TALK ABOUT THEIR PASSION: R.E.M.

On September 21 the music world was stunned when R.E.M. – Michael
Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills – announced they were breaking up after over
three decades; the subsequent news of a 2CD career retrospective, R.E.M.,
Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, 1982 – 2011 (to be released this week
on Warner Bros.), was little consolation to longtime fans and fellow musicians for
whom the group’s trajectory had been, quite literally, the soundtrack of their
lives.

 

Herein,
then, find a selection of testimonials from the group’s peers and
contemporaries. As the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow, a latter-day auxiliary member,
no less, puts it so perfectly, “R.E.M. were the secret handshake
that became a global phenomenon – the freemasons of the obscure.” In the
current issue of BLURT (number 11; Wilco cover) you can find a selection of
some of these quotes, but what follow below are the full, unedited versions,
along with contributions from additional artists we didn’t have room for in the magazine.

 

Many thanks to everyone who
so graciously took time out from their busy schedules to weigh in: Chuck
Prophet, Don Dixon, Glen Mercer, Jason Isbell, Jeff Kelly, Jody Stephens, John
Doe, John Stirratt, John Wesley Harding, Marty Willson-Piper, Matt Piucci,
Parker Gispert, Patterson Hood, Dave Schools, Scott McCaughey, Sid Griffin,
Steve Wynn, Ken Stringfellow, Tim Lee.

 

***

 

SID GRIFFIN (Long Ryders, Coal Porters): Media
outlets are already, ho ho ho, saying
it is the end of the world as we know it but… well, I don’t feel fine.

 

DAVE SCHOOLS (Widespread Panic): The first time I
heard R.E.M. was a June night in 1983. I was at my high school graduation party
and a friend (who was attending UGA in Athens,
also my college destination that coming fall) took me aside and said, “You need
to hear these guys. They’re from Athens,
and they’re gonna be huge!” With that, he popped in Chronic Town.
I thought it sounded like jangly pop, but with a haunting and impressive voice
that made me want to hear it again. Four months later, R.E.M.’s music could be
heard echoing out of nearly every dorm on the UGA campus, and I was nearly run
over one night by Michael Stipe riding his bicycle on the sidewalk in front of
the 40 Watt.

        Some years
later, Peter Buck offered these words of advice to a young Widespread Panic: “Keep
your appointments,” he said. “Play every gig you can: bars, pizza joints, and
bowling alleys. Show up on time and play for anyone who is there.”

        25 years
later, it seems as though Peter was right.

       I’ve always
appreciated R.E.M.’s journeyman ability to work their way to the very top while
at the same time continuing to evolve artistically. They did it without all of
the smoke and mirrors required by so many of their contemporaries.

 

GLENN MERCER (The
Feelies):
I first heard them on record a short while after Chronic Town came out. Steve Fallon from
Maxwells recommended we listen to it while hanging out at the club one night. I
remember being drawn to the overall atmosphere, murky and mysterious, sounding
fresh but familiar at the same time. A few years later, I was at a party at
Steve’s apartment when Peter introduced himself and mentioned he was a fan of
[Feelies 1980 debut LP] Crazy Rhythms.
He then offered to help us out in the studio if and when the Feelies made
another record. We thought it made sense because he played guitar and
understood our aesthetic. [Buck co-produced 1986’s The Good Earth.)

        I have very
fond memories of the times we opened for them during the Pageant Tour. I also recall some great times hanging out at Peter’s
whenever we passed through Athens.
And all the times he came up to play guitar onstage with us. That whole era, in
the ‘80s, was a truly remarkable time for music.

 

JEFF KELLY (Green
Pajamas):
It was a misty autumn evening in the early ‘80s. I had KJET-AM on
the radio, heading east out of West Seattle
toward the Spokane Street
bridge. And there amongst the Bow Wow Wow and Duran Duran songs, something
caught my ear: it was dark and murky and mysterious and I could hear, what I
imagined might be, a 12-string Rickenbacker. And underneath all of that ran a
subtle, haunting melody. It was “Gardening At Night.” That was the
first time I heard R.E.M. and I thought, hmmm, that’s not bad… Little did I
know!

 

MATT PIUCCI (Rain Parade): I really admired those guys. They worked their asses off to
get where they did. I played with Pete Buck a few times, a really nice guy. I’d
say one of the reasons they stayed together for so long was that they split the
songwriting four ways, a very smart move. They saw an early Rain Parade show at
the On Club in L.A.,
right around the time I had a big crush on one of the Peterson sisters, and I
heard afterwards that Stipe said it was one of the best shows he’d ever
seen.

