Sunday, September 25, 2011

R.E.M. - Reconstruction of the Fables

Pilgrimage Has Gained Momentum:

The first time I saw R.E.M. was in Nashville in 1980 at a tiny basement club called Phranks'N'Steins. Maybe 5 songs into the first of their two sets, I concluded they were my favorite band in the world.

I went that night because my Vanderbilt law school pal Curtis had gone to U. of Georgia as an undergrad and spotted a poster for the show as we were walking on campus: "Appearing Friday From Athens GA - R.E.M." Curtis said something to the effect that he had not heard of them, but we had to go because if they were from Athens they had to be great, especially with such a cool name.

About 15 people were at the show. Turns out it was the 2nd show R.E.M. had ever played outside of Athens and one of the first shows they had headlined. They were raw and exciting and even then had a completely distinctive sound. Sure there were some touch points - The Byrds, The Ramones, Lovin' Spoonful, and 60's garage rock. But what struck me was the weird touch of Southern soul that was hinted at in the band's remarkable rhythm section, played by 2 Georgia boys - bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry.

At that point, Peter Buck was the visual center of their performances - all Pete Townshend kicks, windmills and jumps, with a propelling and infectious Rickenbacker guitar sound. The singer was shy, to the point of barely looking at the audience, but oh man, what a voice. And as somewhat reticent and completely unconventional as he seemed, there was a quality to Michael Stipe that you couldn't take your eyes off.

Something really special was at work, even though a third of the songs they played were covers and you could tell they were pretty new at this. I went home that night thinking - what a collective, 4 guys making their own new sound their own way, a real band.

Curtis recognized Peter from Wuxtry Records in Athens where Peter had worked and we chatted between the sets. The next time they came through Nashville, Curtis threw a BBQ dinner for them and we dragged every cool person from the law school to see them that night at a larger club.

Soon I graduated and moved to Chicago, and helped them get their first show there (Club C.O.D. on Devon near Loyola). It was the night before Thanksgiving in 1981. They had a bunch of new songs, every one better than the one before. I couldn't believe how much they had improved in less than a year. Stipe and Mills' vocal harmonies were unbelievably great. And Stipe was now a whirling dervish on stage, shaking and shimmying his way through the set.

Here's an early live clip (with future sideman Peter Holsapple from The dBs sitting in):

An early TV performance - note how Stipe hides from the limelight:

I have tracked their career closely, followed them around the US and Europe, had some amazing experiences as a result of all of it, and through R.E.M. met some of my favorite people in the world.

Their decision to stop forever right now has hit me hard, feels like a transition in my own life, the end of something special. But of course it isn't the end because the music and experiences survive. I could spew my thoughts on various records, but plenty of writers will do a fine job with that.

I'd rather highlight something in R.E.M.'s history that I think gets a bit overlooked - they didn't just make music, they managed to build a movement and a community. And that community was a far better place than the world at large. You didn't just get to listen to R.E.M., you could join them. Which is a big reason why there has been such an emotional outpouring of love to the band this week.

Can't Get There From Here:

Even though neither Peter nor Michael were natives of the South, the band wore their small town Georgia roots proudly. And they blazed a new path for Southern rock music and more importantly, for progressive and outsider kids in the South. As far from rebel flags, Freebird, wanky guitar solos, and dumbshit good old boys as you could get, R.E.M. instead were all well read guys, whipsmart, with a kudzu album cover, a song about Howard Finster, a love of Big Star and some super hip country twang on one of their most popular early songs "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville". They wore Future Farmer of America jackets in publicity photos and talked about Flannery O'Connor in interviews. They were both as Southern as, yet as far from, Lynyrd Skynyrd as one could be.

Their first LP Murmur was and remains a masterpiece. It was the American Astral Weeks - evoking Southern rather than Irish mysticism and literature - weird, soulful, oblique, timeless and utterly compelling. It was like Flannery O'Connor's version of jangly folk rock. Later, Fables of the Reconstruction, though recorded in the UK, doubled down on the band's New South sensibilities and became the soundtrack to college life in the South for years afterwards.

