R.E.M. became one of the rare bands in the course of music history that established indie cred, activism, pop success, and stayed together over thirty years. I consider R.E.M. my favorite band, and have for years. Reports came in 21 September citing R.E.M. has ‘broken up’. But is it a break up?
R.E.M. decided to “call it a day as a band”. I don’t take this to mean it’s over. My take is their work is done when it comes to creating and touring as a band, like a contractor finishing up a job.
“During our last tour, and while making Collapse Into Now and putting together this greatest hits retrospective, we started asking ourselves, ‘what next’? Working through our music and memories from over three decades was a hell of a journey. We realized that these songs seemed to draw a natural line under the last 31 years of our working together.” Notes Mike Mills.
With their contract with Columbia Records entering it’s final album, many speculated the next turn for R.E.M. Some believed they would re-sign, some hoped (ok, me) that they may return to an I.R.S years-type model. Turns out they packed up their work and stamped it finished.
While we can dwell on the merits of R.E.M.’s future, I’d rather take a retrospective look into what R.E.M. has done for their town, what they have meant to me, and how we should honor them.
Having grown up in Georgia and attended the University of Georgia, I had a natural affinity to R.E.M.’s music. I got my first tape of Automatic for the People from Turtle Records in Marietta. The traffic-jammed video for “Everybody Hurts” played continually on MTV and became part of the soundtrack to my childhood. See also: “Losing My Religion”
New Year’s eve in 2002 I experienced my first Athens night life. We had tickets to go see some jam band named ‘Moonshine Still’. Earlier in the night we were walking down the street when my buddy Mark pulled my shirt and pointed. “look” he said. It was Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and two other gentlemen walking in the same direction as us downtown. The three of us inadvertently followed them four blocks to ‘Last Call’ bar where Bubba Sparxxx was performing later.
“I guess it’s sold out” Michael Stipe said.
Sold out? I thought. But this is Michael Stipe; couldn’t he just call someone to get in? For some reason both me and Stipe got turned around and ended up bumping into each other. i damn near knocked him over. We both apologized and proceeded in our respective directions…just so happened to be the same direction. End of story.
I would have to pay money if I ever wanted to see Stipe and company again.
I had a friend suggest they build an R.E.M. memorial in Athens especially considering how much they have done to the Southern town. R.E.M. not only put Athens on the music world map, but put a fat star on top of it. Countless bands have followed in the footsteps of R.E.M…look them up as I’m not mentioning them. Athens boasts dozes of quality music venues and hundreds of aspiring musicians you can find on the streets and in the halls of UGA.
But what would be the memorial and where would they put it? Would it be the abandoned railroad trestle off downtown that provides the cover of the Murmur album? Several attempts have been made to tear down the trestle but community banded together to save the Murmur trestle. Athens-Clarke County bought the trestle and needed to raise a 1 cent sales tax just to keep it preserved and not tear it down.
Perhaps they enshrine Weaver D’s Fine Soul Food where a fella by the name of Dexter Weaver does everything “automatic”. The food is always delicious: “automatic”. Southern etiquette is practiced: “automatic”. Everything Dexter does is automatic…for the people. Just ask him, he’ll tell you. Or don’t ask him, he’ll tell you anyways.
Maybe they dedicate the 40 Watt or the Georgia Theatre, two major music venues in downtown Athens? The video for ‘Shiny Happy People’ featuring Kate Pearson (B52’s, another Athens band) was filmed in these venues as well as other concerts and recordings. These are also the two venues where R.E.M. became famous. The director for ‘Shiny Happy People’ later went on to make his own national cooking show, by the way. You know him; his name is Alton Brown. Alton was a theatre major at UGA at the time.
What about Walter’s BBQ, which R.E.M. dedicated the song ‘Walter’s Theme’? Great BBQ place that changed ownership over the years.
What about the Church where R.E.M. first performed? What about Wuxtry records where some of the band members worked when forming the band?
There is no easy answer because R.E.M. is ingrained in the fabric of Athens and vice versa. While R.E.M. recorded albums all over and wrote many song influenced and in tribute to other places, they never left Athens and the South never left them.
Actually, it was important for R.E.M. to remain true to their roots. Peter Buck notes “Michael always say think local and act local – we have been doing a lot of stuff in our town to try to make it a better place.” R.E.M. donated money to renovate and preserve local buildings, and contribute to local elections. Perhaps Athens will return the favor by giving R.E.M. a proper tribute in the heart of downtown Athens – a big statue – right at Clayton & College Avenues, next to Wuxtry records, for all to see.
R.E.M. never lost their roots, “such nice boys” the old Southerns ladies would say. They represented their heritage and community proudly for over thirty years. R.E.M. made it a point never to forget – the good and bad. Will we make it a point to never forget R.E.M.? Let’s honor this band in the proper way. I look to Athens to lead the charge to pay the proper tribute to this band that did so much for them.