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.


Anonymous said...

Matt, your words are comforting. I followed your link from the REM forum, where I'm a new member. Unlike you "kids" who've grown up loving REM, I just discovered them a year ago (and I'm Michael Stipe's age!) I enjoy reading positive info about this band that I'm obsessed with. Even though we can't expect anything new from them and we can only hope for a reunion concert, I'm still discovering REM. It's all new to me and I love it all. I look forward to perusing your archived blogs.

Sincerely, Nightingale

Anonymous said...

There is something rare and special about their music and you touched on it. I too have these moments that I can only describe as stip-ephithanies.(he sings the words after all, no slight meant to the other guys) like on CFB, I was in a relationship that felt like a second job that you do just for the money (it wore me out). I’ve worked the night shift ...climb and tree and dump a load on your head (love it), I ate the lotus,... rich and loaded with beautiful vulnerability.... and the song that should be released on something ON THE FLY. I love ACCELERATE and like CIN(so MICHAEL was waving goodbye like I thought). I thank REM and wish all of them the best of health and success in whatever they do next, if anything. They set the bar so high and their light washed over me. No one can replace them.

Anonymous said...

Hi Matty, Matty..
You said almost everything is in my mind, just a lot better.. You're right, there's nothing to be sad about, no - one died, their music will never die and the submarine will keep going everytime we will push the play button, starting a song of theirs.

Anonymous said...

I know I'll reach a point where I'm no longer sad, but I'm not there yet.I fell in love with the band (and Michael Stipe) in 1984 and was fortunate to see them live from 1984 up to 2008 (front row center finally!). I understand their decision, but am heartbroken nonetheless. By the way, how about the beauty of "Walk it Back"? On a 15th album no less?

Anonymous said...

Re above comment- I also thought Michael was waving goodbye on the cover of Collapse Into Now! I noticed it when it came out; I already had a foreboding feeling that this would be it.

Anonymous said...

Heyy, Matt,
it´s good to know that you still love R.E.M. as much much as ever and will continue doing so...Funny, I recently leafed through your old letters dating back to 98-2001, and in one of them you described what must have been your first visit to were on your way to Athens, GA back then.Things seem to have come full circle indeed if this is the place you were when you learned about R.E.M.'s break-up.
I just felt like saying thank you to you again for having me stay on your couch in NYC back in 99,picking up the abovementioned Burger King "tinfoil tiara" somewhere along the way to Boston with me, and also for being the most unlikely person for me to run into early in the morning at Roncalliplatz in 2001...
If you ever should feel like emailing me again, you know where to find me!
P.S. Greetings to Geoff

Matthew said...

Charis!!! I was just thinking about you. How are you? Are you on Facebook? I don't think I actually have your email anymore ...