It happened today. After 31 years and 15 albums, the band that changed my life called it quits. R.E.M. has disbanded, apparently without acrimony or scandal, merely with the desire to stop. You can read their official statements here:
If you’ve read much of The Essential Noise, you know what a huge impact this band had on me. (If you haven’t read much, go read the post called “I Feel Possessed”. Back? OK.) I am the biggest R.E.M. fan I know, and the only one I know that managed to follow them from my first blush of fandom in 1991 to their last album. I’m flooded with memories today, of concerts and videos and CD Warehouse chats and album release days and inside jokes with friends. In my personal lexicon, “Stipe” is a verb with two definitions: 1) to dance about jerkily and with abandon; 2) to mumble incoherent noises in place of unknown or forgotten song lyrics. Just going online yields tons of little signifiers of what they mean to me. My Hotmail address contains the name of their post-Berry publishing company. Several of my online passwords are R.E.M.-related. I even nicked my typical signature, “Strength and peace,” from something Stipe wrote on a school wall once (as described in Rolling Stone).
While I’m undeniably sad about R.E.M.’s demise, I can’t really say I’m surprised. Let’s face it: every band that you love will someday end. And they won’t all end on a grace note like this. People die. People fight. People lose the muse. A lot of people, myself included, didn’t think the band would soldier on very long after the departure of founding member Bill Berry – but they went on for another 14 years.
Somewhere around the release of 2004’s tepid (but still better than 2001’s Reveal, in my opinion) Around The Sun, I felt like the end could finally be near, and prepared my Stipe-loving heart thus. Basically, I was doing the math. In 1996, R.E.M. signed a then-record-breaking $80 million contract with Warner Bros. Records for 5 albums. Since then, they’ve released 1998’s Up, then Reveal, Around The Sun, 2008’s rollicking Accelerate and this year’s true return to form, Collapse Into Now. So now, their contract is up and the record biz is a much less hospitable place, especially to a once-massive band suffering from diminishing sales returns. (If the RIAA database is up to date, Around the Sun, Accelerate and Collapse Into Now haven’t even gone Gold.) In the face of what may be major-label resistance, and possibly without the desire to go the Radiohead route and release product themselves, the easiest decision for R.E.M. at this point may be to simply walk away.
But at least they can walk away with their heads held high. I’m going to repeat the numbers from the first paragraph: 31 years. 15 albums. A legacy of ushering in the college rock scene. A sterling reputation for always doing things their way (which, apparently, also extended to their end) and for navigating fame with grace and maturity. An insane run of quality releases through the 80s and early-to-mid 90s. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the very first year they were eligible. And they’re going out on a great record; I’ll say it again, Collapse Into Now is their best release in 15 years.
What I can’t predict is what might be next. With other bands I love, if I’ve given their demise any thought, I’ve likely charted out which member(s) I’ll follow after the end comes. R.E.M. always provided such a unified front that it’s impossible to separate each member’s contributions. I can’t just say I’m Team Stipe and go from there.
We’ll definitely still have Peter Buck to reckon with for a long time, as he plays with a multitude of performers, from Robyn Hitchcock to the Minus Five. Buck played on John Wesley Harding’s upcoming release The Sound of His Own Voice, and will play in his band on tour this fall. Mike Mills seems a little more uncertain to me; he guests on others’ recordings like Buck, but with nowhere near Buck’s frequency. The biggest question mark lands on Michael Stipe’s bald head. I wouldn’t be shocked if he ceased to record, choosing instead to devote his attentions to his photography, his film production companies Single Cell and C-Hundred, and his various causes. Since the band DID end on such good terms, reunion gigs aren’t out of the question. I’m sure if Neil Young came calling for next year’s Bridge School concert, they’d happily sign on.
Thank you, R.E.M. – for the music, for the effect you had on my life, for setting a good example. May you never fade away. From the bottom of my heart, I wish you strength and peace.
Three of my favorite R.E.M. songs..
“So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”, from 1984’s Reckoning:
“Turn You Inside-Out”, from 1988’s Green:
A live version of “Walk Unafraid”, from 1998’s Up: