September 24, 2014

Me, R.E.M., R.E.M. and I

My second favorite band has called it quits.  (My favorite band is still with us.)  My journey with them started around 1986, when I saw the video for “Fall on Me” on some obscure cable access college radio show:

Loved the song, and didn’t think about them much for a few years.

When Document hit, they were sort of at the periphery of my vision.  I remember liking “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” just, um, fine.  But it wasn’t until Green that I really paid any kind of attention, by which I mean I bought Green.

I remember it being a really big deal that this was the first time R.E.M. had printed any of their lyrics on the jacket (or, in my case, the inside of the cassette tape liner).  A lot of people considered that “selling out,” especially since it was their first album with a major label (Warner Bros.).  Funny story there.  Apparently I.R.S., their former label, knew they couldn’t compete with the bid Warner’s was making for the band so, in a gesture of good will, they doubled their offer so that Warners would have to up their bid and pay the band more, even though I.R.S. knew they couldn’t actually pay that much themselves.  Another little REM contract anomaly: They’re one of the few signed bands in the world that owns the rights to their own music.

One of my distinct memories of Green was nearly wearing it out mowing the lawn.  But its biggest impact came when I handed this album off to my friend Grant who was a guitarist in a band with me in high school.  He went on to become obsessed with the band and turned me into the fan I am today.  It was his suggestion to stick with Murmur until it hooked me, the first time I learned an album doesn’t have to blow you away on the first listen to be great.  (We would go on to perform a cover of “Fall On Me,” kind of bringing things full circle). Grant also got me into Zeppelin; I owe that guy a lot.

Murmur, by the way, produced one of my favorite videos:

REM became on of my most covered bands.  In college I would perform “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” with friends who actually knew how to play guitar (I just sang).  By the time I could play myself I did the somewhat simpler “Everybody Hurts” and “Let Me In”.  I performed “Orange Crush” with my friend Rachel (who also did a mean Kate Pierson on “Me in Honey”) in which the middle eight was replaced with a chorus of “Pull Over That Ass Too Fat” or, on one occasion, the opening monologue from The A-Team.

They also strongly influenced my songwriting.  Listen to “Waif” and tell me I haven’t been listening to Fables of the Reconstruction:

Out of Time came out as I was graduating high school, about the same time as Living Colour’s Time’s Up.  Sense a theme?  While not the “best” R.E.M. album, it is certainly my favorite.  “Radio Song,” “Losing My Religion,” “Belong,” “Country Feedback,” and “Me In Honey” all resonated with me greatly (I could be kind of morose), but the all time winner here is “Half a World Away”.  It’s my second favorite song of all time (first).  R.E.M.’s 3/4 and 6/8 numbers always grab me, but this one, with the interplay between the organ and the harpsichord and the longing, sweeping lyricism of Stipe just devastate me (and kind of uplift me, too).

I only ever saw them in concert twice, once on the Monster tour and once to support Accelerate.  Although Monster is the more iconic album, Accelerate produced the better tour.  It was, in fact, one of the best concerts I ever saw.

My final viewing of R.E.M., as it were, was seeing Michael Stipe at SXSW introduce a bunch of short films he’d produced in conjunction with songs from what we would find out later was R.E.M.’s last album, Collapse Into Now (for some reason he was keen not to call them “music videos”).  Mike Mills also happened to be in the house, so it was kind of like seeing 2/3 of the band.  Although the films were very arty, and generally not to my taste, the short for “Every Day Is Yours to Win,” seemed very of the moment and a good note on which to end.

Comments

  1. Chris League says:

    Thanks Dave, great memories. My arc is similar; first REM album purchased was Green, but I worked my way through the back catalog. Albums such as Murmur, Document, and Life’s Rich Pageant are still among my favorites today. I’ll echo a comment I saw elsewhere: these guys gave us so much, they don’t owe anybody anything. May they be happy and fulfilled!

  2. Rachel says:

    Great retrospective Dave. These are the albums I always go back to–such defining music of my high school and college days; and I always think of you when I’m blasting Orange Crush!

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