So. R.E.M. broke up this week. The news hit me pretty hard, but not because I'm such a devoted fan that I can't live without them. I don’t even have all of their albums: I’m missing a couple since the quartet became a trio. I’m not wringing my hands over the loss of potential music. It wasn’t some sense of loss that got me: it was more like the taste of a cake dipped in tea. Now, I ain’t no Proust. And there are others much more qualified than I to offer a retrospective of the band’s career, so I won’t try to do that here. No, my ambition here is limited, my thoughts disjointed. So.
Let's reconstruct a fable.
Come on aboard, I promise you you won’t hurt the horse.
We treat him well, we feed him well.
There’s lots of room for you on the bandwagon,
The road may be rough, the weather may forget us,
But won’t we all parade around and sing our songs?
I started at UGA in the fall of 1984. Fraternity rush was a soul-crusher. Advanced Honors Calculus with an Emphasis on Theory was an ego-killer. But I met some people who helped me maintain some level of confidence that maybe I was ok.
There was this girl. I’d like to tell you I had a crush on her, but that would be misleading. She was a couple of years ahead of me, and I knew her well enough to consider her a friend, but we weren’t what you’d call tight. She was cool in all the ways I thought people should be cool at the time. I was not. She was an ADPi and, when I first met her, looked the part with her cute brown bob and preppy dress. But she was not a silly sorority girl (many of them are not). She was a Campus Leader and brilliantly engaging. And she happened to like this local band called R.E.M.
She had their albums (vinyl, of course), but they’d only made two at the time plus an EP. Yes, I’d heard of R.E.M., but I wasn’t all that familiar with them until I met the cool girl. I wanted to be cool, too, so I listened to them. I liked them. A lot. And the concept of a local band that made music I liked but that couldn’t be heard on large-market radio was novel to me.
So I grabbed hold because I liked the music and – just being honest here – because they were cool. Enough people were into the music to give us all a common reference point -- they were ours -- but they were not superstars, so there was a sense of being special when listening to them.
By the time I saw them live for the first time at Legion Field on campus in the spring of my freshman year, it was clear that this band was not the special inside secret of a select few. It also was clear that they eventually would be international superstars. We didn’t talk about this, but we knew without a doubt that we were witnessing the early stages of something very, very big.
As Peter Buck once said of the band, "We’re the acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff." That is what I aspired to be when I was introduced to R.E.M.: the acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff. Fraternity rush worked out to the tune of "So. Central Rain". The beat of "Letter Never Sent" was thumping when I abandoned calculus and started taking French. I started one of the best relationships of my life with an amazing girl: "Can’t Get There From Here" (it still is a great relationship; we went somewhere else). My hair got long and I smoked cloves occasionally, starting to feel a little too free with "What If We Give It Away?", which still puts my mind in a very specific place when I hear it (so. chill.). I started hanging out downtown (a few days before everybody started hanging out downtown). I was that townie in the fraternity house and that frat boy at the Uptown. I felt like I could do anything.
Maybe I should say a thing or two about Buck’s time-machine guitar that flavored their music with just a little of the ‘60s or the lyrics that you wouldn’t understand even if you could comprehend them. But I’m really not qualified to be a music critic. I do know that the intro to "Begin the Begin" still gets me ready for something to happen, and look out if "Driver 8" or "Harborcoat" starts up, because I will sing along. Just so you know.
When I got the news that the guys were calling it quits, I got sad. It felt a little like my youth was gone. But I shouldn’t kid myself. My youth left a long time ago. And I can be honest with you, right? I wasn’t altogether comfortable with the video compilation, R.E.M. Succumbs, that came out in late 1987. A few months later, I got a little nervous when the band was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone as "America’s Best Rock and Roll Band". About this time, "The One I Love" from the album I choose to call No. 5 was getting so much airplay on mainstream radio that it actually pissed me off. It took several years for me to get over hating that song.
I guess you could say we grew apart. I have this theory that incorporating new music into one’s life past the age of around 25 requires an effort that previously wasn’t necessary, and I’ve just had other things to do. I’ve seen them live a few times since I was last enrolled at UGA in 1991. And I still buy their albums, but those first five stay on heavy rotation because, to borrow a phrase, they were the soundtrack of my college years. But I did get over hating "The One I Love" for being popular, and I got over liking R.E.M. because liking them was cool (which really are two sides of the same coin). I listened to "Losing My Religion" with a smile because it was a nice song, and they were making me proud. But as with so many things as we get older, nothing stirred me like the stuff I heard for the first time when I was 18, 19, 20, and 21.
When I was a freshman, there were only a few bars downtown; by the time I left, there were dozens. When I was a freshman, it was perfectly acceptable to have a D.J. spinning the likes of Morris Day and the Time or to have a cover band ripping tunes from the Animal House soundtrack as fraternity party entertainment; by the time I left, we had Widespread Panic in the basement. When I was a freshman, I was a scared and hungry small-town boy; by the time I left, I was wide the hell open. Did R.E.M. change me? Did it change my world? Probably not. But they were playing the whole time. The music always will remind me of where I was at the time and the great things that were happening to me.
And the cool girl who liked R.E.M.? She finished her degree in accounting, summa cum laude, grew dreads, and opened a café in a downtown Athens basement. And now she’s an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. So. Very. Cool.
I confess to a certain affectation, in the beginning, in my initial attraction to the music. They were a vehicle I could ride out of my shell. I'm not ashamed of that. They said I could come aboard, and I did. And it's clear to me that I didn't hurt the horse.