Tuesday, October 18, 2011

We All Go Back To Where We Belong

R.E.M. has released their final single as a band.  It's gorgeous & moving. 
A lush, horn-heavy arrangement that has Stipe's voice front & centre.  Perfection.
We All Go Back To Where We Belong.


Yes, it has taken me a month to cohesively put together my thoughts on R.E.M.'s breakup.  When the news broke, I had condolences pouring in from family, friends, & even a few high school acquaintances who remembered something about me. I loved R.E.M., and EVERYONE knew it.

Why this band resonated with me, I don't know.  I'm a good decade younger than the majority of hardcore R.E.M. fans - the ones who have followed them from college radio & van tours to #1 albums & stadiums.  I remember the first time I heard them - I was about 11, & the Chris Eliott sitcom "Get A Life" came on.  Stand was its theme song, & I thought it was a Beatles song for the longest time.

I know.  But you can see the appeal it had for an 11 year old.  After that, I heard Shiny Happy People, & thought R.E.M. was a band that made really, really happy songs that the Mini Pops or Alvin & The Chipmunks could cover really well.  But then I discovered the rest of Out of Time, & I fell in love.  In love with the music, in love with Stipe's voice...in love with Stipe himself.  Absolutely my biggest - & longest lasting - celebrity crush.

I had an R.E.M. scrapbook, filled with newspaper & magazine clippings.  It started as an English Media project, but I still have it in my closet upstairs.  I did one of my required Concert Critiques for Musical Repertoire class on an R.E.M. concert.  I convinced my English teacher (a fellow fan) to give me bonus points every time I could fit an R.E.M. reference into an assignment, as long as it made sense.  It always did. My brother had a portrait assignment in art class, & made this for me:

It hung first in my locker, then my bedroom, then my apartment, & now it's in the scrapbook, because my husband thinks it's creepy.  I have one clipping from a classmate's assessment of an essay:

So, yeah, the news of the break-up made me more than a little sad.  It was broken to me by someone I'd describe as my high school music nemesis (at the risk of sounding like Survivor's Coach!)...he hated R.E.M., & I hated The Tragically Hip (his favourite band), almost to comic exageration.  I admit, at first I thought his post on my facebook wall was a joke.  R.E.M. have been through so much in their 30+ years as a band: constant speculation over Michael Stipe's sexuality, a guitarist's meltdown on a plane, & of course, their drummer's shocking onstage brain aneurysm.  They had just released a wonderful album (Collapse Into Now) reminiscent of their earlier work...and now they decided to "call it a day"?

A quick search told me it was true, & I was immediately saddened that I will never go to another R.E.M. concert. Though their breakup makes the 4 concerts that I did attend in Toronto very special.

June 1995 - Molson Amphitheatre, with Luscious Jackson opening, with my friend Jen.  They were awful lawn seats - this was back in the day when you had to physically line up for wristbands on one day, then go line up on another day, only to have a random wristband number selected to be the start of the line.  That sucked.  My first REAL concert, only a few months after Bill Berry's near-fatal aneurysm & subsequent amazing recovery - the only time I would ever see that original lineup. Those 4 guys together - Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills & Michael Stipe were R.E.M.  Their album Monster had come out earlier that year, showcasing a new gritty, dirty guitar sound, & the video for What's The Frequency, Kenneth? revealed a newly bald Michael Stipe to match his eratic dancing. 

To this day I have a thing for bald guys.  Imagine my disappointment that my husband did not inherit his father's receding hairline.  I snuck my huge walkman recorder into the concert, where I recorded the whole show in a horrible quality I will always cherish.  Yes, it is marred in plenty of places by the guy behind us yelling "Orange Crush!" throughout the show (& no, they didn't play it), but it was a dangerous act of rebellion for 15 year old me. 

My next R.E.M. show was in support of UP, their first album as a trio.   My friends & I had better seats than the lawn seats in 1995, & I swear Michael Stipe made eye contact with me.  Magical.  Earlier that year, R.E.M. had done an interview at MuchMusic, so of course, I dragged my friend Craig & a then boyfriend downtown to be there for it.  I stood right next to Mike Mills, & when we were outside, Michael Stipe walked past me & smiled.  AT ME.  He was small, & in a lime green peacoat, & huge nerd glasses before nerd glasses were cool.  It still makes my heart flutter.  It was an amazing day.  I have a worn-out VHS somewhere of this interview & you can see me.  Right next to them.  Of course, you can also see my then-boyfriend, which explains why the video is still in my Mom's basement.

The next concert was my favourite.  May 2001, a free concert outdoors at Yonge & Dundas. I went with my future husband, who is not an R.E.M. fan.  At all.  We were about 10 rows back, Michael was lovely, funny, sweet, & still crazy sexy to me.  The band sounded great, I loved their new album, Reveal, & my future husband even admitted they were fantastic live.  Or he at least said "good".  The most memorable R.E.M. moment was when it started pouring, & Stipe started singing CCR's "Have You Ever Seen The Rain?"  My husband has noted that my love for Stipe's voice is odd, as I am a vocalist myself.  No, Stipe's voice is not the most technically sound, but truly, it is magical.  Here it is, the clip from that very concert:

The last R.E.M. concert I attended was in 2003, which was not memorable at all, unfortunately.  It was a huge venue, & even with seats considerably close, it couldn't compare to the outdoor show.  I was unable to attend the next few shows R.E.M. played in Toronto, which turned out to be their last shows here.

It's a weird thing when a favourite band breaks up.  Another favourite band, Dream Theater, saw the departure of their drummer last year - a founding member & huge force within the band.  It was shocking, & there's a feeling of nervousness & anticipation to see what the next move will be.  At least, it was like that for me, but I've been said to take my music very seriously.   The R.E.M. break up wasn't quite that unexpected - they have been a band for 31 years, practically an eternity in the music business.  But they have been the soundtrack from my adolescence to adulthood.  Almost every R.E.M. song has a memory attached to it.  And that's why it's sad to say goodbye to R.E.M.

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