Saturday, June 16, 2018

R.E.M. and the Incredible Shrinking Legacy

The word on the street (not sure which street) is that by not breaking up with the departure in 1997 of Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills saddled their band with The Incredible Shrinking Legacy. With each passing year, R.E.M.'s piece of rock history real estate grew smaller. Honestly, when drunk at your favorite bar at 2am, is this the band you punch up on the jukebox? Are they even on there? Do I hear crickets? The question is WHY? When, in the 80s, it was poppy British new wave vs. hair metal (yeah, yeah, Smiths, New Order, gotcha), R.E.M. stayed the rock course. In an era where we're all ballyhoo over alt. folk and Americana, when Johnny Cash is god, R.E.M. should be revered as the defender of the faith. Reality, R.E.M is iconic. Not just to fans (those who remain), but to history. It's impossible to overstate the significance of the band. R.E.M. has influenced the very fabric of American culture, music, morality and politics. From its meager beginnings in small town Georgia to playing the biggest stages in the world, R.E.M. pulled off something nearly unthinkable: it maintained its integrity and kept making great American music.

Since 1980, the band was a constant. That's not to say that it never evolved. Both the band members and the music grew with grace, never repeating a proven formula, always claiming new ground. From the mid-tempo jangle on Murmur to the rock blast of Monster and on through the sun-soaked twinkling in Reveal, the band exhibited a remarkable ability to morph its sound while still retaining its essence.

A shy poet and photographer, singer Michael Stipe seemed frequently uncomfortable in his roll on stage. At the band's early shows, he spent much of his time on stage hiding behind a big curtain of curly hair, but ended his tenure as a dancing, eyeliner-wearing, confident front man. Mike Mills on bass and keyboards added the absolutely essential R.E.M. backing vocals. His distinctive voice is one of the main pillars of the R.E.M. sound. Peter Buck is one of the most important rock guitarists and the man who plays that instantly recognizable mandolin. Hard times befell the band in 1997 with the departure of original drummer Bill Berry. This was a crucial, emotional time for the band. Still, its members remained like brothers. Berry, still recovering from a brain aneurysm, said that he would not quit unless the other three would continue on without him. After 17 years together, Stipe compared this to a three-legged dog learning to run again.

It's impossible to hear "Losing My Religion," "The One I Love" or "Everybody Hurts" with fresh ears. These songs are so much a part of our lives that they've been unfairly relegated to the land of boring, played-out FM schmaltz, instead of standing as strong, statement-making singles as they were intended. But it's not the singles that reverberate timelessly, instead, songs like “Fall On Me,” “Radio Free Europe” and the beautiful “Nightswimming” are the tracks that should answer the why. Like Neil Young and Pearl Jam, R.E.M. are rock Americana.