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.