The South was a lot of things in the late 70s-early 80's, but one thing it wasn't was cool. Yet seemingly overnight after Murmur was released , R.E.M. was suddenly the coolest band in America, the one that the New Music Express in the UK, the New York Times, and perhaps more importantly, the most influential fanzines like The New York Rocker and Matter Magazine were fawning over in every issue. And R.E.M. served as a beacon, source of pride and a lifeline for many kids in the South - the artsy kids, politically aware types, gay kids, music nerds, and the smart kids who got bullied at school. R.E.M. gave the outsiders a place to belong.

Let's Start a New Country Up:

Being a fan of R.E.M. early on was closer to joining a club than simply liking a band. Everything about this band was different, even their tee shirts with monkeys on bicycles, stick men or old maps. When you met someone at a party who liked R.E.M., you became friends with them. And it was a big deal when R.E.M. came to town, which in their extended barnstorming period of 1982-89 was maybe twice a year if you lived in a big city or many college towns. Every time they came back, they played a bigger club or theater, and very soon in some markets, arenas.

And when the band hit it big, they avoided and even spoofed the rock'n'roll cliches. With the help of a very shrewd and creative set of internal managers/advisors, Jefferson Holt and Bertis Downs, R.E.M. beat the industry at its own game, made the industry adjust to R.E.M. rather than the reverse. As Peter Buck once famously stated, R.E.M. was "the acceptable edge of all the unacceptable stuff."

R.E.M.'s first big arena tour, the magnificent Green tour of 1989, was as one friend of mine put it, more like German expressionist art than a conventional arena rock show. As Stipe unleashed his inner Iggy Pop, fans were treated to backdrop film by avant filmmakers or random words like "Hello", "Government" or "Hi, it's great to be be back in (your city here)."

R.E.M.'s biggest hit, and one of its very best songs, "Losing My Religion", prominently featured not a ringing guitar but a mandolin, while its ubiquitous video featured Caravaggio images. Somehow R.E.M. held on to their unconventional outsider art status even as they became one of the biggest bands in the world.

The band was well aware of its community-organizer influence and began to promote progressive causes, being among the first bands to set up information tables for social justice and environmental organizations in the lobbys of its shows. By 1986-87, the increasingly more confident Stipe began to speak out on various issues - the death penalty, environmental protection, local and national elections - flying in the face of the reactionary and sickening Reaganism of the mid-80s. As common place as that activism seems now, it was not then and especially not in the South.

But the band members spoke from their heart about the issues of the day and didn't fret the consequences (and there were some). But to the throngs of outsiders in its fan base, R.E.M mattered, and for many of its rabid followers, being a fan stood for something bigger than the music.

And as the lyrics became more decipherable and direct, so did the messaging. To this day "Fall on Me" is one of my favorite songs of all time, R.E.M. at the absolute top of their game:

There's Lots of Room for You on the Bandwagon:

The center of R.E.M.'s new community was other musicians. A lot has been written this week about how R.E.M. essentially invented "alternative music" and "alternative radio" and paved the way much later for Nirvana and Pearl Jam, both of which adored R.E.M. All true. But while R.E.M.'s success certainly did send the record company lemmings searching for "the next R.E.M.", R.E.M. themselves were promoting their peers, always with their finger on the pulse of the best bands out there.

Starting on its earliest national tours in 1982 and continuing through the Accelerate tour two years ago, the band carefully selected its opening bands, not like everyone else picking bands who might help them sell more tickets, but instead selecting bands who had not played in such big rooms, deserved broader exposure and that R.E.M. thought their fans would appreciate. Here's a short list of what were underground bands when they opened for R.E.M. - 10,000 Maniacs, Husker Du, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, even Radiohead and Wilco, and most recently The National. I recall seeing the then unknown west coast band Camper van Beethoven playing "Take the Skinheads Bowling" in an arena in conservative Grand Rapids, Michigan in the mid-80s, and thinking, I can't believe this is actually happening.

And in every print interview, the band plugged other far less known bands. Peter Buck's impeccably tasteful year end Top 10 lists became a regular feature in magazines like Rolling Stone, and his list generally consisted of bands that Rolling Stone wouldn't write about for 2 more years.

And when a fellow musician was in need, R.E.M. was there to help. They never made a big deal out of their good deeds so I won't here either, but injured, sick and down on their luck musicians could count on R.E.M. for assistance.

