And There Stands R.E.M.

“… and there stands R.E.M.” is the last phrase on Pavement’s heartfelt (not “heartfelt”) tribute “The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence.”

At the time, R.E.M. had “only” been together for a decade — how long did any of your bands last? — but it felt like they were in it for the long haul, and would be making great records for decades to come.

Of all the bands ever, they seemed like they’d figured it out: how to a be band and not lose your mind, how to stay a band and not lose your heart, and most importantly, how to have success and not lose your soul.

So there they stood. Through the loss of their drummer. Through the loss of their popularity. Through the loss of their ability to make great records. Through the regaining of their ability to make great records.

And there stands R.E.M.

Which is why the news of their break-up hit me — a guy who loved them from the start and never stopped loving them — pretty hard. If they had burned brightly then out like The Clash or Husker Du or The Smiths or The Replacements, or if they had become Too Big To Fail like U2, then the news wouldn’t seem so epochal and weird. But instead, it is.

There are, of course, other bands from the 1980s still out there and still making great music: Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo come to mind, both — not coincidentally — anchored by seemingly rock-solid marriages, but both bands were destined to be cult bands by sound, as opposed to R.E.M. who were originally a cult band because of circumstance.

Maybe it’s just me. Or probably it’s just me, but let me generalize for a second: for us 80s college rock kids, struggling to find a post-Boomer cultural if not generational identity, R.E.M. was the first band to truly feel like “our” band. So it follows that if you stuck with them through all these years — then they were also the last band to feel like “our” band for us 2000s post-bohemian gen-xers. You could joke “oh are they still around?” because you know that the answer is “yes, of course.”

And there stands R.E.M.

But that Pavement song was nearly 20 years ago, in the wake of Nevermind‘s dragging our entire cultural if not generational identity to the foreground once and for all, proving that the success that R.E.M. was having wasn’t just a fluke but a harbinger, and for a second — just a tiny little second, just a tiny tiny little second, whoops it’s gone — the entire world really was going to change for good.

Ha! As if.

Nothing lasts forever, which is, of course, a mighty long time no matter how short it seems while it’s happening.

So add R.E.M. to the pile of casualties, 20 years after their popularity peaked, and 15 years after their drummer left and they could have broken up. But they didn’t.

Figure the first 15 years was where they made their claim as one of the greatest bands to ever come from this country, and figure the last 15 years to be a bonus, and better than the last 15 years of nearly all of their peers except for the two that I mentioned above.

After Bill Berry left, things got problematic: first they made the sad, underrated UP, and followed it with two records that felt like their lushest work, but lacked the spark of their best work. They could have broken up after 2004’s moribund Around The Sun and I would have been fine.

But they didn’t, and their last two records — 2008’s Accelerate and this year’s Collapse into Now definitely had the spark of their greatest work. What they didn’t have — of course — was the emotional heft for those of us who loved those early records. How could they? I truly love those last two albums, but I’ll never live them.

And even more troubling was this: Who was R.E.M.’s audience now? Aging 40-something post-hipsters, many of whom abandoned them along the way due to popularity or bad records or just the fact that life gets in the way of listening to new music by even your old favorites? 20-year-old kids? A mass audience? In every case, they’d already created an all-time, all-time body of work, and nobody would choose even these new great records over their first five or Automatic. I mean I would buy their records for the rest of my life, but that’s just me.

Of course, these aren’t questions I’d ever thought hard about before, but I’m sure that R.E.M. did, and probably struggled with them, and I’m guessing that’s why they broke up. Which as I said, makes me feel weird and sad, because I never stopped looking forward to their music. I never stopped hoping that the next record they made would be greater than Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables or Automatic for the People or Murmur despite the fact that’s impossible because noone is who we once were.

But I never stopped rooting for it to happen. Because, until now, it remained possible.

And there stands R.E.M.

But not anymore.

And there stands R.E.M.

Actually, forever.

One Response to “And There Stands R.E.M.”

  1. Liz Lasater says:

    “Aging 40-something post-hipsters, many of whom abandoned them along the way…”
    Not me. I loved them then. I love them now. Not the ‘them’ now but the them that used to be. That love was plaster-solidified when, after becoming a late-blooming mommy, I watched R.E.M. sing and play with the Monsters of Sesame Street ( Undoubtedly their best video ever.

    But yeah… in mourning, for sure.