Tuesday, November 15, 2011

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

[Go here to read Part 2]

The announcement of Bill Berry's departure really shouldn’t have come as a big surprise. His onstage brain aneurysm in 1995 was a clarifying moment for the drummer. “I'm still young enough that I can do something else,” he told MTV host Chris Connelly. “I've been pounding the tubs since I was nine years old ... I'm at a point in my life where some of my priorities have shifted.” True to their “all-four-one” ethic forged in their decade of obscurity, the other three members supported Berry. "I think it's a very courageous move for Bill to make," Michael Stipe told the Associated Press. "We're backing him in his decision, as sad as it is. It's a positive, because he'll be a lot happier out of the band, and we'll be able to continue without him with his blessing."

Other statements the band made to the press around this time had a similar robotic “press release/hyper-positive/everything’s fine” feeling to them. They were meant to send Bill off with no visible stress. However – to borrow a phrase from VH1 – “behind the scenes, things had grown tense.”

Jumping right into a new studio in San Francisco with a new producer, the threesome set themselves a grueling recording schedule. Unwise perhaps, as Stipe would later admit, “I completely shut down during the making of that record. I had the mother of all writer’s block, just because the band was falling apart.” It didn’t help that director Milos Forman approached the band to compose the score for his upcoming biopic on the comedian Andy Kaufman. Not one but two recording projects contributed to such tension that the band decided to take an extended hiatus from recording until the Summer of 1998, where they appeared at the Tibetan Freedom Concert. The anticipation was high for the live debut of the “new” R.E.M. and the band confused many by starting the set with an almost formless, electronica-flavored new song with Stipe donning a Tibetan monk robe. They were augmented by drummer Joey Waronker and keyboardist Scott McCaughey, which sparked speculation that the onetime drummer for Beck might inherit Berry’s drum seat.

They were wrong: R.E.M. decided to charge ahead as a trio and made the interesting decision to record songs for the new album with a series of drum machines and session drummers. It seemed to be yet another Viking-funeral choice for a million-selling band who could have written its own ticket. But instead of going back to the center, R.E.M. got even weirder. In an NPR interview around the time, Stipe and Buck revealed that the band was making an “electronic” album with a twist: they would only used old and outmoded analog keyboards, not “state of the art” equipment, in order to capture, as Buck explained “a sort of lo-fi approximation of technological decay.” This was an aesthetic being championed by indie bands like California’s Grandaddy and Virginia’s Sparklehorse. It resulted in what many have called “R.EM.’s bravest hour.”

Released nearly a year to the day of Bill Berry’s departure, Up at first seems to confront ears with songs that, according to one critic on AllMusic, “are easy to admire but hard to love.” There is much to admire: the menacing “Airportman,” the ominous, synth-washed “Lotus”; Stipe’s poignant lyrics and vocals on the soaring “Daysleeper” and the melancholy "Sad Professor"; Mike Mills’ Brian Wilson pastiche “At My Most Beautiful.” The record drew comparisons to Radiohead’s OK Computer (primarily because Radiohead engineer Nigel Godrich was on it), which would prove ironic, as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke would later admit that Up was an influence on the band’s classic Kid A. The U.K. press seemed to “get” Up in a way that U.S. critics didn’t: Q magazine gave the record 4 out of 5 stars; “Dean of Amnerican rock critics” Robert Christgau gave it a simple frowny face with no review whatsoever.

Perhaps in reaction to what it perceived as a disastrously anit-commercial record, Warner Bros. sent the band on a punishing schedule of promotional interviews and performances. Then it was off on a 6-month European tour immediately topped off by two more months of shows in the U.S. At the end of the mostly well-recieved tour, R.E.M. sat down to put the finishing touches on the soundtrack to the still-untitled Andy Kaufman biopic. Needless to say, the instrumental music was prosaic by the band’s standards, but R.E.M. composed two “official” new songs. One was “The Great Beyond,” and the less said about it the better. The other was something Stipe had been kicking around since his Athens days, when he heard the news of Kaufman’s death in 1984. That song that would eventally reach full flower as “Man on the Moon,” one of the band’s most memorable tunes because it had what the last two R.E.M. albums didn’t: A sense of humor. It also gave the Kaufman film a memorable title.

