Tuesday, November 8, 2011

THIS IS NOT A BIO: An Alternative History of R.E.M. (2 of 3)

[Go here to read Part One.]

On September 9, 1994, three weeks before the U.S. release of their first official album Monster, R.E.M. released their first official single. The glammy, heavily reverbed “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” couldn’t have been better chosen for airplay on Modern Rock radio – nor could it have been more different from what the die-hard fans of R.E.M.’s pre-fame Athens days were used to.

For its title and bizarre subject matter, “Kenneth” was a terrific and powerful rocker that at first was seen as a quasi-novelty song along the lines of the Presidents of the United States of America’s “Lump.” (The song’s title came from a 1986 attack on CBS newsman Dan Rather, where two men kept asking him the titular question between punches; Stipe later explained the song as about “a guy who’s desperately trying to understand the younger generation.”) Nevertheless, “Kenneth” blew up as a single, eventually reaching Number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

Monster became a monster hit, hitting Number One on the Billboard charts and the British album charts, mainly on the strength of pre-release buzz and a trippy video, where a newly bald Michael Stipe drew comparisons to another follicle-challenged frontman, Live’s Ed Kowalczyk. Needless the say, the band was everywhere during the Fall of 1994, perfoming a rare three songs (“Kenneth?” “Bang and Blame,” “I Don't Sleep, I Dream”) on Saturday Night Live in November and appearing on the Richard Thompson tribute Beat the Retreat. (Stipe also branched out from his frequent harmony work with Natalie Merchant by dueting with Tori Amos on the Don Juan de Marco soundtrack.) However, as they prepared for their first massive world tour, R.E.M. began to experience the same growing pains that had struck their friend, Nirvana’s frayed frontman Kurt Cobain.

But R.E.M.’s experience was much more complex: they were essentially older guys who had experienced “overnight” success after playing tiny clubs for over a decade. They were a “new” band of old pros. Their “new” sound appealed millions of record buyers who knew nothing of their long history together. But their fanatical cult of devoted listeners who had been with the band since the early 1980s immediately pilloried them for their “instant” success. It seemed the fate that had befallen Soul Asylum -- another great regional indie band who had suffered many years in obscurity only to be held up as a model for selling out -- might befall R.E.M. And the fact that they seemed to vaunt from obscurity to headlining their own tour in record time drew them jaundiced comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins and that band's alleged air of unearned entitlement. Mike Mills didn’t help when he burnished his onstage image with pouffed hair and one of Gram Parson’s conspicuously consumptive Nudie suits.

It seemed a strange – and unfair –predicatment for indie rock veterans now reaching their mid thirties. And as we all know, in the indie rock world, one perception can throw a million facts out the window. Graffiti began popping up around the band’s hometown of Athens, Georgia: “R.E.M.D.O.A.”

As 1995 dawned, R.E.M. embarked on the massive spectacle of its 69-date Monster tour, playing shows in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Spain, France and Italy. However, at a March 1 show in Lausanna, Switzerland, drummer Bill Berry experienced a severe headache and had to leave the stage mid-show. He is later diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and shows through May were canceled. R.E.M. eventually returned to touring but again had to cancel shows in July when bassist Mike Mills had to undergo an emergency appendectomy.

Then, at a July 22 gig in Slane Castle, Ireland, two teenage fans drowned in the Boyne River, futher devastating the band. The same month that their third single “Crush With Eyeliner” was released, Stipe suffered a hernia and also had to undergo surgery. By the time the band performed a new song, “The Wake-Up Bomb,” for the MTV Video Awards in September, many wondered if waiting so long for success may have cost the band its health. R.E.M. was joked about as “decrepit rock,” “old-guy rock” and “hospice rock.” What nobody knew at the time was that during the recording of Monster, Mills had his first bout with appendicitis, Berry was knocked flat by the flu, and Stipe suffered a painful tooth abcess.

