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As Long as We Remember...

September 26, 2011

R.E.M. An Appreciation

Michael Kurtianyk

R.E.M. has called it quits after 31 years. This truly came out of the blue, with no indications that they would disband. Through the years, there were reports that the band would split up, most notably during the recording of Fables of the Reconstruction, and when drummer Bill Berry left the band in October 1997.


Here is what the band posted on its web site:


"To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening."


My first introduction to R.E.M. came in May 1984. I was a senior in high school, and I went over to a friend’s house after school. He put on this vinyl single (remember those?) and said: “Just listen. I won’t tell you who it is. Just listen.”


He proceeded to play “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry),” and to this day, I remember the moment vividly. The song was unlike anything I’d heard up until then, having listened to classic rock stations. There was a simplicity to the song, what with its jangly guitars and perfect drum and bass, and vocals that brought everything together.


Later, after repeated listenings, it was the lyrics that got me. There were many references to water (“rivers of suggestion;” “the cities wash away;” “the ocean sang”, and communication (“did you never call/I waited for your call” and “the conversations dimmed”). The repeated refrain of “I’m sorry” after such lines spoke to a lack of communication from one person to another.


It turns out that the inspiration for this song came from torrential rains that had been occurring in their hometown of Athens, GA, in June 1983. The band was on tour in Los Angeles and they tried to call their families and friends to make sure they were fine, but the phones were out.


It should be noted that just four months later, R.E.M. performed this song at their first national television appearance (David Letterman Show). Bassist Mike Mills said that this as-yet untitled song was “too new to be named.” This was a gutsy move made by a band that had never been on television before.


The four met in Athens in the early 1980s. The story goes that Michael Stipe met Peter Buck in an Athens record store where Buck worked, a place called Wuxtry’s. They had similar tastes in music, and they soon met University of Georgia students Mike Mills and Bill Berry. They practiced and rehearsed for a while and played their first show on April 5, 1980, at a friend's birthday party held in a converted Episcopal church.


One of the great things about the band is that they haven’t strayed too far from Athens through the years, even referencing local establishments in their songs. There's the soul food restaurant, Weaver D's, whose slogan "Automatic for the People" became the name of an REM album. Near a hospital, there’s an unmarked studio at 165 Hillcrest, and there’s an REM song named for that address. Near that studio, there's a large home once owned by Peter Buck. There's an old railroad trestle within an Athens park, photographed for Murmur, R.E.M.'s first album cover.


R.E.M. was the band that – for me – defined my college years at Syracuse University. I gravitated toward people who liked them and other alternative bands, like Talking Heads, B-52s, Pylon, and The Cure. One person I met was from Athens, and had his hands on bootleg R.E.M. concerts, and the song lyrics. To me, he was one of the coolest people I’d ever met.


Their influence is far-reaching. There wouldn’t be bands like The Replacements, Live, Pavement, and Nirvana. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana once told Rolling Stone magazine: "I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music." Mr. Cobain had Automatic for the People on the stereo the day he committed suicide.


R.E.M. will have a new album out on November 15, called Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011. It is a compilation album. I am looking forward to it, though I have probably all of their songs in my ITunes library. Until then, I will leave you with Michael Stipe’s final words on this breakup:


"A wise man once said – 'the skill in attending a party is knowing when it's time to leave.' We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we're going to walk away from it.


"I hope our fans realize this wasn't an easy decision; but all things must end, and we wanted to do it right, to do it our way.


"We have to thank all the people who helped us be R.E.M. for these 31 years; our deepest gratitude to those who allowed us to do this. It's been amazing."


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