Last week I felt like I got punched in the gut and I was left gasping for air. That's what happens when your favorite group of all time announces that they're going to stop being a band.
"To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening." - R.E.M.
With that official statement the highly influential group - who famously promised to break-up on New Years Eve 1999 - finally called it quits. While the bell didn't toll that night for the band, and longtime fans were disillusioned by the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997 a couple of years before that, R.E.M. still meant a lot to a large group of people who found a special connection to this American band.
I began my love affair with the music of R.E.M. in the 1980s. I first heard their music when they were still an up-and-coming College Rock band from Athens, GA. This was in the days before their music was played on mainstream album oriented rock radio. They paved their own way as an American independent rock band by keeping up a relentless schedule of recording and touring up throughout the decade.
Later, when I found out that singer Michael Stipe graduated from the same high school I was attending I felt even more of a connection. Even though Stipe seemed much different from me, he drew me in with his artistic vision, lyrics and a live flair which added greatly to the band's image.
"A wise man once said--'the skill in attending a party is knowing when it's time to leave.' We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we're going to walk away from it." - Michael Stipe
Over the years I collected their albums and singles on vinyl and CD, live bootleg concert recordings, posters, videos, books and joined the official fan club -- something I've never done for any other group. At one point, if their artistic soul became corrupted (read: Kiss) and they licensed baseball cards, comic books and lunch boxes I might have bought one. Thankfully the marketing vultures were kept away by ex-manager Jefferson Holt and legal advisor Bertis Downs and those products never materialized.
If my love for their music was not enough, R.E.M. did more to introduce me to music that would influence my tastes and how I listened to music. Some of these other musicians became some of my favorite artists from any era. From reading reviews, articles, liner notes and anything else I could find about the band, I first found out about artists who shaped their sound and they respected as contemporaries. Musicians like the Velvet Underground, Roky Erickson, Big Star, Patti Smith, Television, Sneakers, The Vibrators, The dBs, The B-52s, Pylon, Love Tractor, Let's Active, Oh-OK, Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Bragg, 10,000 Maniacs, Steve Wynn, Indigo Girls, Vic Chestnutt and many more.
"One of the things that was always so great about being in R.E.M. was the fact that the records and the songs we wrote meant as much to our fans as they did to us. It was, and still is, important to us to do right by you. Being a part of your lives has been an unbelievable gift. Thank you." - Peter Buck
Not only did I find new music to listen to via R.E.M., but my knowledge of classic artists like The Byrds and Warren Zevon broadened when comparisons arose between the jangly, ringing sounds of the 12 string played by the Byrds guitarist Roger McGuinn and R.E.M's own Peter Buck. When band members collaborated with other musicians over the years, Warren Zevon for instance, I began to look deeper into those artist's back catalogues for clues about why a member of my favorite band decided to work on said project often with satisfying results.
Undeniably, their biggest influence was that on their contemporaries and bands that followed on their wake. In the 1994 book, Talk About the Passion: R.E.M.: An Oral Biography by Denise Sullivan, former Dream Syndicate guitarist and musical contemporary, Steve Wynn, relates,
"They invented a whole new ballgame for all of the other bands to follow whether it was Sonic Youth or the Replacements or Nirvana or Butthole Surfers. R.E.M. staked the claim. Musically, the bands did different things, but R.E.M. was first to show us you can be big and still be cool." - Steve Wynn
A band with strong artistic values, R.E.M. were four musicians who worked relentlessly to hone their craft writing some of the best original music of the Rock era. I urge you to listen to bootlegs of their shows from 1980 and 1981 and you'll understand just how far they came to make their first EP Chronic Town (1982) and first full-length LP Murmur (1983). With Stipe, a shy, reticent performer, at the front of the stage as the anthesis of the '80s rock frontman, the group appealed to those who weren't as hip and cool.
While the strength of my affinity for R.E.M. waned a bit after drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997, I never lost my faith for them to reign as my favorite band. I enjoyed the albums that the three remaining members crafted after Berry's departure, but I didn't enjoy them as artistic statements as much as I enjoyed the first the first ten albums. Individual songs from the last five albums stuck out, but the cohesive statements did not strike as strong of a chord with me.
With the release of Collapse Into Now earlier this year, R.E.M. brought back some of their early '90s sound and arguably their best album since New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the last album that included Berry. In their quotes on their website bassist Mike Mills describes how their last studio record related to the decision to break up as a band, "During our last tour, and while making Collapse Into Now and putting together this greatest hits retrospective, we started asking ourselves, 'what next'? Working through our music and memories from over three decades was a hell of a journey. We realized that these songs seemed to draw a natural line under the last 31 years of our working together."
The thing that irks me about this announcement is that fans didn't get to say goodbye with a tour. At least if they would have toured with the last studio record a mass pouring of love -- like a baseball player who's just announced his retirement -- from fans and critics could have ensued. Special moments with guests on stage or with original drummer Berry might have occurred in a feel good moment. Instead this feels like the guys just threw in the towel.
"We have always been a band in the truest sense of the word. Brothers who truly love, and respect, each other. We feel kind of like pioneers in this--there's no disharmony here, no falling-outs, no lawyers squaring-off. We've made this decision together, amicably and with each other's best interests at heart. The time just feels right." - Mike Mills
However, they must have known that the time was right. No fan wants to see their favorite band going through the motions just to release albums worth of dreck. Even though they were not on the top of their game, this announcement by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band is bold - just like their art. I'll always remember them for that.