As R.E.M. extended break in Winter/Spring of 1996 to recover from the various tour-inspired maladies, making just a few live appearances at a Tibet House Benefit and a VH1 Honors Benefit. In January, the Rolling Stone Reader’s Poll voted them Best Band and Best Tour. After Berry’s medical emergency, Buck suggested as a joke that they record their next album on the road because who knew if they would even survive to see another recording studio. But the others thought this was a peachy idea; Stipe cited Jackson Browne’s classic “live” concept album Running on Empty as an example of this being done successfully. “Wake-Up Bomb” was caught from a live show at the North Charleston Coliseum; “Underdow” at Boston’s Fleete Center; “Leave” at a soundcheck in Atlanta; “Zither” came from a dressing room in Philadelphia. After adding four more studio tracks from Seattle’s Bad Animals studio ("How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," "E-Bow the Letter," "Be Mine," "New Test Leper"), R.E.M. released its second full-length album in September 1996 to almost universal disdain.

New Adventures in Hi-Fi became R.E.M.’s Sam’s Town, its Don’t Look Back, its Temple of Low Men. Perhaps it was the release of the first single that clinched the sophomore-slump fate of Hi-Fi: “E-Bow the Letter” was a dour, funereal dirge cemented by Buck’s use of the titular instrumental effect and guest Patti Smith’s Morticia Adams-style vocals. Instead of singing, Stipe sort of mumble-talked his way through the tune, a practice that confused many of their most ardent fans, who after the Big Rock success of Monster were confronted with a chilly, alienating song-cycle about death, rootlessness, and alien abduction.

Granted, it was about as fun to listen to as a tooth abcess, but it may have been the band’s way of making way for a more adventurous path (hence the title). Indeed, R.E.M. had shared some of its 1995 tour dates with Radiohead and Sonic Youth, and they had absorbed those bands’ embracing of dissonance and aural experimentation. If anything, Hi-Fi could be a musical variation on Radiohead’s chilly, alienating tour film Meeting People Is Easy. “One of the things we wanted to do was try to capture what being on tour is like,” Peter Buck later told an interviewer. “That total dislocation of city to city. Not knowing anyone, flying all over the place.” Buck compared his Monster tour experience to that of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. As one reviewer concluded: “The instant-success and the $45 million dollar-grossing spectacle of the Monster tour was punishing for a band not used to it…and on Hi-Fi, R.E.M. seems determined to punish us in return.”

Hi-Fi also may have been an attempt to shed the frat-boy contingent of their audience, to “purify” their fan base. Songs like “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” “The Wake-Up Bomb,” “Undertow” and “Leave” meld the organic qualities of R.E.M.’s music with assaultive sonics like sirens or disorted vocals. (Someone referred to it as “abstract country.”) But even such a humanistic band couldn’t resist inserting a few olive branches: the gorgeous, acoustic-driven “New Test Leper,” the twang-flavored “Bittersweet Me” and the shimmering “Electrolite” deserve places in the pantheon of classic R.E.M.

The album nevertheless charted at No. 1 in the U.K. charts and debuted at No. 2 in the U.S. but eventually selling just under 5 million copies, a disappointment in light of Monster’s multi-platinum status. But R.E.M. had other growing pains to deal with: the acrimonious parting with their longtime friend and manager Jefferson Holt, who was accused by an R.E.M. staffer of sexual harassment. Although Holt later settled for a “substantial” severance package, R.E.M. closed its ranks to the press and the rumor mill surrounding the allegations, its attitude basically summed up by Mike Mills: “None of your fucking business.” All Buck would say for the record was: “I can guarantee I’ll never be in the same room with him again.”

Due to the financial goodwill lingering from the Monster, the band opted not to do much to promote Hi-Fi, instead releasing their first video Road Movie in May 1997, which was directed by "Kenneth"'s Peter Care and included many songs from both Monster and Hi-Fi. They also made an appearance on the Sweet Relief II benefit CD performing Vic Chesnutt’s “Sponge." Stipe took a wobbly but poignant solo take on “Electrolite” on the Tibetan Freedom Concert live CD, sparking rumors that R.E.M. as a band was history and Stipe was preparing for a solo career many thought he should have had much sooner.

If the rumors were untrue, they sure weren't quelled by Bill Berry’s announcement in Ocotber 1997 that he was leaving the band. After just two albums, it looked like R.E.M. was already history.

COMING UP IN PART 3: "It's the end of this band as we know it -- and we're totally fine with that."

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