On someone else’s radio, I hear that it is over. The band, after 31 years, is calling it quits. It’s the kind of news that floats over you like a zeppelin, slow and glittering, an anomaly in an otherwise familiar sky. Obscene….if you could just figure out what it is.
Like any death, it requires a chewing of the lip, the mind lashing itself out again and again like a whip, hoping to catch another crumb of information. No, no, just a bit more, please.
I first discovered R.E.M. when I was 14, an unhappy freshman in a new school district, one foot propped up on Poison and Def Leppard, the other on They Might Be Giants and the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack. My Aunt Patty ordered me to sit down on her couch as she faced me with her guitar in her lap.
—I just learned this. Listen to the words…”
She pressed play on the CD and the room was filled with the mournful insistence of Mike Mills’s church organ, Peter Buck’s frantic and Appalachian mandolin, and Michael Stipe’s prayerful missive in “Half A World Away.” Out of Time had just been released and the airwaves were blowing up with “Losing My Religion,” the insipidly cheerful “Radio Song,” and the even worse “Shiny Happy People.” I look back on these now with singular fondness, but at the time, they were…whatever.
Now, Patty was strumming along and singing, pausing now and then to repeat certain lines to me: My shoes are gone/my life spent.
She closed her eyes and shook her head.
—Beautiful, man. Beautiful. The storm it came up strong…This is about Jesus, this part. It shook the trees and it blew away our fears.
—Huh, I nodded.
These were the days (imagine, kiddies) before Google, so the lyrics of R.E.M. songs remained notoriously arcane, the result of Michael Stipe’s combination of overly educated references and stubborn mumbling. Over the years, I’d hear this particular song interpreted as being about alcoholism, salvation, and obsessive love.
That was the thing about music in those days, before virtually any sliver of information you could possibly want was immediately available: you could decide what it meant, you could place meaning on it yourself. We scrutinized every Mona Lisa smile on Michael’s face in a video or publicity photo, every coy liner note. The three documentaries and videographies I own on VHS are ribbed from rewinding and repeating scene after scene after scene.
When Patty had played me the entire album—the steel pedal cries of crazy what you could’ve had, the Southern rock road-trippy twenty thousand miles to an oasis, the darkly sexy I’ve been laughing/fast and slow—she gave it to me, and put on their sister act of sorts, 10,000 Maniacs. We listened to Blind Man’s Zoo and In My Tribe, every song an epic tale of hardship, poverty, racism, evil, politics, and ruin. That music could be about so much more than puppy love or the id—that it should be!—came to me that afternoon like the messiah, the ocean breeze lifting the curtains and a too-perfect Orange County autumn downscaling a domestic life too turbulent to tell anyone about. But Patty knew. And in Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant, she perhaps knew I’d find a soundtrack to my pain and anger, which I wanted desperately to believe was the pain of the whole world, if only to be in some company. It was that majestic epiphany repeated decade after decade in 14-year-olds the country over: the rite of rock ‘n’ roll passage! My father’s was Pet Sounds, my young uncle’s was Pink Floyd, my husband’s was The Ramones. Mine was R.E.M.
My dad gave me his Guild mahogany, a dreadnought I could barely get my hands around. On his visits, I’d hound him for chords, making him listen to Life’s Rich Pageant’s “Swan Swan H” and teach it to me, moving and mashing my soft fingers onto the steel strings where they should go. I built my first callouses on that song.
Instantly, R.E.M. led me to the people who would become my friends, some of the most influential people in my life, my chosen family. My sophomore year, I got up the nerve to audition for a play and started hanging out in our high school’s theater, which is where I met Jamie. A cute green-eyed brunette with a guitar on her lap, Jamie was playing and singing 10,000 Maniacs’ “A Campfire Song” in the theater, while her stupendously adorable flannel-clad boyfriend Jerry sang Michael Stipe’s part. Bee to honeysuckle, I hovered. I showed her “Swan Swan H” on the guitar, and she made me a mixtape. Together with Jerry and their friend Linda, we formed a loose fan club that seemed to grow by the month. Next came Kate, the Georgia peach, and Kami, the oddball Seattle transplant that I idolized. Then Eddie, the wild-eyed imposter from a neighboring high school, who stole Jerry’s lead in that summer’s “Little Shop of Horrors” as well as Jamie’s heart. Me, I belonged to Michael Stipe.
