Thursday, October 13, 2016

It’s the End of R.E.M. As We Know It and I Feel Fine (something from my archives)

(NOTE: I wrote this in 2011 for Andrew Lawton at the Landmark Report, but their archives seem to have been scrubbed, and I wanted to make sure it got a second life online.)

SEVERAL YEARS AGO I WAS UNOFFICIALLY BANNED as a guest on a radio show on our national public broadcaster. I learned later that the host was so scandalized by an offhanded remark I’d made that he’d repeated it with dismay to the production staff after I had left. He was so offended, apparently, that my semi-regular status on the show ended abruptly, and with it the much-appreciated honorarium cheques that came with it, which were paid for by taxpayers, in any case, and which I’d come to regard as a sort of tax refund.

What had I said? Was it a sexist remark, or an opinion so bigoted that it required that I be banned from the nation’s airwaves?

Nothing like that; all I had done was mention, in passing, my firm belief that – were such a thing possible – all rock bands should be discouraged from making more than two albums. That was it. The host – a onetime musician whose novelty a cappella band was briefly popular up here in Canada – took exception to my remark as soon as it was out of my mouth, listing all the bands who would, in his opinion, never have recorded their best work. “What about the Beatles?” he demanded, as if that trumped my opinion with finality.

“What about them?” I replied. There are enough great tunes on their first two records that we’d probably still remember them fondly, and in addition to sparing us “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Revolution 9” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” would have freed up four talented musicians to do something else. Imagine the groups Starr, McCartney and Harrison could have formed with Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Colin Blunstone and Keith Richards after they’d been freed early from their obligations to Cream, Traffic, the Zombies and the Rolling Stones. And besides, you can’t miss something that never existed – any pretentious sophomore philosophy major will tell you that.

Mostly, though, my wishful edict – expressed more as speculation than a demand for legislation to enforce it (“There oughta be a law!” etc.) – comes from bitter experience as a music fan and rock critic back in the ‘80s, that most heartbreaking of decades, with a small group of bands that I’d followed passionately, all of whom let me down. One band, however, disappointed more than any other, and after recording thirteen albums more than my (only slightly) arbitrary two-album limit, finally called it quits last week.

I’m talking about R.E.M., who sold 12 million copies of their 1991 album Out Of Time, which featured the single “Losing My Religion,” a song not explicitly about losing your religion, apparently, but which became the de facto anthem for insufferable atheists for years afterward. This, in all likelihood, is the R.E.M. most people know and love, but it’s a band I did my best to ignore during their popular zenith, with a bitterness that can only come from betrayal and the curdled idealism that only a young person should feel.

The announcement of the band’s break-up prompted me to revisit their early records, which I found myself able to listen to again for probably the first time since Iran-Contra. These were the records R.E.M. put out when they toured in a van driven by their manager, as they graduated from clubs to halls, before moving on to arenas and stadiums. They were the work of a cult band from a southern college town, playing music clearly influenced by the angular sound of British post-punk, embellished with touches of folk and psychedelia and prone to an artiness that was a pleasant break from the rigidity and rules that afflicted American hardcore, the only other viable underground music happening at the time.

They were the template for what would be known as college rock, and since I was in college when I discovered them, they were a perfect fit. An article about the band in a local music monthly nudged me into becoming a rock critic – a piece where the writer got on R.E.M.’s tour bus and followed them to a couple of gigs, portraying them as refreshingly candid music nerds not unlike their audience. I ended up writing for that magazine, living on the writer’s couch for a couple of months, and finding my place in a community of music nerds, most of whom were fans of the band or at least respected them for creating an alternative to an increasingly tinny and bombastic mainstream.

It was a musical movement that was easy to ignore, mostly because its fans – people my age, most of whom were part of the post-Boomer “Baby Bust” that gave us the dismal common experience of being children in the ‘70s – were a small demographic, of no practical value to marketers. Our bands were a diverse bunch, with a stew of influences that we excavated in used record stores. “There was no stylistic bandwagon for the media to latch on to,” recalls Michael Azerrad in Our Band Could Be Your Life, his history of American ‘80s indie rock, “so the record-buying public had to find things there on a band-to-band basis, rather than buying into a bunch of talk about a ‘new sound.’”

