R.E.M. announced its breakup a few days ago. Their songs and their sound captivated me through the 80s and 90s. An outspoken band, they buried their meanings in poetry and their lyrics in the mix.
Let’s put our heads together, start a new country up,
Underneath the river bed we burned the river down
This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang,
Take a picture here, take a souvenir
A book on my shelf about the band is titled It Crawled From the South. The cover of their first full LP, Murmur, featured a photo of kudzu–strange, but familiar to me from my North Carolina days. I heard them cover Creedence’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” at the Stock Pavilion in Madison, Wisconsin in 1984.
That year my son Nathaniel was born, and R.E.M. became our band. I took him to his first concert on Father’s Day 1994. The band opened with “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream.”
A young man, Michael Stipe talked about “the whole idea of the old men sitting around the fire, passing on … legends and fables to the grandchildren.” R.E.M.’s lyrical landscapes and bottom-of-the-drawer cover art may have been purposefully obscure, but their melodies sounded timeless to my ears.
The legacy of the band is complicated, it seems. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame notwithstanding, there is such a niggling coterie of detractors. That’s a mystery to me.
Maybe these maps and legends
Have been misunderstood
Marcus Gray, “It Crawled from the South: An R.E.M. Companion.” Da Capo Press, 1992
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