Never mind, Dear Reader, that our man was gay—or rumored to be. Again, this was before the Information Age.
—Stop it, you guys. He’s just sensitive!
This would set the stage for a long line of gay boys I would devote myself to so completely, stubbornly ignoring all the flags. Flags like being involved in musical theater.
A CD-listening bar opened not far from school, and we all clustered at it, spending our meager money on imports, rare live discs, and listening to compilations. We’d take votes on the lyrics to “It’s The End of the World As We Know It”—Runner boots and blister banks and jellybean, Boom!—and the girls would tease me as I demanded we watch that moment in my taped MTV “Unplugged” session—AGAIN—at the end of “Low,” when Michael Stipe dips his head against the microphone and stares right into the camera, directly in to my soul with his stern, dispassionate blue eyes.
—He’s gay, Erin.
—Shut up, he loves me.
—He loves men.
—Your mom loves men. Look at him. Watch! He’s going, Erin, I’m so tormented without you. Look at how curvy and tormented my lips are.
This was the same year that I received The Most Important Piece of Mail I Have Ever or Will Ever Receive Ever: a large white envelope with neon pink and green streaks on it, addressed to me, from the man himself. I shrieked and squealed and ran around the house, calling Linda and Jamie, tearing open my letter. Yes, it was a form letter beseeching me to Rock the Vote, and yes, it was the same letter sent to everyone in R.E.M.’s fan club, but I taped it up on my wall next to a full-page portrait of him torn out of Rolling Stone, and I fell asleep looking at it every night.
Automatic for the People came out when I was a junior. My mom and I were sharing a one-bedroom apartment; we had twin cots—seriously, cots—and a desk between them with my ghetto blaster on it. It was brand new, the size of a battleship, and it had this rad ability to “memorize” which tracks you wanted to hear. Every night, I made my mother fall asleep to the vibralicious and mellow tracks “Sweetness Follows,” “Try Not to Breathe,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” “Star Me Kitten,” “Nightswimming,” and “Find the River.”
—Jee-sus, my mom groaned one night. I’m going to kill myself.
In between Out of Time and Automatic, of course, I dove into the entire discography. I got Green on cassette tape (in an interview, Michael said that the reason they named it Green but colored the case orange was because if you looked at the color orange long enough and then closed your eyes, you saw green) and listened to it the entire Thanksgiving weekend drive up to San Francisco. I copied my friend’s Chronic Town and felt my DNA actually alter when I first heard the muffled, tinny recording of “Wolves, Lower.” I bought the Dead Letter Office special release with Reckoning on it and decided that the jerky danceable “Harborcoat” would go on every mix tape I’d make for the next 10 years. I listened to Murmur and dreamed of running through the sunflower fields around Athens, Georgia (surely there were some) in a beret and Pendleton coat, hand-in-hand with Michael Stipe.
Have you ever loved someone from afar for ten years? After ten years, the roiling insanity of your love simmers to a bed of glowing embers, parts petrifying into you, becoming your bones. A heat lingers, and could be enflamed by a song, a video, the news of a new release. My love glowed warm-to-hot all the way through Monster (moved to San Francisco for college, tried acid, Jerry Garcia died, panic attacks, Kurt died, “Let Me In,” gave up and went home to SoCal) and New Adventures in Hi-Fi (played Lady Macbeth at new college, fell in love with leading man, painted him pictures, discovered Radiohead, “Leave,” pined away many cold autumn nights after he’d broken my heart). By now, it was pretty certain that Michael Stipe and I wouldn’t end up together. And, okay, yes whatever, that he was out of the closet for reals.
