In recognition of R.E.M.'s new album Accelerate where they diligently try to rope in the old magic with mixed results, I submit this tribute from my book-in-progress to what was once my favorite band.
There are few bands that were more beloved and then pilloried by those same lovers than R.E.M. For me and my friends, R.E.M. was a way of rectifying our disgraceful Southern-ness within the decidedly non-Southern context of alternative rock, and if this sounds like heady business, it was not. Being Southern, white and in high school in 1985 typical boiled down to aligning yourself to patterns established by Southern Rock's heyday a decade earlier- "Free Bird"1 was perennially nominated for class song and subsequently voted down - or against them.
Stage 1 - Reckoning
R.E.M. was The Byrds of my generation. The Byrds took their eras more problematic popular music (specifically Dylan and Gram Parsons) and cleaned them up, decorated them in deliciously jangly Rickenbacker 12-strings, saturated them in harmonies that only someone trying not to would find unappealing - all so they can be presented to the masses for their acceptance. R.E.M. did the same thing for the erratic post-punk American spazz art of The Minutemen, the acidic sunset lovesongs of Big Star, and the amalgam that was The Byrds themselves - tying them up in a package that was easily digestible yet just idiosyncratic enough to be completely appealing. I felt R.E.M. was trying to be something more than art-leaning yahoos from Georgia, mainly because we were trying to be more than unathletic brainy kids from tepid subdivisions, but like them, we found we could not escape ourselves. Michael Stipe on Chronic Town, Murmur and Reckoning sounds Southern escapist as hell, transmuting his drawl into smear. Look at the elliptical spiderweb he navigates on "9-9": even though he fully apes Lou Reed's mumbled voiceover on "The Murder Mystery" on the third Velvet Underground album2, and the guitars are dissonant and interlocked around some NYC trajectory, when Stipe goes "rayght on tar-Guhtt," he ain't fooling anyone. He sounds Southern as fuck.
Not that I'm claiming that he was denying being so, in fact looking back on these records there is a marked rural sheen to them that seems forced. It fit in perfect with the push-me-pull-you a sixteen-year-old has with his identity. It's a Nietzchian paradox being young: you yearn for becoming while maintaining a forced defense of who you are, or as stated in Reckoning's "Harbourcoat,"
There's a splinter in your eye
and it reads "react"
Stage 2 - Energizing
Elliptical, surreal and pastoral is how you describe R.E.M. at this juncture, but hardly dangerous, and that fit my group of friends perfectly. There is a picture of us all lounging around the gigantic Cadillac convertible my friend Mark inherited, each of us decked out in our costumes. Mine was my brother's large army shirt with the right side speckled with pins, including an Echo and The Bunnymen pin I made myself. It was a cutout of Ian McCullough's face from Star Hits with the word "Echo" written beneath it, making it clear to anyone in the know that I was ignorant to the fact that he was not "Echo"3
The facts were irrelevant. We had nary an ounce of menace in us, yet to me it felt daring, going into seventeen as a wedge against the norm. The rest of my high school was working through the line of Bon Jovi T-shirt slogans - the best of which was "Bon Jovi Rocks Your Ass Off," a pale shadow of Van Halen's "Van Halen Kicks Ass" from the year before. We were uniformed and ready to go.
We were nursing our otherness by being as English as possible without the fake accents4 , and evidently, so was R.E.M. The band repaired to England to record Fables of the Reconstruction with Joe Boyd, famous for bringing the difficult art of The Incredible String band, Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson to into fruition.
I don't know if it was Boyd or the band, but R.E.M. took a weird turn on Fables. The dark clusters that open "Gravity's Pull" differ greatly from the sweet musings that dapple the earlier records, and that puzzling cloud hangs low over the whole record. The single, "Can't Get There from Here" was just as obtuse, adopting a rattling funk not dissimilar to Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and goofy video.
At the time, the only song I liked off Fables was "Driver 8" and plaintive pastorale about trains and the subsequent metaphors trains have, and really that was because one night I explained to one of my friends what the lyrics "power lines have rotors so the airplanes won't get snagged" meant5 while were up late one night, deciphering Stipe's mumbly whine in a notebook.
Now I can see that I didn't like it because it mirrored the difficult person that I was becoming. College loomed, or beckoned, whichever way you looked at it, my friends all started drinking like high school kids do, and I felt more distanced from them.
Fables was only the difficult part of R.E.M.'s metamorphosis. A year later, Peter Buck discovered distortion pedals and Lifes Rich Pageant ripped from the speakers, weirder in lyrical content and louder in sound. Michael Stipe's voice had deepened somewhere in that year, growling Miles Standish proud with a fully opened mouth in "Begin the Begin." As I was facing becoming a man, R.E.M. was becoming a bona fide rock band.
Even the sweet numbers like "Fall on Me" and "Cuyahoga" are urgent and plugged in. "These Days," finally mapped the energy of Gang of Four and Joy Division, all groups we sought to work into our emerging bigger picture, with their new muscles
Carrying ancient burdens
We are young despite the years
We are concerned
We are hope despite the times
setting out a map that nearly every band that followed for the next half-decade would follow. Many purists will claim that R.E.M. lost the thread on Pageant, but I think it is where they hit their stride. The weirdest song in their catalog, "Swan Swan H" from that very record, is also one of their most engaging. Listening to it now I can still recite its tumbling gibberish
hurrah we're all free now
what noisy cats are we
growing doggy porous cross
They quickly followed down the path they cut through the rock jungle on Document, where the band realized it was up to them and U2 to save rock 'n' roll form whatever was plaguing it in 1987. I graduated high school that spring, and started college that fall, and while I'd started to turn away from R.E.M.by then, Document's transformation rock fit my new personal trajectory. It was on the tour for this album that I finally saw the band in concert. Michael Stipe was weird as hell, blathering at the edge of the stage in mock Patti Smith rants, yet the band clocked through their catalog with workmanlike precision. R.E.M. was suddenly a big deal, and going to the concert in New Orleans that summer clued us into the fact that a lot of other people were onto them. A cheery Japanese girl was dancing away in the aisle next to us holding a tape recorder, so we all took turns singing along with the band into it. Two years later in a dorm room, a friend put on a bootleg he'd bought of that show saying, "it's not a bad recording, but some asshole starts singing on 'Superman.'"
