On the 21st September 2011, REM announced that they would be going their separate ways. Coming so soon after the release of their 15th studio album, this announcement left me distraught and grieving.
As REM would say, perhaps we should begin the begin. At 33 years old, REM have been around since I took my first step and could say my first word. I first became aware of their presence when I was 12 years old and walked into the bedroom I shared with my brother on one idle Sunday afternoon to find him trying to tape a catchy song from the radio onto cassette tape (as was out way in the early 90s). Having never paid much attention to music up until this point in my life, I distinctly remember being moved and hooked on the epic catchy tune that was Losing my Religion.
Throughout the 90s my love affair with the Athens rock Gods grew. I listened to them on Dylan’s car stereo as he seduced Brenda in 90210, I watched their videos ad-nauseum on MTV, VH1 and the raft of new music TV stations that populated satellite TV in the mid-90s.
When I went to college in 97 I remember picking up New Adventures in Hi-Fi while on a class outing in Swansea. It was to be the first of many points where I can relate the big and memorable moments in my life with my beloved REM. When I went to America to work the following year, there was just one CD that I took with me and that was Out of Time. I played that CD a thousand times on the kids’ boom-box. Even though they were from Athens, Georgia, it was a little taste of home that I had brought with me.
In 1998 I finally got the chance to see REM live. Taking the train to London by myself and finding my way to the concert venue was one of those magical moments you have when you’re young. They were my favourite band and this was my first concert. The stars aligned perfectly to give me one of the best nights of my life. An epic three and an hour set resulted in my hurdling crowd protection barriers in order to catch the last tube to my connecting train to South Wales that was leaving in five minutes. A series of frantic running, ticket turnstile avoidance and the prospect of spending the night on a park bench in London resulted in me catching my train with 30 seconds to spare. I had fallen up some stairs, was covered in sweat and had cut my trousers, but as I collapsed on that train seat, almost passing out from dehydration, I could only smile like a grinning idiot as I remembered the amazing night of music and passion I had just experienced.
I remember so much from my time with REM. I remember the time I drove over to the shops with my cousin to pick up the new REM single Imitation of Life, playing it full blast on the way back home, windows down, singing along for all we were worth.
Whenever I listen to music in the car, 90% of the time it’s REM. I have had to purchase several copies of some of their albums as I tend to wear them out from repeated listening and less than stellar storage conditions in my glove box. I remember my brother dropping an entire large coke over my Fables of the Reconstruction album when we were in a McDonalds Drive Thru. I still have that CD and the crinkled coke sodden album sleeve reminds me a time now long gone.
Through thick and thin they were always my favourite band. While some people may change styles and affiliations as they get older, with me it was just the opposite. I became a bigger and bigger fan of the guys. Now working and with a disposable income I quickly purchased their entire back catalogue and began familiarising myself with their earlier IRS years’ work. The only time my faith was ever shaken was during the Once Around the Sun period. I had loved Up and Reveal, and considered them worthy companions to their more commercially and critically well received work. But with Around the Sun, even I, a massive fan and supporter could find very little to recommend or to like. Sure, Leaving New York was a great song, but the rest of the album is best left forgotten and removed from the almost perfect annuls of REM history.
Driving to and from work in the 00s I would have REMs later hit albums constantly on rotation in my car and would anticipate every new release like it was Christmas Morning. I even remember setting up Night Swimming on my car stereo when I quit my job and drove away for the last time, taking one last look in the mirror as I left my old life. It seemed fitting somehow. I also remember singing that song with a drunk Canadian woman in the back of a mini bus coming home from a night out on the town. One way or another, REM always seemed to be part of my life.
I got to see them live again in Cardiff twice; the most recent concert in 2008 was probably the greatest gig I have ever been to. REM were on top form and being right at the front of the stage, the sight of Michael Stipe looking right at me while singing Stand was electrical and for those brief few seconds he made me feel like I was the most important person in the room.
That is how I want to remember REM. Fun, fit and kicking ass. Somehow I always thought that they would just do a Stones and keep going. They have been around for as long as I have been alive and I assumed that they would always be with me. Making new music, coming to town touring and producing their particular brand of alt-rock awesomeness.
When I heard about the news from the official REM Facebook feed, at first I assumed that it was some kind of prank. As my eyes scanned the words… I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I clicked on the link and found further comments from the band members detailing their decision. I don’t mind admitting I was heartbroken. It honestly felt as though someone had died. I suppose in some ways I was having my 13 year old girl/Backstreet Boys breakup moment. There had to be some kind of mistake, REM can’t break up, they’re REM! They invented alt-rock. I quickly posted the news on my Facebook feed, but none of my friends cared. No one commented or “liked”. At that exact moment I felt so down. Why wasn’t there mass posts of their videos? Why were people not talking about this? The greatest band in the world were no more and none of my so called friends gave a damn. That was the hardest part. I just wanted someone to share my loss with, but no one was there and now even the people who I had relied upon to get me through the tough times were leaving. When someone asks me at what point did your youth die, I think this will be it.
You really don’t appreciate what you have till it’s gone, but the sudden and out of nowhere style of the announcement is what really hit me. They should be sorting a tour schedule right now, not going their separate ways. But they made great art and they made my life so much better.
But REM were that kind of band. They made you feel like every song was written especially for you. No matter what mood I was in, there was an album and song to fit it perfectly. They were my band, they were the soundtrack to my life.
They were my friends.