 

PATTERSON HOOD
(Drive-By Truckers):
R.E.M. has always been a class act. They have been one
of my favorite bands since I was a teenager. I actually bought Chronic Town before Murmur came out. Saw them a
dozen+ times including some of my all time favorite shows.

       Their early
albums were the first to actually make me proud to be southern. They reveled in
the weirdness of our region without resorting to rebel flag waving, foolish
pride or guitar pyrotechnics. Only later did I also realize that Peter Buck was
actually one of the most innovative and interesting guitar players of his time.

        They never
repeated themselves and treated their fans with intelligence. They ran their
business in a progressive and innovative way that influenced a generation of
bands, including the bands I have played in. In later years I have become
friends with a couple of them and consider that an honor. Their lesser albums
are interesting and daring and the better ones have stood the test of time as
some of the greatest of the entire Rock Era.

        I wish them
all the best and owe them a lifetime of thanks.

 

PARKER GISPERT (The
Whigs):
R.E.M. exists in a dream. The first show I saw at the original
Georgia Theatre was R.E.M, and the last was Tony
Clifton. It was 2001, my first night in Athens, and The Possibilities were
playing after “Movie Night.” Word on the street was that R.E.M might
perform.  I figured R.E.M was a long shot but was down to enjoy The
Possibilities regardless.  I checked the setlist taped to the stage. 
It had titles such as, “Imitation of Life” and “Man on the Moon.”
Maybe they were playing after all? Before I knew it, I was leaning on the stage
watching Athens’
namesake rock band slingshot me into an alternate reality.  It was the
only time I saw R.E.M.  Love that.  Years later, Tony Clifton rocked
the same Theatre.  A few months later it burnt. If I didn’t still have
that R.E.M setlist, I’d say the whole thing never happened.

 

TIM LEE (Tim Lee 3,
Windbreakers):
I heard R.E.M. early on when I picked up their Hibtone 45 at
Wax n’ Facts in Atlanta
along with several other independent releases. It immediately stood out from
the batch and got played a lot around our house. Then I heard some mixes for Chronic Town when the Windbreakers were
recording at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In a little later. Like a lot of folks who
heard them back then, I really dug their whole sound and approach. It was very
much of a time and place, yet timeless by the same token. Then the first time I
saw them was in a small club in New
Orleans on the Chronic Town tour. They were like a force of
nature, such an amazing energy and charisma, each as individuals and together
as a band. It was pretty undeniable.

        To me, one of the important things
to remember about R.E.M. is that they worked very hard early on to build a
following. As a consequence, they helped blaze a trail that others followed,
especially in the Southeast. That they famously played ‘every pizza joint that
had New Wave Night on Tuesday’ was an important component in the development of
an original music club circuit. Additionally, they always did things their way,
for better or worse. They also were conscious of their ability to direct
attention to other bands they respected, and they did so regularly. It’s cool
that they continued this practice even after they became pretty famous, a
condition that never seemed to diminish their accessibility or hospitality.
They always just seemed like good guys who liked music and art.

 

MARTY WILLSON-PIPER
(The Church):
I remember the early, shadowy, mumbling, hidden R.E.M. that
lasted till “Losing My Religion” rather fondly. After that mega hit they seemed
to struggle, trying to keep one foot in the 40 Watt club while the other was in
the stadiums. Not to say they didn’t have some memorable singles and memorable
songs but success is a shallow friend and has a nasty habit of grabbing hold of
your steering wheel. I also think losing Bill Berry was a blow.

        For Michael
Stipe it must have been tough going from aloof Athens reticent serious arty fellow to
pin-up. The uncomfortable position of “voice of a generation” perhaps didn’t
allow him to get on with the serious business of what he was best at without
being under the microscope – never a good situation trying to be creative with
someone breathing down your neck. Hard to maintain the idealism of the no
pressure years.

        Still, the
critics seemed to have been extremely generous to them throughout their tenure
in the spotlight. I’m sure Peter Buck will continue to be plugged into music
and have many different adventures. I think them breaking up is an exciting
prospect for the individuals’ creative future. I’m very much looking forward to
Michael Stipe’s coming years as an artist in his own right.

 

JOHN STIRRATT
(Wilco):
What I love most about R.E.M. is that they were the conduit in a
pre-Google world to other cool bands, artists and writers, always selflessly
spreading the word. I, like lots of others, heard Wire, Big Star, Television,
etc. probably years before I would have because of them. I would argue that in
the Reagan ‘80s, they were the most visible purveyors of a “bohemian” lifestyle
to the more mainstream American college-aged youth.

