While countless tributes will be offered up by writers and critics more important and influential than myself, I can’t sit by and fail to comment on a band that has meant more to be than can be put into words. I was born in the mid-80s, and by then, Murmer and Reckoning had already made the band one of the most respected and beloved bands of the decade. Because of this, I quite literally grew up on the band. I very clearly remember the first time I heard them. Driving home one night as a kid, I was in the back, clamoring for my parents to put something on. My dad told me that we were going to listen to something he and my mom wanted to hear, and he put on a mix tape of R.E.M. songs. To call the moment transformative would be a stretch, but even as a kid, I instantly fell in love with the band. I may not have known what the hell “Losing My Religion” meant, but it was an incredibly catchy song that was impossible not to be drawn to.
After 31 years, R.E.M. are calling it quits. One of the most important bands of the last three decades, R.E.M. are responsible for the success and popularity of modern indie rock. There are obvious musical descendants, like The National, but every band on an independent label owes a little bit to R.E.M. for helping keep indies financially viable. Even after joining Warner Brothers, the band set the gold standard for artistic integrity in the MTV era, creating compelling, thoroughly enjoyable music without a hiccup for nearly 15 years. Though the band weakened a bit with the departure of drummer Bill Berry after 1997’s New Adventures in Hi Fi, the three remaining members went through a renaissance on their last two albums, 2008’s Accelerate and this year’s Collapse Into Now. Undoubtedly, their legacy will be centered into what they did between 1981 and 1995, but what the band leaves behind is a tremendous catalogue of music that very few bands can match.
As I got older and dug into the band’s catalogue, I could hear R.E.M. in many new bands I was discovering. Thom Yorke’s love of Michael Stipe was evident. The Decemberists clearly were fans of Peter Buck. Countless acts aped the tight rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry. I joined fan club, feverishly downloaded every bootleg and b-side, and finally in November 2004, got a chance to see R.E.M. play in Indianapolis. During the closer, “Man on the Moon,” I bounced up and down, the guy with graying hair next to me watched on amused. “You shoulda seen them in the 80s,” he said.
By ending now, R.E.M. isn’t quitting at their peak, but at a high point, sparing us from seeing them devolve into a soulless touring entity (the Rolling Stones), lose their cool (U2) or begin to crumble internally (Metallica). Instead we’re left with the music and memories of a band that comes along only once in a generation.