Friday, March 28, 2008

Bittersweet Me


I’m not entirely sure when or where I first heard R.E.M., but in retrospect it probably had something to do with MTV. What I do remember is that alt-rock was red hot, even hotter than indie is now or jambands were eight years ago, and that R.E.M. was definitely my favorite band of the era. At a time when the radio was ruled by the big, loud guitar riffs of Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden, R.E.M. stood out as softer, more intellectual and, most importantly, more emotional. After school, I’d scan the local pop-rock radio stations hoping to hear “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts” or, if I was really lucky, “The One I Love,” and each Hanukah I’d creep one step closer to completing my R.E.M. collection. I started with the blockbusters: the baroque Out of Time, the grungy Monster and the “modern classic” Automatic for the People, which at the time, at least, was hailed as R.E.M.’s defining moment. Then I worked backwards, exploring the I.R.S. collection and the Minus 5 before settling on “Driver 8” as my favorite song. The first time I ever heard the phrase “B-Sides Collection” was in reference to R.E.M.’s grossly underappreciated Dead Letter Office, and I distinctly remember looking up the meaning of the word “eponymous” after reading it on the cover of R.E.M.’s first greatest hits album. I liked Nirvana, still love Pearl Jam, but felt I could only truly relate to R.E.M., four dorky college friends who seemed to over think life just as much as I did.

But, as I grew up and alt-rock splintered beyond repair, R.E.M. and I slowly began to drift. Bill Berry left the band, I discovered the Grateful Dead ‘n Phish, and Michael Stipe started acting more like a celebrity than a rock-and-roll frontman. In high school, Jerry Garcia taught me that silence between songs is often golden, Trey Anastasio reminded me of the old David Byrne saying that “singing is a trick to get people to listen to music longer than they would” and the jam-scene in general shifted my musical interests from emotion to improvisation. 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi featured one of my five favorite R.E.M. moments, the moody, rough “Bittersweet Me,” but I don’t think I even bothered to buy its sequel, Up. Now and then I’d check in on the guys, usually via VH1 or an event like the Vote for Change Tour, but by and large, my interests drifted elsewhere. I think the last time that little band from Athens, GA crossed my mind was when I pulled out an old concert shirt I bought at SPAC my first day of college to attend my final show at CBGBs. I’m not sure if R.E.M. ever played there, but they still seemed to fade with that era.

But, like so many things in life, the musical current has changed once again and now, a decade later, the jangle-rock sound R.E.M. helped pioneer is back style and the trio is ready to reclaim their indie-rock crown. Last month alone they headlined Langerado, played a SXSW showcase at Sutbb’s and scored the cover of Spin for the first in 13 years. Even my most jaded music-loving friends think Accelerate is R.E.M.’s best, and certainly most rocking, album since Monster, but something still feels wrong. Perhaps its because the interweb has rendered MTV irrelevant or that the group’s “lost” celebrity years revealed the sad truth that, at heart, most musicians would rather hang at a trendy night club than CBGBs…or that those grungy Monster riffs I loved so much in ’95 feel as dated as the Rolling Stones’ stab at psychadelia, Her Majesty's Satanic Request.

In a way, its nice to know that R.E.M. is still around, trying their hardest to produce good music, like an old friend from middle school you rarely see, but still keep tabs on. But, as much as R.E.M.’s return to fame is a sign that, as I’ve said time and time again, styles come and go in cycles, something about R.E.M.’s sudden comeback still feels forced. And, its safe to say, R.E.M. has aged into one of my generation’s first real nostalgia acts. It’s a sad fate and one that’s not entirely their fault: If he had sold thousands, not millions, of records, Michel Stipe would be Morrissey and if R.E.M. had broken up after Green and reformed in 2004 they’d be the Pixies. But, instead, R.E.M soldiered on, combating alt-rock’s lean years face to face, and now Stipe is forced to use his emotions, or at least his sexual ambiguity, as equity to bait the media into paying attention. Like so many oldies acts before him.

At Langerado, I’d guestimate about 2,000 kids left R.E.M.’s set early to pre-game in their tents before the Disco Biscuits’ late night set and I can’t really blame them. It must be hard to watch a band tour behind its Behind the Music story if you weren’t around when those stories took place. But, for me, hearing those songs still feels bittersweet.

I move across, innocence lost
All flashing pulsar
I move across the earth in my new pattern shirt
I pass satellites

"You're so bitter," your complaint
I can't give you anything
I don't know who you're livin' for
I don't know who you are anymore

I'd sooner chew my leg off,
Than be trapped in this
How easy you think of all of this as bittersweet me

I couldn't taste it
I'm tired and naked
I don't know what I'm hungry for
I don't know what I want anymore

I move across, candy floss
I move like a tank
I move across the room
With a heart full of gloom,
Stronger than you think

Oh my peer,
Your veneer is wearing thin and cracking
The surface informs that underneath,
Underneath is lacking

You move across, innocence lost,
All static and desire,
You're blue in the face from navel gaze,
You set yourself on fire

You strip down and lay yourself out,
I know you can't fake it,
But are you tired and naked?
Are you tired and naked?

I couldn't taste it
I'm tired and naked
I don't know what I'm hungry for
I don't know what I want anymore

I move across, candy floss
I move like a tank
I move across the room
With a heart full of gloom,
Stronger than you think

-R.E.M., “Bittersweet Me”


1 comment:

AC said...

Always remember, Mike, it's OK to keep loving. Even after several years.