The Life and Death of R.E.M.

We here at Abnormal Use typically discuss products liability issues (or even different areas of substantive law), but we feel compelled today to stray off topic and comment upon the passing of one of the greatest bands of the last three decades:  R.E.M.  Last week, the group announced that it had “decided to call it a day as a band,” bringing to a close a 31-year career which entertained not just generations of listeners but also generations of lawyers (thereby making this somewhat appropriate for a law blog). They were pioneers of what was once known as college rock music. They released many fine albums. For years, the band’s lead singer, Michael Stipe, was both literally and figuratively, the dean of alternative rock music. The band was, as some have said, “insanely influential.”

There is no question that the band’s work in the 1980’s and early 1990’s – from Murmur, Reckoning, Life’s Rich Pageant, Document, and Automatic for the People – resonated with listeners in an unparalleled way and provided the soundtrack for many fondly remembered moments. This is the band that wrote such songs as “So. Central Rain,” “These Days,” “The One I Love,” “Fall On Me, “Sweetness Follows,” “Find The River,” and so many more songs that will be admired and listened to for many, many years to come. It may sound silly, but for those of us who truly enjoy music, particularly R.E.M.’s era of music, the group’s passing is not unlike the jarring news of the death of a once close friend (albeit one with whom we lost contact many years ago).  We always figured they would be there, out there somewhere making music, whether or not that music was as good as it once was when we first encountered them so long ago. But now the band belongs to the ages.

In its later years, the band lost much of its edge. Certainly, like so many other groups, the band’s initial drive and ambition was tempered by mega success, and in response, it petered out a bit.  Later albums like Up, Reveal, and even this year’s Collapse Into Now, were remarkable only in that they were released by a band once so adored by so many, not because of their relative individual merits as works of art. But, as we know, acts like R.E.M., U2, The Rolling Stones, and even Bob Dylan, still live and thrive based on the good will engendered by their earlier, far more brilliant work.  Thus, even those later mediocre albums received a benefit of the doubt that a different band releasing a nearly identical album would never receive. Perhaps that kept the band in business longer than was prudent, but there was always the hope, among their fans (and presumably within the band itself), that it would recapture the creative energy it once wielded.

However, it’s interesting to speculate what would have happened if R.E.M. had broken up a decade and a half ago, perhaps after the release of 1992’s Automatic for the People (contended by some, including this writer, to be the band’s finest moment). Would Stipe still have mentored Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke? Perhaps Stipe might have begun a solo career, reinvigorating his path in a way not unlike Morrissey did after the destruction of The Smiths in the late 1980’s? Maybe Peter Buck would have still found work, if not fame, in obscure musical projects like Tuatara? Surely, Mike Mills, who composed many of R.E.M.’s finest songs, would have discovered suitable musical opportunities.  Whatever the case, had R.E.M. left music on a high note, the band would be remembered like those acts that released several excellent albums and left the stage before their members’ creative impulses soured or atrophied as a result of age.

A personal aside: I can still remember the first time I heard “Drive”, the lead signal off of Automatic for the People.  I was fortunate enough to be able to see R.E.M. play in concert on two occasions.  The first was in Austin, Texas in September of 1995, with Radiohead and Natalie Merchant serving as the opening acts.  (Check out the set list for that show here). At that time, R.E.M. was touring in support of 1995’s Monster, an overdone electrified album which, though inferior to the band’s previous work, still offered some catchy and radio friendly singles (a feat the band was not really able to accomplish again in subsequent years).  I saw them again in 1999 in San Antonio, Texas with Mercury Rev and Wilco as openers.  (That set list is here). Then, the band was beginning its slow decline, and it appeared that its members were more interested in entertaining themselves than the crowd that had assembled that day to see them. But it was still fun. Another fun story: In May of 2010, Steve Wynn, who once fronted the fabled 1980’s college rock band The Dream Syndicate, played two back to back shows at a tiny rock club in Atlanta, and at each, he played a full Dream Syndicate album. While at one of those shows, I turned to my right and saw I was standing right next to Mike Mills, who was clearly enjoying Wynn’s performance.

In the end, the creative slumps of the band’s later years don’’t matter.  The band did something that so few musical acts are able to do: For a period of time, they released a series of fantastic albums which listeners still enjoy and respect decades later. They captured, and in many ways, personified, a moment in music that influenced many to come.  A fine epitaph, that.

(For another lawyer’s take on the demise of the band, see this piece by Pennsylvania’s Jay Hornack a/k/a Panic Street Lawyer).