Music News

R.E.M. calls it quits after 31 years and fifteen Colorado shows

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"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.

Set list, a list of R.E.M.'s shows and the rest of the story continue on the next page.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon