Arts and Entertainment, Brooklyn Bugle, Existential Stuff, Music, Opinion

R.E.M. Were the Band of Our Time

August 27, 2014

This past Sunday was the 32nd anniversary of the release of Chronic Town by R.E.M.

I tried writing about this event with some objectivity, wit, or erudition, but failed.

That’s because

R.E.M. were the band of our time.

However, here’s what I did come up with:

R.E.M. were the band of our time.  They weren’t necessarily the best band, or the one we loved most or longest, but they were ours, ours, ours, ours.

If the college rock revolution had a July 4, 1776, it was August 24, 1982.
(And like all revolutions it featured many strangely hot girls who owned Big Star records and didn’t shave under their arms)

My generation were the little brothers of punk rock.  We were four, five, six, seven, eight years younger than David Byrne, Pete Shelley, Tom Verlaine, David Thomas, Colin Newman, Andy Partridge, and all the 89.1 heroes whose vinyl filled our lives; even the (slightly) more recent objects of our alt-passions (like Julian Cope, Ian Curtis, or Ian McCulloch) were still notably older than us.  This left us prone to seduction by the inferior tribes of ska and hardcore simply because they were closer to our age.   As we sluiced even further into the 1980s

(like we were riding a subway car full of pink and gray neon posterboard-people trampling on the bluefiush-blue down jackets of the ‘70s, accompanied by the bleat of Ed Koch’s bloated boasts and the confusing wobble of 45’s warped by the flaking bone-colored radiators of our first post-dorm apartments)

We were eager, terribly and beautifully eager, for a user-friendly form of college artrock we could call our own, one that felt like it was made by us and for us, but had the potential to exist on a far greater stage.

When R.E.M. entered our lives between 1981 and 1984, we immediately sensed

they were us, they were ours;

right away, we recognized them from our time spent standing in front of the mirror miming to Velvet Underground records, tossing our hair like Lance Loud, and dancing like Vanessa from Pylon. The discovery of R.E.M. was our Ed Sullivan moment (whenever that moment came, whether it be the indie release of “Radio Free Europe” or their masterpiece, the mushroom-laced kudzu gothic of Fables of the Reconstruction, or the deep, melancholy sweetness of Murmur or Reckoning); much as an entire generation wanted to grow their hair moppishly and pick up guitars after seeing the Beatles on TV in February 1964, when we

First heard R.E.M

we sensed that our time had come and the art of our heart’s desire, formed by cliquish devotion to dBs and Byrds and Big Star and Love and Beach Boys and Kinks and Move and Patti and Brautigan and Groovies, had suddenly found aggressive, physical, charming, and public voice; someone had formed the band we wanted to hear, someone had beaten us to it, and we couldn’t have been happier.  We had found the band we had theorized but perhaps never believed could be realized, the band that blended art and tradition better than any band of our time.

In those years (specifically ’82 through ’85), to us (those of us who were 18 to 25 at that time), R.E.M. became the friend at whose house every party started, that party where we would talk with abandon fueled by coffee and Heineken about all our favorite books and films and records and poets, and where we would meet every girl or boy we would instantly fall for (for at least eight days).  R.E.M. were us, in a way no other band had ever been us

(Us: shifty, sassy outsiders born in the years of JFK and LBJ, now entering the heartbeat of our 20s and shaking off the idea that we were a footnote to someone else’s past.)

R.E.M., and the friends we made through their fandom, were us, sharing our influences, our literary and musical and artistic and social and political interests, our beliefs that music could be popular without apologies. R.E.M. was the first band we loved who were the best versions of us, the first band who we could look in the eye and just know they came from the same place as us, the first band who would know just what we meant when we made a sly reference to Kimberly Rew or Chris Bell or Robert Frank or Wim Wenders and who would agree that the redhead sitting over there who drank John Courage and loved the Wooster Group looked very good indeed.

Some of you will scoff at these strong, romantic, childish words; but I suspect there are many of you out there who will know exactly what I am talking about.  We have to recall that feeling, that love we felt for those rich enchanting arpeggios and those sexy, enigmatic mumbles, and not feel any shame; we were right, right, right. They were the first band of, for, and by generation college rock, and the first band of that generation to get it all right.

