Tuesday, April 10, 2007

R.E.M. reappraisal time

I've fallen in love again with R.E.M. and I feel fine. It started with their Rock And Hall Of Fame induction. Stipe was insufferable as usual and I felt the same loathing I'd had for them ever since Green came out. Then they walked over to play a few songs. I was about to change the channel and then they launched into "Gardening At Night" and the powerful effect of music and memory rang through my happy ears and heart. All was forgiven. I let go of the hate. So what if Mike Mills had morphed into a Nudie suit wearing Sammy Hagar hairdo goofball. So what if Pete Buck liked to attack stewardesses. So what if Bill Berry had long retired from the band. So what if Stipe was a politicized whiner...well I don't know if I can ever get around his ideological mis-steps, but ultimately it should be about the music. And I've found a place to dwell where I can forget about the bad and concentrate on the good.

The best R.E.M. music evokes a yearning and wistful mood that always sent me into a bohemian wannabe reverie. Chronic Town, Murmur, & Reckoning were often the soundtrack of a late afternoon; Kerouac novel in my lap or a notebook where I'd scrawl some sophomoric poetry tripe beside me. R.E.M.'s music was often the mellow respite from my constant diet of heavy metal and punk rock; a co-existense that may have seemed like a dichotomy to my friends, but it made perfect sense to me. R.E.M. were the standard bearers of the entire alternative music universe. Their relentless early club tours helped pave the way for countless indie bands. When Peter Buck spoke about the Minutemen in interviews and then brought them out on the road for the Fables tour punk rock was elevated.

The other thing R.E.M. had going for them was they were Southern. I may not be a rebel flag waving redneck and I don't have the quintessential Southern accent, but I was born in Memphis and lived my whole life in the South so I do have quite a bit of regional pride. It felt good to see a Southern group making waves all across the world who weren't named after firearms or high school gym teachers. They didn't run from their Southerness or try to hide it. The kudzu draped cover of Murmur wasn't mysterious to me. All I had to do was drive down the road apiece to find a similar scene. Identification with their home was the same as saying we are one of you; fans and band alike had ownership in R.E.M. and their kudzu like growth into one of the biggest bands in the world.

Which is the point where I originally lost my love. It was their deal with Warner Brothers. It was like they had betrayed I.R.S. Records. It was that over produced slice of "Orange Crush" that hit the airwaves after Green dropped. It was going to skateboard over at Jeff's house and seeing little 13 year old kids wearing their R.E.M. concert t-shirts from their Murphy Center appearance the night before in Murfreesboro. The real deal breaker was Stipe's ascendancy to political warrior via his giddy assaultive slogan t-shirts Mtv Video Awards acceptance speeches. Where their music had often hinted at political ideologies through elliptical abstract lyrics, "Cuyahoga's" environmental message excepted, now it was all out in the open like a cankourous sore.

Musicians can have political opinions. They can base their music around them like The Clash and be great at it. But it's rare for politics and music to mix well. I'm looking for the universal made personal, not rallying cries. There wasn't wholesale politicizing of R.E.M.s music, but Stipe's contant podium thumping distracted and detracted from the band. Just like I didn't want Al and Tipper Gore involved with my music during the P.M.R.C. heyday; I don't need singers becoming politicians. So beyond the occassional track like "What's The Frequency, Kenneth" that I liked despite myself I didn't listen to much of R.E.M.s post Document output. Then, eventually, I couldn't even stand to listen to their ealy material. I had moved on. I had wised up.

So just call me dumb again. I don't think I'll ever embrace their post I.R.S. material, but I'm in love again with the early days. The joy I always felt is back and while I won't be dreaming of a future spent in bohemian languor anytime soon I might have to get out a blank notebook and fill it with gibberish. Or even better; just continue to fill this blog with it.

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