Til The Day Is Done: RIP R.E.M.
R.E.M. has called it quits.
A lot of cynics would say this move is coming about fourteen years to late, and that the band never should have reneged on their handshake deal that they'd break up if any of the original members left the group. That opinion would be wrong. Of the five albums Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills have recorded since Bill Berry left the band in 1997, only one (2004's Around the Sun) was truly a stinker, and the last two (Accelerate and Collapse into Now) have been damn good. And perhaps that's the best reason for them to throw in the towel now... it's better bow out on a creative high than to, as Nashville Scene music writer Adam Gold put it so cleverly on Twitter Wednesday, "go out with a murmur."
R.E.M. was my gateway drug into the world of college radio and alternative music. It was listening to my friends copy of Lifes Rich Pageant, and then my own copy of Document a year later, that probably did more than any other band to shape my current musical tastes. It was those two albums that really primed me for falling so completely head over heals with The Church's Starfish, which lead to The Cure's Disintegration, which then splintered into loving a million different bands, some famous and others very much not.
In honor of 31 years of making (mostly) great music, and having a more profound impact on the American indie scene than most people realize, here are my top five R.E.M. related memories.
1. The first time I heard New Adventures in Hi Fi it was pushing midnight, and my friend Jimmy and I were on our way back to his apartment in Knoxville after having some beers with a friend of ours. A DJ on the UT college station had gotten an advance copy of the album and was playing it front to back. I'm not even sure if "E-Bow The Letter" had been released as a single yet, so it was the first we were hearing anything from it, and it was entirely awesome. We ended up driving around aimlessly for an hour so we could hear the whole thing. I remember when "Departure" kicked in, both of us were kinda of like "wow." It's still my favorite R.E.M. album.
2. When R.E.M. played the Murphy Center at MTSU in 1989, my friend Jimmy and I snuck into the band's dressing room before the show and left a note asking them to play two covers; Television's "See No Evil," which they had recently included on a b-side, and Johnny River's "Secret Agent Man," which had been included on a well circulated bootleg from their early club days. The band did play "See No Evil," though whether that was because of our note or not is debatable. And while they didn't break out the River's tune, Mike Mills did make a reference to the bootleg that it came from when during a jazzy improvised interlude he walked up to the mic and said "welcome to the Starlite Club." For two dorky teenagers who were still on a high from actually having managed to get backstage to leave the note, it was the highlight of our night.
3. When R.E.M. played at Starwood Ampitheater in 1995 on the Monster tour, I went with my Dad. We originally had lawn seats, but the day before the show he got reserved seats from a client, so I sold our lawn seats to a friend and we upgraded. And thank God we did. During the song "Undertow," with it's chorus of "I'm drowning..." the sky opened up and a torrential downpour started. All my friends who were sitting on the grass still say it was the worst rain shower any of them had ever been caught in. Even in our seats well under the confines of the roof, the wind was blowing enough moisture our way that we were still a bit wet. Fun fact - Radiohead opened this show, which makes me possibly the only person in the world who can say he saw Radiohead with his Dad.
4. When Robyn Hitchcock played the Belcourt Theater in 2007, my friends and I were really excited. Most of us had seen Hitchcock three or four times, and on this tour he was touring with the newly formed Venus 3, which consists of Peter Buck and R.E.M.'s touring rhythm section, drummer Bill Rieflin and bassist Scott McCaughey. After seeing nothing but acoustic shows, we were all excited to see him backed by an actual rock band. And then a couple of weeks before the show, the listing changed from the Venus 3 to the Nashville Crawdads. Another damn acoustic show. Once we got to the show though, it turned out to be a pretty amazing night. In addition to Buck and perennial Nashville special guests Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the lineup also included Led Zepplin bassist John Paul Jones on mandolin. So yeah, no complaints.
5. In 2009, after seeing Hitchcock perform acoustic shows a half dozen times over a decade, I finally got to see him in front of a rock band when the Venus 3 played the Exit In. The show was everything I could have asked for. The set ran the entire gamut of his career, and had just about every song I could possibly have wanted to hear. About half way through the show, one of my friends notice Mike Mills hanging out by the bar. Forty-five minutes later he was a little harder to miss, as he took to the stage to play guitar and the rest of the band played musical instruments (Buck ended up on drums). They tore into a rambunctious and ramshackle version of "Listening To The Higsons," a fun end to one of those "only in Nashville" nights.
Michael, Peter, Mike and Bill, thanks for everything.
R.E.M. - "Radio Free Europe (Live)" (mp3) from the Strange Currencies cd single
R.E.M. - "Begin The Begin (Live)" (mp3) from the Bang & Blame cd single