While we were also fans of idiosyncratic bands like Husker Du, the Replacements, the Minutemen and Black Flag, R.E.M. occupied a special place, mostly because they had an air of mystery, enhanced by the recondite presence and indecipherable lyrics of singer Michael Stipe. Over the course of an EP and two albums released between 1982 and 1984, they created a version of southern rock that was more Flannery O’Connor than Black Oak Arkansas, a chiming, blurred musical landscape that owed a lot to Peter Buck’s 12-string guitar and Stipe’s suggestively incoherent singing.

This was the band whose fans dubbed it – in fond parody of a slogan that once dogged The Clash – as “The Only Band that Mutters,” a band whose first album was called Murmur and featured a sepia cover photo of a kudzu-covered landscape, as forthright a description of the contents within as if the Rolling Stones had titled their debut long-player Fake Menace and illustrated it with a copy of Mick Jagger’s tax return.

I listened to Murmur and its follow-up, Reckoning, constantly, and struggled manfully through their “difficult” third record, Fables of the Reconstruction, coming to appreciate it as a creative statement, even if I couldn’t embrace it as fondly as its predecessors. It was their fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant, that was the watershed. Critics called it a return to form, and it hit the stores suffused with the burnished glow of its first single, “Fall On Me.” Looking back, the song is the predecessor to “The One I Love,” “Losing My Religion” and “Man On The Moon,” a melancholy anthem that plays equally well on earphones, on radios, and booming over packed stadium crowds. It was the sort of song that would propel R.E.M. to international stardom, and while I still love it today, it was also the point after which the band would become the mirror image of everything I once adored.

At some point between Fables and Lifes Rich Pageant, Michael Stipe decided he had something to say, and that he wanted to say it in language we could all understand. On the fourth record, his voice moves up in the mix and his enunciation improves, and the video for “Fall On Me” consists of dizzy, handheld footage panning wildly over rocks, trees and sky while Stipe’s lyrics are superimposed on the screen in boldface capital letters. Thankfully Stipe still retained his love of the sound of words over their meaning, and the song’s lyrics (“There’s a problem, feathers iron/Bargain buildings, weights and pullies/Feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air”) are as baffling as anything on Murmur.

But Stipe was explicit in interviews and live shows that “Fall On Me” was about air pollution, and the then-headline issue of acid rain in particular. At a London show on the Fables tour, the band introduced an early version of the song by telling that coming from America was “nothing to applaud,” before Stipe launched into the most comically simple description of acid rain imaginable; captured on tape and now available on YouTube, it’s a pitiful example of a band condescending to their audience, and marks the point at which Stipe and his band transform themselves from entertainers into scolds. As with almost any other instance of pop music pressed into the service of an issue, it seems like Stipe isn’t aware that he’d have a hard time finding anybody who’s in favour of air pollution.

And from here the long lineage of R.E.M. issue songs emerges, with songs like “Orange Crush,” “Stand,” “Exhuming McCarthy,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Bad Day” and “Until The Day Is Done.” One whole album, Green, was explicitly tied to the resurgent environmental movement, and the band seemed to take up causes with every album, though by this point I’d completely lost interest, my indifference pushed along by hits like “The One I Love,” “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” “Losing My Religion” and “Man On The Moon.” All the richly evocative mystery that R.E.M. cultivated on their first two albums dissipated in a see-saw between stabs at commercial appeal and retreats into experiments, with occasional fumbling and half-hearted attempts at evoking their early sound.

In 2001, guitarist Peter Buck was arrested after what was described as a “drunken rampage” on a British Airways flight to London, during which he turned over a flight service cart, threw yogurt on flight attendants, and had to be restrained from opening an exit door mid-flight. He claimed it was the result of a bad combination of prescription drugs and too much wine, and was acquitted after a trial that saw U2 singer Bono act as a character witness. I wondered at how little this resembled the personable record geek who I’d chatted with at a house party after a Toronto date on the Life's Rich Pageant tour, so many years before.