(Oh, and by the way, Layne, if you don’t own that first EP and the three albums that followed — once again, that’s Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, and Fables of the Reconstruction — I have ZERO hesitation in stating that NOTHING you have to say or think about alternative music has any value, and I would be better off talking about Nick Drake or Tim Buckley with  Mayim Bialik or even Allison Mosier, the girl on the Cami Secret commercial.)

Eventually, we would recognize that we were not the youngest child, but the perennial middle child of the alt revolution — too young to be David Byrne, too old to be Kurt Cobain. But there was a little while when our age was perfect: for a shimmering time in the 1980s when we were drunk on youth’s true perfect years

(Youth’s True Perfect Years: the early/mid 20s, when a person is finally old enough to know how to have some genuine fun yet still too young to know better),

everything was right, and R.E.M. was our soundtrack, and R.E.M. told our story better than we could tell our own, and made us believe that our dreams that the words “art” and “commerce” were not necessarily oxymoronic could actually be true.

Thank you Peter, Mike, Michael, Bill, and Jefferson. Somewhere in my heart it is always August 24, 1982.

(And thanks to Glenn Boothe, a great friend and a legendary Triangle club booker, for reminding me of the date).

Be Sociable, Share!

From the Web

You Might Also Like

  • Jim Testa

    I discovered R.E.M. (like I did so many bands) in the backroom at Maxwell’s. All they had available at the time was the “Radio Free Europe”/”Standing Still” 7 inch on Hibtone (which I still own.) I fell in love with the band that night and our romance continued at least until Green. My friends and I roadtripped up to Boston and down to D.C. to see R.E.M. shows. You nailed it with this one, Tim.

  • The Ready Stance

    Thank you, Tim. Perfection.

  • tmccool

    Very nicely said. I discovered REM right after I graduated from college in 82. I got a job, moved into a duplex, and bought a new stereo system. Of course buying a new system always meant a spending splurge on (vinyl) records. The clerk at the indie record store near campus (I miss those) recommended this new band, REM, so I bought Murmur. And so I bought every LP as it came out, and loved all of them. I finally saw them perform during the Document tour. Then again on their home turf, in Atlanta, on the Green tour. And I may be labeled a heretic for saying this, but my favorite REM album is Green.But I never really felt the sense of community that you describe, and I feel kind of left out. In my midwestern college town, I was kind of a lone wolf in terms of REM. I played the records for my friends when they dropped by, and they all knew who REM was, but I was the only one who actually, you know, owned the records.

  • iLeonD

    Damn. Excellent Tim.

  • James H

    How true!! Awesome, well said!


  • Susan

    I’m one of thos ewho know what you are talking about and agree with everything you say. I miss R.E.M. so much.

  • Hardwood Floor

    REM sucked when they first came out, sucked through the rest of the 80’s, sucked the entire 90’s and 00’s and continues to suck hard today. Way too much good music and imagery in the 80’s with actually hot girls (note – females with armpit hair are not hot – they are friggin gross) to pay any attention to these lite weight musicians. Stand with your head up your a$$.

    • Jazz

      And your point?

  • Joe

    REM was also the first band that made me feel betrayed when the frat boys who used to mock them had to play “Superman” at full blast.

  • Mark Imgrund

    I was that person in 1982, and I soaked up and lived and breathed every moment, every lyric, every song, every album. Straight to Hugo Largo and beyond. Thanks for writing.

  • fille coquine

    L’intégralité de ϲes articles sont assurément ρlaisants

  • kevfender

    Outstanding piece, Tim. Yes, some may say that your words veer towards reverence, but I feel the same way about R.E.M. and could not conceive of a better tribute.
    We were still in grammar school when New York ’77 scene was full-throttle, but when I first heard Chronic Town/Murmur & saw the Rolling Stone photograph of four bookish-looking young men from the South (I thought it was a law that you had to look like Molly Hatchet to play rock south of the Mason-Dixon line), I knew there was a new scene developing, post New-Wave. My first R.E.M concert (Aragon ballroom Chicago, 1984 on the Reckoning tour) cemented my feeling you described above, that the band were guys like us. Peter Buck would write articles about bands he liked, just like another fan.