R.E.M. broke up last week.
In some ways, this reminds me of when Michael Jordan retired from the Washington Wizards. When he left the Chicago Bulls (for the second time) was far more relevant to pop culture. He just sort of hung around for a few years after his peak, much as he insisted he’d never do. It must be just that hard to leave the game. Any game.
R.E.M., consisting originally of Michael Stipe, Bill Berry, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck, was a force in music for a long time. Yes, they were around for 31 years, but they were most influential in the ’80s and ’90s. Had they called it quits in the mid-nineties, it would’ve been enormous news. Now, it feels like what it’ll feel like when Pearl Jam finally disbands.
Or when I saw a poster of Laura Dern in an upcoming TV show. “Laura Dern’s still alive?”
In fact, the news of Bill Berry’s departure in 1997 hit me harder at the time, especially the way Stipe delivered it: “For me, Mike, and Peter, as R.E.M., are we still R.E.M.? I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently.”
And I’m not dogging them now. Michael Stipe and the boys hung around because they love making music.
I once detailed the most influential albums in my life. The blog post continues to get a surprising number of hits. Surprising to me because it’s something I thought would interest only me but perhaps that’s the reason it resonates with people. As it’s been said, “That which is most personal is most general.”
From that post, The Record of Records, I wrote about R.E.M.:
It’s not worth it to list every REM album, but suffice it to say that they became my first favorite band. They’re #3 today (behind The Beatles and Led Zeppelin.). Out of Time was just phenomenal, so I proceeded to buy all their albums. My favorites are Document and Life’s Rich Pageant.
At some point in time, I’ll write extensively about the year 1980. I think it was the most important inflection point in modern American history (if I’m defining “modern” as Post-World War II). Everything changed. To me, that’s when the shift from classic to modern rock occurred. The roots were being laid as early as 1978, but that marked the rise of what would become known as the alternative scene, led by bands such as R.E.M., Depeche Mode, and The Cure.
(And for the record, I’ve always hated describing “Alt” as a genre. To me, Alternative is a philosophy – it’s the anti-mainstream. Once it itself became popular, it ceased to be Alternative. I get what people mean when they refer to songs as Alt, but the best moniker is Modern Rock.)
And nobody captured or defined this sound better than R.E.M. I was into them pretty hard-core during my later middle school and early high school years. I owned all of their albums and continued to buy them through New Adventures in Hi-Fi. I liked that album, but because I didn’t love it, I sort of abandoned them.
I never saw them live, but that’s not saying much – I’m not a big concert guy. I kinda wish I would’ve seen ’em, much like U2 or The Rolling Stones, but my life feels complete even if this never happens.
The album I’m most proud to own is actually their first EP on vinyl, Chronic Town. My friend, Bill Johnson, was the first person who got me into them (although I had friends such as Rohit Chandra, Sachin Waikar, Laura Biancke, Jen Mayer, Lena Powers, Hope Hardy, and Trisha Gille who loved them, too) and he did it by playing the cassette tape for me in my car. I loved it. Before that, I used to get R.E.M. mixed up with REO Speedwagon. Ouch. I apologize to all involved for that one. Obviously, it was the similarity in their names. In any case, I couldn’t fight that feeling.
Years later, my friend Aaron Minch, who got me into The Beatles, showed me that he had the CT record. He could sense how badly I wanted it so he gave it to me out of the goodness of his own heart. I thought of it as karma, since years earlier, I had done the same with Garage Days. I love Metallica but my freshman year roommate, Jon Schreiner, LOVED Metallica, so I gave him the CD. What goes around comes around.
I always followed Stipe and his antics. I read a lot of his quotes and admired the fact that he found “love songs odious.” True, because I think the only song of theirs with “love” in the title is “The One I Love,” which I just put on a mix CD. (Hadn’t made a mix CD in years. It’s all playlists these days. CDs were definitely easier to make than mix tapes. Wonder if peeps back in the day used to make mix records? Bought a press and all? THAT would be romantic.)
Because this is a Rajiv blog post, I must provide you with lists. So, here are my lists…
TOP 10 FAMOUS SONGS I LIKED
- “Superman” (cover)
- “Fall on Me”
- “Losing My Religion” – Hey, it’s “the hit of the century.”
- “Orange Crush”
- “Radio Free Europe” – Ranked #2 on iconic Cincinnati mod rock station 97X’s top 500 list, second only to “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths. I love that song but, to me, RFE is the anthem. I’d have put it #1.
- “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville”
- “Everybody Hurts”
- “Strange Currencies”
- “I Walked with a Zombie” (cover)
A FEW FAMOUS SONGS I DIDN’T LIKE
- “Stand” – Couldn’t stand it. In fact, aside from “Orange Crush,” I never got into Green.
- “Pop Song 89” – Ditto.
- “Shiny Happy People” – Enh. My friend Eric Thorlin pointed out this song was done in jest. Note the track listing (which became a signature file for me)… “Shiny Happy People” “Belong” “Half a World Away.”
TOP 10 NOT-SO-FAMOUS SONGS (NON-SINGLES) I LIKE
- “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)”
- “Pretty Persuasion”
- “Swan Swan H”
- “Oddfellows Local 151”
- “Half a World Away”
- “Country Feedback”
- “Gardening at Night”
- “Pale Blue Eyes” (remake)
- “Begin The Begin”