I was talking with a friend of mine when this record first came out, and she asked me "Do you really think they can make another Murmur?" and I replied, "No, the question isn't whether they can make another Murmur, its whether we can . . . "
As those of you who is old enough to remember and young enough to not to forget, Murmur was a real cultural event -- the record which set the ball inexorably rolling for American undergound (read: "alternative" ) rock to be dominant the way it is today. Unfortunately, unlike Nevermind, Murmur was an event to only a tiny tiny fragment of the culture: the people who actually watched or taped them when they were on Late Night back when bands weren't required to play with Paul Shaffer's musicians, too. Blah blah blah: this story has been told too many times, especially from my various bully pulpits, so we'll just have to say that Murmur is also the record that R.E.M. has had to live down for the rest of their lives.
No, really, from any objective standpoint, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Document and Automatic For The People are just as good, and yet, as I zip past my 2 to the 5th birthday, after over a decade of heavy rotation, Murmur is still my favorite R.E.M. album, and R.E.M. is still my favorite band. Period. And there ain't nothing on Monster to dissuade me from that. In other words, it ain't no Zooropa. Or All Shook Down or Combat Rock. But in a year where cultural icons as varied as Major League Baseball, Video Zone and Kurt Cobain all committed suicide, its very existence raises a couple of issues. To wit: age and popularity.
For those of us now too demographically old to be "twentysomethings" (I hate hate hate that word) anymore and forever too young and smart to be Boomers (Paul Westerberg said it best -- as usual -- in the latest Rolling Stone: "I don't know who my generation is anymore.I feel too old to hang out with the kids who make rock & roll, but I don't fit in with the settled-down people my age.") R.E.M. are our best chance to grow up with both our dignity and balls intact. After all, this-- what R.E.M. does and represents --is the finest flower of what punk rock truly meant to us (white) (suburban) (males) who discovered it in the late 70's. Not like Green Day: they are too young for it to have changed their lives as it happened.
That's the crucial point. It was never really punk as music. The hardcores took that away with their by-the-numbers and faster/louder anarchy sheep doctrinaire. But rather punk as "hey, I don't have to be good to do this, and I can do it any way I please." That was the legacy we took from punk, and from Talking Heads to X to Sonic Youth to Guns n' Roses to Public Enemy to Pavement to the Breeders to Smashing Pumpkins its informed most of the best of what I call rock and roll for the past 15 years. These kids today (love that phrase) came along after it happened: the change couldn't affect them viscerally in a deep-down D.Boon "punk rock changed my life" sense. Influence, yes -- change, no. Do you see the difference? It's vital. (It's also nobody's fault--I was too young to be affected by the Beatles & Stones & Dylan in the 60's and my nieces are too young to understand -- if they'll ever even care -- this whole "alternative as mainstream" conundrum going on.)
It's also why the indie scene and its "cooler than thou" attitude sucks. I can't help it, I think that popularity enhances a good song and immortalizes a great song. But a whole generation of rockers, having seen how my contemporaries were fucked by the major labels and commercial radio, have grown up equating popularity with Satan hisself. While I understand it, especially as I watched my homeboys the Miss Alans get dropped by Zoo after virtually no promotion of Blusher, this anti-major mindset is totally alien to me. (And I'll bet its still alien to the Miss Alans, too -- they've had problems with indie labels, too.) Its why I shoulda never trusted Kurt Cobain, no matter how much his goddamm voice got me. I mean, could you see Michael Stipe or Bob Mould or Paul Westerberg or John Doe agonizing over success ten years ago the way Kurt did or Eddie Vedder or Billy Corgan do?
Sorry, but R.E.M., cos they've always made records to coincide with crucial points of my life (thanks, guys), always get me thinking -- probably cos they're so damn smart. And Monster, their first pure rock record in over half a decade, is no exception. And what Monster makes me think about is the eternal contradiction of growing older loving a specifically youth-oriented music.
Dig: I am no longer a kid anymore. Most of my best friends are married or sober or buying houses. Shit, I don't even hardly get drunk anymore. I think I've grown up. And yet , as Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices, silly -- you did buy it, right?) sang:
I am a lost soul
I shoot myself with rock and roll
The hole I dig is bottomless
But nothing else can set me free.
So, now more than ever, if I'm any one type of rocker, I'm a punk rocker. I think moshing is for morons, I've never pierced any body parts, never got a tattoo and have always worn my hair long. How much more punk can you get? And what difference does it make to me, at thirty fucking two years young?
