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R.E.M. -- looking for answers from the great beyond

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It's not surprising that this past Wednesday's R.E.M. breakup announcement brought on a wave of back-pages remembrances from folks who were around way back when. Ruminations like that tend to be as much about the writer as the subject, and R.E.M.'s core fanbase is decidedly middleaged and given to gazing in the rearview mirror these days.

But R.E.M. really did mean that much to people -- the soundtrack of our lives for those of us in the 1980s college-radio generation. Being a fan in the early days felt like belonging to a club or even a cult, and it was impossible to imagine just how huge they were going to get in the early '90s. The band's place in history is both large and small, from the Hall of Fame down to millions of personal firsthand fables from people who bore witness to R.E.M.'s pre-fame days. One of the best essays I've read about this is here, written by former Chapel Hill resident Jim Desmond.

ADDENDUM (11/3/11): "We All Go Back To Where We Belong."

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???

Is it so hard to understand that they didn't want a career retrospective while they were still producing new music?  That they did not want to over-shadow what they were currently doing with what they had done before? That's calculating? 

And I guess when Peter Buck plays small places like the Pour House with bands like Minus5 or the Cats Cradle with the Baseball Project instead of huge arenas and amphitheaters, he is just as venal as U2 and other big bands?

It's About Time

That was about 28 years overdue. (Lived in Chapel Hill in the 1980's when they would regularly play out with Let's Active and the Pressure Boys. Last saw them at a free show in Greensboro at Friday's - still wasn't worth it...)

 

R.E.M.

"Ruminations like that tend to be as much about the writer as the subject," and the reminiscence you link to is a well written illustration of the point. I find it more than coincidental, though, that at a time when R.E.M. are possibly at their lowest point of mass popularity, and likely off the radar screen of many of the "middleaged and given to gazing in the rearview mirror" fans from the early days, that they chose to announce their breakup just weeks before the release of their first dual label retrospective. Without the break-up announcement, it's likely that the hits compilation wouldn't receive nearly the commercial traction it's liable to now. Not to mention the back catalog bump that can be realized in the weeks leading up to the hits release. So while the "little band that could" reputation is a nice myth and even has elements of truth, there's always been an aspect to them as cold-eyed and commercial as their peer U2, or as the 60s pop that Buck and Mills have reveled in. And for this long time libertarian fan generally unsympathetic to their politics, that's a contradictory aspect of R.E.M. worth celebrating as much as their "progressive" inclinations.

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About the blogger

David Menconi has been the News & Observer's music critic since 1991. Before that, he spent five years at the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo. He has a masters in journalism from the University of Texas and a B.A. in English from Southwestern University. You can find more of his writing here.

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