It’s The End of the World As We Know It

22 September 2011

Farewell R.E.M., perhaps the definitive indie pop band of the 1990s.

My generation had something akin to a “Beatles Break-up” moment this week when R.E.M., the band loved by black-nailpolish-wearing art school cool kids and drunken 2am torch song ballad singing Australians alike, announced that they were disbanding. You know you’re getting old(er) when the mighty cultural totems of your youth start to fall.

Even for diehard REM fans, the break up was no great surprise. Their last few albums have been unremarkable and sold relatively poorly, and the band itself appears to have been in an extended mid-life crisis for the best part of a decade, trying to recapture something of the massive success of their early 1990s albums Out of Time and Automatic for the People. In 1995, drummer Bill Berry left the group after suffering a brain aneurysm, and the band limped on like a three-legged dog afterwards, creating one good album (the ambient, Brian Eno-like Up), one ok album (Reveal) and a fair amount of unremarkable dross afterwards. Faced with increasing musical irrelevance and in danger of becoming their own tribute band (U2, take note), R.E.M. announced this week that it was time to fade to black. True to form as a band who were unofficial spokesmen for a generation of introspective poetry-reading pansexual narcissists, there was no acrimony, no Fleetwood Mac-esque tales of infighting, rampant cocaine abuse or 360 degree wife-swapping, and no court cases squabbling over rights to song royalties: it sounds as though they all sat down over a nice pot of herbal tea, counted out and divided up their millions between them, and decided to call it quits. Which is quite lovely, really, if not a little boring – much like the band themselves at times.

Among the eulogies and assessments of REM’s work that I read in the days that followed, Will Hodgkinson in The Times provided the most surprisingly accurate and eloquent observation about their enduring appeal:

As well as providing buskers the world over with an unofficial anthem in Losing My Religion, R.E.M. took the values and facets of underground music – integrity, a certain seriousness of purpose, unintelligible lyrics that may or may not be profound – and couched it in a style accessible to millions of people.

Never a truer word was spoken. R.E.M. come of age in the old fashioned way, playing at college gigs and getting most of their early coverage on student radio, before slowly finding success in the mainstream. With success came corruption, at least in the eyes of some of their earlier hardcore fans, unhappy that the band ditched their harder, more corrosive Velvet Underground inspired rock sound for a softer, more folk-inspired (and radio friendly) sound, featuring ballads with melancholy lovesick lyrics set to strumming mandolins and orchestral violins. In pop culture terms, the band always seemed to vacillate between the demands of pop stardom (big stadium tours, music videos, embracing fashionable celebrity causes) and the more obscure, lofty ambitions of being artists and voices of the counter-culture.

In spire of, or perhaps because of this struggle, we loved them for it all anyway. It’s with great sadness that I see them retire, not only because of the realisation that another part of my youth is gone forever, but for the realisation that R.E.M. provided much of the unofficial soundtrack of my life for the last 15 years. There seems to have been an R.E.M. song featured in each of the major moments of my life: leaving my white trash small town to the (somewhat obvious) strains of (Don’t Go Back to) Rockville; going to university amid the sombre orchestral strainings of Drive and Try Not To Breathe; tapping into some queer longing with Losing My Religion; falling in love to At My Most Beautiful; sitting in the dark crying over some stupid guy to Nightswimming and Everybody Hurts; wondering what the hell I was doing with my life as I accepted my first corporate job with It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine); leaving New Zealand to Man On the Moon; and more recently rediscovering Half A World Away and sending the lyrics to a friend. Without my noticing it, and despite not much interest in most of their musical output over the last decade, R.E.M.’s music has become part of the fabric of my life.

And then there was Michael. O, Michael. Michael Stipe, the blue-eyed, shaven-headed, oddly charismatic lead singer and lyricist, who looked like a schoolboy cross between a Buddhist monk and an alien, who wore cowboy hats adorably in homage to James Dean and Monty Cliff, and eyeshadow and nail polish in homage to the glam rockers and the Warhol factory crowd, who dropped cryptic clues about his bisexuality in press interviews, and who seemed to be the poster boy for every high school weirdo, wannabe poet and charity-store aesthete who ever wore a black velvet jacket to a late night movie screening or made art from their own toenail clippings. Michael was beautiful, weird, strangely fragile, quasi monastic, and strangely sexy. Along the way, he collated the usual round of rumours about his early AIDS death; a smattering of celebrity hangers-on (Patti Smith, Courtney Love); embraced a number of fashionable eco-friendly causes (rainforests, voter registration, gun control, Burma); co-produced the films Being John Malkovich and Velvet Goldmine; and refused to explain his opaque, tear-stained lyrics.

Most interestingly, Stipe was as queer as it was possible to be in the 1990s before “queer” became its own cultural movement and a subject of academic study. or make declarative statements about his sexuality, describing himself variously as an “equal opportunity lech” and as “a queer artist”. For a generation of sexually confused girly boys, Stipe was our Bowie, though unlike Bowie, Stipe’s sexuality wasn’t just a pose to sell an album, and there was no subsequent “straightening out” of his persona. It seems silly now to recall my breathless fascination with Stipe’s reptilian charms, in these days of much more strident visibility of gay sexuality, and the almost banal acceptance of bisexuality in youth culture. But for those of us who grw up in an environment of almost complete silence around sexual difference, Stipe was an inspiring, if somewhat mercurial figure, happy to be a touchstone for other deviants while managing to escape the full glare of life as a gay icon. He was one of my first crushes, and (leaving aside the fact that we’ve never met) one of my longest term relationships. Like all obsessed fans, I’m certain that we’d get on like a house on fire if we ever met.

And so, that’s that. R.E.M. has gone, and with it, another tolling bell sounds as a marker of the passage of time.

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