After three decades together, the guys in R.E.M. announced today in a statement on the band's website that they're throwing in the towel.
"As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators," the statement reads, "We have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening." One such listener was Backbeat writer Tom Murphy, who shares his thoughts on the band and interviews guitarist Peter Buck.
By Tom Murphy
When R.E.M. was marketed as "the band you grew up with" in the mid-'90s, my immediate knee-jerk reaction was a renunciation of such a cynical appeal to nostalgia, but it was pretty much true. I went to school at Knox College in Illinois as R.E.M. was on the cusp of becoming popular outside of the circuit of college radio listeners and on into the mainstream. In fact, there's a line in "It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine" that mentions Knox College -- "tripped at Knox." Plenty of people can claim to have done that. But R.E.M. played on campus regularly until the year I went because Green had become a best-selling album and small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest were no longer part of the band's touring circuit.
So I didn't get to see R.E.M. until September 13, 2003 at Red Rocks. My girlfriend at the time and I went and, fortunately, we thought to bring a blanket or two because that was one terribly cold day in September and I remember draping the blankets over the both of us because I thought that's what I was supposed to do and after the show I felt like my limbs had frozen in place. Mostly, because I wasn't paying attention to my discomfort so much as getting to see the band that had written some of my favorite music of all time.
Wilco and Ed Harcourt had opened and both were excellent but when R.E.M. came on, the band's performance reminded me -- even if I wasn't as much fan of post-Automatic For the Peoplematerial -- that the guys could still create songs that didn't elicit much enthusiasm from me on a recording, yet be incredibly meaningful live. Michael, Peter, Mike and the rest played all the hits that night. I don't remember if they played my favorite of their songs, "Gardening at Night," but I can pretend they did.
Five years later, and two years into my writing gig with Westword, Dave Herrera emailed me and asked if I had any interest in interviewing Peter Buck. It was my first interview with an out-of-town artist. It also turns out that out of pretty much anyone that gives interviews to music journalists, Peter Buck was, and remains, probably my favorite interviewee. The guy's sharp, disarmingly honest, brilliantly articulate and he always seems to have something insightful to say about music and his own role as a musician.
More than almost anyone in the history of popular or underground music, Buck has consistently been a champion of other bands. This stems from the beginning, when R.E.M. got some press and toured the country by van like Black Flag. In fact, Buck more than likely championed Black Flag to audiences who never would have otherwise checked out a hardcore band, even one as singular, inspirational and foundational as the Flag. Buck interviews over the years introduced me to some great music and he made me think differently about music, how to think about it and, more importantly, how to talk and write about it in a way that shows respect to the art and the process of that art.
Naturally I researched my interview extensively and I watched every Buck interview I could find and read several. I still remembered seeing him talk about Out of Time on MTV when it came out just before spring 1991. At that time I had kind of written the band off as a favorite of the annoying, hippie rich kids I went to school with. But when Buck said, with all sincerity, something like, "I think it's the best thing we've ever done. But if you didn't like us before, you won't like us now." That level of being realistic is something I hadn't seen in many people up to that point, much less someone in a famous band who might want to plug his record.
As an interviewee, Buck was one of the most gracious, engaging and helpful people you could ever hope to talk to. Yes, he'd probably done hundreds of interviews before he and I spoke, but he never made it feel like you were putting him out. He talked to me like he'd talk to an acquaintance on the way to becoming a friend. He addressed each question with the thoughtfulness I had brought to formulating them and never for a moment pulled some rock-star routine. He was respectful and while I'm naturally inclined to be respectful to people even beyond the point where it's deserved, Buck really inspired a deep respect in return. At the end I even offered to give him some Denver music at the upcoming show and he was open to that.
When I saw R.E.M. at Red Rocks, again, it was Modest Mouse (with Johnny Marr on guitar, no less) and The National. Again, both opening bands were a good fit. R.E.M.'s light show, that night, was the best I'd ever seen up to that time.
The programmed L.E.D. screens with various images including projections of the band reinterpreted through some kind of visual filter were awe-inspiring. Might have gone to this show alone and I did a review where I meticulously wrote notes that I used later to figure out an accurate set list. You rarely actually get a hold of a set list, especially at a big show like this. Afterward, I found myself with a backstage pass and I went to that basement area of Red Rocks and hung out with other people so fortunate to get the opportunity as well.
That spring I had lost my voice for a month due to allergies and I spoke in a whispered croak. But when I met Michael Stipe and shook hands with him, he gave me some kind advice on treating the illness and he let me take a picture with him as well. Mike Mills was also surprisingly nice and cool as well.
But Peter Buck was nowhere to be found.
Someone said something about him being upset with some technical mishap on stage, but who really knows? So I never gave him the box of Denver music I had brought with me and felt like sending it to some record company office might get it put in the round file. So I didn't send it that route either. Nevertheless, I feel privileged to have been able to see the band that I first heard in high school when Document came out, that I saw on a Bob Goldthwait comedy special performing "Strange" by Wire, that honored my alma mater with a mention in a song two nights at Red Rocks.
Here's the set list for June 3, 2008:
Set List 1. Living Well is the Best Revenge 2. What's the Frequency Kenneth 3. Welcome To the Occupation 4. Ignoreland 5. Man-Sized Wreath 6. World Leader Pretend 7. Accelerate 8. Cuyahoga 9. The Hollow Man 10. Walk Unafraid 11. Houston 12. Electrolite 13. The One I Love 14. Feeling Gravity's Pull 15. Departure 16. The Final Straw 17. I've Been High 18. Let Me In 19. Horse To Water 20. Bad Day 21. Orange Crush 22. I'm Gonna DJ Encore 1. Supernatural Superserious 2. These Days 3. Losing My Religion 4. Fall On Me 5. Man on the Moon
Here's a list of R.E.M.'s concerts over the last three decades culled from The R.E.M. Timeline:
1 June 1983 - Red Rocks Amphitheater, Morrison, CO supporting: The English Beat, Bow Wow Wow
27 June 1983 - Rainbow Music Hall, Denver, CO
2 July 1984 - The Bamboo Bar, Hotel Colorado, Glenwood Springs, CO
3 July 1984 - Rainbow Music Hall, Denver, CO
support: Dream Syndicate
11 September 1984 - Macky Auditorium, University Of Colorado, Boulder, CO support: The dB's
2 November 1985 - C.U. Events Center, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO support: 10,000 Maniacs
9 October 1986 - C.U. Events Center, Boulder, CO support: Camper Van Beethoven
5 October 1989 - McNichols Sports Arena, Denver, CO support: NRBQ
24 May 1995 - Fiddlers Green, Englewood, CO support: Sonic Youth
25 May 1995 - Fiddlers Green, Englewood, CO support: Sonic Youth
15 August 1999 - Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Denver, CO support: Mercury Rev
13 September 2003 - Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Denver, CO support: Wilco, Ed Harcourt
14 September 2003 - Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Denver, CO support: Wilco, Ed Harcourt
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27 November 2004 - The Fillmore Auditorium, Denver, CO support: Charlie Mars
3 June 2008 - Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Denver, CO support: Modest Mouse, The National