“I heard the news today, oh boy.” The word came down a week or so ago that Athens musical legend R.E.M. has officially disbanded. The news feels significant to me even if I am one of the many fans who agree that it has been a while since R.E.M. has produced anything remotely as good as their work in the 80’s and early 90’s. Perhaps it was time to call it quits, yet R.E.M. seemed to be a band of brothers, bound so closely together through their common roots and their music that it looked as though they would never succumb to the inertia that eventually topples most groups. In fact, they lasted about four times longer than the group that I quoted in the first sentence. (For the very young, that was the Beatles.)
R.E.M. was the last musical group with whom I ever felt a complete emotional connection. They didn’t sound like anything or anyone I’d ever heard before. I loved their lyrics even though most of them weren’t intelligible, especially on the early records. R.E.M. concerts were the backdrop for some of the most special times I ever spent with many of my best and oldest friends. For a little over a decade, from 1984, when I first heard their album Reckoning, through 1995 when I last saw R.E.M. in concert at the Omni, I was enthralled by pretty much every song on every album.
R.E.M. even played a small role in my decision to move to Georgia and work for DCPL. At the 1991 American Library Association mid-winter conference I had interviewed with the DeKalb and Chicago Public Library systems. I was pretty certain that I would be offered a job with each but not at all sure how I would decide where I would go. Chicago had two major league baseball teams; a definite plus! Georgia, however, could claim both my favorite writer (Roy Blount Jr.) and favorite band. I was almost home from that conference, and stopped at a red light in a frigid Pittsburgh suburb, when I looked at the car stopped on the other side of the intersection. On the front was a faux green and white Georgia license plate with the letters R.E.M. on it. The car made a left turn and drove off and I was left believing that I’d just seen an omen.
My closest brush with the group was when I passed drummer Bill Berry near the jewelry cases at the Macy’s at Lenox Mall in the early ’90s. The friend I was with didn’t know Bill Berry from Chuck Berry so I stood in the aisle, not knowing if I should keep walking or go after the musician, to say what I didn’t know. “Hey! Do you remember that time in Pittsburgh at the old Syria Mosque when you had to go to the bathroom right in the middle of the show and Michael Stipe sang that acapella thing until you came back? That was cool!” I do know that Bill Berry must not have been accustomed to being recognized in public because when I last looked back in his direction, he was also looking back at me, the wide-eyed, potential psychopath. Maybe I could have just said “Thank you.”
When my favorite baseball player, the one I’d followed for about fifteen years, was released by his last team, I felt as though I was irrevocably altered as a fan. My last connection to when the game was new and exciting had been severed. R.E.M. has called it a day and I feel again like my favorite players have retired. Instead of baseball cards I’m left with ticket stubs, souvenir pins and t-shirts that don’t fit anymore (and when did that happen?) RIP R.E.M.. You’ve completed your perfect circle.
The DeKalb Public Library offers an assortment of REM’s CDs spanning their entire career. The following books are also available:
- Talk About the Passion: R.E.M., an Oral History by Denise Sullivan
- R.E.M., the Rolling Stone Files by the editors of Rolling Stone