I’ve never been a huge fan of sequels, but consider this a feelings-filled follow-up to my previous post in praise of mix tapes.
In my few years of befriending budding journalists, arts writers in particular (though this is true for any self-proclaimed music fan), I’ve seen that we all have that one act that changed our lives. Just like the first non-relative to whom you uttered “I love you,” everyone has that one band that rendered the ones before it all but irrelevant. Mine was a bushy-haired quartet that crawled from the South.
I was elated earlier today to discover that some fellow R.E.M. fan had posted the band’s “Behind the Music” on YouTube. I taped the show when I was a freshman in high school, but managed to wear the VHS out after repeated viewings.
I watched the clips today and I think it’s both awesome and pathetic that I still, all these years later, have many of the sound bites and music cues memorized. But that’s what happens with a first love. I bet many of you out there still remember weird quirks about your first boyfriends and girlfriends.
For those of you who aren’t obsessed with R.E.M., here’s a condensed version of the band’s history: Four musically talented guys meet in Athens, Ga. in 1979. They find great success by maintaining their integrity and listening to each other. During a huge world tour in 1995, drummer Bill Berry falls ill when a brain aneurysm bursts while the band is on stage. Berry rests for six weeks, reevaluates his life, and ends up quitting the band two years later. The band regroups, releases albums (die-hard fans like them, critics put up with them) but never achieves previous critical or commercial heights.
One of the great things about R.E.M.’s “Behind the Music” is that it focuses on the art and how these four distinct personalities combined to create some of the best music of the late 20th Century. Unlike so many other episodes of “Behind the Music,” the personal lives of Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and lead singer Michael Stipe are largely left alone, except for references to Stipe being catapulted to rock-star status and the speculation about his sexuality.
However, since I spent far too much of my adolescence reading R.E.M. biographies instead of the classics, I know a little about the band members’ personal histories. Without veering into tabloid territory, let’s just leave things to Buck, who once said: “We still have a very deep reservoir of affection and feeling for one other…You don’t have to live in each others’ pockets to have a really close relationship and after all these years, I’m closer to them than virtually anyone on Earth except my children.”
I’ve always liked the theory that the reason the guys in R.E.M. have had a little more trouble than average men with finding lifelong romantic companionship is obviously because of the rock star life (touring and tabloids) but also because they enjoy making music with each other more than they enjoy anything — or anyone — else. When this wasn’t true anymore for Berry, he split. For the record, he now has new life with his young son and couldn’t be happier.
Without ingratiating myself into the brotherhood of genius musicians from Athens, I would like to suggest that one of my many fears of lifelong commitment (i.e. marriage) comes from my devotion to R.E.M. What if the soon-to-be Mr. One Unique Token wants me to spend more time thinking about him than contemplating R.E.M.’s next musical move? What if The Guy wants me to memorize his history the way I’ve already internalized the backgrounds of Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe? It isn’t that I wouldn’t be open to the changes, but what’s in it for me?
That’s an admittedly selfish concern. I get that. But as a token, I’ve spent so much of my life in completely unrewarding and unsatisfying relationships, where people entered the union on the premise that my needs were at best, of second importance to theirs, or at worst, nonexistent. That doesn’t excuse my self-serving desire to put “You” above you, but that at least serves as an explanation.
When a band’s music has guided you through almost every significant emotional eruption in your life (from having a parent with cancer to leaving for college and everything that’s on this blog), it’s tough to want to switch teams for a new act, or a new title.
What has R.E.M. given me? R.E.M. set my standards. I truly believe that if your first love relationship is generally healthy, you are set to seek further positive romantic partners. That’s why I trust my taste, and was able to find artists like Ryan Adams and Death Cab for Cutie, even if they didn’t explicitly have an R.E.M. connection or the band’s seal of approval (unlike, Wilco, Radiohead and Pearl Jam; bands I found or reconsidered directly due to R.E.M.).
Yet, as many times as I buy other bands’ albums, I never quite feel that spark that I felt the first time I heard “Automatic for the People.” Part of me doesn’t want to. I don’t know what I would do if a Coldplay album or a Red Hot Chili Peppers tune hit me half as hard as “Nightswimming” still does. Starting new relationships is scary, precisely because it means leaving old ones behind.
This isn’t to say that R.E.M. hasn’t steered me wrong, but it’s just so hard to hold a grudge against the person or people who taught you how to love, whether it’s rock or romance.
After being kicked around love’s playing field a few times, it becomes easy for hindsight to become hazy. Your first boyfriend shifts from a lazy louse to a confused future Casanova. Your first girlfriend is no longer a self-centered slut but a shy sufferer of low self-esteem.
Likewise, I look at what many consider R.E.M.’s musical missteps with great fondness and an earful of excuses: “Around the Sun” becomes an ahead-of-its time masterpiece and “Up” evolves into an underrated classic. R.E.M. turned me into a hypocrite. I can’t understand my friends who break up with their loser boyfriends only to return to their arms weeks later, but I also can’t stop defending my favorite band. The difference is, R.E.M. hasn’t broken my heart. (though not a day goes by where I don’t wish for Berry’s reutrn). I genuinely still like the trio’s music — and rock critics seem to agree that “Accelerate” was a much-needed return to form for the group — while still being able to admit R.E.M.’s best days probably lie in the past. I’m OK with my supposed hypocrisy, because it’s harmless: I never found R.E.M. in bed with my best friend. R.E.M. didn’t give me a sexually transmitted disease and lie about it.
I like to say that being a token complicates my love life, and in a lot of ways it does. I’m not really willing to marry someone who doesn’t understand (or isn’t willing to learn about) the significance of my Julia doll, or someone who thinks unintelligent barbs about racism are hilarious. But the truth is, just as loving your bandmates more than you love being in love can complicate finding a soulmate, wanting to be a great fan more than you want to be a great wife can be tough as well.
Rob Sheffield and his beloved Renee had it right. You find someone whose heart is big enough to love you and your love for the band, and then you allow your heart to grow that big as well. Just as those two bonded over Big Star and the band’s ballad “Thirteen,” me and The One will probably walk down the aisle to “You are the Everything” or something equally as emo.
In the meantime, you can find me in the corner.