What it sounded like was a man with some serious self-hatred issues, on the long slide down from the moment he woke up and realized that, instead of being a member of one of the coolest bands in the world, he was now the guitarist in the group that recorded “Shiny Happy People.”

Just a few years earlier, the band had an apparently rancourous split with Jefferson Holt, the longtime manager who’d been described as their fifth member. After that live performances of “Little America,” a song on Reckoning, swapped the lyric “Jefferson I think we’re lost” to “Washington I think we’re lost.” It was a trite attempt to inject politics after the fact into a song that old fans had cherished and – like all fans do – embellished with personal meaning and individual interpretation, like the YouTube commenter who wrote that “Fall On Me” was their “9/11 song.”

“Little America” is the last song on Reckoning, and “Jefferson I think we’re lost” is the last line Michael Stipe sings. I can’t help but imagine how perfect it would have been if the band had simply called it quits then, and not twenty-seven years later, after a career that, while probably successful beyond their wildest dreams, degenerated into the too-familiar story of a band that strove for relevance and ended with little.

Eight years ago, writer Chris Suellentrop opened a Slate article about R.E.M. with the observation that “R.E.M.'s fans have been saying ‘R.E.M. sucks’ since 1984.” There was always a high water mark somewhere in the past, whether you were an early fan who loved Murmur or a latecomer who thought Automatic For The People was their best record. “Maybe it's easier to bear the cross of middle-aged rock stardom when a good chunk of your fan base has been accusing you of being washed up since before you were 30,” Suellentrop writes.

He even quotes Michael Stipe back at himself: “That would be my worst fear,” Stipe told Rolling Stone in 1992, at the height of their success, “that we would turn into one of those dumb bands who go into their second decade and don't know how bad they are and don't know when to give it up.”

Imagine all that decline and disappointment never happened. Two unique, intriguing, classic albums by a band that didn’t sound like anyone else, casting a long shadow and influencing bands whose members were still in grade school or not even born. In 1993, as R.E.M.’s zenith was starting to ebb and alt-rock was flourishing in the aftermath of grunge, critics’ darlings Pavement recorded “The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence,” a loving appraisal of R.E.M.’s first two albums in song. It’s a charming relic of record nerd devotion, but it isn’t a particularly great song, just as nothing Pavement recorded is as evocative, mysterious or catchy as R.E.M. at its best, on those two albums.

Now go back almost a decade, to Michael Stipe singing “I can’t see myself at thirty,” before describing “Another Greenville, another Magic Mart,” and asking “Who will tend the farm museums?” No, I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about either, but I can pick out a phrase, a few words here and there, and piece together my own version of whatever “Little America” is all about. But even if I didn’t know who Jefferson was, I recognized a young man’s anxiety about the future and his own decisions in the words “I think we’re lost.” There really wasn’t much more to say and, in hindsight, it would have been no great loss if there wasn’t.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


Toronto Old City Hall cenotaph (click to enlarge)

THIS IS THE CENOTAPH AT TORONTO'S OLD CITY HALL. I'm not sure precisely when the bookend inscriptions commemorating Canada's peacekeeping missions were added to the dates of World War One, World War Two and the Korean War, but they've been there a long time now.

I understand that we have a lot invested in the "myth of Peacekeeping." Canadians like to imagine ourselves as the nice guy, the good friend, the designated driver, the burly but amiable dude who wades in to break up the fight. Like so many national myths, it says more about how we imagine ourselves than the reality.

Never mind that those carved brackets of Peacekeeping, pleasingly symmetrical as they might be, are redundant. There's the simple fact that at least 159 Canadian soldiers have died since we first sent troops into Afghanistan. That's more than the total 122 Canadian fatalities on various UN peacekeeping missions.

Afghanistan might not be anyone's idea of an unmitigated military or political success, but not all of our peacekeeping missions have ended well.

They deserve to be remembered. Perhaps it's time to replace one of those stone slabs and get out the chisel.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why I Vote (and Why I Spoiled My Ballot)

I arrived at the polling station this afternoon to see this, and it pretty much summed up my feelings about the whole election.

