I wouldn't say exactly that I was obsessed with R.E.M.-you might say I was passionately interested.
It was enough interest to carry me down the Ventura Freeway to Thousand Oaks, where at a store called Record Outlet I would scan the bins for live R.E.M. bootlegs; they always had something good.
I'm pretty sure it was at the Record Outlet in the mid-'80s that I found a vinyl picture disc containing a lengthy interview with guitarist Peter Buck, conducted by a rather geeky British guy who kept using the words "rocky-pop" to describe the band's music, a drawback that almost caused me to discontinue my listening pleasure. During the interview, Buck said he assumed-and hoped-that R.E.M.'s fans in the early days would stop buying the band's albums and listening to its music before too long and move on to new bands and different styles.
At the time, I figured Buck was just trying to say something cool, and I didn't make too much of it. But it has stuck with me, and it might have subconsciously influenced how long I stay interested in a rock band and its music. I tend to think most bands lose it after their first two records, and I consider those bands that don't-The Beatles, The Stones-special.
I'm guessing that I heard the Buck interview after the release of R.E.M.'s fourth LP, Life's Rich Pageant, and before the next one, Document. Having been on the bandwagon since their first LP, Murmer, came out in 1983-L.A. Times music critic Robert Hilburn turned me on to them amid his gushing devotion to Bruce Springsteen-I was still firmly in their clutches and had no plans to stop buying their records and going to their shows.
When Document was released in 1987, it may not have been as good as the first three records, but it was still excellent-better than Pageant. But with Document came a noticeable difference-singer Michael Stipe's voice was brought out more in the mix than it had been in the past. That Stipe's voice was just another instrument in R.E.M.'s music-no more prominent than the guitar, bass or drums-was one of the top draws for me. I rather liked that I couldn't decipher Stipe's lyrics and had no idea what his songs were about. No small number of R.E.M. fans made a sort of game out of inserting their own version of Stipe's lyrics (I remember someone arguing that in the song "Sitting Still," Stipe sang, "We can gather, throw up beer").
By 1987, that had begun to change. Document's lyrics were understandable, and there seemed to be a conscious effort to produce radio-worthy singles ("The One I Love," "It's the End of the World As We Know It"). No matter. I still loved the record. All of it.
But the singles on Document propelled R.E.M. into the elite among the Rock Bands With Integrity of the late-'80s (U2 was the undisputed leader at the time). And with radio play came fame and a whole new herd of fans. And Peter Buck's words began to take shape.
R.E.M.'s tour in support of 1988's Green came to the Great Western Forum, the arena where the Lakers played and the biggest venue the band had ever played in Los Angeles. I went to that show, and from my seat, Buck, Stipe, Mike Mills and Bill Berry appeared very small and far away. They didn't resemble the band I saw at the Wiltern Theater or the Universal Amphitheater or the Santa Barbara County Bowl (where an up-close performance of "Feeling Gravity's Pull" had blown my mind).
Green itself was choppy-some decent songs ("Turn You Inside-Out," "World Leader Pretend"), but too much mandolin for my taste. And it contained that song, "Stand." Ack. So bad, so appallingly obnoxious. Yes, R.E.M. themselves have made fun of that song, but that's no consolation. There's no convincing reason for putting it on the album, making a video for it or playing it live. I took it as a sign from Buck that he was serious in that interview. R.E.M. no longer had use for me as a fan.
I bought the band's next album, Out of Time, but my heart wasn't in the purchase or the listening, and I didn't like it. I would never buy another R.E.M. record. Nor would I ever intentionally listen to their subsequent music-not out of bitterness; I just wasn't interested. R.E.M. had pushed me out of the nest, and I fell comfortably into the welcoming, grubby arms of grunge.
Goodbye R.E.M. Hello Nirvana and Mudhoney.
In the final analysis, R.E.M. in the early- to mid-'80s served as a bridge. Before R.E.M., I had been on two parallel musical tracks-one included older stuff like The Beatles, The Stones, The Who and The Doors; the other was all about contemporary bands like Talking Heads, Devo, The Pretenders, The Clash, Gang of Four, the Buzzcocks and X. R.E.M escorted me from all that, through stuff like the Chili Peppers, Meat Puppets, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and fIREHOSE, and into a brave new world that included everything grungy-plus wacky Primus-type stuff and alt-country such as Uncle Tupelo and its offspring, Son Volt and Wilco. R.E.M. also took me back to get the Velvet Underground, Big Star and the Modern Lovers.
Because the timing was right-I was 19 when Murmer was released-R.E.M. was the center of my musical universe, and for that reason, they can really do no wrong.
I will check them out at Street Scene, just to see how my old friend has aged.
Dave Rolland's top-13 R.E.M. songs
1. Carnival of Sorts (Chronic Town EP, 1982)
2. Gardening at Night (Chronic Town EP, 1982)
3. Sitting Still (Murmer, 1983)
4. Feeling Gravity's Pull (Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985)
5. Welcome to the Occupation (Document, 1987)
6. Talk About the Passion (Murmer, 1983)
7. Driver 8 (Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985)
8. Odd Fellows Local 151 (Document, 1987)
9. These Days (Life's Rich Pageant, 1986)
10. 7 Chinese Brothers (Reckoning, 1984)
11. Auctioneer (Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985)
12. Catapult (Murmer, 1983)
13. Exhuming McCarthy (Document, 1987)
R.E.M. will play at San Diego Street Scene on Sept. 7. $40. 619-220-8497