R.E.M. had been a part of my musical world since I graduated high school in 1980, yet their demise was clearly a non-event in my life. I hadn’t listened to any new music by them in years; while I still enjoy Chronic Town and Murmur, after that they seemed to be more obvious, less mysterious. But their breakup made me realize something about myself, and the world around me.
They came along when I, and most of my generation were shrugging off the ways of adolescence and the enforced conformity of high school and going out in the world. No longer would we be riding in the same cars to the same parties with the same friends listening to either Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the vapid Hotel California by The Eagles. For us, facing life on our own via college or work, meant discovery and the shock of something new. To some this was a heady sensation. I remember discovering a new band every week, from punk to blues to country. I recall hearing Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan and early Jason and the Nashville Scorchers during one month in the early ’80s- and remember, at the time, no one played the blues and certainly didn’t combine Hank Williams and AC/DC the way the Scorchers did. It was grand. About the same time I drove my roommates crazy with a pair of singles- “Too Drunk To Fuck” by the Dead Kennedys and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. To most of them music was a mindless supplement to whatever else you were doing, and it certainly wasn’t supposed to be as grating and angry as punk.
For those people, R.E.M. was perfect. While they didn’t sound like what you had just spend five years in high school listening to, you could still dance to them, and since Michael Stipe’s lyrics were impossible to fathom, you could safely ignore them. Couldn’t do that listening to Johnny Rotten’s acerbic “Anarchy in the UK”- I am an anti-Christ– or Black Flag. But for 20-somethings in a brave new world- even if that meant the community college down the road- R.E.M. was the soundtrack. And by the reaction that their breakup garnered in the online community, you’d think the last 25 years didn’t happen and “Don’t Go Back To Rockville” had just been released.
When I read “R.E.M.: America’s Greatest Band” in The Atlantic, it gave me pause. To me, R.E.M. had long since faded into the past, kept on a shelf along with Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith; i.e., music that once meant something to me at one time, but that time was past. I wasn’t the same person, and I had no desire to be that person again. But for some, R.E.M. reminds them of a charmed time in their lives when they were young, with the world in front of them. And not the world of mindless work and foreclosed houses, but rather a perhaps the last time you thought of yourself as able to do anything, the skies the limit. After a few margaritas and a spin of “Stand!” these people are able to escape back to a more hopeful time, free of the challenges of adulthood. Some people on Facebook remarked that the breakup meant “The 80s just died“- and for them, it probably has. To spend your life looking backwards at what used to be seems to me a life just waiting out the years, with no joy left to anticipate. And to me, that is inexcusable. I relish the thought of a lifetime yet to come, with new books to read, new musical journeys to follow. It’s what makes life worth doing. I don’t chide my friends for their nostalgia, but I don’t look at life that way. To each his own, I suppose.
And anyway, R.E.M. as America’s greatest band? Good grief, that’s silly. That would be Pere Ubu.