I’ve only cheated once in my life and I’m not sorry. I was 15 years old, the same age as my oldest daughter. I told all my friends I liked the same music they did in 1985. Motley Crue, Van Halen, Def Leppard, and that ilk filled my cassette case. Sometime in that summer of 26 years ago, a friend of a friend asked me if I wanted to try “other” kinds of music. I was young, impressionable, eager, and curious. I said yes. I was given Murmur, R.E.M.’s 1983 debut album, on vinyl. Kids, vinyl is a record; round, you play it on a record player. Yes, I’m old.
When my parents weren’t paying attention, and my friends were away, I would play it in our living room on my parents stereo. It was completely different than anything I’d heard before. Guitars jangled, drums percussed hard and soft, and the singer alternated between mumbling oddly and singing personal lyrics about hurt, loneliness, caring for others, and wondering about the future. This wasn’t Diamond David Lee Roth screaming about chicks and booze. I continued the affair for years.I went to college with my infidelity until I finally came clean. Those other bands got stale. That popular music gave way to other artists like R.E.M. Suddenly, it all didn’t seem so sullied and sly. By 1988, I was a college radio DJ in Tuscaloosa, Alabama paying my respects to the deity of the low wattage airwaves.
R.E.M. broke up today. By the time this posts it will officially be yesterday. They met as college students in Athens, Georgia, which is 40 miles from where I grew up. Thirty one years, fifteen albums, a rock and roll hall of fame induction, and more accolades than musical artists probably deserve, my teenage “other band” makes me feel good for knowing them. My personal relationship with R.E.M. turned into something more like a marriage or deep friendship. We had ups and downs. I couldn’t stand their late 80s foray into pop music with songs like Stand, Shiny Happy People and the overrated Losing My Religion. I loved their march into arena rock with the Monster album in 1994. I saw them live three times, 1989, 1991, and 1995. They actually got better each show. Most acts are amazing at the start, and suck at the end. R.E.M. aged like Bordeaux wine in an old French woman’s wine cellar.
My favorite band member, drummer Bill Berry, left the group in the mid 90s after brain surgery. He’s a humble farmboy with a wicked sense of dry humor. I met him twice. He treated me like he knew me and I almost felt like giving him my autograph. After his departure the group lost focus. They didn’t replace Bill and enigmatic singer Michael Stipe got more political and less artistic with his writing. I kind of had a falling out with the band after that and didn’t buy a a CD until 2007 when Accelerate came out. Suddenly guitarist Peter Buck was jangling again. Stipe was actually singing and not preaching. Bassist Mike Mills contributions to the band, so vital in the early years, were visible. The group was playing rock music and playing it well. I rediscovered every thing that I lusted after when I first heard R.E.M. so many years earlier.
For many, R.E.M. was a college radio icon full of integrity that traveled in a beat up green van, asked people to vote, and looked like they hated selling more than 12 records. The truth is R.E.M. cared. They cared more about things that rock bands ever acknowledged. They promoted other acts. They worked behind the scenes to help other artists become famous that wouldn’t have otherwise. R.E.M , especially Michael Stipe, could be frustratingly pious. Their passion was always evident. I said to a friend who is more a Metallica guy, and never really dug R.E.M. “do you think if Metallica acted as socially conscious as R.E.M., would they have been successful.”, without hesitation he responded, “if every musical group acted the way R.E.M. did, people would elect rock stars for public office and the world would be a better place.” I think R.E.M. created the template that U2 uses for fame and fortune today.
Everything ends. Marriages, affairs, and rock bands. Thirty one years is longer than the first two of those usually last. R.E.M. leaves a legacy of well written songs, amazing musicianship and unbridled passion. That passion is their greatness.
Today’s song is cut four off the Murmur album. It’s the first thing I ever heard from R.E.M. because the person who gave me the vinyl record told me it was the best song. All of the songs on Murmur are good. Every one of them. I just think Talk About The Passion sums up why R.E.M. is one of the most important rock and roll bands ever. Thank you Michael, Peter, Mike, and Bill.