Of course, that didn’t help for Warner Brothers. After three albums – two with diminishing returns – rumors began circulating on the internet that the label was going to drop R.E.M. from its roster. (The rumor was started by a group of hacked emails from a Warner Music exec just before the release of Man on the Moon.) Apparently, the band heard the rumors and decided they were credible enough to try a bit of self-sabotage: They decided to break up before they were dropped from the label.

Naturally, Warner denied the rumors and then preceded to lawyer up agains the band’s rebellion, citing “breach of contract” despite the fact that the secret emails appeared to be legitimate. What began was a long dark legal winter for R.E.M. and its lawyers; strange, because R.E.M. as a band didn’t exist anymore. The label was essentially suing them in order to keep them together so they could drop them at a later date.

The blogpshere, of course, went wild. Many compared it to a similar situation experienced by the indie rock band Wilco, whose new album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was rejected by Reprise Records, which (surprise!) was also owned by the Warner Music Group. “It’s obvious that the death of the record industry will not come solely from file-sharing but from the cluenessness and small-mindedness of its own executive pool. ” wrote the strident music blog Cream Cheese Driveway Death. “Once upon a time, ‘overpaid’ apparently meant 'omnipotent.’ No more.”

For the entire year of 2000, R.E.M. as a group existed only on the pages of depositions, and testimonies. “R.E.M. Is Dead!” became not a lament in graffiti or on homemade t-shirts but a clarion call for victory over corporate cluelessness. “Honestly, I really don’t know what all the fuss is about,” Mike Stipe told Billboard magazine with a sort of psychic wink. “We decided to break up before they decided to drop us, and now they want us to stay together because they’re mad that we beat them to the punch? Hello, operator?” Mike Mills added: “Just imagine how much material we’ve got for our next ten or twelve albiums. Solo albums, I mean. Like what KISS did.” The only appearance they made as a band that year was an unannounced gig at the Land Aid Festival on the front steps of the Clarke Country couthourse in Athens, performing (under the fake name “Dumbphuck”) a new song “I’ve Been High” to the delight of the mostly high crowd. The band even recorded and released two new tunes “Hastings & Main” and “Take Seven” for its annual Christmas club single under the pseudonym “Wuxtryvista Social Club.”

2001 saw the second year the band was hamstrung by a cornucopia of lawsuits and counterlawsuits. But they had already recorded and put the finishing touches on Michael Stipe’s first “solo album,” which was made available on the website www.michaelstipeisnotinaband.com on May 15. (Mills and Buck appeared as sidemen under the names “Ovis Queerhammer” and “Dr. Orlando Valenzola, M.D.”) Reveal was a buoyant, mutedly psychedelic pop cycle about transcendence and release (“The Lifting,” “I've Been High”, “Disappear”) whose shimmering – if occasionally languid and dour – 80s-era textures hid darker currents. In fact, Reveal was an appropriate title for Stipe’s first solo outing. Since 1994, rumors abounded about his sexual orientation, mainly because the singer refused to discuss the topic in interviews. But in January, five months before Reveal was released, Stipe gave an interview with Time magazine where he called himself a "queer artist" and “revealed” that he had been in a relationship with "an amazing man" for the last three years.

Meanwhile, the other members of R.E.M. kept busy. Buck and Mills managed to coax their old bandmate Bill Berry to record a casual, one-off session of mostly blues covers with cranky L.A. songwriter Warren Zevon (later released under the title Hindu Love Gods after Zevon’s untimely death in 2003). Mike Mills joined guitarist Tom Morello, songwriter Steve Earle and agit-folk singer Billy Bragg on the anti-Bush “Tell Us the Truth" tour and briefly became a guest announcer for the Atlanta Braves. Besides a fruitful series of musical collaborations with Ken Stringfellow and Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck launched a grassroots, tounge-in-cheek campaign to become the governor of Georgia, even recording a mock web commercial with Will Ferrell as George W. Bush and Jack Black as the Ghost of Richard Nixon.

The three members of R.E.M. had actually recorded a 9/11-inspired song “Bad Day,” released as a digital single in 2003 under Stipe’s solo moniker with the others again using nom-de-plumes. Early into the fourth year of R.E.M’s legal troubles and self-imposed recording ban, Stipe reconnected with Mike Mills and the two provided the majority of the musical beds of Stipe’s second solo album. Unfortunately, it would never be released. Similar to the imbroglios surrounding Prince’s Black Album and Dave Matthews’ Lillywhite Sessions, Stipe opted not to release the album because it “kinda sorta sucked.” (The record has popped up in bootleg form under the title Around the Sun.) When he heard it, Buck, in one of his more unguarded moments, told an Atlanta newspaper that he thought the record "just wasn't really listenable, because it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can't stand it anymore." Stipe drowned his disappointment in political solidarity by joining Bruce Springsteen, Bright Eyes, John Fogerty and Neil Young for six dates of the 37-date Vote For Change tour that Fall.

