April 5 marks the 30th anniversary of R.E.M.’s first show in Athens, Georgia. R.E.M. is a band whose importance on my life cannot be measured. Although I don’t listen to them now as much as I used to, for a good portion of my childhood and teenage years they were the soundtrack of my life. R.E.M.’s albums were the first tapes and CDs I had.
Unlike a lot of other artists I listen to now, I cannot remember when I first heard R.E.M. They were always there. As the youngest of five, my older siblings were always playing whatever music that peaked their interest at the time. Since my older sister and one of my brothers were in college during the mid 80’s, naturally they listened to R.E.M. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t understand what Michael Stipe was singing about (in fact on a good portion of the songs, I still can’t). At this young age of of about 5 or 6 I wanted to be like my older siblings, and that meant if they liked R.E.M., I would too.
In grade school and middle school, I used to scribble the names of R.E.M. songs and what I thought were lyrics on my binder, much to the chagrin of my classmates. Looking back, it’s no wonder they thought I was weird. One year, on the last day of school we were allowed to bring a tape of our favorite musical artists. I was so proud to bring my copy of Green to class, eager to show my classmates my obsession. For the life of me, I can’t remember what everyone else had (but it was mostly likely whatever was on the radio.) When we finally got around to putting on Green, my classmates liked the first two songs (the bouncy pop of Pop Song 89 and singalong of Get Up) but the beauty of the mandolin-driven You Are The Everything was lost on them, and I had to turn it off.
Every kid has their favorite movie growing up and one of mine happened to be R.E.M.’s concert film of their 1989 tour, aptly titled Tourfilm. I used to beg my mom to let me watch it on Friday nights. I had yet to attend an actual concert, so this was as close as I could come. The live versions of the songs I had known since I was practically an infant were not drastically different from their album counterparts, but they were thrilling in their execution. And even at the age of 10, I found Michael Stipe to be a charismatic performer. One scene had him calling out a fan for littering on stage -“That better not be styrofoam, pal!” I haven’t watched it in years, and I’m not sure I want to – I have such fond memories of it.
When I was 13 I began to branch out and actually listen to the radio and listen to other musical artists. I really liked Green Day because they sang about masturbation and being lazy, something every 13 year boy can relate to. But R.E.M. was still my first love. I became obsessed with trying to listen into when WHFS would play the latest single What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? Due to lots of static and various other factors, I always seemed to miss it. I finally heard the song it when my brother Paul bought Monster. I listened to it non-stop. To me, it might as well have been a gift from Heaven. It was filled with loud guitars, distortion and sexual references I finally understood. I had never listened to guitarists like Clapton or Hendrix, so I thought the backwards solo on Kenneth was the most intricate piece of guitar work ever put on an album. Circus Envy was the heaviest song I had ever heard with its crackling and fuzz sound effects layered throughout the entire song.
October 31st 1997 was a day that is ingrained in my memory forever. R.E.M.’s drummer Bill Berry left the band, due to a brain aneurism he had two years previously while on tour. To me this was like the Paul McCartney announcing that he had left the Beatles – I was devastated. How could he do this to me? I remember telling a friend of mine that “today was a shitty day” and I was quickly put in my place. After Berry’s departure, I tried (like a lot of fans) to really accept the “new” R.E.M., but Up, Reveal, and the god-awful Around the Sun never struck a chord with me. I bought them all because of a feeling of solidarity but it was never the same. I moved on and discovered lots of artists to obsesses over. Some of them eclipsed my love of R.E.M. (Bob Dylan, The Clash and Van Morrison among them).
It wasn’t until 2008 that R.E.M. finally remembered that they were R.E.M. again with Accelerate. It was short, tight and well constructed songs of vintage R.E.M. but played with experience of men in their late 40s. When I saw them that summer, it was one of the greatest songs I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t so much because it was a mind-blowing performance, but they pulled songs from their entire catalogue that had never been performed live, or very rarely. If you had told me years earlier that I would see R.E.M. perform Driver 8, Little America, or These Days I would have never believed you. And the fact that I saw it with my older brother who had passed his love of R.E.M. onto me, it made that much sweeter.
Driver 8 from 2008: