R.E.M. - Biography
By Jeff Hunt
REM have been with me my entire adult life. Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Bill Berry. It’s odd. Sometimes they’re in the foreground, a vivid, synchronized soundtrack; sometimes deep in the background, a well-read book on a shelf.
Chronic Town (1982 IRS)
I first heard “Radio Free Europe” on the car radio, on the way to my first REM show. I was sort of embarrassed, because I knew of the record, the 7-inch; there was a buzz about it. I just hadn’t bothered to pick it up. It made me excited to arrive at the show. They were third on a bill with The English Beat and Bow Wow Wow. I’m almost certain this was 1982, so I would have been 15 or 16. I remember I wasn’t driving, so I could have been 15. REM didn’t disappoint. No one knew who they were, and no one cared. No applause. I was totally sold. Maybe it was 1983 after all. For the record: Bow Wow Wow was the loudest band I ever saw in my life. Deafening. Forget Big Black; Bow Wow Wow was loud.
It was at Red Rocks. I misspent a lot of summer days and nights at that place. Speaking of the Athens scene, the only time I saw the B52s was at Red Rocks. I drank a bunch of Everclear during the day, then puked between the slats of my seat and passed out for the entire show. I woke up in time for the last song of the last encore: “Rock Lobster.” That’s the only song of theirs I ever saw live. The Clash brought Allen Ginsburg on stage for “Ghetto Defendant,” and when they left, they buzzed the crowd in a helicopter. I’m in the front row in Under a Blood Red Sky, age 16, bleached hair, London Fog overcoat. Head bob. Gretchen de Roos kissed me at one show, during the day. I was crushed. She only did it because she was trashed. She was kissing everyone. She wouldn’t go out with me. I tried. I think. I might have just stammered and blushed. It’s okay, former me. You eventually drop a pair, for sure. Trust me. If only you could see the class of women who are breaking your heart at 40. “Gardening at Night.” “1,000,000.” “1,000,000” still rocks after all these years. I’m pretty sure Gretchen became an attorney.
Murmur (1983 IRS)
Reckoning (1984 IRS)
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985 IRS)
What else can you say? “Pilgrimage.” “Talk about the Passion.” I grew up in New Orleans, and my parents took me back for the 1984 World’s Fair. They were off doing their thing, and I was wandering around on my own: surly, sullen, moping. They must’ve been having a blast being (1) back in NOLA and (2) momentarily rid of me. I came across some temporary bleachers and an empty stage. It was daytime. There was not a single soul around, but the PA was on. Murmur had just started. I knew the entire LP by heart. I walked to the top of the bleachers and just sat through the entire record. Vivid. It was my own private concert. I even remember the shirt I was wearing. Tan, Western-wear, no collar.
I had seen REM a couple more times by then; a local promoter was also a fan and kept bringing them back to town. It was a 1,000-seat venue, and while REM couldn’t fill it, they could get respectable crowds: 500, 600. “So. Central Rain” and “Pretty Persuasion” on Reckoning are irresistible. So is the Howard Finster cover art. Someone in REM is on the record as saying Fables “sucks,” but I disagree. “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” is still mesmerizing.
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986 IRS)
Dead Letter Office (1987 IRS)
Document (1987 IRS)
Eponymous (1988 IRS)
Before, REM worked in texture. Stipe mumbled; the guitars jangled, consistently. Here is where the songs burst into color. Stipe isn’t providing texture; he’s singing pointed lyrics. You could tell at the time that REM could be huge. The songs were just too good. Their variety blossomed. “Begin the Begin.” “Finest Worksong.” As REM began its ascendancy, I saw them another time or two, 5,000-seat venues this time. I got a girlfriend, but not until I was 18. “The One I Love” is a classic. I never dated any of my teenage crushes, but I was starting to feel like a leper, so I settled. I went out with her because she was good looking and I wanted to get it over with. My heart wasn’t in it. I wish I could go back and slap my 18-year-old self. If you say “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” is anything other than catchy as @#$%, you’re hopeless. You deserve that stack of Stockhausen LPs. I loved it. The song. And the antics. Just not her.
