R.E.M. Is No Longer a Band, and That Really Bums Me Out

It was less than a week ago, so of course I remember where I was when I found out that my favorite band had broken up.

However, I don’t suspect that a month, a year or decade will wash away the memory of checking Twitter before I started my daily writing binge, expecting to read a funny post from Michael Ian Black or some fantasy football analysis, but instead finding out that what I had always thought to be so elusive could now never be more so.

If you think I’m being overly melodramatic, maybe you’re right. Still, although no one I know is suddenly dead and there’s no national tragedy to speak of, R.E.M. is no longer a band, and that really bums me out. Going off into the great beyond with nothing more than a murmur, the band members quietly announced the breakup on their website last Wednesday, forgoing the traditional "last-hurrah goodbye tour" route.

Perhaps the thing that disappoints me most is that I never got to see Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry perform together, making me wish that I’d been old enough to appreciate rock music before Berry left the band in 1997, but not so old that I’d be the same age as the band members.

Being of the same generation would almost certainly dilute the impenetrable mystery that surrounds them in my eyes, a product not only of Stipe’s cryptic lyrics and beautifully spooky albums like the seminal Fables of the Reconstruction, but also of my ability to sit here, nine years younger than the band itself, and wonder what it was like to be in a backwoods rock club in 1984 as Buck ripped into an early version of “Life and How to Live It.”

Speaking of Buck, what a guitarist. The way he was able to define R.E.M.’s early sound while remaining ostensibly understated continues to astound me. Whenever I carefully listen to his ringing arpeggios, I’m always able to discover something I didn’t know was there before. He’s one of the primary reasons I even wanted to pick up a guitar in the first place, and one day, I hope to be one-tenth the picker he is.

Ever since I belatedly started digging through their catalog at age 17 in 2006, I’ve wondered what it would be like to watch R.E.M. grow from their pre-Chronic Town rowdiness into the impossibly mellifluous sounds found on Out of Time, which, of course, contains their most popular contribution to the pop canon, “Losing My Religion,” but is also home to lesser-known gems like “Belong” and “Me in Honey.”

A lot of people say they’d travel to prehistoric or medieval times if they had a time machine, but I’d be perfectly comfortable teleporting to 1992 and buying Automatic for the People on the day of its release, going back home and hearing “Man on the Moon,” “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” in succession for the first time, as legions of fans the world over did the same. Hell, I’d go even back to 2008 so I could attend my first R.E.M. show, as their tour that year currently stands as their final go-round.

As it stands, though, that special place in time can only be accessed by poring through 20-year-old books and magazine articles, hunting down singles at used record stores, watching YouTube clips and obsessively dissecting the songs my favorite Georgians left behind. (Needless to say, I’ve done all of these over the past week.)

That leaves me conflicted — on one hand, I’m able to imagine my own version of the enigmatic band and idolize them from a temporal distance, but on the other, I’m forced to realize that these are memories I’ll never have.

I suppose you can’t spell “ephemeral” without “R,” “E” and “M.”

Alex Rice is a 22-year-old novice guitarist living in Minneapolis. He counts R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler and Weezer's Rivers Cuomo among his favorite axemen and enjoys going to concerts and watching baseball in his spare time.

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