Remembering R.E.M.

Updated with new reminisces by Rhett Miller (the Old 97s), Dave Eggers, Matthew Sweet and the Feelies' Glenn Mercer

Topics: Music,

Remembering R.E.M.R.E.M. in 1994

R.E.M.’s low-key announcement Wednesday that the band would “call it a day” after 31 years generated an outpouring of memories from generations of music fans for whom the Athens, Ga., band was a beloved gateway to all the music beyond the pop charts. Salon asked other pioneering musicians for their reflections on the band’s legacy — and we’ll continue to update this story as more contributions arrive.

Bob Mould

Hüsker Dü, Sugar, author of the memoir “See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody”

Over the years, I’ve found a handy and trusty way to separate the great bands from the good ones. Are they real fans of music?

The strongest memories I have of R.E.M. revolve around their deep knowledge of popular music, fandom and respect for their predecessors, and unconditional support of fellow players. I spent many late nights hanging out with Peter Buck, witnessing his unbridled excitement as he played records I’d never heard. I watched Michael Stipe discover and nurture new artists like the late Vic Chesnutt and Magnapop, while simultaneously remaining a devoted follower of Patti Smith. Even the folks who worked for R.E.M. were giving and helpful — opening spots on shows, loaning equipment when passing through Athens and sharing professional advice and contacts.

The music they created was often paradoxical — literate, yet visceral; pioneering, yet reverential; commercially appealing, yet deeply personal. The influence they had on 1980s American college rock, and the waves that rippled from their stone hitting the water, is immeasurable. It’s hard to know when to give up the ghost. The consolation is that R.E.M. were able to pick the time and place, and to exit with grace and dignity. Godspeed R.E.M.

Mac McCaughan

Superchunk & Merge Records co-founder

R.E.M. validated the South as a source of alternative music. In high school, we became such R.E.M. fans with “Murmur” to the point that when “Reckoning” came out it was a big deal, probably the first time we knew the release date of an album and then went and got it immediately and wanted to be the first to know it inside and out.

The band played around here a lot. They did two nights at Page Auditorium in Durham on the Duke Campus after “Reckoning” came out and the shows were loose and epic. You knew everyone in the pit. Definitely felt like, “Well, this is the last time we’ll see them in a place this small.” I got my “So. Central Rain” seven-inch signed at the Record Bar in-store they did. I wrote about those shows in a short-lived zine I put out complete with terrible dark photos from the pit.

Being from the South, I think fans around here felt like R.E.M. belonged to us in some way. We were listening to hardcore and R.E.M.

Dean Wareham

Luna, Dean & Britta, Galaxie 500, author of the memoir “Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance”

I met Peter Buck in 1988 the night Galaxie 500 played the old 40 Watt Club in Athens; he kindly invited us all to stay at his house, which was nice because we couldn’t afford a hotel. It was a fun night. They were always very supportive of younger bands.

A year or so later Peter jammed onstage with us at the Point in Atlanta, but had to endure a couple of heckles from the indie police, who didn’t appreciate a rock star sharing our stage.

I congratulate R.E.M. on breaking up; that’s what bands are supposed to do.

Vanessa Briscoe Hay

Lead singer of Pylon, the Athens, Ga., band whose song “Crazy” was an R.E.M. live staple and appeared on “Dead Letter Office”

R.E.M. surprised me today. I thought it was Leonard Cohen’s birthday! Shopping day! The equinox! Then came the news. My friend Maureen ran upstairs to tell me and soon I was checking my email and Facebook — and yes, it was true. The R.E.M. website had crashed. That said even more.

Today the sky in Athens, Ga., is threatening rain at one minute, with sunshine pouring down the next. I have mixed feelings, just like that sky. Sadness on the end of an era. No more shows or records to look forward to. Happiness that it was not something sad that caused their demise. They chose to end their career on their own terms. Without movement or change, there is the true death.

I remember the first time that I saw them perform at the church for K.O.’s birthday party. (R.E.M.’s first show in April 1980.) Girls screamed and ran to the front of the stage. It was sweaty, hot and dark. The vines were growing through the walls of the sanctuary. Up on the stage, R.E.M. had that something extra right away. That mysterious thing. I watched from high in the rafters of the church as they shook it down. They never gave it up or sold it out. Let’s remember them as one of the great bands of all time, and count ourselves lucky to have been there too. Thank you, R.E.M., for 31 great years. You have made the world a better place.

Craig Finn

The Hold Steady

I spent most of my high school days completely obsessed with R.E.M. All my friends were too. I knew some of their stuff from the radio but really got into them in ninth grade on the “Fables of the Reconstruction” record. Quickly working backward I came to “Reckoning,” which remains one of my favorite records ever. I still connect the song “Harborcoat” with entering a new school that fall; it brings back the smell of the hallways, my red plaid scarf and my cassette Walkman. Their music had a sense of mystery to it, the hazy jangle and the mumbled words. I think this was a huge draw for me. They were deliberately vague, and it pulled me in. I spent hours on the floor looking at the record jackets for clues as to what it all meant. I videotaped their television performances and studied them for nuance. As a young Minnesotan, the Southern influence of their music and lyrics came off as so exotic to me. R.E.M. never explained to you exactly what they meant. That’s cool.

I saw the “Life’s Rich Pageant” tour from pretty lame seats in the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, so when they came through for the “Document” tour, I was not going to be in the balcony. My friend Eddy and I camped out for tickets at the Southdale Dayton’s ticket office. It was a brisk fall night, and it was freezing. It was worth it, though; we got pretty great seats. The show was amazing, and we saw it from right up close. Since then, R.E.M. has put together a career that is impressive on 10 different levels. They always mattered, and never embarrassed themselves. In rock ‘n’ roll, that is no small feat.

Michael Azerrad

Author of “Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991,” among other books

In the early years, R.E.M. toured relentlessly, supported many other bands in many ways, and made astounding, life-changing music both on stage and on record — so they epitomized the hard work, integrity and musical innovation that made the ’80s indie underground so great. And the momentum of they created for themselves in that period propelled them into the upper echelons of ’90s rock stardom, with a string of classic, multi-platinum albums. R.E.M. were peers and friends of U2, and mentors to countless younger bands, including Nirvana. They belong to a select handful of bands who have enjoyed top-10 hits and still retained the respect and admiration of the cognoscenti. Their position in the rock constellation is unparalleled.

At first R.E.M. pioneered the cultural vanguard of the rapidly changing South, then they reclaimed and reinvented what it was to be an American band, and then they came to be a significant component of international culture.

R.E.M. were a great band, and their best music — and there is so much of it — will endure for decades. They took many right-on political stands throughout their career, contributed generously to their community and took good care of the people who took care of them. They had a good long run — 31 years — and they are calling it a day with the same grace with which they conducted their career. R.E.M. was a class act.

Dave Eggers

McSweeney’s publisher

I was in eighth grade when “Murmur” came out. I read a rave review in Rolling Stone and wanted to get myself a copy. But we didn’t have a record store in my town, and the closest place to buy an album like that was Vintage Vinyl in Evanston, about 17 miles away. I was ready to do the usual trip there on my bike — there were a bunch of us who regularly rode our bikes there to get our records — but then I heard this guy at my school, who I’ll call Deiter, already had a copy of “Murmur.” So I asked to borrow it, and every day Deiter said he’d bring it to school, and every day he forgot. Or he said he forgot. Maybe he was torturing me. “Oh, wow, sorry,” he would say. “Forgot again. Tomorrow. I promise. But it’s really good. You should really hear it.” This went on for weeks. Finally I sucked it up and rode my bike down to Vintage Vinyl and bought my own copy.

It took me weeks to understand it. Because we all know R.E.M.’s music so well now, it’s really hard to communicate how distinct and unprecedented their sound was back then. Their sound was called “jangly,” but that word wasn’t quite right, at least not for most of “Murmur.” “Jangly” implies their music was bright and cheerful, which it wasn’t — not that album at least. It was murky, moody, dirge-like. There were jubilant parts, sure, but it was an atmospheric and insular and was not overly concerned with pleasing anyone.

The other thing that’s forgotten now is that for the first four albums, you couldn’t understand much of what Michael Stipe was saying. Or rather, you could understand a word here, a phrase there, but Stipe seemed determined to have his vocals serve as just another instrument, not more important than any other. It was a radical idea, and a beautiful notion, but it led to us devotees battling over the lyrics to those early albums, and lip-synching with embarrassing vagueness — moving our mouths like fish run aground.

