R.E.M. broke up.
For a lot of people, R.E.M. ended back in 1997 when drummer Bill Berry left the band, but I’m not one of those people. I soldiered on through the next fourteen years as both an apologist (“Guys, come on ‘Around the Sun’ has some great songs”) and a honest advocate for a band that, in my opinion, was being harshly criticized for some truly excellent work (Late period records like ‘Up’ and last year’s ‘Collapse Into Now’ are worthy entries in a pretty stacked top to bottom catalog).
R.E.M. has broken up.
I never thought about it happening and certainly never thought about how I would react to the news. I mean, they’ve been around, seemingly, forever -certainly, for my entire life- and their best days were more than likely behind them. It’s just, I never envisioned a world without them. So when I saw the headline on the AVClub this afternoon, “R.E.M. announces breakup,” I didn’t expect to get all misty. That’s exactly what happened. By the time I went into my itunes, however, to cue up “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” -the opening track from one of my favorite R.E.M. records, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”- I knew I would lose it. And lose it I did.
It may seem silly to some to have such an attachment to a band. An elusive…thing. An indefinable almost invisible entity that you’ll never touch, never know on a level outside of records and songs, but I did and I still do. A lot of people love music as much as I do. Many people love music more than I do (not many, but some) and even though their tastes, like mine, probably cover a wide spectrum and include hundreds of beloved bands, all of us still have that one. That first band. The one that changed it all. This goes, I’d imagine, double for those of us who never graduated to actually playing music and lived our lives as what Nick Hornby once described as “professional appreciators.” As I’m sure you can glean, for me, that band was R.E.M.
I came to R.E.M. at a young age thanks to a particularly cool cousin of mine name Ann Marie who babysat me as a kid and who is as devastated today by this news as I am. I was single digits in age when they were introduced to me, so it goes without saying I wasn’t appreciating R.E.M. for their groundbreaking work in American Rock ‘n Roll or for basically being the reason the term “college rock” was coined. Nope. I liked R.E.M. because Michael Stipe sang really fast on “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” But, that’s all it took. As I got older, R.E.M. was always around. I have a vivid memory of heading to Rockaway Sounds on the day ‘Out Of Time’ was released to get it. I was ten! Of course, I also bought C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” at the same time, but that’s beside the point.
From the moment I first heard “End of the World” R.E.M. informed every choice I made musically, sometimes indirectly, but always. I bought records by bands that Michael Stipe liked, which is how I became the only 7th grader obsessed with Big Star. I bought records based on reviews that mentioned even the slightest comparison to my favorite band, which is how I became the only 8th grader with a copy of ‘Slanted and Enchanted.’ But, more than that I devoured R.E.M. records for my entire life. I have loved them unconditionally for that long and probably took for granted that they’d always be around. Now they’re not.
R.E.M. have been the soundtrack to my life. That won’t stop (I’m one of the people buying all those reissues of I.R.S. records after all), but it won’t be the same. There won’t be any more R.E.M. records. No new R.E.M. memories. No more R.E.M. shows.
By the time I was of early concert going age, R.E.M. hadn’t been touring. I just missed the ‘Green’ tour -though I had “Tourfilm” to compensate- and they famously didn’t tour on ‘Out of Time’ and ‘Automatic For the People.’ I was lucky enough, however to see them twice on the ‘Monster’ tour, so I saw them when they were still Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe and I’ll cherish that. Post Berry, I’ve seen them a bunch. I found out I would be a godfather to Ann Marie’s son at a stop on the ‘Up’ tour at the outdoor Jones Beach Theater and stuck around through a two hour rain delay (complete with lightning striking the theater) at the same venue years later on the ‘Accelerate’ tour with my friend Janet.
It’s fitting, in retrospect, that the last R.E.M. show I will probably ever see took place at Madison Square Garden (the first place I ever saw them) and that I saw it with my cousin Ann Marie. It was just the two of us and it was a perfect show. They even played “Disturbance at the Heron House,” my favorite R.E.M. song (I won’t talk about how I jumped up and squealed like a teenager when it started). I’m saddened by this fact, but also comforted that I was able to be there and that I’ll always have that memory.
It may seem silly to be mourning a band who a lot of people stopped paying attention to a long time ago. All I can say is, for me, that’s what being a fan is about. You just go with it. You want to love it all, so you do. It’s not that hard, really.
I guess I’ll say goodbye for now to my favorite band. A band I owe a lot to. A band that I love above all others. A band that has guided me through every phase of my life. As Ann Marie texted to me earlier today, “It’s the end of an era, man.” That it is.