Entertainment January/February 2012

America’s Rock Band

How R.E.M.’s almost-utterances allowed listeners to find their own meaning

Then: the pivot. “Let’s begin again,” rumbled Stipe, commandingly, on the opener to 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, while distorted major chords rippled out across future stadiums. Some kind of awakening had occurred. Different kind of yoga? Positive thinking? Or simply a yielding to their own potential? Regardless, from here on, the R.E.M. story is all rise-to-power stuff—the voyage into commonality, the encounter with the crowd. Pageant was the first R.E.M. album to feature the band on the cover. Admittedly it wasn’t the whole band. In fact it was just the drummer’s eyebrows. But still. The bandmates started making MTV-friendly videos and eventually including lyric sheets in albums—they became visible. The oppositional interior act, resisting the siege of obviousness, was now political: “We’re pigs!” bellowed Peter Buck, drinking fiercely through an interview a few days before the 1988 election of George H. W. Bush. “Americans are pigs! You can quote me on that.” Stipe took out a full-page newspaper ad: STIPE SAYS / DON’T GET BUSHWHACKED / GET OUT AND VOTE / VOTE SMART / DUKAKIS. Throughout the Bush years, causes were espoused and statements made. At the 1991 Video Music Awards, Stipe wore layered T-shirts, disrobing in a sequence of activist catchphrases: Rainforest, Handgun Control, Alternative Energy Now.

That was also the year of Nirvana’s Nevermind. There was a certain serendipity, in September, in the fact that R.E.M. announced its split the same week as that album’s 20th anniversary, commemorative CDs raining down. Because Kurt Cobain, for all his furies, was one of R.E.M.’s children: a deep and dreamy boy in a holey cardigan, mainstream-intolerant, stewing with allergens. His lyrics tended toward the elliptical and Stipean, scraps and found phrases, and his voice in its lower ranges echoed Stipe’s cello-like groan. In the days before Cobain’s 1994 suicide, the two men had been planning to work together, Stipe inviting Cobain to Athens, as he said, “so he wouldn’t hurt himself or kill himself.” R.E.M.’s grunge-era album, Automatic for the People, released a couple years earlier, was a saturnine masterpiece of death songs and sawing violas.

In 1995, touring the pastiche-y Monster—camp punk rock, saucy glitterball soul, and a single (“Bang and Blame”) that channeled long-gone Athens obscurantists Limbo District—Bill Berry suffered an aneurysm onstage. He quit the band two years later, leaving R.E.M. in an essential way unmoored, weightless and rapturous in its greatest moments, lost and self-repeating in its least. As a trio, R.E.M. remained globally huge, the unofficial coronation as America’s Rock Band coming in 1999, when Stipe, Buck, and Mills appeared on Sesame Street to perform a Muppefied version of “Shiny Happy People” called “Furry Happy Monsters.” The three musicians bobbed and grinned in a sea of shaggy, bipolar monsters, a hair-trigger Muppet mob that blew collectively from wild good cheer to head-clutching despair and back again. Stipe, for once, looked completely at home.

“Blue,” the final track on the now-final album, 2011’s Collapse Into Now, is appropriately good/bad. Beginning as a near-rewrite of 1991’s “Country Feedback,” with gropings of bummed-out guitar, the song then floats into its own zone of rather splendid weirdness. Patti Smith herself makes an appearance (“Cinderella boy,” she buzzes gravely, “you’ve lost your shoe”), while Stipe mutters into the ambient din like Neal Cassady sleeptalking: “I don’t mark my time with dates, holidays, faded wisdom, locked karma holders … I want Whitman proud / Patti Lee proud.” I think he means Patti Lee Smith. And there they go into history—Americans, possessed by suggestion, still dreaming.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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