R.E.M. Calls it Quits After 31 Years
When I was 16, my evil parents ripped our family from a comfortable existence on Long Island, N.Y., to follow my father’s career to the Boston area. It was honestly the most challenging thing for me to deal with until that age, leaving a young lifetime’s worth of friends, and specifically, my band, which pretty much meant everything to me. I had discovered what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: make music.
And it was music that helped soothe me, as it would so many other times over the years, in my harsh transition from a great New York suburb to a pretty — but dead — rural suburb in Massachusetts. In just a few months, I found new like-minded souls who wanted to form a band. They dug newer bands like the Clash, Talking Heads, Squeeze, and Elvis Costello.
It was with a few of these new friends that I went to go see the ascendant English Beat at the Walter Brown hockey arena at B.U. in 1982. We were pumped to see the ska-pop band but were knocked out by the opening band, R.E.M. None of us had heard a note by this enigmatic band as I’m certain was the case with most of the audience. But they were mesmerizing. They played mostly in the shadows, with low, blue and green stage lighting. They had a lead singer who looked like an artsy hippie, with curly hair in his eyes, draping his flannel-clad arms over the microphone stand. But every once in a while their guitarist occasionally broke out of the shadows and windmilled his strumming arm, a flash of a long-sleeved white button-down under a black vest, slashing across his jangly (you can’t write about R.E.M. without using some form of the word “jangle” at some point) Rickenbacker. Indeed, there were a few other visual and aural hints at the Byrds, but the similarities were not as direct as early Tom Petty. In fact, there was nothing at all direct about the band. The sound, the poetry of the lyrics, the “Murmur,” as the name of their first LP indicated, all came from some surreal other world where new wave, no wave, folk rock, garage band nuggets, and punk rock all meshed perfectly and the soundscapes of ’80s teenage dreams.
It was a revelation. It was post punk. It was almost post rock. It was undeniable art. And it was one of the most important nights of my burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll life. R.E.M. made me want to jangle, to murmur, to harmonize and counter-melodize. I spent the rest of the night enjoying the fun English Beat, but it all seemed so fluffy and insubstantial after this magical new band I felt I had discovered. When my college band, Buffalo Tom, formed in 1986, one of the shared influences was R.E.M. They also helped pave the indie rock (then referred to vaguely as “college rock”) circuit toward mainstream success that seemed to culminate with Nirvana 10 years later.
One of my band’s greatest shared memories is the time we first got out on the road on one of our first tours around 1989 or ’90 and played at the famous 40 Watt club in Athens, the launching pad of R.E.M., owned by the wife of that R.E.M.’s guitarist, Peter Buck. R.E.M. was already selling tons of records and just on the cusp of being one of the biggest bands in the world. When we finished our set, Barrie Buck asked us if we had a place to stay. We did not, planning to rely on the kindness of strangers or splurging on a fleabag motel room. She graciously invited us back to her place where we were greeted by a pajama-wearing Peter, who spent the rest of the night playing records for us and telling stories until dawn. He spun us an advance copy of the yet-to-be-released new R.E.M. record. When you meet one of your heroes and he turns out to be even cooler than you had mythologized, it gives you karmic hope for the rest of the tour and rock n’ roll career.
So here we are. My own band turns 25 next month, and we will play three shows at the Brighton Music Hall on Thanksgiving weekend to celebrate. We wonder how long we can keep it up. As I read the news of the dissolution of R.E.M. after an illustrious 31-year run, it makes me feel even older than my own band’s making of time. Yet, as Peter Buck noted on the band’s announcement on their website, I also hope to be “standing at the back of the club, watching a group of 19-year-olds trying to change the world.”