And at that exact moment of acceptance: he appeared. Jamie and I, through a stroke of crazy luck we kept repeating whenever we went to shows together, wound up backstage during the Up tour, talking for about twenty minutes to…Mike Mills? Well okay, so Mike Mills wasn’t Michael Stipe (who feebly waved at us fanboys and girls and said “G’night! I have to go to bed now”—by the way, the man is tiny…leprechaun tiny) but still! It was Mike Mills! The harmonist. The brilliant organist who virtually made Out of Time what it was. The bassist with the sweetly tiny-eyed, moleish face in all the early ’80s posters! I tried to keep my breathing steady as I complimented his spatulated fingers, assessed that he was a Sagittarius, and as we exchanged email addresses. I took that piece of paper to a Kinko’s that very night and laminated it, Jamie and I giggling and screaming, then calling much of the old gang to revel in it.
I’d call that the conclusion of my R.E.M. obsession. It just…was time. As it is time now for them to quit. Bill Berry had, for the sake of his health, moved to a farm, and I’d moved into parts of my soul that were better quenched by Elliott Smith, Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, and PJ Harvey. I was excited by vibey new British & Canadian bands: Coldplay, Doves, Elbow, Broadcast. I was discovering Clarence Carter, Tom Waits, Fat Possum Records, Son House, Skip James, The Pogues.
R.E.M. continued to make music, much of it less appealing than the older stuff, but still wedging their way indelibly into my life. Up had just come out when I fell in love with, yes, a gay man, who scrawled the lyrics I want the stars to know they’ve won on a paper napkin for me, which I took as proof that I was right all along: sometimes they are just “sensitive” (and they are, but this wasn’t one of those times).
When the man who is now my husband and I were still “just hanging out,” we talked about the importance R.E.M. had for us when we were teenagers. We watched my VHS of MTV Unplugged, and it hiccuped as I pointed out that moment in “Low” where Michael Stipe stares right into my soul. But it was no longer Michael that I yearned for, but this kind, smart, curious, wandering—and totally heterosexually sensitive, I might add—man beside me, waiting for me to get the clue already, his soft corduroy jacket warming my elbow.
My friends from those days are still my friends. We’ve seen each other less and less, talked to each other less and less. We’ve flagellated, spun around, settled, and hardened, the grooves of our lives pressed by the music that drew us together in those wobbly and malleable days. And though we are spread across the country, and have grown lazy in our communications, assuming Facebook will seal us together without our efforts, I think about each of them often. Moreso, this week.
To my high school friends and yours: My memories of you are of when you were young. When you knew nothing and knew it all. When you wore flannel and baggy jeans and wrote notes with your hands. When we didn’t know the words to our favorite songs, when we had to guess them for ourselves, to explore the edges of a universe that was beginning to open up to us, of coffee and cigarettes and the Pacific Northwest and war and sex and art and identity and all those other things we would alight upon unsteadily until we found, each of us, our unique solid footing.
Today, with some of us devoutly religious and some devoutly atheistic, with some leaning red and some heartily blue, with some unemployed and idealistic and some responsible and trustworthy, we will never again be as alike as we were in those days.
Then again, maybe we always will be, in ways that count to me. As this sad, strange zeppelin passes overhead, it plays upon its surface a zoetrope of scenes and voices: Linda’s taunting misnomer “Michael Stripes” and how she still makes me laugh until I can’t breathe; Kami gluing bizarre magazine cut-outs on a cereal box to send to R.E.M.’s fan club and the incredible work she does now raising kids and her village’s kids to be explorers and artists; Jamie singing “Me in Honey” with her guitar and how she still wails a guitar and a high note like no other woman I know. Sweet peachy Katie, and wild, untamed Eddie. A group of strange and deep kids drawn together by our love of a strange and deep band—and kept together, however loosely, by our memories of that love.
Thank you for the music, Mike, Peter, Bill, and Michael, and thank you for my friends.