So here we are.
It’s been almost a week since R.E.M. announced their breakup. While I am not necessarily sad about this (I am a fan, but I am also resigned to the fact that all things must end), it does give me pause. Not just because I was lucky enough to work with them back in 1998, in the “Furry Happy Monsters” insert for Sesame Street, but mostly because it reminds me how much time has passed. It can’t be 31 years since “Radio Free Europe,” and yet it absolutely is. Things change after 31 years. The guys who practically invented college alt-rock are now being played on adult contemporary channels, along with other former bad-asses like Sting and Bowie. How can this not give one pause?
The bigger disappointment, however, comes courtesy of that bastard otherwise known as the Internet. Smart-assery has rained down on the band since the announcement, but then, there is never a dry spell online. (Careful not to step in that puddle of sarcastic hashtags.)
Democracy and Internet anonymity have spoiled us a bit into believing that our personal preferences are automatically fact. And it’s apparently quite boring to just type things like “I’m not a fan” or “I didn’t like that.” So it is thusly that the virtual air is thick with every feasible spelling of the word “sucks” and unpunctuated lower-case rants of unprovoked hatred. This doesn’t just happen to R.E.M. This happens to anyone who puts out a press release (real or tweeted). Or anyone online, period.
I don’t understand unprovoked hatred. I highly doubt that anyone in R.E.M. killed your dog. Or took the kidney that was rightfully yours. I doubt that the gay couple who wants to get married broke into your house and stole your grandmother’s diamond watch. I doubt that union workers spilled wine on your white pants. Or that overweight people punched you in the face.
But enough of that.
I’ll be the first to admit that some of R.E.M.’s music thrilled me, and that some of it didn't. But back in the days when a long trip was accompanied by a Walkman or Discman and a carefully selected cache of tapes or CDs, I could always count on “Automatic for the People” being in my carryon. (Go on, Internet. Judge away...)
I’m glad to have met them, even sans Bill Berry. I’m glad to say that they were great and kind, and incredibly accepting of some no-name puppeteer singing with them in a pre-record session. I’m glad that they came to their breakup decision without ridiculous drama. I’m gladder that they put out “Accelerate” before they did so. (Ready for your worst, Internet...)
Some of the greatest jazz and blues musicians play until their last breath, and their music grows more rich and deep and glorious with every year. But rock is not like jazz, and now we’re reaching this odd time in history where rock stars die of natural causes instead of overdoses. The rules of rock are tricky, because its very nature deems that there are no rules. Can you still be rebellious and anti-establishment when your millions in royalties land you squarely into the establishment? Does rock mature gracefully? Should it? (See 1987: “Touch of Grey;” Dead, Grateful.)
But the guys in R.E.M. aren’t really that old at all, and it’s not like any of them are going to stop making music entirely... or, alternatively, go off and form Wings. So we can be grateful for that.
Sigh. I have no good ending to this post. Sometimes things just end.
Yes indeed. Welcome to me.