America’s Rock Band

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

How I exulted, the first 93 times I heard it, in the chorus of Patti Smith’s “Rock n Roll Nigger.” “Outside in society / They’re waiting for me / Outside in society / That’s where I wanna be!” How my every particle rallied behind these lines, behind Patti’s heaving voice, how shivered I was by her lungfuls of punk-rock pressure! And then how disappointed, years later, when somebody (the Internet?) told me that what she was singing was not “outside in society” but “outside of society.” You see the difference, of course. Patti’s lines are mere rejectionism, more of the great romantic fraud: “outside of society” is where you go to eat a peyote-flavored hot dog with Arthur Rimbaud or whoever. But my lines … To break the spell of self and plunge into the processes of life, the roiling human designs—to get out there, into society: the idea is intoxicating!

I remembered this bout of confusion when I read, in September, that the members of R.E.M. had announced their retirement after 31 years in the biz. Not only is R.E.M. front man/wordsmith Michael Stipe a profound Patti-head—he once described his encounter with her 1975 album, Horses, as “an epiphanal discovery”—but his band was American rock’s champion of the misheard word, the lyric privately interpreted, the listener’s right to choose. When challenged in the early days about his sleepy, susurrant diction and bric-a-brac phraseology, or about the lack of a lyric sheet inside R.E.M.’s records, Stipe would sometimes refer questioners to Walker Percy’s essay “Metaphor as Mistake”—an exploration of the ways whereby (as Percy writes) “misnamings, misunderstandings, or misrememberings” can lead to “an authentic poetic experience … an experience, moreover, which was notably absent before the mistake was made.”

Video: James Parker traces R.E.M.’s evolution from art-school experimentation through high-budget stardom

R.E.M. formed in Athens, Georgia, at the onset of the ’80s—a decade not especially congenial to ambiguity and willed vagueness. The underside of American youth culture was jacked up on shouty hard core (Minor Threat, the Dead Kennedys) while the surface boomed and blanged with nouveau British pop (the Thompson Twins). “Too much, too often these days is simply handed to an audience,” complained Stipe around the release of R.E.M.’s 1982 EP, Chronic Town. “MTV is a good example … There’s no room for imagination, no room for improvisation, for interpretation. Everything’s rehearsed … People need to think for themselves again.” So this was the R.E.M. brand: artfully blurred, contra the ’80s, inhabiting (and then expanding) the sliver of imaginal space between Duran Duran and Black Flag, between “Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand!” and “I wanna live! / I wish I was dead!”

Not that there was anything insubstantial about R.E.M.’s music. The Athens sound, as variously practiced by contemporaries like the B-52s and Pylon, was a nervy, paradoxical bounce—a rhythm section playing post-punk ping-pong while lyrical and barely electrified guitar lines came looping right out of southern dream time. The B-52s turned it into party music, Pylon into a mystery stomp. R.E.M. rocked it up and rootsified it: Stipe’s uncanny almost-utterances, growled or crooned, and the Rickenbacker slalomings of guitarist Peter Buck were held together by the straight-ahead, alliterative, and discreetly shit-kicking combination of Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry (drums). They performed, as a unit, like a bar band in a trance. Stipe would jig, fret, wobble, gurn, and collapse in fits of inverted charisma, and from song to song the phrases would peal out with strange penetration: “It’s 9 o’clock, don’t try to turn it off” … “There’s a splinter in your eye and it reads REACT … “Goddamn your confusion” … Round and round went the vocal harmonies, two-part, sometimes three-part, incantatory and deeply encrypted, Mills’s boyish tenor in lucid counterpoint to the yelps and rummagings of his lead singer.

Too good to ignore, by 1983 R.E.M. was opening for the Police in front of 70,000 people, and appearing on Late Night With David Letterman. That year’s Murmur, the band’s first full-length album, is a sequence of compressed reveries, produced with a sort of diving-bell resonance by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. Reckoning (1984) is louder and tougher, still the work of a beat group with a hole in its head. And Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) is the left turn into folk memory, storytelling, outsider art, an addled Stipe making more sense than ever as he finds his words in the mouth of the village idiot: “My pockets are out and running about / Barking in the street to tell what I have hidden there.” They were almost rock stars now, but a radical diffidence remained. “I had problems with the vocals,” reported Fables producer Joe Boyd. “Michael Stipe wanted them quieter than I did. It was a strange experience—everyone in the group wanted themselves turned down.”

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.