The loyalty both to and from R.E.M. in the underground music community helped them greatly over the years. Almost never did you hear anyone grousing about R.E.M.'s success, instead it was a source of pride for the fans which included many many other bands. I was at countless backstage after parties at R.E.M. shows and many times it was a who's who of the local music scene in that city.

Time I Spend Some Time Alone:

I'm still getting my head around this breakup announcement. Their comments were elegant and I accept them at face value:

Ironically the paradigm that R.E.M. successfully maneuvered despite their outsider and unconventional approach - record, tour, build base to sell records, get singles to radio to sell records, make a new record and repeat - toppled. To be a band now is to tour and license your music to commercials, TV, films and video games (kill me now). Other than touring, not much room for community building there. And I am exactly those guys' age, and the idea of riding on a bus (albeit a really nice one) for 5 hours or more a day, checking into a different hotel (albeit a really nice one) 4-5 days a week, being away from family and then jumping around on stage for 150 minutes seems somewhere between thoroughly unappealing and impossible.

After R.E.M. hit the big time, they continued to push the envelope and make challenging and distinctly original records, some of which people loved and some of which mystified people, but every one of which had some great songs. I listened today to both their first LP Murmur and their 15th and now final one Collapse Into Now, and both sounded fantastic.

So I reluctantly accept this unexpected decision of my favorite band and will continue always to love their music. I am so proud of them for their amazing 31-year career, and deeply thankful that they let me and so many like me come along for the ride.

Any other band in their position would take a victory lap "Farewell Tour" and the heartfelt goodbye from its fans and the huge multi-million dollar payday that would accompany it. But R.E.M., fittingly, walked out exactly as they walked in - through the back door. Right on fellas.


Darryl White said...

Fantastic article, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Do you by chance know the date of the show in Nashville in 1980, at least roughly? I run the REM Timeline website and it's not listed on there, so I would like to include it on there. Thanks!

MandM said...

Wow, I loved this article! Absolutely wonderful.

Bertis said...

fighting tears as I read this-- but no need to fight 'em. You speak for me and so many others with this piece Jim-- wow! too many parts to highlight but I am sure glad to know you and I wouldn't if not for those 4 guys from Athens and that show at Vandy. And a lot of other people too-- man o man.

Anonymous said...

It was magical. You captured it beautifully. Thank you for putting it into words. For those of you not lucky enough to have been there, I'm sorry.

younkman said...

It was one of the great pleasures of my life to meet and travel with these guys in Paraguay. So full of love, generosity, integrity and music. Thank you Jim and thank you R.E.M. for everything.

Chris Stamey said...

It was great, Jim. To everything there is a season, an end is not something to mourn but to embrace--as you did here.

Jim Desmond said...

I am not sure of date. And it's so long ago, my memory is hazy on dates. If it helps, I know they took the shows at last second filling in for Pylon who had a sick member. It wasn't a tour, just maybe one more city.
I know for sure that Jefferson was not the mgr yet and they had not yet recorded the Hib Tone single
I'll check with some friends who were there and see if anyone can better nail the date. I remember someone saying it was 2nd show out of Athens, but looking at your timeline (which is fabulous by the way!), i'm guessing that is not correct. Anyway, I'll poke around and see if i can pin it down a bit.

Jim Desmond said...

Thanks to all who posted such kind words! And Bertis, your words carry particular weight and are especially deeply appreciated.

xoutposter said...

Authenticity, compassion, integrity and significance....that is what R.E.M. has always meant to me.

JD you captured that in this piece, and you personify those qualities in your own life. Little did the guys know it at the time, but they stumbled upon one of their greatest ambassadors that night at Vandy. The world has been a much more interesting place for so many people because of it.

Thank you!

Brendan said...

Excellent article, Jim. I've been listening to REM with renewed purpose this week. And now thanks to your writing, I feel like I'm doing so with fresh ears.

I didn't really discover REM until "Out of Time" (I was 12 and ordered the cassette from BMG). My friend and I listened to it repeatedly in my room all summer. Together we discovered we might like "alternative" music... a weighty discovery for a middle-schooler raised on Poison and Crue. This led us into bands such as The Lightning Seeds, The Judybats, Charlatans UK... sort of all over the map, but most importantly not on the maps of most of my friends.