 

JOHN DOE (X): I
never really saw R.E.M. live because we were on very different musical paths.
There weren’t festivals back then like there are now where you have an eclectic
mix of bands. At first it was: I don’t get it. What’s so great about all this?
Then I realized there was this mysterious moodiness that would appeal to a
college crowd. I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done. Michael is an
awesome guy. We’ve hung out a few times. He and Exene have a lot in common,
even though you wouldn’t think they do. They’re both very reticent public
personalities. But they’ve figured out a way to overcome that.  But the idea of retiring? I hope to follow in
the footsteps of Little Richard or Ray Charles or Wanda Jackson: to play as
long as I can. And I’m sure that they will, in different forms.

 

JASON ISBELL: When
I was a kid, “Losing My Religion” confused the hell out of me. It
wasn’t the southern colloquialism title (I grew up in a small Alabama
town not so different from Athens,
GA) or the strange-looking people
and images in the video. R.E.M. had found some real success and started
dressing like rock stars by then, so they didn’t look very different from
everybody else on MTV. The song itself just didn’t seem like it should’ve been
a hit. It was too long. There were mandolins. There was no chorus, for Christ
sakes!  It was probably the first time I
realized you could have a hit that didn’t sound like anything else on the
radio. Probably one of the last times, too, but that’s neither here nor there.

        I loved the
music R.E.M. made. They were one of a handful of America’s greatest bands. My favorite
related memory comes from a long-ago ‘80s Karaoke night at the Go Bar in Athens. I was drunk
enough to sing “We Belong to the Night,” by Pat Benatar, and when the
insanely high harmony parts came in on the chorus, I heard an angelic voice
behind me nailing every note. I turned around and it was Mike Mills. Wouldn’t
have picked him for a Benatar guy.

 

JOHN WESLEY HARDING: R.E.M.
blazed a career path that was totally unknown before them, have been a great
example and inspiration for countless bands (and humans) since, and, perhaps,
ultimately found life made unmanageable by their own admirable principles. I
felt myself sad but not surprised when I heard the news of their break-up.
R.E.M. at the Hammersmith Apollo on the Green tour was one of the really exciting musical events of my life up until then.

        Peter Buck was
one of the first people I stayed with in the USA – his, and the band’s,
generosity has always been second-to-none. And then another of the players on The Sound Of His Own Voice [JWH’s latest
album], the producer Scott McCaughey, became an extra-ordinary member and that
made R.E.M. better than ever to me. I am not going to say that Around The Sun meant as much to me as,
say, Document, but I will say that
every album made sense to me in the R.E.M. continuum, and you can’t say that
about many bands that have been around 30 years.

        R.E.M. is
dead: long live R.E.M.!

 

KEN STRINGFELLOW
(Posies, R.E.M., The DiSCiPLiNES):
It’s been well documented (on my blog,
on Norwegian TV, etc) that R.E.M. was the band that brought me into the
contemporary music of the ‘80s; they had the momentum and distribution to get
into my small hometown, which ‘til then had been more or less a land of classic
rock. But, lo and behold, I heard “Radio Free Europe” on a rock radio
station, and flipped. It wasn’t back announced either. The 1-4-5 chord
progression of the verse was somewhat old school, I thought maybe it was Dave
Edmunds… but that soaring chorus was not of the earth that I knew-comparing
that to the  “Highway to Hell” environment around me was like
being a caveman seeing an SR-71 slice the sky overhead.

        Then I read an
article about a hot new band, R.E.M. in Rolling
Stone
and thought, this has to be the
band I heard on the radio
. I searched all the record stores in Bellingham, and found a
copy of Murmur on cassette, the only
one in the county. Everything else – SST Records, the British new wave bands – took
another few months to penetrate our neck of the backwoods. So, R.E.M. was an
important friend indeed. Perhaps that’s their legacy: as the highest achieving
band of both the ‘80s college rock years and the ‘90s alterna-years, they have
surely been a doorway to gently and deftly lead many a listener from the
mainstream to the murkier waters below. The secret handshake that became a
global phenomenon-the freemasons of the obscure.

        Fifteen years
later I would actually embark on a decade of performing live and in studio the
band, and found the band I admired so much as a teenager were absolutely who I
thought they would be in person – no disappointments there. They will be
missed, but I am sure for every person reading this there’s a brilliant R.E.M.
album that they have yet to hear, good discoveries await.

