R.E.M., Rest in Peace

Yesterday, R.E.M. announced that they have called it quits after three decades together. Having lived in Athens and seen them live on several occasions, I’d like to share some thoughts on a career that maybe outlived its legend.

Back in December 1990, Drivin and Cryin’s Kevin Kinney was doing a show with Robyn Hitchcock at the old 40 Watt on West Clayton Street. I called my sister and bro-law and told them they might want to come down from NC, as conditions were ripe for an REM show.

The old 40 Watt was the size of a shoebox, and because it was Christmas break, there couldn’t have been more than about fifty people there. As expected, out walked REM.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that R.E.M. was only about 10 years past their stellar debut “Murmur,” still one of the great indie rock albums of all time. They were hot, having signed with Warner Brothers for something like $50 Million, released their terrific WB debut “Green,” and now looking like they would challenge U2 for the title of Biggest Rock Band in the World.

And here they were on the tiny stage at the dingy 40 Watt! The room was ecstatic.

Stipe informed us that we were to hear the first single off the new album, and they launched into “Losing My Religion,” which was the first time it was ever performed live. Not a bad Athens moment to be a part of! See the set list here.

That next year “Out of Time” was everywhere you went, every club, every party, every restaurant, everywhere. (Athens loves a winner.) Even my painting teacher Mr. Bill — a cross between a Southern Gentleman and The Mad Hatter — was walking around singing “LowLowLow.”

That summer, Stipe came into the Taco Stand as I was rocking the register and ordered a grilled chicken quesadilla with hot sauce (recipe available upon request). I told him how much I loved the new record and he said, simply, “Thank You.” To their credit, the R.E.M. guys never seemed to get comfortable with the rock star identity, even though they had the #1 record on the Billboard charts. They were always hanging at The Globe or the Uptown Lounge or just wandering around. To see them you would never suspect that they were worth millions. They looked like they still shopped at The Potter’s House.

Critics gave “Out of Time” some middling reviews (my buddy Rob rewrote “Shiny Happy People” as “Slappy Happy People trading blows”) but it was the sound of the moment. It still stands as one of their finest records, perhaps their peak.

In Jan 1992, I caught R.E.M. again at the new 40 Watt Club on Washington St. They did 8 songs, including an excruciatingly tense version of “Country Feedback,” and a cover of The Troggs “I Can Only Give You Everything” (See the setlist). And again that November at the 40 Watt for a Greenpeace Benefit show! (That was the deal: if there was a benefit show, you could almost guarantee R.E.M. would play.) Hog Heaven, ya’ll! It was a very good year.

For a long time, R.E.M. said they would play their last show on New Year’s Eve of 1999, and then break up. Looking back, I’m wondering if R.E.M. shouldn’t have kept that promise, as everything after “Automatic for the People” felt like they were moving uphill, losing steam. After the so-so “Monster” (caught the tour at the OMNI) and Bill Berry’s 1995 aneurysm, they croaked out “New Adventures in HiFi,” before Berry left the band. They soldiered on until yesterday, but never seemed to recover from the loss of Berry (he contributed greatly to their songs and is credited with writing their two biggest hits, “Man on the Moon” and “Everybody Hurts”).

However you think their career ended (up, down, in between) there is one thing that is indisputable: R.E.M. was the genesis of alt rock, to their eternal credit.

UDATE 9/28: For another — perhaps more charitable and certainly more articulate — view of their later career, see this excellent post over at The Atlantic, titled simply “America’s Greatest Band.”