The first big mistake Stephen Harper made was to double the length of this election cycle - 78 days, over twice the minimum allowed in the 1996 Elections Act. It's not as harrowing as the American election cycle, which lasts four years and starts before inauguration, but it's a step closer, and makes democracy seem like a punishment. I can't speak for anyone else up here, but the effect it had on me was to give me more than enough time to realize how much I hate politicians - all politicians.

I certainly didn't have a lot to choose from in my riding, which elected its last Tory before I was born, and only sent an NDP MP to Ottawa in the last election, which hindsight seems to be painting as a freak.

I knew I wasn't going into this election a partisan voter, and based on what I'm seeing now as the results come in, I wasn't alone, at least on the conservative side. I wasn't the last time around, four years ago, but at least then my ballot gave me an outlet for my frustration - not one, but two libertarian parties quixotically contesting the riding. After a bit of Googling, I determined which one was the less sophomoric and off-putting and made what was, ethically if not technically, a protest vote.

If nothing else, that ballot provided me with a punch line to any future jokes about the self-sabotaging tendencies of fringe politics in general, and libertarians in particular.

I can't remember why I didn't vote Tory the last time around, but I know that this time it was impatience with Stephen Harper and distaste for at least three of his platforms.

Bribing me with my own money was one of them. As much as I'm shocked at having mysteriously arrived in the middle class, it's never comforting when politicians try to tell me they're my friend. And when they try to grease the unwelcome intimacy with what amount to bribes they insist on calling tax cuts, my gag reflex kicks in.

Sure I like having more money to spend on my kids and a bit more budget for home renos would be nice - that brown '70s kitchen isn't going to replace itself - but I'd like to get that from actual tax cuts that everyone can enjoy and not targeted goodie bags.

I didn't like Bill C-51, either. Not that I'm against fighting terrorism or giving law enforcement the tools to do it, but badly-written legislation is a time bomb. I'm suspicious of any new law, but when they potentially target free speech and legitimate protest thanks to imprecise language like "terrorist propaganda" I can see the overreach waiting to happen. Just look at the Department of Homeland Security to see how expanded powers, well, expand - in all directions.

Most of the people who protested C-51 liked to paint it as Harper creating a police state; I saw it turning really toxic under some future administration with a different definition of an "internal enemy." The "Stop Harper" crowd have always looked like they were fighting a nemesis created in their own imagination and fitted with Harper's face; I didn't see an evil leader but an evil law, with the potential for real trouble when political opportunism and cynicism (inevitably) finds the other side of the blade.

Which brings me to the niqab, which will probably be called the iceberg that holed Harper's Titanic. Maybe it was; it was certainly the issue that energized opposition to Harper when election fatigue was setting in. Now I'm as against masks and covering women with sacks as any putative Islamophobe with daughters, whose understanding of liberal principles bridles at such things.

I would have liked, however, if Harper could have framed his late-in-the-game attack on the niqab more rationally - like how covering your face in ID photos or while giving testimony (or voting) makes a joke of the essential functions of bureaucracy or law or democracy. Instead it was the image of a niqab at a citizenship ceremony that became Harper's boogeyman - a wholly ceremonial ritual where it's intent and not identity that's recognized.

Never mind that, as a religious person and the world's worst Catholic, I have very good reasons to be afraid of laws that - thanks to the bafflingly imprecise language that ends up framing legal definitions - will be inevitably turned around on anyone's religious customs when some malicious lawyer or Supreme Court justice with a hunger for precedent becomes creative with interpretation.

I understand that "religious freedom" - like "free speech" and "the right to bear arms"  - is a concept regarded with far less reverence here than in the U.S., where there's a written Constitution with more vigorous definitions bolstered by two centuries of inspired debate. Which is why I have every reason to expect that good intentions will become predatory legal rulings and punitive bureaucratic punishment here. It's happened before.

Was it too much to ask my country's leader to get me to vote for his party  by treating me like a rational adult?

Which is why I showed up at the polling station expecting not to vote for my Conservative candidate. This time around, though, I didn't intend to vote for anyone.

