As everybody probably knows already, R.E.M. has announced that they are breaking up. I never was hugely into the band, but as I thought about it upon hearing the news, I found that their music has been more present in my life than I realized. So in tribute, I'm sharing some of the moments to which R.E.M. provided the soundtrack.
One of my earliest musical memories, not just of the band but in general, is hearing "Losing My Religion." Like about 4 million other people, my dad bought Out of Time and I'm sure that song had something to do with it. There aren't a lot of songs I remember liking before the age of 12 or so, but this was definitely one of them. I think it was largely due to Michael Stipe and his vocal delivery, which was so distinctive and interesting that "Losing My Religion" became one of the first songs I ever knew all the words too, without much effort (and even if it took me years to ever think about what they meant). It was just the pure sound created by his acrobatic tone and the melody, the halting nature of it and the repetition. He has one of the most unique voices in rock and roll. Also, the steady drum beat and the strange-yet-captivating nature of the mandolin were probably significant too.
They say R.E.M. was the ultimate college rock band, that they essentially created the genre. Fitting then, that they have become permanently entwined with my early days of college. As I arrived and got to know my randomly assigned roommate, I of course was quick to check out his taste in music. Perhaps because his parents were Christian missionaries, his collection was filled with bands like Jars of Clay and Switchfoot, and the more subtle Collective Soul and Live. But for whatever reason his all-time favorite band was R.E.M. Because it was on our kicking soundsystem so often (we had a stereo instead of a television), if I were to make a film of my life about college, the introduction of the move-in and early days would have to be soundtracked by "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" That awesome guitar riff makes it so perfect for beginnings. I may have gotten a little sick of it eventually that year, but now whenever I hear those chords, I am taken back to the Fall of 2003.
That year, I ended up hearing a lot of R.E.M. but not often did I pay complete attention to it. Since it was so ubiquitous, it was easy to tune out, when I wasn't listening to my own music on headphones. However, one day, my roommate was playing New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and a song came on that just knocked me out. "I never thought of this as funny," Michael Stipe sang over a guitar riff I fell in love with instantly. "What is this called?" I had to know. "Be Mine," said my roommate, "It's a good one." We spent the next five minutes in transfixed silence. It was a cool moment, just listening together to song that had an impact on both of us. Not that I am very knowledgeable of their catalog, but I believe this to be quite an underrated R.E.M. song. I dig it. So, so good.
Some other songs I really enjoy by the band are "Man on the Moon," "The Great Beyond," and "Daysleeper." "Everybody Hurts" is a classic and I always get a kick out of the scene in The Office where Dwight blasts it out of his car, upset that Michael seems to be more friendly with Ryan the temp ("The Fire" I think the episode is called. Season 2 for sure). In grad school, our planning program had Happy Hour nights every Thursday, and we always ended the evening at this dive bar that had kareoake. There were plenty of memorable performances over the years, but I'll never forget a classmate of mine doing "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," and totally nailing it. R.E.M. also made some great music videos. "Imitation of Life" is perhaps my favorite. It's so just detailed and inventive.
That last thing I'll share has to be done at the end, as you will soon understand. As much as "Be Mine" slays me, this is probably my favorite R.E.M. song coming up. What's so cool is how it surfaced in two completely different contexts, yet within the same spirit and purpose. One of my main social circles in college was the radio station where I did a show. This was something I loved doing and I met a bunch of great people doing it. Every now and then, someone would guest on my show, or I'd visit theirs. It became a tradition for me to visit these two guys on their show towards the end of each semester, and there were certain rituals that came with it, such as re-enacting the "Praise You" music video in the studio while the song played. One time I was there on the very last show of the semester, where I found that it was also tradition for them to play "Nightswimming" as their very last song. It struck me.
Then, later on when I had a car, I often gave a group of people from my hometown rides each holiday. DJ duties would rotate to whoever rode shotgun. The results were mixed at best, to my ears at least, but one guy – who couldn't have been more different than the radio station guy and as far as I know never crossed paths with him – always played "Nightswimming" as the ride ended and we reached home. So, this beautiful song came to be the soundtrack to endings. I'll always have a fondness for the tune, because it now evokes not only those people and times, but a variety of memories from moments that have passed. I can't think of a better way to say goodbye to R.E.M. and the end of their illustrious career.
If you have any moments you associate with R.E.M. songs, want to share your favorites, recommend what albums I should check out, or anything else, leave a comment below!