When R.E.M. released “Out of Time” in 1991, this song became my go-to break-up song. Michael Stipe’s voice calls up all the fragility, desperation, longing, and despair that I felt as I drove aimlessly around and belted out the words on repeat.
This is my favorite song, even though every time I listen to it I’m reminded of moments of loneliness and unhappiness. It’s my favorite because it evokes those emotions, because it makes me feel.
“When I was 16, my english teacher, Jack McLaughlin, a great great teacher so passionate about poetry and prose, walked into a chattering classroom of teenagers and without warning, slammed his hand down on his desk “BANG!!” The ensuing silence was broken by his voice. “R.E.M. are the greatest rock band in the world.”
Some months later, my friend played some for me in his room. It sounded so different to anything I had heard. It felt like discovering a new primary colour. It sounded american. It sounded so hopeful. It sounded grown up. That voice. Who was that voice? Who was playing guitar? These drum patterns were so unique, the backing vocals were the sound of another song happening at the same time as the main song. It was the sound that Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills made together. They hailed from a place called Athens in Georgia. Athens? Cool! Here began the longest love affair I ever had with a band.
I never saw R.E.M. live. We played with them in South America recently but it was 3 of R.E.M and some other great musicians. It wasn’t R.E.M though. The day Bill Berry retired to become a gentleman farmer was the day R.E.M became something different. Michael Stipe once said something along the lines of “…a 3 legged dog is still a dog” in defence of them carrying on. However a leg is not a vital organ. They made some great songs after Berry left… Daysleeper is perfect. I remember Nigel mixed this while we were recording The Man Who and hearing it coming through the desk was WOW!
I dreamed of flight. When you’re fifteen, you can have dreams like that. You dream of spreading your arms and sailing over everything you’ve known. These are not labeled as fantasy by your mind, no grand illusion to separate the waking life from everything slumber creates; what you see when your eyes close at midnight is as tangible as anything you reach out and touch with your eyes wide open at noon. School is a temporary affliction. Pretty soon everything you dream about is going to be real.
It could happen tomorrow.
The radio stayed on as I drifted off to sleep, the signals bouncing over Manhattan Island, connecting eight and a half million people in a symphony. The music played through the air to everyone. The music played just for me. I spent Ninety-Seven, Ninety-Eight, Ninety-Nine in a nighttime haze of pop, spinning the dial from PLJ to HTZ to NSR and back, trying to find the song that would drive my imagination. I would fall asleep to a heady mix of contemporary music, letting them bleed over my mind into one indistinguishable noise, a pleasant enough background to the images which would last far longer.
R.E.M. cut through it all. They burned. They became the one band who became as inseparable from the dreams of those years as the images themselves. When I dreamed that my feet had left the ground I saw them lift as clear as day. I felt the heat of a stifling Virginia summer, even if I was three months and hundreds of miles away. I could see my friend Speedster beside me, confident that she would tell everyone what was happening, knowing that she realized as well as I did that impossible things called miracles were going to occur every single day, because we were young and we believed. And through it all I heard Life’s Rich Pageant and Green and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, records played piecemeal over radio waves and then on a Walkman I kept near me everywhere. These tunes caused me to dream bigger. My mind cemented dreams with them that were strong enough to outlast years and sorrow and the inevitable move to adulthood. The memories I have of high school are big enough to remember lessons, heartbreaks, dumb nights drinking and dumber nights not drinking. They’re big enough to recall conquering gravity. I broke the bounds of pavement and skyscrapers to travel where no one else could. This was truth, and sometimes more important than anything that happened in daylight. I carried these lessons with me.
“Stand.” I am dancing in a June thunderstorm, letting the water cleanse me and remind me that there are times to celebrate. “The Great Beyond.” I am flying. It’s real. I swear. “Imitation of Life.” I am going to survive reality. “Leaving New York.” And I am going to come back. “Pop Song 89.” I am here and living and dreaming, and sometimes I blend the two to keep my story moving forward.
In a drawer in my childhood bedroom there sits a notebook with all the things I dreamed. I don’t remember what it says. I know exactly what it sounds like. And today I’ll play those same songs, and I’ll wonder if I can dream like a kid does. I wonder if there’s still time to fly.
