Can’t Eviscerate These Memories: What my Favorite Band, R.E.M., Has Meant to Me Over the Years

I never thought to write all this down before, but a friend asked me to hop on his podcast to talk about our favorite band, R.E.M. This is my attempt to get my thoughts together before that conversation.

I honestly don’t know when I first heard the band, but I do know it was in high school, with the Green album.

I didn’t listen to them all day every day, and there’s a lot of their catalogue (covers, concert films etc.) I feel like I’ve enabled to be new to me years later.

This has been a blessing in later years as they now have the ability to become new to me all over again in different ways. I also joined a couple R.E.M. groups on Facebook, which has really helped offset a lot of the political parts of my newsfeed.

Because let’s face it, not everyone can carry the weight of the world.

Speaking of which, I remember doing a paper on the video for that song, Talk About the Passion

That aspect of R.E.M., being aware of the world in a compassionate way and how we could imagine a reinvented world (Cuyahoga, Begin the Begin etc.) ended up significantly shaping my world view. There’s a combination of vulnerability and righteous indignation at what humanity has wrought that I feel is a central part of both their ethos and their timeliness.

This was made manifest for me shortly after Trump was elected, when I put together a “Survival Guide” playlist that I was surprised to find had 30 songs on it. Some, like “World Leader Pretend” are pretty obvious, but then others like “The Wrong Child” seemed to fit as well.

Of course, I’ve been compiling R.E.M. for years, including (pre World Wide Web) a lyrics compilation for my younger brother, after I took him to his first-ever concert, R.E.M. outside of Pittsburgh, where I somehow got charged with the equivalent of vehicle theft, but that was more of a misunderstanding.

Since they’ve broken up, I’ve been thrilled to discover a few R.E.M. over bands, including one I discovered based in, I’m not kidding, Rockville. They’re called N.E.W. Athens and I learned about them in the best way possible. I had no idea they were the opening act for a Talking Heads cover band I bought tickets for until they were announced. When I found out they were from my own town, I was over the moon.

Fast forward, I brought a couple friends, including my brother, each of whom have daughters, to see N.E.W. Athens play in Bethesda. They did a very special cover of You are the Everything, on the eve of the lead singer’s daughter’s 13th birthday and he sang it as a tribute to her. Watching my friends be emotionally touched by the cover was beautiful and it also served to remind of the transcendent nature of R.E.M.’s work.

In some ways I’m a bigger fan of the band now more than ever. I think it has to do with the idea that the more you live and learn, the more you can appreciate what they have put into the world. They really did do things on their terms. I sometimes think I may have internalized that lesson too much. I’ll sometimes make references, or write headlines that not everyone gets. Instead of trying to revise them, I tend to get more stubborn, and think to myself, “This isn’t for everyone. But for those who do appreciate it, I’m there for them.”

Being an R.E.M. fan feels like being part of something that’s both obscure and global. I never wanted them to be cool. I sometimes wanted others to like them or “get” them more because I really felt like they tapped into something the universe has to offer that could make the world a better place. Growing up, the two groups that have probably shaped my worldview more than any others were R.E.M. and Public Enemy. For very different reasons and from very different backgrounds they each helped point me to understandings of the world that have stayed with me for a lifetime.

Speaking of a lifetime, it’s a surreal feeling to think back to how far away age 30 felt when I first heard the lyrics “I can’t see myself at 30” and that milestone went from the windshield to the rear view mirror.

I think about how and when I choose to immerse myself into their music. And while this may sound dark, I often find myself using them to sit with dark, sad feelings as a means of working through them. And while “Everybody Hurts” might be the obvious guess for a song on that list, I’m more likely to listen to “Low,” “Belong,” Find the River,” “Überlin,” “E-Bow the Letter” and others. It’s a band whose music you can wear like a blanket. I also find myself listening to the songs featuring Mike Mills on lead vocals (“Texarkana,” “Near Wild Heaven” and others) as I’m on the upswing. Your results may vary.

It’s a band that has meant more to me than I could have imagined when I first started listening. I am both dying to meet them in person, and terrified of such an encounter because I’m afraid my attempts to explain how they’ve bene a part of my life would never come out right.

I will say that the more I’ve learned about relationships, this country and what we could become, the more I feel like R.E.M. as covered a lot of ground that should serve as a vital resources for generations to come.