Wait a second! My package tracking app says that my Weezer Black Album will NOT be delivered until tomorrow! Urrrrgh! I was so ready to listen to it today. Damn it! Well? What in the heck am I going to write about?
I know! Lately, I have been going back to the R.E.M. well. I discovered the band in 1983 on a record-buying excursion. I loved the kudzu-covered building photograph on the cover of the band’s debut long player Murmur, so I bought it. Immediately, I was entranced by the Byrdsian sound of the band. It was not New Wave. It was southern Gothic sounds that was way beyond my youthful way of describing music. Sure, besides the Rickenbacker sounds of the Byrds, you could find little snippets of Patti Smith here or the Velvet Underground there or even a little bubblegum over there or something that seemed like punk here. But, for the first time in my life, this was something completely new but not alienating at all. “Radio Free Europe,” “Talk About the Passion,” “7 Chinese Brothers,” what was going on?
And the best part was that these guys were around my age! Finally! My age group had a band of their own, or, at least, that’s what I romanticized. My college friends were slow to warm to the band, while some of my more progressive-minded associates were there with me.
The following year, 1984, R.E.M. released their second album, Reckoning. While my friends were wearing out their ZZ Top and Van Halen albums, I was cranking “So. Central Rain” and “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.” I was on a totally different trip.
But, the best thing about R.E.M. is that they musically grew up as I was growing up. By their fourth album, Lifes Rich Pageant, still my favorite of theirs, the whole world finally knew what Michael Stipe was singing. And, the band was leaving their charming unprofessional playing and evolving into a rock force. The foursome of drummer Bill Berry, bassist Mike Mills (the alliterative rhythm section extraordinaire), guitarist Peter Buck and the aforementioned Stipe had grown tighter through touring and recording. With that album, the band moved into their imperial phase, the one during which they grew from college rock and critical darlings into America’s best band and then into the World’s Most Popular Band. From Lifes in 1986 to Automatic for the People in 1992, their growth as a band and as individual musicians was exponential. And, their popularity grew in response.
I was lucky. I got to see R.E.M. perform in Oxford, Ohio, on their Document Tour. My most vivid memory of that was watching all the Miami University students going nuts during “It’s the End of the World as We Know (And I Feel Fine),” knowing every word since it was number one on the local alternative music radio station. And, I saw them again on that ill-fated Monster Tour. Their professionalism had increased exponentially by then, but their spontaneity had not waned at all. The only downside of the concert was that we had left our ten-year-old older son at home, all pissed off since he thought, as a life-long R.E.M. fan (he used to entertain college students all over Oxford at the age of 2 or 3 by singing “Superman” to them) he should be able to go see them. To this day, he says that I owe him a R.E.M. concert.
This is the R.E.M. I miss. I know that life interrupted all of us in the mid-Nineties. Our innocence was totally gone as the game of life made us all more cynical. Bill Berry’s health scare during the world-conquering Monster Tour, led him to retire from the band. What had been a four-pronged monster from the beginning of the Eighties, was now pared down to a trio. The band never replaced him, nor recovered from his departure in my estimation. Berry was the engine that drove the band, and that engine was gone. I know that I missed his drumming. Sure, he was no Neil Peart, but that’s not the point. The band had a chemistry that was undeniable in the live and studio setting, and no matter who Buck, Mills and Stipe hired, that person was NOT Berry.
I honestly thought I would grow old listening to new R.E.M. music, much like the Boomers liked to brag about having the Stones around. Yet, R.E.M. called it a day back in the early part of this decade, and I miss them. Sure, the can release compilations, unplugged sets and, as I just learned today, old bootlegs on Record Store Day, and I will buy them all, but it does not mean those releases will ever be salve for my soul.
I miss R.E.M.