But I remember when I finally understood their music. I’d probably listened to “Murmur” 20 times before it happened, and it was through four songs — “Moral Kiosk,” “Perfect Circle,” and “Catapult,” “Sitting Still” — that R.E.M. made sense. That block of songs, I believe, is still one of the great song progressions in history — up there with Dylan’s middle lineup on “Blonde on Blonde.” But I’d traveled a ways before I got to an understanding of R.E.M. I was transitioning from the bands I was following at the time — Loverboy, REO Speedwagon, Styx — to bands like R.E.M., but it wasn’t easy. R.E.M. didn’t make it easy. They didn’t make any effort to fit into the prevailing sounds of the time. They made music exactly as they wanted to, and people had to travel to them. The fact that, years later, they were the most popular band in the world means not that they changed their sound to adapt to any notion of popular taste, but that they moved the mainstream from the world of REO Speedwagon to the world of R.E.M. That’s a seismic shift, and no small feat.

Rhett Miller

Old 97s

I got to play with them in Dallas a couple of years ago. What a great band.

Mike and Pete are both so cool and nice. When I met Michael, I had one of my most star-struck moments. I introduced him to my mom and he couldn’t have been sweeter and more gracious. I refrained from mentioning how I put “Life’s Rich Pageant” on a loop for my entire sophomore year of high school. During their encore, I had snuck up to the front of the pit and Michael noticed me and made a speech about the Old 97′s and how all the members of R.E.M. were big fans. Validation unlike any I’ve ever received.

I attended the Hall Of Fame induction ceremony and marveled at their fun, casual approach to this rock life. My heroes.

Matthew Sweet

It is impossible to overstate how influential R.E.M. were to a whole generation of American musicians, myself included. Their D.I.Y. spirit and enigmatic but ear-friendly music made for a potent force that should not be forgotten. I, for one, will miss them!

Glenn Mercer

The Feelies (whose “The Good Earth” album was co-produced by Peter Buck)

When I first heard the news, I was pretty surprised. After 31 years they had become almost like an institution in some ways, and they’ve had such a strong connection with their fan base. But I quickly realized that it wasn’t that unusual; bands break up all the time. It’s certainly a lot easier for a band to break up than to it is to start one up from scratch. They’ve worked hard and earned the right to live their lives however they wish. I know that we’ll still be hearing from each of them in some capacity in the near future, but I’ll still miss the sound they made together (until the reunion tour is announced in a few years).

Steve Wynn

I was working as the indie music buyer for Rhino Records in Westwood back in 1981 and had read about R.E.M. in New York Rocker. Not long after that I was working behind the counter (Nels Cline manning the day shift with me) when someone brought in the first R.E.M. single on consignment. I took a chance and picked up five copies, most of which stuck around for a while but eventually sold. I found out years later that the guy who brought in the singles was actually Peter Buck, who has since then been my touring companion, bandmate and buddy.

Peter tells me that he came to a few Dream Syndicate shows and was there one night at 3 a.m. when we recorded a live session for KPFK. I don’t remember actually meeting him until they played the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco when I was there recording Dream Syndicate’s “Medicine Show” album in 1983. We stayed up until well past dawn, geeking out on music and bands and books and life in general.

I loved the first single. I loved the first EP. I heard ‘Murmur’ the first time driving after midnight through Nebraska and that’s the image that stays in my mind every time I hear that record. But it wasn’t until we opened an eight-week tour for them in 1984 that I realized that the keys to their success (creatively and professionally) was their determination, their consistency, their lack of fear, their ability to play a great and very different show every night and their focus to the things they loved and cared about to the exclusion of any kind of outwardly applied “common sense.” I watched every show on that tour and loved every one of them.

Here’s the deal — when every other band in the ’80′s feel prey at some point to missteps, bad production (ah, the 80s), bad decisions, it seemed that R.E.M. never faltered and hit their mark on every record. I had that same “Murmur” feeling when I heard “Out of Time” and again when I heard “Automatic for the People” and even when I heard “Monster” (a criminally underrated record). But here’s the capper: they just got better and better as a live act. I saw the band quite a few times in recent years (partially due to becoming bandmates with Peter, Mike and Scott in the Baseball Project) and I swear those shows were better than even the best shows back in 1984.

I guess that’s why I kinda wish they could have found a way to stay together. There just aren’t that many great arena bands anymore. But, then again, my band only lasted seven years. The Beatles only lasted seven years (I’m not drawing comparisons). If you’ve ever been in a band, you know how hard it is to keep a band together through a dozen gigs let alone 31 years. They made incredible music, they established the notion of achieving success on your own terms, working both inside and outside of the system at the same time. They influenced bands who don’t even know they were influenced by them. I look at this all from the perspective of a friend and bandmate but, at the same time, I remain a fan. I think I’ll put on one of their records right now.

David Daley is the editor-in-chief of Salon

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