R.E.M. stands for Rapid Eye Movement. That is the sleep state your body enters when dreams occur. I personally learned that from Casey Kasem on Z95 in Chicago. This was PRE- Q101. But once REM made their mark, they became a staple of alternative rock and Q101. Right up until the time where Mancow interviewed Michael Stipe (lead singer) and asked him if it was true he was dying of AIDS.
REM lasted 31 years. Today, they are no more….that is until the reunion tour.
Some bands have a sound, some have a look, others a strange allure you can’t quite explain and, in rare cases, all three.
R.E.M. were one of those bands. The long-running alt rock godheads who packed it in after 31 years on Wednesday (September 21) will be remembered for a lot of things by a lot of the people who bought millions of their albums. But I’ll remember them best for the consistent, exquisite confusion they sowed.
It’s hard to put your finger on how this strange brew came to define the alternative-rock era of the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Peter Buck’s iconic, chiming, Byrds-inspired guitars — which came to be known simply as his signature “jangle” — bassist Mike Mills’ flawless high harmonies and Nudie-suit style, original drummer Bill Berry’s economic, steady-on drumming and singer Michael Stipe’s cryptic … everything.
This was a band that should have had no chance of becoming what they did. They were too odd, too hard to unpack. From day one, contemporaries like U2 had soaring rhetoric and urgent arena-reaching power that seemed destined to conquer the world through a combination of ambition, chutzpah and titanic riffs.
But R.E.M.’s alchemy was darker, not as immediately obvious, which is what made all the difference. They literally made no sense. From their 1983 full-length debut, Murmur, through to their final, 15th album, this year’s Collapse Into Now, Stipe’s lyrics were like Zen poetry: knotty, stream-of-consciousness and thought-provoking in a way 99 percent of rock music never is, or was. You couldn’t sing along because half the time it was hard to hear what he was even saying. And when you did find out, the Rubik’s cube just spun again as you tried to decipher what he was all about.
R.E.M. made you work for it.
It didn’t matter if you were inspired enough to dig into their muses, which ranged from beat poets and mad literary ravers like William S. Burroughs to punk godmother Patti Smith and the Flying Burrito Brothers, or just let their music wash over you. The end result was that you left with more than you came in with.
Even when they hit the sweet spot with hits like “Everybody Hurts,” “The One I Love,” “Shiny Happy People” and the multi-VMA-winning “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M. challenged you in other ways, through arty, envelope-pushing videos.
I got the chance to interview the band a number of times in the mid- to late ’90s and early 2000s, and I probably worked harder preparing for those chats than for any others I’d done before or since. Because, like in their music, R.E.M. tested you in interviews. They didn’t give pat, pre-planned answers. They fired back honestly and unflinchingly when it felt like the questions were unfair or slanted and always focused on the one thing that mattered most to them: the music.