Saturday, October 22, 2011

We All Go Back To Where We Belong

Mr. Zimmermann,

Speaking of pleas being answered, I'd like to congratulate you on the recent news of R.E.M.'s breakup. When I learned that the Athens-based rock band loved by millions had decided to call it a day, I immediately thought of you -- and what I'm sure must have been your squeals of delight, no doubt audible through much of the greater Chicago area. Who says wishes don't come true?

As for your analysis of the new (last) single, I am amazed to find it a nuanced argument, and not at all as full of bile as many of your latter-day R.E.M. rantings. Good for you. As I might have said once in the past, if you keep finding things to like about the band's music, you may someday become a fan. How ironic now that the band is no more!

Regardless, I strongly agree with your assertion that, "The last chapter is often an Epilogue long after the climax has already occurred." That is surely the case with We All Go Back To Where We Belong [iTunes link], though, unlike you, I did get a few goosebumps listening to it.

There's something about the subtle brass part poking out throughout, the harmony between Stipe and Mills, even the spaghetti western guitar part, that, while perhaps not climactic R.E.M. moments, do have that last-chapter feeling of knowing you're slowly coming to the end of a great book, wishing that, somehow, the final few pages, then the final few paragraphs, then the last word, will never come.

Like much of R.E.M.'s last decade of output, WAGBTWWB is a ghost of what the band once was. But listening to the song, even with Stipe's voice barely able to power through it, there are reminders here of what the band did better than any other, enough so that not only does the song work, it works well enough to be a worthy coda. It's hard to put into words exactly what that R.E.M. signature was -- I've been trying to for years, with various amount of failure -- but it's a sort of pairing of melancholy and hope that brings both comfort and inspiration.

If the band had stayed together, they'd likely have never written another hit song, never reached their '80s and '90s heights, and, barring a Bob Dylan-style comeback, would have continued to fade into artistic oblivion. But listening to WAGBTWWB, I'm not thinking about that.

I'm thinking about how songs like R.E.M.'s, no matter how often they may be imitated, and even in their 2011 state of decay, will never be put to tape again.

At the end of a great book, to continue with your metaphor, the characters we've grown to believe in presumably continue on, but we'll hear no more from them. We've shared the time we're going to share with them, and now we must move on.

With music, it seems even more real. I'll never be 16 years old again. Monster will never be brand new again, never be No. 1 on the charts, never be the latest release from the world's biggest rock band. But I could feel 16 again every time a new R.E.M. song or record came out, or every time I got to see them in concert.

Now all I have are memories.

Great memories I wouldn't trade for anything.

But memories.

That's not to say that I dislike being 33, or that there isn't new music to cherish, new stories to be written and told.

Still, a new R.E.M. song, save for a select few (cough, Around the Sun), is always better than none.

WAGBTWWB is better than a new R.E.M. song, though. It happens to be a good new R.E.M. song -- a resource that once seemed to be in never-ending supply, but has now run out, forever.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

R.I.P., R.E.M.

When I heard the news about R.E.M., I was in the Canadian pavilion at Epcot Center, about to watch the ridiculous 360-degree Martin Short movie that serves as a glorified travel brochure -- and which, like just about everything in the World Showcase, I love unconditionally.

Nothing can get me down at Disney World.

Not even the breakup of my all-time favorite band.

I wasn't going to get bummed out the week after, either, a week I spent in Tampa watching baseball and reading A Game of Thrones on the beach.

But now, with my vacation over and the playoffs here, and with my life about to get as hectic as it's been all year, which is saying something, I'm finally sitting down to reflect, and to write a blog post some people were probably expecting a long time ago.

And still, I am not sad.

I have R.E.M. playing on repeat as I type this. Up now: Uberlin, which I made a point to listen to that first afternoon in Tomorrowland, and which I'd argue is enough, on its own, to make the often shaky last decade of the band's work worth it.

It's by no means a perfect song, a mere shadow of their once vast powers. But I am so heartened every time I hear it -- and now that it's their last great song, I feel so at peace with their breakup that not only have I never let myself turn into a pathetic puddle of fanboy tears, I can say that I am as happy to be an R.E.M. fan as I have ever been.

If you don't get R.E.M., I can't change your mind. But if you get them, you know how remarkable their catalogue is, how many emotions they touch upon -- and you know, that for every song the unwashed masses call "wimpy," they have five more that have more balls than just about anything to come out in rock music during their 31-year existence.

There's one line in Uberlin, which sums up not only the song, not only their last album, but also I think their entire career, and which I keep coming back to these past two weeks. Initially, it didn't grab me. But a month ago or so, on a MetroNorth train, headed south along the Hudson River, it suddenly said everything:

"I don't mind repeating," sings Stipe, "I am not complete."

R.E.M. spent the great majority of their 31 years pushing themselves and their craft, reshaping their sound, often to their detriment, but creating moments for 16-year-old kids like me, picking up Monster at Media Play in the South Hills Mall in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., after school, 17 years now almost to the day, expecting Automatic For The People II and having my head blown clear off my shoulders by what I found there instead.

And yet, despite all of their many masterpieces, they always felt like a work in progress, changing and evolving and growing into something new and different and, more often than not, exciting.

As their sound shifted through the decades, R.E.M.'s best songs not only admitted to the stumblings and bumblings and fumblings along the way -- the feelings we all have of vulnerability and fear -- they reveled in doing so, becoming a source of comfort, solace and confidence.

Perfect Circle, shoulders high in the room. Harborcoat, a handshake is worthy, if it's all that you've got. Can't Get There From Here, but I know the way. It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine). Everybody Hurts, so hold on. Find the River, I have got to leap to find my way. Walk Unafraid, I'll be clumsy instead. Imitation of Life, this lightening storm, this tidal wave, this avalanche, I'm not afraid.

And those are just the songs that have popped up now on shuffle, as I sit here writing.

In truth, we're all just walking works in progress, and R.E.M.'s music reminds us of that. Even on their very last album, the band is still trying to make it through the day … and the day becomes the night.

Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry -- and all of the R.E.M. fan friends and countless memories I've gathered because of them (from that day buying Monster, to Stipe wearing my Burger King crown on stage in '99, to meeting him, two other times, in equally bizarre circumstances, to seeing the band play in front of 70,000 fans, under an open sky and a gothic cathedral in Roncalli Platz in Koln, Germany, to the cherished moments of my life that rush back to me through practically every one of their songs) -- helped me make it through the last two decades, and they'll be helping me, and a whole lot of others, I trust, for many more to come.

For that, I will be forever grateful.

The story is far from complete.