 

JODY STEPHENS (Big
Star):
R.E.M. were the kind of band that felt like friends even if you
didn’t know them personally. From start to finish there was always a message in
Michael’s voice (even when the lyrics were playful) and an affirmation in the
echo of Mike’s. What they had was uniquely theirs in songs, performance and
fetching melodies, both in vocals and in Peter’s guitar parts. Bill Berry was
the perfect drummer for this. They were the highlight of my SXSW 2009 with
Scott McCaughey adding guitar and Bill Rieflin on drums. I will miss R.E.M.

 

DON DIXON: i love
R.E.M. – i have from the start…my favorite stuff is on Chronic Town…but as much
as i love their take on rock music, i love their united front as a band with an
activist heart…they stood for things, put their money, fame & time into
things they collectively believed in…
        did they argue? did the Beatles
argue? did the Symbionese Liberation Army argue? does Congress argue? yes, they
probably argued but the point is, they presented a united front for 31
years…pretty amazing…
         while the demise of R.E.M. is
not a surprise to me it still is a bit like a family member that’s been in a
coma for a few years finally passing on…that sounds harsh in a way i don’t
intend it to…”bed-ridden” might be a better way of describing a band
that doesn’t tour…i understand not touring…under the best circumstances it’s a
difficult, mind-numbing grind…not the time on stage, that’s the joy, but
everything else…imagine going to your own wedding reception everyday for a year
(remember, you have to travel overnight to get to it) in a strange town
surround by people you don’t know but who all feel like they know you
intimately…it’s almost impossible to understand if you’ve never lived it…
        i’m not sure that Michael wants
to continue with music but if he does it will certainly be something
esoteric…eccentric like the man…i expect Mike Mills to come out blazing with
a rock band & Peter to continue with his rotating groups containing Scott
McCaughey & Steve Wynn…whatever they do, i’ll be listening…
 these young men had hits on their own
terms…they were the Number One Band in the world…they made the world better
place to live & changed peoples lives…could any band hope for a better
epitaph?

 

SCOTT MCCAUGHEY
(Minus 5, Baseball Project, R.E.M.):
My friend Marty Perez played Chronic Town for me when we were working at Cellophane Square Records in Seattle. It sounded mysterious and sort of
beatnik and not like anything else I really knew. Which attracted me of course.
Thirty or so years later I can’t describe what the band means to me, but if I
did, it’d be like describing the sound of Chronic
Town
… that is, pretty much impossible.

 

STEVE WYNN (Dream
Syndicate, Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, The Baseball Project):
I was
working as the indie music buyer for Rhino Records in Westwood back in 1981 and
had read about R.E.M. in New York Rocker.
Not long after that I was working behind the counter (Nels Cline manning the
day shift with me) when someone brought in the first single on consignment. I
took a chance and picked up 5 copies, most of which stuck around for a while
but eventually sold. I found out years later that the guy who brought in
the singles was actually Peter Buck who has since then been my touring
companion, bandmate and buddy. 
    Peter tells me that he came to a few
Dream Syndicate shows and was there one night at 3a.m. when we recorded a live
session for KPFK but I don’t remember actually meeting him until they played
the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco when I was there recording the Medicine Show in 1983. We stayed up
until well past dawn, geeking out on music and bands and books and life in
general. 
    I loved the first single. I loved the
first EP. I heard Murmur the first
time driving after midnight through Nebraska
and that’s the image that stays in my mind every time I hear that record. But
it wasn’t until we opened an eight-week tour for them in 1984 that I realized
that the keys to their success (creatively and professionally) was their
determination, their consistency, their lack of fear, their ability to play a
great and very different show every night and their focus to the things they
loved and cared about to the exclusion of any kind of outwardly applied
“common sense.” I watched every show on that tour and loved every one
of them.
        Here’s the deal: when every other
band in the ’80s fell prey at some point to missteps, bad production (ah, the
‘80s), bad decisions, it seemed that R.E.M. never faltered and hit their mark
on every record. I had that same Murmur feeling when I heard Out of Time and
again when I heard Automatic for the
People
and even when I heard Monster (a criminally underrated record). But here’s the capper: they just got better
and better as a live act. I saw the band quite a few times in recent years
(partially due to becoming bandmates with Peter, Mike and Scott in the Baseball
Project) and I swear those shows were better than even the best shows back in
1984. 
        I guess that’s why I kinda wish
they could have found a way to stay together. There just aren’t that many great
arena bands anymore. But, then again, my band only lasted 7 years. The Beatles
only lasted 7 years (I’m not drawing comparisons). If you’ve ever been in a
band, you know how hard it is to keep a band together through a dozen gigs let
alone 31 years. They made incredible music, they established the notion of
achieving success on your own terms, working both inside and outside of the
system at the same time. They influenced bands who don’t even know they were
influenced by them. I look at this all from the perspective of a friend and
bandmate but, at the same time, I remain a fan. I think I’ll put on one of
their records right now