Years ago, a high school friend sold me on voting with the simple maxim: "If you don't vote, you can't complain." I love complaining, so I made sure I voted in every election. No exercised franchise, no soapbox. It was that simple.

Sometimes I have regretted my vote. Other times I could defend it happily. Thanks to the parliamentary system and my choice to live in the country's largest city I have always known, since I first marked my ballot as a "conservative," that my vote would be largely meaningless, as every riding I have lived in has had an electoral history like the one I live in now.

As ever, even if I voted for my Conservative candidate they'd end up polling at best a distant second but more probably a resounding third. I suppose I could vote "strategically," but I've always been rather sentimental about my vote; I consider it a gift to be bestowed on a deserving suitor, not dice thrown in a game of odds. In either case I entered the polling station knowing in my gut that Harper's conservatives were in for a mauling, and I know they knew it, too. No vote, strategic or not, would change that, and I frankly didn't much care.

So with no stomach for the Conservative party and no Libertarian to gift with my protest vote - the only independent running revealed himself as a maniac and a slumlord after a few minutes of Googling - I spoiled my ballot.

I'd never done it before. I looked online to see if there was a "proper" way, but ballot-spoiling is apparently like modern jazz: you can do it with as much style as you want, but most people still won't approve.

My friend and editor Paul Tuns was the first person who ever told me that it spoiling my ballot wasn't just an option, but a principled one. He ended up voting Tory this time around, but his rationalization included a thought that made the conspicuous gesture of a spoiled ballot seem almost creative:
So it's illogical that I'm voting, but that, too, is the beauty of freedom: It doesn't have to make sense.
It wasn't fun. I hope I never have to do it again, but that would mean a future with better politicans and superior politics, and I can't see that happening. Staying at home would be a franchise wasted; making the effort to dig up my papers and identification and walk to the polling place to say "none of the above" isn't apathy, but it is an admission that I've slipped away from the apparent majority of the population who can express joy or disappointment at the results of an election. I can still complain, but without much passion or outrage; this time around, I didn't think anyone had a better idea.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


Daniel Pipes is an expert on the Middle East, which means that when he tries to say something correct about that part of the world, he gets called all sorts of nasty names. That would be what we call an occupational hazard, like carpenters getting splinters, or hockey players losing teeth.

He occasionally writes on other topics, about which he's usually just as correct, and this week he wondered aloud just why the Republicans managed to lose an election running against an inept president and his groaning platform of destructive policies. He came to a conclusion that's hardly new, but which probably sums up the whole mission statement of this blog:
Myself, I subscribe to the "politics is downstream from culture" argument. While conservatives sometimes prevail in policy debates, they consistently lose in the classroom, on the best-seller list, on television, at the movies, and in the world of arts. These liberal bastions, which provide the feeders for Democratic party politics, did not develop spontaneously but result from decades of hard work traceable back to the ideas of Antonio Gramsci.
I'd never heard of Gramsci until - surprise, surprise! - college, and what I understood I didn't much like, but presumed that it was worth ignoring, as it had little relationship to life as it seemed to be lived. Another thing I was wrong about; while upbringing and temperament made me largely immune (in the long run) to Gramsci's project of cultural denaturing, other people - something like a majority, or so it would seem - weren't so protected. As Guy Somerset wrote this week, in a column about things to worry about in the new year:
Why does anyone care what Al Sharpton or Shaneequa at the supermarket thinks about their racial beliefs? In some cases such as employment, it’s obvious; but to say most people are obsequious in order not to get fired is a canard. Most are simply indoctrinated. They would rather be raped than be racist. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, until recently it wasn’t this way.
One of the sobering spectacles of my adult life is watching people act against their own self-interest. When you're young and confused, it's hard to divine just what your self-interest is, particularly. Time and common sense eventually make it self-evident, but the shocking moment comes when you look around and see people actively, proudly agitating for causes nakedly inimical to their livelihood and beliefs, like feminists supporting Islamists, Catholics voting for Obama (twice!) or rich people endorsing Marxists.