Judge me for it if you will, but this song and this video were a big part of who I was at sixteen: a bookish, depressed Catholic kid in a new town. All that nightmare religious imagery and Vermeer light blew my tiny mind, accompanied by that spine-chilling mandolin and Stipe’s nearly affectless vocals (so much more effective than some mass of emoting).
Reading the chapter on R.E.M. in Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute has given me a fresher appreciation of their early work, and, well, “Shiny Happy People” aside, Out of Time will be a key part of my high school soundtrack. I admit, I had a bit of a “what, they were still alive?” reaction to the breakup news. Still, they had a good run, didn’t they?
(Reposted from my old blog. Originally written April 4, 2008)
I stood outside the door of Pickles Records, waiting for opening time, on the day of Document’s release in 1987. (It was also, coincidentally, the day before my 16th birthday.) That event began a pattern that continued through 1988’sGreen (released on Election Day), 1991’s Out of Time (sometime in early spring — oh, March 12, thank you Wikipedia!), and 1992’s Automatic for the People (October 6): I would buy R.E.M.’s newest album on its release day.
Archaeological fieldwork (in the vicinity of Buffalo, Texas) delayed my purchase of 1994’s Monster (September 27), but I resumed my habit for New Adventures is Hi-Fi (September 10, 1996). The last R.E.M. album I bought on its release date was the post–Bill BerryUp (October 27, 1998). During the same year, someone at a party asked me who my favorite band was and my then-girlfriend answered for me: “Stereolab.” I recall being a little put off — where did she get off saying my favorite band wasn’t R.E.M., which was certainly the case since at least 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant? But the hell of it was, she was right.
I bought Reveal several months after its release (May 15, 2001). I knew of its existence during the entire time, but the uneven quality of the band’s last two albums dulled my enthusiasm a little. I eventually bought it on CD — one of the last albums on bought on CD, actually.
I can’t recall when I bought 2004’s Around the Sun. I think I noticed some unfamiliar R.E.M. songs on a coworker’s shared iTunes library, which prompted me to wonder — “did R.E.M. release a new album and I didn’t even know about it?” Yup, that’s what happened. I downloaded the album from iTunes mainly out of loyalty. By that time — probably early 2005 — R.E.M. occupied the same place in my pop culture universe as The Simpsons…their early work had essentially bought them a lifetime free pass in my opinion.
I feel pretty good about being only three days late for Accelerate, which is a stronger effort than any R.E.M. album since 1996. Like U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, it’s a return-to-form album, with none of the electronic experimentation of Up or the soft-rock coasting of the previous two albums. So in the sense of “resembles older, better R.E.M. albums,” it’s pretty good. On the other hand, at least until 2004, the one thing you could safely say about the newest R.E.M. album was that it wouldn’t sound much like any R.E.M. album before it.
When I was 16, I wrote a screed about classic rock radio called “Fuck Radio” for a friend’s zine (the Subterranean). It used to infuriate me that a young person could turn on the radio and hear great rock and roll coming from at least five F.M. stations, but that none of that great rock and roll was newer than about 1978. I thought I was living through the halcyon years of rock and roll, which had been revitalized first by punk rock in the late 70s and then again by New Wave and the R & B–influenced pop of the early 1980s. I held especial contempt for the Rolling Stones and Eric Claption, both of whom I regarded as way past their prime, holding back rock and roll, filling the airwaves and critical attention with stuff that had already been done. This was part of a larger rubric in my head that kind of loathed the remaindered 60s culture of then-thirtysomethings. What little airspace was left for pop music seemed to be filled with execrable hair metal and junky throwaway pop.
I wonder where that screed is now? I bet it’s funny.
Siting here at my new desk thinking about R.E.M. and the crucial role they played in my musical development. In high school I listened to nothing but rap—Eazy E, The D.O.C., Public Enemy, BDP, etc.—and then I made the tennis team my junior year and most of the guys were big R.E.M. fans. Green had just come out and I was all over “Orange Crush.” It sounded different from anything I heard on the radio and I was intrigued. This opened me up to bands like Buffalo Tom, Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub and many, many others. I was hooked.
