Dave Daley delivers a great, frank interview with Michael Stipe on R.E.M.’s breakup.
I would rather throw myself off a cliff or be boiled in lead than listen to “Life’s Rich Pageant” demos – [and here Stipe groan sings unintelligible syllables as if he is in pain] — my doing this horrible moaning over a song that then became a beautiful song. Peter and Mike love that stuff.
Somehow I have managed not to write anything in this space about the end of my very favorite rock band. The post I was going to write was about R.E.M. and Cal Ripken — both of whom were, from start to finish, so recognizably themselves as to be a pleasure to watch, even with half their power gone. Both of them announced an new way to play their position, and neither would ever be mistaken for the imitators they made possible. (I like to think that Derek Jeter is Live in this scenario, but really only because I hate both so very much.) I guess the way that Stipe doesn’t sound like a great singer, but is one, matches the way that Ripken didn’t look like a great fielder, but was one. Where were the dives, where were the behind-the-back flips? No need — Ripken was just always standing where the ball was going to be. And Stipe was always singing what the song wanted him to sing, whether or not you could make well-defined words, or even well-defined notes, out of it.
Murmur and Ripken’s first MVP season were surely the two best things about 1983 — though Pete Thorn, decades ago, was saying that Ripken’s astounding defense in 1984 made that an even better season — a suggestion that was ignored at the time, but WAR agrees. Maybe Pete Thorn is the analogue of the diehards who think Fables is better than Murmur. (Except Thorn was probably right.) People who love Automatic for the People would no doubt call that record the analogue of Ripken’s out-of-nowhere MVP year in 1991 — not me, though. And R.E.M. never really did anything that matches the lonely beauty of a half-season that Ripken turned in in 1999, at the age of 38, for a team going nowhere — in fact, a team that, once Ripken left, would spend most of a decade going nowhere, and the rest of the time actually being nowhere.
Most days I think “Pilgrimage” is the greatest song they ever made:
though at the time I might have preferred “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (and I feel fine),” whose lyrics I resolutely memorized, and on behalf of which I launched a doomed campaign for my high school’s 1989 prom theme.
It would have been a really great prom theme.