Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Break

When I was thirteen years old R.E.M.'s Out of Time was released, and the music video to Losing My Religion came out on MTV, which still primarily played music videos. I watched a lot of tv then, especially after school, and whenever that video came out, I made sure to pay attention. The lyrics were unlike anything I'd ever heard before. I didn't know people could write like that, or sing like that. I didn't know words could mean like that. Part of it was the way Michael Stipe half-mumbled some of them, so that I had to lean in, listening, over and over, and try to understand and make sense of things. There wasn't an internet then, so I couldn't just look the lyrics up.

The album was released in March, the video came out sometime before that, and I asked for the CD (or tape, more likely) for my birthday in June. I already had the song memorized. I loved it. That summer a guy my step-dad worked for introduced me to the entire back catalogue of REM's music, and I began collecting everything I could. That fall, I went to high school, and, as typically happens around then, I began to listen to music more seriously, and to be introduced to cool new bands by older classmates and friends -- Morrisey, The Pixies, Nirvana, U2, Pearl Jam... these bands replaced Genesis, Paul Simon, and Bon Jovi as the new group of musicians that I listened to and talked about. And all of them were something that someone else told me I absolutely had to listen to.

Except R.E.M. They were all mine. I knew about them first. And I loved them -- loved their lyrics, especially off of Life's Rich Pageant and Reckoning. I loved their melodies, the way they reinvented themselves every time. The next year Automatic For The People came out, and my mind was blown. I would spend hours in my room listening to that cd over and over again. I got the special early-edition copy, which had clear yellow plastic instead of the basic black for the cd tray. I poured over the liner notes, and put Night Swimming on repeat. For a while I had every single song, single, b-side, and radio broadcast the band ever did, and was well on my way to collecting every bootleg I could find.

After Bill Berry left the band, a lot of my enthusiasm waned. I found myself no longer tracking down all the bsides and rarities. Then Up came out, and it was... kind of a disappointment. I didn't buy Reveal. I remember when Around The Sun came out, and a guy at a party went off about how R.E.M. was a total crap band that no one cared about, and they should just quit. And I thought about how, ten or even five years earlier, I would have leapt to their defense, would have jumped all over the guy. But I found myself agreeing with him. And it made me sad. R.E.M. was my favorite band in the whole world at one time -- a time when having a favorite band in the whole world was something one could do without any sense of shame or irony. But they were mine. I loved them. And I still love them.

Which is why hearing that they've called it quits feels more or less okay. These guys rewrote rock and roll. They put poetry into their music. They wrote dense, weird, complicated things, and they got huge off of it, and had millions of fans, and sold out arenas. And they sang songs like this:

also, hearing that Michael Stipe has started doing things like this makes me feel like putting my fingers in my ears and going "la la la" whenever anyone describes them after, like, 1998.

(ps if the video link is garbage and you're reading this on facebook, you can find it on the website:

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