100 Greatest Artists

97

R.E.M.

Illustration by Anita Kunz

I first heard R.E.M. in 1986, a song tacked on to the end of a demos collection of a Eugene, Oregon, band that my uncle, then in school at U of O, sent to me for Christmas. The song was called "Superman," a bit of meticulously crafted bubblegum that was so simple and honest and funny that my entire nascent library of cassettes (chiefly: Yaz, Scritti Politti and Depeche Mode) seemed to be rendered obsolete in the span of the track's three minutes. I was fully hooked. Little did I know: Becoming enamored with indie bands in Helena, Montana, in the late 1980s was kind of like developing a taste for beluga caviar in rationing-era postwar Britain.

By the time Lifes Rich Pageant was gracing the yellow Sony Sports boomboxes of the world, R.E.M. was totally a going concern. The following year brought Document, and that landed them a video on MTV, even. Still, in Helena, being an R.E.M. fan meant being part of a tiny community. A community that, as far as I could tell, consisted of exactly one person. Then Green came around, and suddenly this band was on a major label, playing arenas, and every human in America with two ears and access to radio was being demanded to "Stand." I listened to Chronic Town — procured on a recent family vacation to Los Angeles — on my Walkman backstage during rehearsal for the school production of Guys and Dolls, rehearsing the conversation in my head:

"What are you listening to?" they'd ask.

"R.E.M.," I'd reply.

"Oh — they do that song 'Stand.'"

"Yeah," I'd reply casually, "I'm not really into that song — this is their first EP. It's, like, from 1982."

It was well-rehearsed, but it never actually happened. I had to suffer the philistines — stealing my band — silently. But still: To be an ardent R.E.M. fan, happy to venture beyond the pale of the radio singles, was a rare thing. Middle school was brutal for me, and I clung to my music like a life raft. Murmur, Reckoning ... even Dead Letter Office, with its beer-soaked goofs and discarded B sides, provided a much-needed insulation against the cruel, Queensrÿche-and-Garth-Brooks-listening world. "When I was young and full of grace/And spirited, a rattlesnake/When I was young and fever fell/My spirit? I will not tell...." However inscrutable Michael Stipe's lyrics were, they always gave language to this weird, agonizing metamorphosis taking place in my head. I was desperately searching for like-minded kids, but with every semester that went by, I felt like my isolation only grew.

My parents, at a loss, suggested I get involved in the local community theater's after-school program. I was initially skeptical, but I agreed to give it a shot. As I climbed the stone steps toward the theater's entrance, the doors flew open and out walked a girl I'd never seen before — someone from the high school, maybe — wearing a gauzy sundress and a notable lack of hair spray in her long hair. But the thing that caught my eye: She was wearing a Fables of the Reconstruction T-shirt. I was floored. She smiled shyly — probably more embarrassed at my gaping than anything — and walked by.

I'd been given the signal. A wayward fugitive, stumbling through the door of some Provençal cafe, his hat and coat soaking wet from the journey. The customers turn and look, each more untrusting than the next. Till a flash of a badge or the wave of a ribbon can be seen from the farthest table, and he knows: This is it. You're in the resistance now, son.

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