Nightswimming still has the unique power to make me cry - sometimes. Nightswimming can make me happier than any song ever - sometimes. Nightswimming always makes me swoon with nostalgia, even the first time I ever heard it. Nightswimming is a different song every time that I hear it, and touches places inside me that nothing else does.
I always loved REM, but when I saw Tour Film on VHS at my friend Chris Gober’s house – he projected it on his living room wall and hooked up speakers to the TV, cranked them up to 10 and let it rip - it blew me away. Many of these songs immediately became my favorites due to the film. If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s as good a concert film as has been produced. And the black and white cinematography is simply stunning.
REM were the closest thing Americans ever had to The Smiths. We are not likely to hear their kind again. This is a BIG statement, but think about it – if REM had split in 1997 this statement would be much easier to agree with.
John Paul Jones wrote and conducted the symphony on Automatic For The People. This unlikely collaboration created some of the most heart-wrenching music ever recorded.
For a long time in the late 80’s and early 90’s I thought Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant were a couple. This was not an uncommon belief amongst my friends and I. Oh, how naive we were back then.
I always loved how they put “Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe” in the credits to their music. It seemed like such a unified group, a four-legged table like U2 or The Smiths or The Stone Roses. This was proven astoundingly accurate during the last 14 years of their career.
It was the first warm day of spring of my Sophomore year. That first day of sun is like heaven after long cold winters in Michigan, when everything suddenly comes back to life. I was at my friend Rod Huyett’s house in Mt. Pleasant, MI. We set up two amps outside, plugged in a Rickenbacker for him and a Les Paul Special for me, and I learned my first ever chords to What’s The Frequency Kenneth? To this day that widescreen, fuzzy, skuzzy opening riff always makes me feel warmth and rejuvenation and optimism and absolute like the first day of spring.
SIDE NOTE: Those chords were too tricky for my unlearned hands, so we played Down By The River by Neil Young for about 8 hours straight instead. Truth.
When Stipe’s voice jumps an octave for the line “leave it, to leave it all behind” in the song Leave, I can physically feel my chest tighten like when you slam on the brakes and the seatbelt seizes your chest, and my entire body shudders.
This is a power found only in music.
One of my best friends – Jo Carol Mitchell-Rogers – went to the University of Georgia in the few years before Murmur, and saw REM play at campus bars and parties countless times. Michael Stipe’s sister was in one of her drawing classes, and Jo Carol drew Michael’s portrait when he would model for her.
SIDE NOTE: Her roommate dated Herschel Walker during his Heisman campaign and she was a student during their National Championship season – which pretty much means she was at UG for all the best things that have ever happened there, in the entire history of the university.)
Many of the best REM songs are truly cinematic, widescreen affairs (Leave, Bittersweet Me, Leaving New York, all of Automatic For The People) while simultaneously feeling confessional and near. This is something only the truly great bands achieve.
The recent 20th Anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind reminded me of how important REM were at that time. From late 1991, through to Kurt Cobain’s suicide in the spring of 1994 was an incredibly exciting and confusing time*, and Kurt and Eddie Vedder both sought advice and support from whom they considered to be their heroes, and Michael Stipe was very publicly involved in assisting Kurt after his heroin overdose in Rome. This memory brought up a couple of interesting points, that:
1. There was a vital, significant correlation between the mainstream explosion of “alternative” music of 1991 and the trails blazed to that mainstream led by bands like REM and U2, who were still considered “alternative” at the time. I highly doubt that America could have been able to accept the bands of this movement without the groundwork laid by their 80’s precursors.
2. The relationship between REM and (someone like) Nirvana is most likely imperceptible to someone who is 20 years old (or an adolescent listener, or even a contemporary audience) because to their ears, REM is either sunshiny pop (Shiny Happy People, What’s The Frequency Kenneth?) or kind of sappy and overblown (Everybody Hurts), or vague moral and religious dilemmas that they don't seem to understand (Losing My Religion). Either way this connection is completely lost to them, and maybe for all time.
SIDE NOTE: This perception was fostered during REM’s lost years, the final 14 of their career, when their intent and message no longer received a mass audience, especially with listeners under the age of 30.
*From late 1991 through 1994 was the a thrilling time to be coming of age, as it felt like my generation took over and overthrew all that came before. It is often said that the 60’s was really only a few years, from 1966 (Revolver, Dylan goes electic) to1969 (Altamont) and the same can be said for the 90’s – the 90’s were only from 91-94 (the release of Nevermind to Cobain's suicide). Just as the "60's" were not Connie Francis and Pat Boone (though they sold heavily too), the 90's were not Limp Bizkit and Backstreet Boys and all the other garbage that filled the rock n roll vacuum post 1994.
SECOND SIDE NOTE: Yes, I realize I’m beginning to sound like an old Vietnam Vet – “you weren’t there maaaan…”.
Perhaps the closest thing we have to REM in today’s musical landscape is The National. I would like to publicly challenge them to take the next step and formally pick up the flag flown by REM.
Matt Berninger I’m calling you out.
In 2009 I selected Automatic For The People as the #10 Album That Defined My High School Experience. Here is what I said at the time: "When I first heard Nightswimming, I knew there was a world somewhere so different, that would suit me if I could only get there. I wanted (want) to live inside that song".
Yes, REM should have broken up in 1997. But that doesn’t make their passing any easier now. In fact, it makes it possibly more difficult. Because now they are gone, we can love them again, miss them, appreciate them for all that they meant to us and will always mean to us, and recognize how they changed American culture in a real way in the 1980’s and 1990’s. This recognition was exceedingly difficult to maintain as they released a string of mediocre albums (yet with killer lead singles – Leaving New York, Living Well’s The Best Revenge, Discoverer – due must be given to these, because those are great singles) as persistent reminders of how “lost” they were following Bill Berry’s departure in 1997. With each release I fell into a familiar cycle – hope that they would make that one true, last brilliant album based on said killer single, then utter disappointment upon the release.
But now we can love them again for all they are and were, because that is what endings do.
SIDE NOTE: This is much the same occurrence I observed when Michael Jackson died – all of a sudden there was this crazy outpouring of love for a man that was nothing short of monstrous, a likely pedophile who had disconnected from his public long before. Upon his death it seemed that he could be loved again, not for what he was when he died, but for who he had been, the Michael Jackson of his audience's youth, rather than the fiend he had become. It should be noted for clarity however, that REM did not become an awful thing as Jackson had, but merely a mediocre, rudderless ship, and for a band that had so often charted territories of Greatness, this would not do. However, both REM and Michael Jackson were instantly beloved in death.
And Finally...REM are gone, but their legacy lives on in a million ways, from the current Indie scene to the 80's underground, to the 90's era of grunge. They live on in their fans, in the ways they influenced their ethics and general understanding of the world.
Thank you REM, for all you have meant to me, my youth, my young adulthood, and today.