By Isaac Butler
As I was profoundly uncool, it started with Stand and never went further back than Document until I was in my twenties. As I was profoundly uncool, I loved Radio Song and hated most of Automatic For The People, still secretly kinda do. As I was profoundly uncool, my love of them comes from my love of singing them, not my love of listening to them.
This is the story of why, a day after hearing that REM had broken up, I woke up grief stricken. It’s the story of two boys with few friends other than each other. It’s recess time and there’s a red piano in a green music room in the basement of a private school in Washington, D.C. in 1991 and Dave and I are breaking into this room because we’re supposed to be outside but fuck that because touch football sucks and music is awesome, real music, not that playing recorder and xylophone bullshit we do during music class.
Music is Dave pounding on the piano and the two of us singing REM, a medly of songs off of Out Of Time and Green. Turn You Inside Out and You Are The Everything and Pop Song 89 and Me In Honey and, yes, Radio Song. With—oh God help me the things we have to admit if we are to be honest—yes, with me performing the KRS One part. Huh! Baby baby baby that stuff is driving me crazy DJs communicate, to the masses, sex and violence classes, now our children grow up prisoners all their life radio listeneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeers!
It’s a terrible song. Let’s get that straight. I know that now. I am not an idiot. I am not without taste. Radio Song is a piece of junk. But it’s weirdness—Michael Stipe’s college rock anti-cool ultimately dragging one of the inventors of hip hop into near-novelty-song territory—is precisely what made it good to us. Because it was weird, because we were weird, and that’s why we loved this band that sang these strange songs about falling asleep in back seats and cultured pearls and paste and train conductors telling people to take a break.
REM’s unconventional lyrical content and Stipe’s nasal drawly voice whispered a word (belong) and gave us what we needed. It’s a strange contradiction then that at this time they were also becoming massively successful. Losing My Religion was so popular that the album shot to the top of the charts even though the band refused to tour to support it. It went gold five times over. It was the only album that there were two copies of in our house. My older sister—jock, Garth Brooks fan—also had a copy of Out Of Time by the fall of 1991, because she and her summer camp boyfriend’s song was Half a World Away. Perhaps REM's true genius was to speak to the outsidery parts in all of us. Even popular kids must feel like world leaders pretend every now and then.
Out of Sight is not an album that has aged particularly well. As on much of Document and Green, Scott Litt’s production work feels dated, too bright, too heavy on the treble and on the reverb on the snare, too tied to late eighties ideas of what pop songs should sound like. Out of Time is ultimately shackled to its time, just as that year is shackled to it. 1991 is the year of Losing my Religion and Shiny Happy People, too songs that haven’t aged nearly as well as the deeper, simpler cuts on the album. Ultimately, the album belongs to its final four songs, Half A World Away, Texarkana, Me In Honey and the brilliant Country Feedback, supposedly Michael Stipe’s favorite song REM ever recorded:
From there, REM reinvented themselves three times over, turning out three releases (Automatic for the People, Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi) that sounded very little like each other but were all clearly the project of one band. And during those years Dave and I both gained a whole circle of friends with like interests as we progressed through high school. One thing we all had in common was a love of REM. Some were more fervent than others, some had copies of Chronic Town and early concert bootlegs and the whole shebang. Others like me were more casual fans who found Automatic and Monster crushingly boring. I still dislike Automatic, but feel that Monster has improved with age.
The album from that period that’s stuck with me the most is the last. Recorded largely on tour and then fixed up in the studio later, New Adventures in Hi-Fi synthesizes the different modes of the previous three albums and contains some of the best songs they’d write in the 1990s. Little on either Monster or Automatic compares to How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us, Leave, Undertow, New Test Leper or Electrolite, and even goofier songs like Wake Up Bomb have a kind of charm to them. The album’s release was ultimately overshadowed by Bill Berry leaving the band, and it’s one of the few albums that both has four stars from Rolling Stone and can reasonably called underrated.
It’s hard to make much of an excuse for the band sticking together for the decade and a half or so after that. Their drummer Bill Berry quit, and the post-Berry output has not so much fallen off a cliff as it has swerved into the median and flipped over into oncoming traffic. REM released album after album of fussy irrelevant adult contemporary music only to try a last ditch reinvention as an aggressive rock band that didn’t work before finally calling it quits. Given the chance to go out after a moment of brilliance, they chose instead to hobble along until finally giving up the ghost.
And meanwhile, I fell in love with and married a woman whose favorite group is REM, who put Fall On Me on the first mix CD she made me and once again, after stopping listening to them, they resurfaced in my life. REM was never my favorite band, but they’ve always popped up here and there, delivering little moments of pleasure. The Bap!Bap!Bap! of the drums on Pilgrimage. The reversal of tone between This must be the saddest dusk I’ve ever seen and Turn to a miracle in Half a World Away. The use of sus-4 chords all over their work. The long sentences of You Are The Everything. The siren on Leave. Any moment Mike Mills takes over lead vocals. The strange found-sound intros all over Murmur. Michael Stipe wailing that he’s sorry on So. Central Rain. Inaugurating their stupid pop song phase with a stupid pop song called Pop Song 89. Theclusterfuck of awfulness that is their videos. When Everybody Hurts lifts up underneath Stipe cooing that we need to Hold on. The two different versions of Drive. The effects driven guitar work on Crushed With Eye-Liner.
The list goes on and on, as does the list of moments in my life for which they’ve been the soundtrack. I’ll spare that list, save one more:
It’s the fall of 2010 and I am in far-suburban Virginia, away from Minneapolis for a weekend. I’ve brought my ukulele with me because tomorrow, Dave is getting married and tonight at the rehearsal dinner he and I will perform Smokey Robinson’s You Really Got A Hold On Me for his fiancée, whom I have known since the first grade and Dave has known since the sixth.
We have some time to kill, so we start playing music together again, Dave on the guitar, me on the ukulele. Raising an unholy ruckus outside a B&B in Virginia. The number of songs he knows by heart is astounding. Sometimes, he just shouts chords and I follow along. Sometimes I have chord sheets or look up the arrangements on my phone. As per usual, I'm just keeping up with his brilliance, grateful for the opportunity to sing these songs we love.
And then I ask what should we play next?
And Dave says Do you know any REM?
And it turns out I do.