Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Talk about the passion

R.E.M. announced that they were calling it quits today.  As a longtime fan I'm a little sad that they're hanging it up as a band, but they had a long, remarkably consistent run.  The last two albums have been a return to form after easily their weakest effort and thus make for as appropriate of a way for them to close the book as anything. 

Perhaps there will be the standard new album and reunion down the line, but I don't get the sense they'll take that path.  Whether they were a big underground band or a big (and somewhat unlikely) mainstream rock outfit, they didn't seem to be all that different.  I get the sense that the guys will continue to work on their own projects and be content to see where that takes them.

As best I can remember, the first time I heard R.E.M. was when "The One I Love" began getting radio play.  I was a freshman in high school and not particularly into "alternative" music.  In fact, I thought they and some of their peers were weird. 

For that matter, I didn't buy music then.  I listened to the radio but wasn't all that caught up in rock and roll.  Document produced some pop hits, as did their major label debut Green, and I had friends who were fans.  Still, I didn't get on board until Out of Time and "Losing My Religion", which I consider among my all-time favorite songs.

For me U2 and R.E.M.--the two were virtually inseparable as modern rock titans--became a gateway to another kind of music being made that was at least a bit off the beaten path and of my generation.  To like R.E.M. was to assert one's identity as quite distinctly different from the hair metal bands and classic rock vestiges that dominated the rock mainstream then.

For a time R.E.M. surely held the title as my favorite band.  I collected albums and singles and lusted for the imports I'd see at record stores but wouldn't buy due to their high price tags and sketchy origins.  I desperately wanted to see them live, but I became a fan right when they took an extended break from touring.

I finally got to see them two days before my college graduation in 1995.  Despite buying tickets in advance through the radio station where I was doing part-time work, I didn't have a great seat, but it didn't much matter.  I managed to see them two other times, in Cleveland in 1999 and in Cincinnati in 2004. 

That last time seeing them was fraught with my peril.  Originally the concert was scheduled for Akron.  I had a seat in the second or third row--fantastic!--and just happened to find out a few weeks before it that the concert was cancelled.  It was rescheduled for Cincinnati and put on sale with little notice where I live.  I was the first (and only) person in line at Ticketmaster when I plunked down the money to see them.  This time I ended up in the front row.  I could hardly believe my luck.  If that is to be my final memory of seeing the band, how can I complain?

R.E.M. hasn't been a huge band in commercial terms in a long time, certainly not what they were in the late '80s through mid '90s.  Whereas The Beatles and Led Zeppelin were still touchstones for my generation, does R.E.M. fill the same role for today's high school and college students?  I tend to doubt it, mainly because they were never THAT massive, but the music blogs have healthy respect for them that may sustain R.E.M. through younger listeners.

For those my age, though, it does feel like a shift.  My Twitter feed had plenty of comments and memories from fellow Generation Xers about the band's role in shaping what they listened to and what it was like to see them live.  I feel like they and U2 were on that last wave where being the biggest band in the world meant something.  As much as I love some of their inheritors--Arcade Fire, for instance--is it still possible for a rock group to penetrate mass consciousness like that? 

Although the mainstream was hip to them for awhile, R.E.M. was never a trendy band, and that may be a key reason why they will endure.  Listening to their songs and albums today, they don't sound especially dated.  Sure, I link them to specific periods in my life, and I suppose at some point I may listen to them out of nostalgia.  The workmanlike solidity of their music should still hold appeal, though, for future teenagers...or so I hope.  R.E.M. was never The Beatles, nor was that what they were meant to be.  Nevertheless, they are a defining band of the '80s and '90s, and it'd be nice to know that they have a deserved place in the canon in the years to come.

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