It takes a while to realize that these people have come to the conclusion that there is no other option, and you start wondering just what they were taught that made them believe that they have no alternative except to invite into their house the person who has said that they will betray their confidence, conspire against their liberty, and even make them a pauper.

Nobody reads Gramsci, but his ideas have had an influence utterly out of proportion to their popularity. Like so many ideologies we consider either sinister, ridiculous (or both,) we've ignored what were once outlying sensations on the academic left like Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, even as they slowly became the mainstream there and spread into the arts, where they're considered self-evident truths by people who have never heard of Theodore Adorno or an obscure Italian communist.

I doubt if William F. Buckley ever thought to take on Adorno or Gramsci with the same fervor that he used to debate Gore Vidal. I don't imagine Gramsci's name ever appears in five decades of Buckley's writing, though I may be wrong. It's only now that conservatives have realized just how deeply these arcane, usually ill-expressed ideas have penetrated the culture, and have begun fighting what is, I'm afraid, a wholly defensive, rear-guard action.

(HT: Blazing Catfur & 5 Ft. of Fury)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

New Column: Rich

I have a new column up on the Interim website - a review of the documentary The Queen of Versailles, which is one of those time capsule artifacts that we might want to use to commemorate the last four or five years of fiscal incontinence. Here's a quote:
The moral writ large over The Queen of Versailles is that the Siegels aren't terribly different from Westgate Resort’s customers – regular people who went in over their heads in pursuit of a conspicuous luxury that they could ill afford. David keeps complaining that the banks got businessmen like him addicted to “cheap money,” as if they were victims, addicts deprived of willpower and discretion. 
It’s also a story of shamelessness, and that might be the larger moral Greenfield’s film could give to its audience. Despite the less-than-flattering picture the picture paints of her, Jackie has been an enthusiastic supporter of the picture, showing up at premieres even as her husband sues the filmmaker for defamation. The Siegels, to be sure, are guilty of a lot of social misdemeanors, but pretension and self-consciousness certainly aren't among them.
 As I've confessed before, there hasn't been a lot that's tempted me into movie theatres lately, but the documentary genre remains stronger than ever. It's also the one least likely to be a major player in the economics of movie exhibition these days, which is another reason never to leave the house.

Buy it at

Monday, December 17, 2012


Everybody has an opinion; that's why they might be the least valuable thing in the world. (Their lack of value - relative or concrete - might be the strongest argument against "hate speech" laws.) It's not surprising then that, in the wake of a horrible crime that took the lives of innocent children, everybody has something to say. Unfortunately, the first people we go to for their valueless opinion are celebrities.

Jamie Foxx has a role in Quentin Tarantino's imminent Django Unchained, which is supposed to be one of the director's most violent films. Foxx recently told the Associated Press that he thinks there's a definite connection between cinematic bloodshed and the real thing:
"We cannot turn our back and say that violence in films or anything that we do doesn't have a sort of influence," Foxx said in an interview on Saturday. "It does."
While I appreciate Foxx's concern about the violent murder of children by a lunatic, I wonder if he might like to back up his very public show of moral concern by making a call to his agent and insisting that he not be shown any more scripts with scenes of violence. Because if he sees any "sort of influence" that connects witnessing violence in entertainment with acting violently in real life, he can't in good conscience take roles that perpetuate it any longer. Because the children.

If he wishes to make his point more firmly, he can begin negotiations with the involved principals to block the further re-release or exhibition of Collateral, Miami Vice, Jarhead, Stealth, The Kingdom, Law Abiding Citizen and Ali, and insist that White House Down and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 be either shelved or taken out of production.

Because if he isn't this serious about the damage that he obviously believes onscreen violence is wreaking on society, he's just a concern troll who doesn't need a comments section.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


The worst thing about a senseless, bloody tragedy crime that probably couldn't have been avoided (unless we siphoned away a whole lot more liberty from our society) is that we're so eager to look outraged that we proudly ignore what might be a saner response in the pursuit of conspicuous virtue.

Which is why a lot of people will probably pretend to be offended by my friend Kathy saying the one original thing I've heard so far:
My not really joking solution to school shootings is to ban schools.