Do you R.E.M.ember? “the 21st Night of September…”

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R.E.M. on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine (photo courtesy of Rolling Stone)

 

 September 21, 2016-…But this isn’t a tribute to the great Earth, Wind and Fire song, nor is it a message grounded in hardened, timeline facts and retrospectives. Rather, if you decide to keep reading, you will be treated to a personal whine session grounded in the disbelief that my favorite band in music history has been “disbanded” for the last half-decade. Since high school, I had been following the exploits of the quirky band from Athens, Ga., with the equally quirky name, though nowhere near as bizarre as some of the “finalists” in that category.  Playing nameless for most of the first month of their formal existence, lead vocalist Michael Stipe threatened to leave the band if they didn’t take the name “Cans of Piss.”

That fun little fact would hardly surprise most of the band’s hardcore fan base.  Known for esoteric lyrics and often indecipherable mumbling vocals during live shows, this band that had formed “because it seemed like a cool idea to be musicians” and continued to play together because it was “a lot of fun”. Experiencing early success (their second studio album, Murmur, was chosen by “Rolling Stone” as Album of the Year over legendary chart-topping Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”), they drew a devout underground following driven by near-continuous airplay on the college radio circuit and, perhaps for the most unlikely of reasons, a seventh album that rocketed them into mainstream superstardom.

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Cover art for Out of Time, the album that would, quite literally, “change everything” (courtesy Warner Bros. )

After a series of under-performing albums, a string of serious medical emergencies that afflicted three of the four members and nearly deadlined a tour (while nearly costing drummer Bill Berry his life) there were murmurs that the band had reached a crossroads. Then, of course, the unlikely band from college town America once again did the unlikely: they redefined themselves.  With the April, 2008 release of Accelerate, R.E.M. was once again in the spotlight of both fan adoration and critical acclaim.  In homage to the title of their third album, this was a reconstruction of fabled proportions.  My favorite band was back, but the excitement was short-lived.

In three years’ time, they would be gone.

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R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe at Hansa Studios, during the band’s final performance

“Collapse into Now,” a commercially successful project released in March 2011, signaled the beginning of the end for the enormously successful band. In half a year’s time, after fulfilling some contract obligations, the band announced Sept. 21 that it was calling it quits. It was an emotional day for longtime fans, who took comfort in the band’s alien sounds, which ushered in an era of music referred to by some as “alternative” but more aptly described as otherworldy. For yours truly, the compilation albums that followed were the remnants of a great era- a time when music reflected something bigger and stranger and more wonderful. I remember telling the story of how this group that meant so much to so many had disappeared into the wind – a major blow to the music trade. I shared the pain of this loss with a friend – I rambled on about how this simply couldn’t be. “REM broke up,” I told him, beside myself in grief and disbelief, a half-decade ago. He responded in confusion, with the words of a sober realist : “Okaaaay…yea, like what, 15 years ago, right?”

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