Friday, September 23, 2011

It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Sad ... and Appreciative ... and Fine -- A Tribute to R.E.M.

"It's easier to leave than to be left behind"
-- R.E.M., "Leaving New York" (2004)

"A wise man once said--'the skill in attending a party is knowing when it's time to leave.'"
-- Michael Stipe, as part of Wednesday's online announcement of R.E.M.'s retirement

Twenty years after becoming international megastars with the success of Out Of Time, R.E.M. is.

That album, featuring the hit "Losing My Religion," came 11 years after the band's formation in Athens, Georgia, and followed a r.e.m.arkable 6-album (plus an EP and rarities collection) run in the '80s when they almost singlebandedly defined the genre of "college rock."

In doing so, they helped inspire the next generation of great bands, including Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Radiohead, and along with '80s peers like U2, The Cure and Depeche Mode, begat the explosion of "alternative rock" in the '90s. After Out of Time came the album many--but not I--cite as the groups's artistic apex, 1992's Automatic for the People. But as pontificated by many of the critics and pundits who weighed in after Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills "decided to call it a day as a band," R.E.M.'s creative prowess sank sharply after drummer Bill Berry left in 1997.

While I concur that their subsequent albums were generally lesser, and their songwriting not nearly as inventive as during their ascent, I take umbrage with opinions such as the one that Miles Raymer shared on the Chicago Reader blog espousing that "1997 would have been a fine place for the band to end." This implication that--in reference to Stipe's quote above--R.E.M. stayed at the party way past propriety, seems to be a common thread in several articles I've perused. In this piece on his own blog, Jim DeRogatis describes the band's post-Automatic years as a "sad decline toward corporate nostalgia act" while ruing "the potential the group once held but ultimately betrayed."

As an avid fan of R.E.M. since 1986--yes, I should have caught on 2-3 years sooner--yet one who didn't exactly gush over this year's Collapse Into Now album, I find suggestions that the band sold out, milked it into mediocrity or foolhardily carried on without Berry to be unduly harsh.  

Of the 9 times I saw the band live in concert, 6 were since 1999, and even as someone who can tend to be critical and nitpicky--as many of my reviews here will attest--I have never been disappointed. Each of the shows I caught were excellent or even better, and I've never perceived that the band members were going through the motions or somehow cheating me.

Also, given the relative dearth of new musical acts that have excited me and/or shown any staying power--especially in a rock vein--mediocre R.E.M. has still been more welcome in my world than much else out there. Some of their releases have been better than others--2008's Accelerate is a truly fine album even if not quite among their very best--but even a relative dog like 2004's Around the Sun has superior songcraft than most of what passes for modern rock. While I wasn't wowed by Collapse Into Now, I'd still rather listen to it than more heralded albums by Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver or Mumford & Sons (and those are bands I somewhat like).

But even if we want to stipulate that the legendary band has been running on fumes since 1997, I don't really get the reasoning that suggests they should have walked away. Sure, artists should always aspire to greatness,  but even if they less frequently achieved it, I never got the sense that Michael, Peter and Mike were dogging it. Maybe they didn't correctly gauge just how vital Berry's drumming, input and influence were to their earlier brilliance and consistency, or maybe they just slowed down a bit as they aged, but I really don't think they were being disingenuous or deceitful. The concerts I saw over last decade cost no more than $75 per ticket, less than a third of what peers like U2 and Madonna were commanding for the best seats. And it's not like Michael, Peter & Mike ever forced anyone to buy their latest album or to attend a show.
In a world where millions are unemployed, underemployed, underpaid or just unhappy in their worklife, why do we condemn artists and athletes for continuing to do what they love--for considerable recompense and adulation--even if they may never be as great as they once were?
If Brett Favre still wants to play football and can find a team to pay him, if Francis Ford Coppola still wishes to direct movies and can get them produced (even with his own money), if U2 and the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen want to play old hits to packed stadiums, why is this cause for such consternation? Jim DeRogatis may never be as good a rock critic as he was with the Sun-Times or write another book as good as Let It Blurt, but does this mean he should shut down his blog and stop writing books if the will and demand are still there?

Believe me, there are plenty of bands and other creative artists I once really liked for awhile and subsequently stopped caring about--the Goo Goo Dolls are but one example--but I would never suggest they cease to exist. Vote with your obliviousness, but to condemn anyone for continuing to do what they enjoy just seems awful sanctimonious.

On this note, just today Steve Van Zandt was quoted as saying that Bruce Springsteen and the surviving E Street Band members would soon discuss how to carry on after the death of Clarence Clemons. I'm sure many so-called pundits are already sharpening their sabers to rebuke any upcoming tour (and the Machiavellian motives behind it), but as Stevie very simply explained, they will still play music until the end because "that's what we do."

And call me a fanatic, but I still enjoyed what R.E.M. did. To the point that when I heard they had called it quits, I felt chagrin that they wouldn't be touring again and thus I wouldn't have another chance to see the act that ranks third among my all-time favorite artists of popular music.

Perhaps R.E.M. isn't quite going out on top, but it's close enough for rock 'n roll, and that's good enough for me.

Thanks guys.

Below are YouTube videos of 20 of my favorite R.E.M. songs (beginning with a compilation video that you can let run sequentially through all the songs, set roughly in chronological order).

And I've now posted 11 additional videos of favorite latter-day R.E.M. songs, in this piece on Booth Reviews.

Continue viewing the post below if you want to see each of the 20 videos of my favorite R.E.M. songs.

Gardening at Night - from Chronic Town Boxcars - from Chronic Town Shaking Through - from Murmur Perfect Circle - from Murmur Harborcoat - from Reckoning So. Central Rain - from Reckoning Pretty Persuasion - from Reckoning Wendell Gee - from Fables of the Reconstruction Begin the Begin - from Life's Rich Pageant Fall on Me - from Life's Rich Pageant Flowers of Guatemala - from Life's Rich Pageant I Believe - from Life's Rich Pageant I Am Superman - from Life's Rich Pageant - video from the first R.E.M. show I attended King of Birds - from Document It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) - from Document Stand - from Green Losing My Religion - from Out of Time Half A World Away - from Out of Time What's the Frequency, Kenneth - from Monster Man on the Move - from Automatic for the People - video of performance with Bruce Springsteen

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