This was all in Grand Rapids, where I also discovered Camper Van Beethoven. A girl I had a crush on wrote "Take the skinheads bowling, take 'em bowling" on the cover of one of my schoolbooks. That was all I needed to seek them out. Obviously your article brought that back to mind. Thank you for that. Keep up the great work.

Curtis said...

Nice job JD. You have brought back memories and feelings of some of the greatest times. You didn't mention your trip to visit in SoCal. Dining with the boys before the show at the Beverly Theater in Beverly Hills and then following them down to San Diego for the show there. A family indeed. The news is tough but we will always have the music and the memories.

Arkie_in_CT said...

What a heartfelt, well-observed piece. The principal beauty of REM was always that, whether in early shows before a dozen friends or later on before tens of thousands, whether campaigning for causes great or small, they were always four (or three) guys, friends, a band on a human scale, with a pulse, a heart and a soul.

An example I can share dates to Friday, January 19, 1990. Returning from rest after the Green Tour, the guys were just starting to jam, the work that would lead to "Out of Time." Luckily, I stopped by their office on a pilgrimage from Connecticut.

After greeting their cordial and professional staff, at their invitation, I started to review the big stack of fan mail, with many efforts to suss out all their songs' lyrics.

Camped out near the long staircase leading up to the office, before long, I was surprised to Mike Mills. I'd had no notion of this being remotely possible - who that doesn't need to be at their office late on a Friday afternoon will be?

Mike greeted me graciously, and I shared that I was a Greenpeacer from New Haven. We traded notes on musicians we might know in common, and I urged an idea on him: they should think about setting up a small non-profit, like an outfit we used at GP New Haven, to recycle curb-side for those who wanted it, since Athens didn't have that yet. Call it "REM Recycling", interlock the two names in a logo, maybe run it at a manageable loss as a contribution to the environment and the community.

He embraced the idea and urged me to write up and submit a business plan, said I could come to Athens and run it for them if it worked out. I demurred, what with a year of college left in CT. He thanked me for the suggestion and moved along to office tasks.

A few minutes later, Michael followed on Mike's heels. We had much the same conversation - he, as Mike, shared his refreshment after the needed break and excitement that they were just starting to work toward their next album. He, too, liked "REM Recycling" and gave me the same encouragement Mike had. I headed out after saying goodbye to everyone - hadn't the common sense, star-struck as I was, to hang out a bit longer; doubtless I could've met Peter and Bill, too.

The punch line: a year later, when Out of Time came out, I read in Rolling Stone, in the requisite passage about the boys' good deeds in their home community, about how they had successfully lobbied the Athens City Council to adopt a curbside recycling program citywide. It was one of my happier moments, and, doubtless, one of thousands of such moments of grace and goodness, yes, simple, straight-ahead goodness and humanity, the boys left in their wake.

SpiceTrader said...

Murmur as the American Astral Weeks - brilliant suggestion. I was a Deadhead in the 80's but some I was fascinated by Murmur and the first show i saw was Srping Break 1983 on Daytona Beach, lost touch for a while but was reawwakened to them in the 90's and in 2008 saw their first show that year at Langerado and one of their last in US in Atlanta, and now it is just Bittersweet Me...

Arnie said...

Jim: As someone who was in on your writing career as early as you were in on REM, that was one of your finest pieces, ever. You elegantly put into words what most of us could not articulate, but instinctively felt about the band all these years. Yes, they were a big commercial suceess, but there was always the sense that they viewed success on other levels as equally important.
Just as what became to be known as alternative music owes a huge debt to REM, I am sure I speak for many, many of your friends and readers in sending thanks for your sharing music the music that inspired you with the rest of us. You have expanded the musical taste of so many of the less adventueous,less hip, less insightful... From one who is truely one of the 'less' crowd, thankyou.

Kelli Pugh said...

Wonderful article. I had to pull out my R.E.M. cd's after reading this. There several songs and discs that remind me of specific times in my life- all good memories so I enjoy listening to them and reminiscing about those moments. I don't think there is another band that I can say that about. Thanks so much for sharing your memories!

DJWildBill said...

