R.E.M. announced their end last week and it’s taken me until now to ponder that news. That alone is evidence of how much I’d lost touch of a band that, for a good half decade or so, was a fixture in my world.
Now that I do reflect on the career of the Athens, Georgia quartet, I realize that R.E.M. was arguably the ultimate college rock act for me and, like a lot of people from that period of higher education, we simply went in separate directions, unable to maintain a once seemingly unbreakable connection.
I’m unable to place exactly when I was introduced to Michael Stipe and company.
I discovered the modern rock of 97X during the autumn of 1983, six months or so following the release of R.E.M.’s debut Murmur. The station was undoubtedly playing Radio Free Europe and Talk About The Passion and I’m sure that, on those evenings when I could get reception, I heard the songs, but to little effect on me.
I do know that by the following spring, when Reckoning was issued, my buddy Bosco sing the band’s praises and I was reading about the band in Rolling Stone.
Still, R.E.M. and I existed in blissful ignorance of one another.
By the summer of 1985, I had begun to hear R.E.M. on the radio as one of the rock stations I was listening to gave some airplay to Driver 8 and Cant Get There From Here from Fables Of The Reconstruction.
Neither song really resonated with me and neither did the critical adulation. However, it didn’t go unnoticed that my girlfriend’s older brother, home from college for the summer, was enthusuiastic about R.E.M.
A summer later, Lifes Rich Pageant was issued and as I headed to college that fall, R.E.M. had finally connected with me through the songs Fall On Me and Superman, the latter a cover of a song by ’60s band The Clique.
I was hearing the songs in the dorm and at parties, seeing the videos on MTV, and reading about them in each and every music magazine I’d pick up.
Oddly enough, though I was now in college, I didn’t have access to a modern rock station as I had in high school, so my growing interest in R.E.M. wasn’t being nurtured by radio even though the group was a cornerstone of the burgeoning college radio boom of the ’80s.
R.E.M. was definitely a part of my world for the next four years and change as the group broke through to the mainstream with hits like The One I Love and Stand but remained eccentric and enigmatic enough to be cool to me and my college peers.
I went back and purchased much of the band’s catalog.
We all but played the life out of those albums in the record store where I worked. When I worked a shift with my friend Jess, it became Pavlovian for us to catch each other’s eyes when Stipe reached “Leonid Brezhnev” in It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).
We might be on opposite ends of the store, but that lyric never failed to crack us up.
The classic Out Of Time reached the store in 1991. I can still, vividly, picture the rainy spring day that I took home the CD, sprawled out on the couch of my last college apartment, and listened to it for the first time.
By summer, Losing My Religion had helped Out Of Time become the R.E.M.’s biggest-selling album and I, having graduated the previous December, had relocated, the cassette probably in the Walkman.
Automatic For The People was a deservedly feted album and a cassette dubbed from the CD spent a lot of time in my Walkman as I trudged to work in late 1992, but it was clear that the relationship had changed in some undefinable way.
It was like the friendships with college friends that were reducing to phone conversations which were less frequent, more brief, and increasingly disconnected.
I hung with R.E.M. through Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but, when Up arrived in 1998, I was living in London with little money and I didn’t even bother.
I’m not sure what I’ve missed in the past decade from R.E.M. Reviews I’ve read lead me to believe that the years that the band has soldiered on without drummer Bill Berry and me have been a mixed bag.
R.E.M. and I weren’t destined to grow old together. Like most of my college friends, it was meant to be a brief relationship, providing more than a few songs to the soundtrack of that time.
I can’t say I’ve listened to much R.E.M. in quite some time aside from a track popping up on shuffle. I was a bit surprised to find that I had near two hundred songs from the band.
It might be time for a reunion.
Here are a half-dozen that caught my eye…
R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe
from Murmur (1983)
I had to have heard Radio Free Europe on 97X, but I can’t recall. If I try to imagine what I would have thought of the song as a fifteen-year old kid, I’m picture myself shrugging, puzzled.
Of course, Michael Stipe’s vocals and/or lyrics were oft noted as being indecipherable and inscrutible. Radio Free Europe is an excellent example, but the song bristles with garage rock energy and I find myself singing the words that I do know.
R.E.M. – So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)
from Reckoning (1984)
The jangly, mysterious So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry) has long been a must on any R.E.M. compilation and I’ve always loved the lyric “Go build yourself another dream, this choice isn’t mine.”
R.E.M. – Superman
from Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
R.E.M. performed a lot of covers during their career – everyone from Leonard Cohen to Cyndi Lauper – but it was their take on a song by a far more obscure band from Texas called The Clique that provided the band with one of its best-known early songs.
Bass player Mike Mills took the lead vocals on Superman, and though the lyrics were as moody as their originals, the music was ridiculously upbeat and catchy.
R.E.M. – Orange Crush
from Green (1988)
Orange Crush was about Vietnam, the title a reference to Agent Orange. The political overtones of the song allowed a lot of us at the time to feel politically active by listening to the groovy, rocking song which featured some cool, jagged, chiming guitars courtesy of Peter Buck.
It was a win/win.
R.E.M. – Belong
from Out Of Time (1991)
Probably my favorite of all R.E.M. songs, Belong was the song that caused me to hit repeat the first time I listened to Out Of Time. The song drew me in.
It’s a dreamy, spoken-word fable with thumping bass, ringing guitar and soaring, wordless harmonies.
R.E.M. – Fretless
from Until The End Of The World soundtrack (1991)
Fretless was included on the soundtrack to the little-seen Until The End Of The World, a fascinating and flawed, futuristic road trip of a movie from the director of the classic Wings Of Desire.
A stellar array of alternative acts contributed songs specifically written for the film, resulting in one of my favorite soundtracks. For their part, R.E.M. bestowed the lovely, downbeat Fretless .