Just before Chrismas 2004, R.E.M.’s half-decade tangle of lawsuits with Warner Music Group was finally untangled and settled discreetly out of court. Mysteriously, single CDs started popping up in Athens records stores with no credits on them. It was the foursome’s own private Christmas present to it’s hometown. Later dubbed by fans “R.E.M. Unbound: The Lawsuit CD” it featured a duo of songs meant as a kiss off to Warners: “I Wanted to Be Wrong” (“I told you I wanted to be wrong / But everyone is humming a song”), which was salvaged from Stipe's aborted solo sessions, and a surpise resuscitation of one of the first songs they wrote back in the early 1980s, “All the Right Friends,” which had the great kiss off line now so apopos to the band’s experience: “I've been walking alone now for a long long time / I don't wanna hang out now with the friends who just aren't mine.”

Of course the songs rapidly appeared online, and the R.E.M. is Back buzz began. Perversely, in October 2005, the full lineup including Bill Berry reunited at….a the wedding reception for their equipment manager at an Athens bowling alley. The foursome repeated this feat in September 2006, playing a two-song set for a benefit at the 40 Watt Club in Athens. That same month, R.E.M. was inducted in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. The following year, R.E.M. roared back to life with a live album taken from the 2005 Point Dublin shows meant, in Buck’s words, “to remind our fans that we existed.” Strangely, there was a lot of material from Stipe’s unreleased second solo album, here given full flower in a live setting: the plaintive “Boy in the Well” and the metronomic “Electron Blue” became slow-building anthems; "Leaving New York" and “Final Straw” were quietly powerful mediations on post-9/11 America and the horrors of the Iraq War.

2008 dawned with the first new R.E.M. album in ten years, and the reunited foursome (Bill Berry announced he would be returning to the fold for one more album) with an unusually aggressive new record, fittingly called Accelerate (released on their new imprint It Crawled from the South Records), helmed by Irish producer Garret “Jacknife” lee (The Hives, Bloc Parrty, U2), who kept the recording schedule – not to mention Stipe’s lyrics and the band’s sound – tight, the record abounds in the joy of revivified creativity. That Spring, the band recorded an hour-long set for the TV show Austin City Limits and brought the new songs to ferocious life: the rocking “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” that Stipe snarls like he’s Fugazi’s Ian McKaye; Buck’s fuzz-guitar and Mill’s harmony on “Supernatural Superserious” recall the glory days of Monster; “Accelerate” achieved a nasty grace and the chaotic “I’m Gonna DJ” saw the band actually having fun and being a little silly. Wrote one review: "Accelerate is a simple, pragmatic record built on an uncomfortable truth: sometimes, even the best bands have to retrace their steps, if only to remind themselves what they're really good at."

While the boys launched a world tour to promote Accelerate and “R.E.M. reborn” became almost a cliché in the rock press, the band made the gonzo decision to release another live album, recorded at a three-night “working rehearsal” at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. It included three new songs -- the sturdy rocker "Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance," the contemplative "On the Fly,” the rootsy "Disguised" – and “Romance,” an old song from the vaults of their Athens days. They followed this in April 2011 with twelve news songs on Collapse Into Now, a much more expansive set that mixed a folk-pop orchestral sweep into R.E.M.’s Big Rock dreams. However, some chatter on the blogsphere noted that there were seeds of an eventual breakup in the lyrics and began picking them apart Paul-Is-Dead style for any clues: “It’s sweet, it’s sad and it’s true” from "Oh, My Heart"; "I think I'll sing a rhyme, I think I'll sing it one more time" from "All the Best"; or "I'll will write our story in our mind" from "We All Go Back to Where We Belong."

Break up or not, noted Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield, "on Collapse Into Now, they sound like they'd rather be a band than a legend, which must be why they keep pushing on. Who knows if [Walt] Whitman or Patti Smith is proud — but R.E.M. should be."


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