Green (1988 Warner Bros.)
Out of Time (1991 Warner Bros.)
Automatic for the People (1992 Warner Bros.)
And I go to film school, where I see REM for the last time in, I believe, 1988. And, to use a filmmaking term, a curious lap/dissolve takes place. REM leads the way, and drags all of indie rock through the AOR desert, and delivers it to the Promised Land: mainstream access, and mainstream success. There’s no Nirvana, no Sonic Youth, without REM. And as my musical tastes become more esoteric, REM fades from Cinemascope in front of me to the bookshelf behind me, but they’re a constant presence, because I couldn’t ignore them if I wanted to (and I don’t – really), because they sign with Warner Bros. and become the biggest rock band on the planet. And in the process they stop being my personal, interior soundtrack, the sound of my loves and crushes and shenanigans, and start becoming the voice of an entire national mood. It starts with Green, and “Orange Crush” and “Stand.” REM graduated. You can shed a tear for the lost jangle and gurgle of Murmur, but here is a band nailing distinctive, smart, unique, catchy pop songs.
And, and, and. And then it’s Out of Time and Automatic for the People. Technicolor. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will get the credit, but “Losing My Religion” deserves its fair share when it comes to defining the confluence of 80s college radio and 90s mainstream rock. It’s exquisite. I was running with the same old crowd of under-socialized record nerds when that track pounded its way to the top of the charts. They sneered when I expressed my admiration for its sheer songcraft. Before long, I ditched those guys altogether, and actually started a record label of my own. Songcraft wasn’t my area of concentration, but as far as I’m concerned, the world will always have a place for a well-written song. Song. I mean, it’s the human mating call. Automatic is a morose, moody masterpiece, with string arrangements by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, and features a string of rock classics. It’s somber, but it’s also fresh, and creative, and invigorating, and these two records are the sound of the nation stepping decisively out of the Reagan/Bush era. We weren’t going to take it anymore. No to mediocrity. And these songs were ubiquitous. They were everywhere.
Monster (1994 Warner Bros.)
New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996 Warner Bros.)
Up (1998 Warner Bros.)
Reveal (2001 Warner Bros.)
Around the Sun (2004 Warner Bros.)
Accelerate (2008 Warner Bros.)
Time marches on. Monster is the aggressive “rock” record, and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is the kick-ass stand out. Bill Berry splits after Hi-Fi, but the band soldiers on as an augmented three-piece. I admit, the longevity of REM raises all sorts of questions for me. I mean, I first got into rock ‘n’ roll at the age of 8, in 1974. That’s only four years after The Beatles broke up. The wounds were fresh in the body of rock. As a kid, reading voraciously about The Beatles, I was blown away by the vast changes in society, art, culture, and fashion between their splash in 1964 and their demise at the very end of 1969. Just look at the photos. It’s like the entire country aged by decades in that brief period. I mean, from garage origins to supernova conclusion, The Beatles were only together for eight years, and at the time, that was considered ancient. Pop bands weren’t expected to last for more than a year or two. REM have been together for 28 going on 29 years. For starters, that makes me feel as old as dirt. But then, concerns about vanity and mortality aside, what does that mean for rock? Is it just the new order? Or is rock dead? Maybe it’s just that song has come to play such a vital role in our collective lives, that we’re willing to let our balladeers linger around on the fringes for life. I guess that’s okay.
I soldier on, too, with all the usual and unusual events you expect to not expect in life: careers (plural); relationships (plural); heartbreak (again, plural); divorce; hope; anguish. Feistiness. What would it be like if I were to pull REM off the shelf, and make them the soundtrack to my life again, in my forties? Because, to be perfectly honest, at this point in my life, forty-something me and teen me seem to be staring each other in the face.
What if, at this very moment, I was as deeply in love as I’ve ever been in my entire life? Which REM song would I fetch?
“Everybody Hurts” from Automatic for the People. Ha. Surprised?
And what if, at this very moment, I was as heartbroken as I’ve ever been in my entire life?
“It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”