Back in the mid 1980s I was shopping for used albums at Wuxtree's in Atlanta when Michael Stipe walked in and went over to the cashier. I was the only customer in the store and I kept shopping as Michael and his friend chatted about REM's South America tour. Michael told him about armed guards ringing the stage and how they had sworn they'd never go back. They were watching me as much as I was watching them. I suppose they thought I was going to pocket an album but, no... just nosy and star struck.

It was cooler than any magazine interview I had ever read and far more immediate. I didn't interrupt to be his "biggest fan... can I get an autograph." I bought an LP after Stipe left.

Wuxtree's was cool. REM shopped there.

Russell said...


Thought you might like's a letter I wrote to a local paper many years ago.


Keeping My Religion

I’m writing in response to John Lewis’ recent R.E.M. article, “Fables of the Deconstruction” (Music, 10/2). I agree with Lewis’ overall view of the band members—that they have changed considerably over the years. Others, for years now, have also claimed that the band has changed (“sold out” is usually the term) since its early days.

Let me first explain my bias; I’m a huge R.E.M. fan. I’ve read all the book and articles about them, listened to everything, been to the concerts, joined the fan club, and bought more than 100 R.E.M. CDs. I listen to the band 10 hours a day, five or six days a week (I’m not kidding). I know almost everything there is to know about the band. Still, I don’t know any of the members, nor have I ever met any of them. But your story seems to agree with everything I’ve read and observed over the years.

What I disagree with is the underlying tone of the article—that somehow the change we’ve seen is bad, or wrong. The early stories Lewis writes about are stories about four young men—boys really. They were barely 20 years old when they started. They’ve been together for more than 15 years now (which is itself an accomplishment). You don’t think they could continue to act/perform like 20-year olds, do you? Two big things happened to R.E.M. over those 15 years. First, they grew up; they simply got older. Second, they became multimillionaires. I’ve changed quite a bit in the past 15 years too (I’m 30), and I didn’t even become a millionaire (yet).

So, yeah, they’ve changed. They don’t act as “cool” now. So what? You probably don’t either. I don’t look to the entertainment industry for my heroes or friends; I look to it for entertainment. And what you’ll find with R.E.M. is the closet thing to musical perfection there is.

Russell Fortney
Odenton, MD

Anonymous said...

Fuckin" A Right... It's called maturation, growth, refinement, etc. The White Album is light years apart from Meet the Beatles. and no one ever bemoaned that transition nor can anyone diminish the fact that the same thing applied to the change experienced from Fables to let's say, Up, or Reveal. Let's think about whats important right now as we grieve, or maybe just lament
Maybe, one day, the band will experience an irrepressible creative stirring... Wishful think in Chicago

andrea said...

I love your article, one of the best I've read since hearing the news. I especially identify with your southern slant, being from SC and living the majority of my adult life in Georgia. I remember seeing and listening to R.E.M. in the 80's and identifying with them in a way I never could with other bands from the south.

I will always love my R.E.M. and I will always appreciated the way the exited the business. I'm looking forward to seeing new sculptures and projects from Michael...and maybe some music, too, and to hearing the next music projects from Mike and Peter. Heck, I'm still hoping to run into Bill on a country Georgia backroad someday.

Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts and views...and for being in this club of R.E.M. fans.

Connie Crosby said...

Thank you for these memories, Jim. Bertis has just shared the link to this post which I missed earlier. Thank you for filling in so many pieces that the rest of us would have missed out on. I remember seeing REM for the first time on a late-night TV music show about new bands coming out of the south. It would have been--when?--1981 or 1982. Like you, I almost instantly decided they could be my favourite band. I tucked them away in my memory and rediscovered them again in 1983 when their music made its way to us in Canada. I've been devoted ever since.

Jim Desmond said...

Thanks for reading and the kind words. Speaking of Canada, I once drove to Montreal to see R.E.M. open for the English Beat in a general admission theatre/club (1982 maybe??). I wormed my way up close to the stage and during R.E.M's set, the kids in very front looked as bored as possible and after every song in unison looked at their watches and asked R.E.M. to leave so the Beat could come on. I wanted to throttle them, but Michael took care of it. The kids had their hands on the stage, and dancing around once in his big Doc Marteen-type boots, Michael "accidently" stepped on the most obnoxious kids' fingers. Perfect.

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