Stage 3 - Metastasis
College set in, and sex and cigarettes and a whole new brand of glorious introspection took over my life and I parted ways with R.E.M. I'm not sure if I ever owned a copy of Green, and have honestly only spottily checked in with them since then. Not that they haven't done good music over the years, I mean, "Losing My Religion" and "Everybody Hurts" are legitimate classics in every sense of the word but none of it stuck with me. And just like with the revving of motors that occurred on Document, I can pin my frission with them on U2.
U2's massive Rattle and Hum tour came to campus Thanksgiving Day of my freshman year. I had to sit outside a record store all night to get tickets for it, spending the no money I had on them. I had to assert to my parents that I was for the first time in my life was going to miss a holiday meal because I was going to a rock concert. I know it doesn't sound like much, but to a tragically non-rebellious teenager, this felt like I was burning down a church.
All my friends from high school were a year behind me and we set to spend the night in my dorm room. They showed up still dressed up from turkey with the folks that afternoon while my girlfriend and I were working our refugee vibe. My friends popped a tape of Green in my stereo, and I recoiled. R.E.M. sounded fey and foolish.
U2 was by my estimate equally passed their prime by Rattle and Hum but they tore the roof off the place like the messianic titans they viewed themselves to be. My friends and I were all reeling from the show when it was over, replaying it like it was a title fight afterward. I was looking forward to piling all of them up into my room as we made our way across campus, being the suddenly hip host of freedom, when one of them snagged a spare t-shirt off a bus stop bench, identical to the one he had bought only minutes before. I was flat broke after two nights of concerts and expected that he was going to give the shirt to me, I think my girlfriend even suggested it, but he was, for the lack of a more succinct description, all "fuck that!" and tossed it over his shoulder. My girlfriend whispered in my ear, "Your friends are dicks," and I had to agree. I ditched them in my room, went to eat and hang out with my girlfriend who suddenly seemed to be the only friend I had, and snuck in after getting tossed out of her dorm at 1 to find they'd eaten all my cereal and left me nowhere to sleep in my own room. Dicks.
Two years and two girlfriends later, R.E.M. played the same arena in support of Out of Time. My new girlfriend was hip enough to have bypassed R.E.M. for Nick Cave and Soft Cell, but I talked her into going. We were in that "I want to know all about you" stage and she was curious about this band that had so shaped my high school years. R.E.M.'s live show had become a multi-media spectacle at this point; as we found seats near the catwalk that extended out onto the floor, there was a video screen that cycled through info on Greenpeace and the occasional message like "Don't yell 'Radio Free Europe,' they won't play it and it makes Peter Buck mad." She smirked, "Damn, that's the only song of theirs I like."
The band tore through highly polished recent material that was as unfamiliar to me as it was to her. There was no erratic Michael Stipe vamping at the stage's edge appearing unstable and feral, instead he had a shaved head and adopted a ridiculous lotus position under a spotlight on the catwalk during one of the key tracks. They did a stilted version of cameo's "Word Up" at the encore. The whole show was dreadful. "'Word Up?' I mean, why not play 'Free Bird' while you're at it. And what was up with the yoga poses?" quipped my girlfriend on the way back to her apartment. "This was the band you liked so much?" I just shook my head, and kept quiet.
must assert that I now have an appreciation of "Free Bird" that would
have been difficult and even culturally inappropriate in 1985 and were
adults in real life to have a class song, I would actively campaign for
2A record for which I will one day make a convincing case of it's being the original country rock album. Then, once that windmill is successfully defeated, I'll pick up my lance and point my horse toward another equally meaningful target.
3 "Echo" was a drum machine the band utilized in the earlier years, setting themselves up as "The Bunnymen," the backup band for said device. It is a brilliant move from a conceptual standpoint, pushing the industrial concept from which they were born into taxonomical action, but came in handy when the band released Reverberation in 1990, without singer McCullogh who was nursing a solo career. Of course, no one considered it an actual Echo and the Bunny men record, but when pressed, they could maintain its legitimacy in the catalog. I would have been more impressed had they actually replaced McCullough with that drum machine instead of higher-voiced stand-in Noel Burke.
4 There were those that did fake accents. I remember a tangential quasi punker - he had attended a Gang Green show in Florida and there was some "serious slamdancing" going on there - at a party flip a bowl off popcorn over and blurt "pees off" while making the backwards V at someone in an effort to flip off a Bon Jovi shirt dude in proper English fashion. We were hoping Bon Jovi would follow through on kicking his ass, fitting with their usual spoken desire when encountering any of us at a party, but Houma's No. 1 Punk rocker escaped with little more than a puzzled, piteous glance from a guy in a mullet.
5 It means exactly that - in the Midwest, power lines would stretch across the middle of a corn field, and blaze orange rotors would hang on the lines, spinning in the wind, alerting low-flying crop dusters of their presence, hopefully avoiding a devastating entanglement. "Power Lines Have Rotors so the Airplanes Won't Get Snagged" will make for an excellent title of a precious coming of age novel that I will be at some point compelled to write.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com