 2003, my tears were as much about the joy of being able to experience that moment as a catharsis for what the song, and the album, represented five years earlier, when my father, stubborn to the last, ordered us to cremate his remains without a funeral. (Despite all my groveling, I didn’t manage to get a ticket to their 2008 Austin City Limits taping. I still haven’t gotten over it.)

I saw my first R.E.M. concert in 1989, with a friend who had worked with me on that copy desk. I’ll never forget what a kick we got out of their clever slides; they read “Hello. (Your city here.) It’s great to be back in (your city here).” Presaging Blue Man Group’s “How to Be A Rockstar” shows by decades, they continued, “Are you ready to rock?” then listed “three simple rules: try to be courteous to those around you; don’t throw things; and don’t wait till the quietest moment of the quietest song to yell ‘Radio Free Europe.’” (If only concertgoers would always heed those sentiments.)

We had the best time, dancing madly to “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and other tunes and lusting after a particular band member (who, I would later find out, had an ongoing relationship of sorts with another friend of mine). When my editor pal died prematurely a couple of years ago, it felt like a little bit of my world ending. Chalk up another memory made more poignant because of an R.E.M. connection.

That show also gave concrete images to one aspect of R.E.M. I’ve always appreciated — their attitude. At times a little sarcastic and snarky, at times going for humor or just confounding us for the heck of it, R.E.M. never followed convention — and never let the suits dictate their output or touring schedule. (They were also the first band to insist on a democratic, four-way writing credit — and royalty split — for every song.) Their resolute nonconformity even showed up onstage; when Stipe painted his temples blue, Mills stood next to him in rhinestone cowboy garb. You’d never see these guys in artfully distressed, palette-coordinated outfits a la Coldplay.

You’d never hear Coldplay do a song like “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” either. On its surface, the reference to Dan Rather’s strange New York mugging incident was a hoot, yet it was also a cultural observation, the kind Stipe so masterfully concocted from the band’s earliest years to its last release, Collapse into Now.

In March, during South By Southwest, Stipe showed films he commissioned to accompany every song on that album. They were odd, sometimes disturbing, yet always compelling.

“I’m a voyeur,” he said at the time. “I watch people and I watch things and I make up little stories.”

Even when they signed what at the time was the biggest record-label contract ever — $80 million from Warner Bros. — they still delivered quirky, resolutely unique, non-corporate music, filled with little stories. It’s likely they chose to leave the proverbial building now, on the heels of their best album reviews in years, rather than try to continue reinventing — or repeating — themselves.

There is no successor to R.E.M.’s significant mantle. Unlike those who followed Dylan, The Beatles or Bruce, we’ve never heard credible references to “the next R.E.M.” It’s not because no one has tried. It’s because no one else has successfully evoked their particular sound and vision for more than a chord change here or a phrase there. There aren’t many bands who can bash out great rock, energetic pop and shimmering ballads — making us smile at references to childhood memories and crazy comics one minute and cry with the ache of loss the next — while capturing the zeitgeist or telling us where to look for it next.

That’s what I’ll miss most about R.E.M. — those playful lyrical and musical references that made me grin in recognition or research their source, and the melodies that stopped me in my tracks with their beauty or made me jump up to dance. I’ll miss the creative genius that, as their last album emphatically affirmed, was far from played out. I’ll even miss their occasional contribution to causes like the Vote for Change tour or compilations like the I Shot Andy Warhol soundtrack, which contains their fine cover of the Troggs’ “Love is All Around.”

One can’t fault them for choosing to call it a day after 31 years together, for preferring to go out before they fade into obscurity (though I doubt it would have happened). But one can’t blame us for looking forward to a potential reunion. In “Man on the Moon,” Stipe sings, “If you believe there’s nothing up my sleeve, then nothing is cool.*

I choose to believe there’s something up their sleeves. What it is, I have no idea. But I suspect they*ll be drawn together to make music again. It took Springsteen 10 years to reunite The E Street Band, but eventually, the urge was too great to ignore. It could happen to R.E.M.  Maybe down the road, they’ll get the urge for one more go-around, and even pull Bill Berry back into the fold.

But if not, thanks for the music, guys. And the memories.


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