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It’s the End of the Band as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) – Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics #35, “R.E.M.”

September 22, 2011

Sometimes there are happy occasions when worlds collide. This comic is one such cheerful confluence. An R.E.M. comic book. There is a God.

I had always intended to feature it here on the blog, but I wanted to wait until I could find a physical copy. Patience. But yesterday fate intervened. The band broke up. The only band I ever gave a rat’s ass about. The band that provided the soundtrack to my life.

As Elvis would have crooned, it’s now or never. And it took me all of ten seconds to track down a digital version.

So much is wrapped up for me with R.E.M.’s music. Hearing “Stand” on the radio as my mother drove me home from school. Buying Out of Time, the first album of theirs that I owned. A holiday at the tail end of my junior year in high school when a local radio station had an “R.E.M. Triple-Play Weekend,” spinning three-song blocks of live stuff and rarities that I diligently taped on my old boom box. Listening to Life’s Rich Pageant as we went to pick out our Basset Hound puppy, who pissed all over me the first time I picked him up. My high school girlfriend and me choosing “Strange Currencies” as “our song” because it was the closest thing to a love song on their most recent album and I’d be goddamned if I let any other band supply one. The Monster tour concert that I missed because I had a Regents exam the next day (parents…) and giving the ticket to one of the finest young ladies I ever knew (who eventually became a nun) and she brought me back a tour program that I still cherish. The day Bill Berry took his drum kit home and I thought the band was done but found out with relief they were carrying on as a trio. Shaving my balding head for the first time and reflecting how receding-hairlined Michael Stipe probably felt the same way when he did it. Berry’s Swiss aneurysm. Discovering that they did a cover of a song called “Superman.” The cheap bass that I bought so I could be just like Mike Mills and start a band with my buddies (already dreaming of the millions, we were going to call our first album Totem Pole and have our faces on, yes, the album cover’s totem pole), only to get frustrated and set it aside after learning the bass line to “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” Discovering that one of my college roommates was just as big a fan of theirs as me. Marveling at how every time Stipe sang “Fall on Me” it sounded like it was coming from the very depths of his soul. Getting reamed by the manager of the college radio station where I once DJ’d for playing a couple of their songs back to back, thinking IS THIS A FUCKING COLLEGE RADIO STATION OR NAZI GERMANY? Me shoehorning them into a Beavis and Butt-Head post. Writing this.

For crissakes, I used to me a member of their fan club. A FAN CLUB. AS AN ADULT.

Quite a ride.

I could go on and on. I came to them rather late in the game, after they had already left the cradle of the I.R.S. label and gone over to the Warner Bros. megalith, where they didn’t sell out but produced their most potent stuff. If “Losing My Religion” doesn’t knock your socks off, I don’t know what to tell you, and it was a great joy to rummage through the rich catalog that had brought them to the top of the rock mountain.

Over the past decade I’ve gone my separate way and held tight to the pre-millennium material. Their new output, while still on occasion wowing, moved farther and farther away from the music I came of age with. Stipe’s vocals didn’t carry as well as they used to. Their politics, always on the far left and which I admired in a way and didn’t begrudge them, were more and more being worn on their sleeves — the last concert of theirs that I attended had an atmosphere like at any moment I might be forced to show Greenpeace and NARAL membership cards or get my ass tossed out. Then again, I suppose they didn’t change and that’s the not-as-far-left me talking.

A part of me hoped that they’d hang it up. I’ve never been a fan of rock geezers. They were in their fifties. It was time.

Then I got word (through my Twitter account — a long way from recording songs on a boom box) that they were through. I don’t want to stretch a metaphor too far, but I felt a watered down version of what one feels when a loved one passes painlessly and quietly away at a ripe old age. That’s overstating it. Nobody died here. I’ve shed no tears. But the feelings were similar. Sadness and relief bound together.

Oh yeah. The comic.

It’s one of the goofiest things you’ll ever see (there’s another underground book out there that has Pete Buck cast in the role of an action hero — I’ll save that one for a reunion). A cheaply made, unauthorized account of the band’s beginnings (in a series that occasionally ran afoul of acts), its framing device is a government agent charged with investigating subversive rock groups:

His quarry?:

What follows is a loose tale from their first encounters with one another (Buck meeting Stipe, the two of them bringing in Berry who in turn brought in his pal Mills), their first concert (in a church that they lived in), to their earliest recordings and opening for bands like The Police on to the chart-topping success of Out of Time in 1991. Being thoroughly acquainted with the chapter and verse of their journey (knowing about Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio is like an R.E.M. fan’s Masonic secret grip), there were no surprises and little excitement in reading Jay Allen Sanford’s script, and I can’t imagine it holding any interest for non-aficionados. Blackwell’s art, while appropriately folksy in light of the band’s rural southern tinge, is your standard alternative fare.

But this book’s mere existence is a gift from above. It gave me the chance to vent a little on a bittersweet day and offer an all too brief celebration of what these four (then three) gentlemen meant to one fan.

The band’s acronym, while mostly associated with rapid eye movement, doesn’t really stand for anything. The guys just liked the sound of it. Stipe once said, though, that his grandmother thought that it stood for “Remember Every Moment.”

Sound advice. And I do.

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