I’m also struck by how I timed seeing them live with major moments in my life.
The first time I saw them was on the Monster tour. I took the train to Albany with my college girlfriend to see them on my 21st birthday. We had seats behind the stage, but they filmed the video for “Tongue” that night. Best.
The second time I saw them was at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1998. I sat in the section behind the one that got struck by lightning. What a crazy weekend.
The third time I saw them was at Jones Beach on the Up tour. I had worked on that record as part of my job in the music industry and had what was probably the single best concert experience I have ever had at a show. When I picked up my tickets I was given the wrong ones and I got 4 front row seats! After debating what to do for a bit, I returned the tickets to the will call window and told them what happened (I’m not a TOTAL asshole). The head of security overheard what I did and upgraded me to VIP seats anyways. We also had access to the beer garden at an otherwise dry show. Then after the show I got to go backstage and hang out. Patti Smith was there but I was more excited to stand at the bar next to Kate Moss and Liv Tyler. They were there to see their boyfriends in Spacehog, who opened the show.
The fourth time I saw them was in ‘08 at Merriweather with my now wife. I got toshoot the show and sing along to “Don’t Go Back To Rockville.” It was a kick-ass rock show that featured a setlist spanning their entire career. And I took the photo above, still one of my faves to this day.
Not going to list favorite R.E.M. songs, just moments.
Mills counting off “Drive.” The banjo coming in on “Wendell Gee.” The first lick of “Fall On Me.” The world’s most polite feedback squeal, on ”Try Not To Breathe.” Stipe’s lost little “whoa” three quarters through the cover of “First We Take Manhattan.” Pool sounds on “We Walk,” slowed down into thunder. The arm gesture illustrating “flailing around” in the “Losing My Religion” video. The one-note change to the “Driver 8” vocal melody on 2008 tour. The word “alkali” in “How The West Was Won.” The key change halfway through “New Orleans Instrumental #1.” The last, seventh, “listen to me” on “Welcome to the Occupation.”
I’ve loved R.E.M. since the first time I heard “So. Central Rain” back in the 1980’s.
My Dad used to listen to WBRU, Brown University’s radio station. They used to call it “The Cutting Edge of Rock” and it was fantastic. I was a lucky kid to be eight years old and hearing R.E.M. emerge as this thing that was all its own. They were a revolutionary band. They were so new that the first listen to any song, I hated, the second, I heard, and the third, I adored.
I read today that they broke up. It seemed a little weird, as I’d just gotten used to them being statesmen of rock music. Saying they “broke up” is bizarre. Sure, they’re not retiring, as each will continue individual projects and continue to be musicians who write and perform. But “breaking up” is something that teenagers do. This is not befitting enough an epitaph of the band. They haven’t a number to retire.
I’m at a loss. We don’t get to see bands come to a natural end, often, especially the great ones. Consider the 27 Club. Conversely, consider the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, who have been through the tannery of fame, drugs, and rock and roll to tour endlessly so that one more generation can say, “Yeah, I saw Keith and Mick live. They still had it… ” There’s nothing wrong with it, but it is a bit more like watching a celebration of a band’s career than it is hearing the magic their known for in the first place… No coda in sight.
And here’s R.E.M. – the cutting-edgers of rock, iconoclastic and jingle-jangly guitars and loose harmonies all at once – retiring. True to themselves as they ever were, they’ve achieved as fresh and unexpected an end as they did a beginning and a middle.
Smart, yes. Thoughtful, definitely. Great music, undoubtedly. Thanks, fellas.
I love this band. They were one of my gateway drugs into music. They were one of the first bands I got into as a kid. Their lyrics are so life changing and mind altering for me.
My Dad was obsessed with them when I was growing up and he would cover “Loosing My Religion” all the time with his band. Many memories of sitting in the garage listening to my Dad sing it over and over. He’d pick me up from school sometimes in his MG controvertible and he would be blasting that song. I didn’t appreciate then how good of taste my Dad has. And as an Atheist this song hits even closer to home after all these years. After 30 years of consistently making great music they have split and I am completely bummed. They will be on an endless loop while I painting and drawing tonight. RIP R.E.M.