Beloved Athens band R.E.M. announced, with little fanfare and on a Wednesday, that after 31 years they had decided to call it a day. The news crept over me insidiously as I went from a sort of ho-hum response (as I hadn’t really cared much about the band’s music since original drummer Bill Berry bowed out in 1997 after surviving an aneurism) to a sense of deep loss as I was hit with the reality that this entity who had been with me throughout my entire adult life would no longer be here. This realization made it difficult for me to find the proper words and sentiments, thus making this post a bit later than similar eulogies that probably appeared closer to the actual date of the announcement, September 21.
For me, and countless other teens and young adults in the early 1980s growing up in Georgia or other places not known for their culturally forward thinking (in my case, Orlando, Fla.), R.E.M. was much more than a cool band. In the same way that The Beatles made as much of a social impact as they did a musical one to a similar age group in the early 1960s, R.E.M. wasn’t just important in their first decade for their refreshingly exuberant guitar jangle, mumbled vocals, and wannabe bands they spawned in their wake (of which I was often accused in my musical endeavors of being part of). Their look (bolo ties, vests, Chinese “gentleman walking shoes”), their work ethic (they would play ANYWHERE from bowling alleys to chicken joints), their “aw shucks” humility (even after notoriously glowing, hyperbole-drenched reviews, especially from the British press), their excitement to tout other bands they admired (without their guidance I wouldn’t have been on the ground floor for the Replacements, the Minutemen, Winter Hours, the Neats, Miracle Legion, Husker Du, and so many more) and their general integrity about their career path, which, granted, changed and evolved with their increasing fame and fortune, but in the early days seemed unwavering in terms of artistic control, and this made quite an impact on a young man who was also just beginning to join and start bands of his own. Quite simply, for me, R.E.M. had an influence over nearly every musical and social thing that happened to me during my twenties; without their knowledge or permission, they were my mentors.
Something else hit me as I contemplated a world without R.E.M.: the number of friends I have as a direct or indirect result of the band. (I’d have to count, but it’s quite a few.) I even met my wife because of R.E.M. We first met atRecordCity, THE best record store in Orlando (and not just because I worked there), on the day, as it happened, that the band was making their national TV debut on David Letterman’s show. I was a clerk at the store and I got into a conversation with an adorable and shy girl who had come in with her boyfriend (who, I found out that day, was also a local musician). She hung out by the counter and looked bored while he shopped so I tried to cheer her up with what was, I’m sure, extremely witty banter. A few weeks later, I ran into the two of them again at a Love Tractor show (another band, also from Athens, who I would not have heard of or gone to see if not for R.E.M.) and then, after LT was talked into playing in the back of Murmur Records (a newly-opened store in Orlando named after R.E.M.’s first LP) a few nights later, I found out she was no longer dating her boyfriend so I got her phone number. This was in November 1983 and 28 years later, we’re still together.
During all these years, there were many times when my wife Sheri and I contemplated throwing in the towel, but something has always miraculously kept us together. As part of both, I can attest to the fact that being in a band is similar to being in a marriage and I’m sure R.E.M. had those moments over the years where they considered breaking up (it’s been widely reported that they seriously thought about it during the recording of Fables of the Reconstruction in 1985, and more than once they told reporters that they planned to break up on New Year’s Eve 1999). I’m curious if something cataclysmic happened to them now, late September 2011, that caused the breakup or was it a slow burn with some small, singular straw breaking the camel’s back. Their fans may never know, but what those of us of a certain age will know is how undeniable their impact has been on each of our lives, in varying degrees, and how much we will be saddened in the coming months and years as we realize we’ll never have another band that mean as much to us as R.E.M. once did. Thank you, Peter, Mike, Michael, and Bill for helping to guide me through the often treacherous forest that is adulthood.