Yesterday, amidst all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over Facebook’s “improvements” to the way we waste time, came the announcement that R.E.M. was calling it a day.
I had to admittedly stifle the snark for a second. I’m not proud of the fact that my initial reaction was: “It’s about time, fellas.” Because that’s terribly, horribly ungrateful of me. So I issue this apology to Messrs Buck, Stipe, Mills & Berry. I may have stopped really tuning in after “Monster,” but I can never overstate my indebtedness to you for nearly everything up to that point.
My brother came home from college with a copy of “Murmur” in 1984. I was almost 14 years old, and on the threshold of no longer giving much of a shit if the “popular” kids liked me or not. Music was becoming increasingly important to me. Records, and the radio, formed a lifeline I could scarce afford to grip anything other than desperately tight. I pored over magazines and charts, keeping a notebook of any and all lyrics that moved me. I listened to “Murmur” in my brother’s bedroom one afternoon and could not make out a damned word of any of it. And it didn’t matter. Without entirely comprehending what was being sung, I was moved just the same.
That record, um, somehow managed to move from my brother’s collection into MY collection, where it lives to this day (sorry, Bill…if you want it back I’ll convert it on my USB turntable and email it to you).
From that day on, R.E.M. taught me everything I needed to know about sturm and jangle, about redefining the rules, and about heartbreak in the form of a bassline:
In high school, if I wasn’t listening to showtunes and sobbing, I was listening to “Life’s Rich Pageant” and sobbing. Sobbing over unrequited love. Sobbing over nothing at all, simply for the sake of sobbing, because this record could get me there. Of all their albums, this is the one that never gets old, never fails to bring me back to specific moments with specific people. It is the very spirit and essence of my 16-year-old self, the self I like best of all. It is a blanket. It is the album I want playing at my wake.
When exactly did R.E.M. stop being the password to our little secret society of misfits, and start to really belong to just about everybody? I think it probably started with “Document” and really blew up with “Green.” You can’t begrudge a band its mainstream success. You can’t demand that they stay on those “college charts” forever. Because if something’s going to be insanely popular, wouldn’t you rather it be something with odd beauty and depth than something shallow and empty? R.E.M. made activism cool, used their ever-growing popularity to bring attention to issues, and probably changed more than a few minds for the better.
And so the years went on, and you could understand what Stipe was singing most of the time, and there was mandolin and weird symbolism and nerdy little Mike Mills suddenly looking oddly sexy in a flaming disco Elvis suit.
Here’s where I admit that I drifted away from R.E.M. I found myself not particularly drawn to what they were doing….maybe because I got more interested in other bands, but it’s perhaps more likely because I spent many years absorbed in alcoholism and untreated mental illness and temporarily lost sight of the things that had truly nourished me. Perhaps it’s time for me to give those last few albums a chance.
In the meantime – thank you, R.E.M. You were game-changers. You were Rather’s Electric Minstrels. You were the soundtrack to the salad days of many. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.