This is a real issue to me, cos my parents were 50's teens and gave up rock and roll probably before Elvis hit the Army. The closest thing to a rock record in my house until I discovered Top 40 on KYNO-AM was Peter, Paul and Mary. And actually, now that I think of it, the Bob 'n' Ray album I listened to a thousand times was way more rock and roll. My mom always predicted I'd do the same "when you grow up." Which I knew better. I was a Big Dumb Rock Guy for life from the first moment it hit me. Now my mom listens to classic rock--picking up on what she missed for three decades. Cool.
But meanwhile, I've seen the Boomers, and I think they've grown up pathetically--turning into their parents, while still claiming to be on the cutting edge of everything. That sucks as bad as giving it up. As Neil Young and Lou Reed know, there is a way to grow old, still be a rock and roller, and not be stupid. I think R.E.M. have a chance of showing the rest of us how it can be done, on a large scale, in the public eye, and with integrity intact..
In other words, you won't ever find R.E.M. hawking their wares on a MTV infomercial nor "Michael Stipe and Friends (including Mike Mills!)" playing the Big Fucking Fresno Fair in 2004 for chrissakes. I don't believe there is such a thing as "selling out" anymore (I mean, really, techincally the Rolling Stones are the biggest "sell out" band in rock and roll history: they've never done anything that wasn't completely and totally designed to make more money -- that includes their failures like Satanic Majesties -- and I suppose it never will make a difference, god love 'em), but this shit is pathetic.
Which Monster isn't. It was conceived as their Big Dumb Rock Album, and works. For me, on that level. Which doesn't mean that it will work for you the same way. By now, we all take our own baggage and memories into every R.E.M. record, anyways, don't we? Most of the lifetime way back R.E.M. fans I know are split down the middle on it -- some love it, some hate it. As always, it sounds totally like unlike any record they've ever done, and completely like R.E.M.
There are things I miss--the three-part harmonies which enhanced songs from "Shaking Through" to "I Believe" to"Man on the Moon." Its one of my favorite sounds in all of rock and roll, and -- probably due to an urge to keep things ugly -- totally missing from this record.
As is Bill Berry, for some reason. Whether its the purposely muddy mix, or just uninspired playing, he seems to be MIA. A shame, cos songs like "I Took Your Name" or "King of Comedy" could have been vastly improved by drumming like, say, how he powered "Driver 8," or "Superman." Of course, back then, R.E.M. was constantly touring. You gotta figure that the quiet albums and tourless half-decade affected him the most. Unlike other musicians, his type of drummer plays best in the context of a continually working band. After a decade on the road, I don't seem him practicing by himself. Why would he? So it would figure he'd be the rustiest. Too bad, cos I think it might be one of the things that keeps Monster from being a great R.E.M. album.
I think I'm gonna end up liking it better than Green or Out of Time or Life's Rich Pageant, but not as much as some of the others. It's certainly consistently good, but it lacks the one or two killer tracks -- "Find The River" or "Disturbance at the Heron House" or "9-9" or "Good Advices" -- to draw me totally into the rest of the record.
I mean, don't get me wrong: I love the Nirvana-ish dynamics of "Bang and Blame" and Peter Buck's backwards guitar solo on "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?." In fact, for the first time since Document, Peter Buck sounds like he likes playing guitar again: "Star 69" is a joyous riff-fest and he kicks up one hell of a storm on "Let Me In." Despite burying himself in the mix again, Michael Stipe continues to be the most inventive voice in rock and roll, making you forget about those missing harmonies with his deadpan "Crush With Eyeliner," (a jokey paen to Courtney Love?) , his falsetto on the fuck-me "Tongue" and his heartfelt "Strange Currencies."
Still, as wonderful as these songs and performances are, none of them really anchor the record. You know, none of them makes me come back to it again and again because there's one song IneedtohearrightthissecondorI'mgoingtodie.
That's for now, of course. We'll only have to see how this record stands up on the road. Indeed, the upcoming tour will be another test of sorts. What are they going to play? Where are they going to play? How are they going to structure the sets? These are big questions -- in a very real sense, this is the most important tour they are ever going to do. A litmus test, of sorts. It's really going to be their first tour as a mature rock and roll band, and how they handle it will have ramifications for the rest of their career. Which, as they've been joking, is scheduled to end on Jan. 1, 2000, at the stroke of midnight.
They'll last at least that long, I think. I hope. This is R.E.M., and they've been growing with me for over a decade now, and by the time their run is through, we might look at them as the greatest American rock and roll band ever. And 100 years from now, when distinctions are blurry, that "American" qualifier might not even be needed.
A Psychohistory of R.E.M.
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This document last modified 05 July, 1995.
I was listening to American Music Club -- San Francisco.