R.E.M. guitarist Pete Buck sprawled on a couch backstage at the Aragon Ballroom before the band's show last Saturday, Bud in hand, unshaven, wearing the same red and blue striped shirt and black levi he had worn in Milwaukee the day before, trying to explain that, despite all the critics praise, the larger venues and bigger crowds, things hadn't changed that much for the band.
"We still enjoy talking to people, but people do tend to get that impression of us being distant-partially because, you know, there's this big machinery around you, whether you like it or not.
"It's probably a whole lot looser than for anyone else at our level. It's still tightened up a little just because . . .you know . . eventually things start getting a little weird.
"WELL, LIKE today the plaster casters came and wanted to have us do the . . . you know . . . " he trailed off, a little embarrassed about his encounter with the infamous Chicago groupies who, aside from providing the usual r 'n' r for rock 'n' rollers. Buck politely explained, "make plaster casts of your sex organs."
He laughed nervously, his voice jumping an octave. "And I don't know what to say to someone like that . . . I mean, I'm sure they're nice girls and everything. What do I say? 'Sorry darling, that's not my style?' "
"That must mean that you've really arrived, " I suggested.
"Yeah, that’s what I thought: " He shook his head.
"WELL, DID you let 'em do it?"
R.E.M. - Reckoning (IRS)
WHEN I hear the word 'plangent' I reach for my applause button. Which is why 'Reckoning' and its predecessor, last year's 'Murmur', confirm R.E.M. as one of the most beautifully exciting groups on the planet.
It would be naÃ¯ve to deny that enjoyment of these vinyl cathedrals is untouched by love of the tradition from which they spring - the soaring trajectory from The Beatles 'Hard Day's Night', through The Searchers to America's electric Dylan and reaching an apogee in West Coast laureates The Byrds, Jingle-jangle merchants have followed - '70s British pub-rock, the likes of Dwight Twilley, Orange Juice at times, and a whole new generation of 12-string choristers. But none have devoted themselves with such inspiration to the driving, towering purity to bye found in the fullness of what is demeaningly called space-folk guitar music. When I get to heaven, the angels will be playing not harps but Rickenbackers. And they will be playing songs by R.E.M.
Drugs don't come into it: there's no need for a head full of snow or funny pills to groove into the spirit of R.E.M. It's to do with America, the journey west to the Promised Land with nothing buy a shimmering horizon ahead and a blazing, deep blue sky above. And though R.E.M. address themselves particularly to America the country, they resonate beyond that to signify America the state of mind; a Garden of Eden before its loss of innocence, its fall from grace.
It seems no coincidence that R.E.M. hail from Georgia in the New South, the paradise to be regained after California was lost. Wheel me out frothering if your like, but R.E.M. sing wistfully of a Golden Age hat never was. Though even the most part-time romantic wishes it had been and hopes, in some tiny moment of nirvana, it will come again.
This is the first of what I hope will be a series of essays written on behalf of the album, Reckoning which will be rereleased to celebrate it's 25th Anniversary on June 23rd.
It started with an innocent enough phrase (or maybe not so much now that you think about it) in a pop song and turned my life into something completely different. Looking back at that moment it was not entirely special or spectacular. I did not see the an apparition of the Virgin Mary nor did I know of it at that time that 20 plus years later I would be writing this here.
But the song had resonated with me deeply as a prepubescent teenager. This was a challenge when dealing with early R.E.M., as anyone who was listening before Al Gore invented the Internet can attest to. Michael Stipe was not competing at the “Enunciating” World Championships because if that was the case, the East German judge would have quit on the spot in disgust.
The only reference I had to the song was the fact that 'The Five Chinese Brothers’ was a familiar fable that I had read/been read in my early youth about boys that each had a supernatural power.
Realize at this time I was just a silly suburban kid with bad acne and was not at this point involved with investigating the deeper meanings of songs. For example, there might be literary criticism existing somewhere of Van Halen’s “Jump”, however, at the time these types of songs were clearly more vested for me in terms of watching music videos or hearing them on the radio. My music world contained songs that didn't derive much more than what was on the surface.