R.E.M. had a lot of theoretical end-dates. I may be misremembering, but it seems like various band members used to speculate on the moment that they’d collectively decide to call it quits, pegging that date as roughly equivalent to their thirtieth birthdays or coinciding with the dawn of the year 2000. I’m fairly certain that there was open discussion that the band wouldn’t soldier on if any member of the original foursome–Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe–decided they didn’t want to do it any more. R.E.M. endured past all of those proposed last calls. There were digressions for individual band members, but no true solo efforts. No matter what, they went on being R.E.M., offering another new album every few years. Different fans might peg different albums as the point when the group should have dissolved (it’s been an awfully long time since a new R.E.M. was greeted with the sort of critical and fan enthusiasm the band enjoyed during their extended heyday). Increasingly, that didn’t seem to matter; their last couple of releases demonstrated that they might have the sort of late career pioneered by the Rolling Stones, with efforts that were admired for being respectable enough to not leave an ugly dent in the legacy forged by their best work.
I first set foot inside a college radio station in the fall of 1988. By that time, R.E.M. already stood as the undisputed titans of the left end of the dial. With five largely beloved full-length albums already filling the bins of cooler record stores everywhere, the little ol’ band from Athens, Georgia were seasoned veterans and yet still at the peak of their jangly powers. Even though they’d crossed over to the Billboard Top Ten with “The One I Love,” the lead single from their 1987 album Document, the band still belonged to us. U2 had turned into international pop superstars with barely a backwards glance, but it seemed like R.E.M. would forever reside in the mustier, cozier land of college radio, no matter how many major magazine covers they snared. There was something homey about the earnest abstraction they brought to their music. Even if they weren’t going to turn down the millions that were dangled before them, they also didn’t seem to covet them. Even after they got a taste of major success, it never seemed like R.E.M. was anxious for that next hit. They made the music they wanted to, it seemed. That doesn’t seem especially revolutionary to me as I type it out, but it sure made them seem like a band that made it worthwhile to keep the faith.
R.E.M.’s Green arrived during my first semester in college. I can still recall the tactile sensation of easing the album jacket out of its duly designated place in “Heavy Rotation,” the little thrill that came with being able to play new R.E.M. There were all sorts of cryptic details that we tried to puzzle out. Why was there a ghostly image of the number 4 superimposed over uses of the letter R on the front cover? Why did the letter R replace the number 4 in the track listing on the back cover? Why did they choose to make “World Leader Pretend,” and only “World Leader Pretend,” the first R.E.M. song to have its lyrics printed within the album’s packaging? I had multiple debates with friends about the deeper meaning of the song “You Are the Everything,” pushing my slightly offbeat theory on anyone who’d listen. In retrospect, much of what we wrestled with probably represented little more than the band goofing around, but part of the accidental genius of R.E.M. was the way the cryptic nature of the lyrics, especially on the earlier records, imposed added mystery onto absolutely everything they produced. They seemed less a conventional band and more like an extended art project, asking observers to serve as collaborators in creating the deeper meaning. A new R.E.M. album invited study and devotion. And afterwards, we’d talk about the passion.
Before I was done with my college radio days, R.E.M. released two more great albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People. After I graduated and moved on to commercial radio, working at a “new rock alternative” station, there was a new R.E.M. album to welcome me there. Monster came out in the fall of 1994, and was arguably the last release from the band that made a major impact on the pop culture landscape. There was still excellent music to come (I think the next album, New Adventures of Hi-Fi, is an underrated wonder), even if their influence waned. After drummer Bill Berry collapsed on stage due to a brain aneurysm and subsequently retired from the band and music in general, it really seemed like the band’s true era had passed. They were even eventually something of an afterthought for college radio, considered a worthy part of music history, but not the beneficiaries of the sort of the long-term adulation enjoyed by the likes of Sonic Youth.
There are already some jaded music fans that have greeted today’s news of the band’s dissolution with snide insinuations that it will only last until the outset of some inevitable reunion tour. Maybe so, but I don’t think so. Any band that has three decades of miles under the tires of their tour bus probably has a pretty good idea of whether or not they’re actually up for any more. And, unlike other bands that pendulum back-and-forth between inactivity and cash-in concerts, R.E.M. seems to be framing their decision as a true closing of the book instead of a natural outcome of splintering relationships. They may very take the stage as R.E.M. again someday, but I suspect it will be some one-off that feels right instead of a crass grab for filthy lucre. It’s seemed lately that the whole process of creating music together and then bounding across the globe to promote it hasn’t been all that pleasurable for them, especially Peter Buck, who’s long struck me, rightly or wrongly, as the one whose readiness to pick the guitar (or mandolin) back up in the service of R.E.M. drove the band’s timetable. These guys are all in their fifties in what is ultimately a young man’s game, no matter how much crusty old-timers like Mick Jagger and Stephen Tyler try to prove the contrary by continuing to gambol across stages.
Could this be the legitimate final end of R.E.M.? To borrow a few words from an album with which I recently had the great pleasure to become reacquainted, “I believe my shirt is wearing thin/ And change is what I believe in.” Me too, gentlemen. Me too.