 

CHUCK PROPHET (Green
On Red, solo):
First time I met R.E.M. was at the Keystone in Berkeley. My high school
band was opening for them. There were about 75 people there, but there was what
people call a buzz in the air.  My band
played a set that included a cover of the MC5’s “High School.” After the set,
Peter Buck walked up and said, “Hey man, cool set. Great MC5
cover…” And that’s how it was. 

        They were
unique. Stipe had that – voice. It had a vulnerability to it, I suppose.  Like he understood your pain. Let’s Active
were there as well that night. They didn’t play as they’d gotten their wires
crossed – something that happened a lot back in those days. The Let’s Active
dudes were wearing eyeliner, I think. Some things you R.E.M.ember.

        Of course,
R.E.M. got huge and all that. My band Green On Red played a festival in Leeds, England
with them a couple years later. In one of the R.E.M. books, it says I passed
out and Pete filled in on guitar. Saved the day (or the night). I don’t know. I
suppose it’s possible. Some things you can’t R.E.M.ember.

        R.E.M. became
something like role models over the years for other bands. They continued to
grow by doing their thing and for the most part, they kept their same gang of
crazy-ass southern loons around them. And through thick and thicker, they
managed to keep themselves interested in all of it.  Making records, and getting the cover art
together, touring, videos, clothes. (Lots of clothes.) They did their thing,
and they were always searching for new ways to do it.  Each record afforded them the luxury to camp
out in a different town. And they did – Seattle,
Memphis, San Francisco,
London, New
York (I think). And when they made the early records,
they were greasing around Winston-Salem,
NC. They put it on the map along
with Athens.

        I relate to
that – to the greasing around. I made my last record in Mexico City in the middle of what looked like
it might be the black plague. Then I went out and played anywhere anyone would
have me, and that included gigs in Eastern Europe – Serbia,
Croatia,
last winter. I’m somehow addicted to the adventure of it all. And I suppose
when that’s gone, what else is there? So maybe that’s it. Maybe the sense of
adventure is gone for them. Bill Berry grows sod for country clubs that would
never let him in. But he still goes fishing they tell me. And hopefully when
there’s that reunion tour down the road, Bill will find it in his heart to put
down that fishing pole and tread the boards again. That would be cool.

        Yep, they
called it quits. And I don’t really know why. Maybe they got tired of turning
themselves inside out and shaking themselves up. I went out to see the Baseball
Project a couple months ago. They were playing for like a 100 people at a bar
in L.A. I went
right up and chatted with Pete like no time had passed. He held forth about the
importance of merch, and how, if you play two sets, you can sell more merch in
between. Cut the opening band out of the equation. I went away thinking that
Pete was a cool dude. And that I should maybe try the 2 set thing. (We’re doing
it this weekend.)

        Sometimes just
trying to make it all work is enough in and of itself. And the art is making it
happen. Anyway, why get hung up on weird unrealistic expectations? That stuff
is guaranteed to take the joy out of anything for anyone.

        They say it’s
hard to make a relevant dangerous rock and roll record these days. And I took
R.E.M. breaking up harder than I thought I would.  And that it’s all increasingly irrelevant,
but I’m not sure. I do know this: If you’re having fun, and you can wake up in
the AM and be interested in what you’re doing, if you can make any money doing
what you love, and if you’re lucky enough to have someone to share it with, you
got it made.

        People think
all musicians want to get big or whatever. Get to that “next level.”
And that it drives them, and ultimately it takes its toll on people and they
cave. They just fall apart. Become unhinged. I’m not so sure about that.

        I think our
biggest fear is that someone might tell us we have to stop. Writing songs.
Making records. Playing gigs. Driving around in a van with your friends. I
guess my biggest fear is that I won’t have those songs to kick around. And
R.E.M. throwing in the towel made me think about myself. And I got uneasy.

        I’ve admitted
easily – that my greatest fear is that I’ll have to stop. I don’t want to stop.
Is there something wrong with me? Probably not, I’m hoping. If the speed of
light has been challenged, maybe there’s room in the universe for me.

        God, please
let us keep fucking around.  We never
know who to thank, do we? And Otis had been loving you too long to stop now.

 

 

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