Note: this was published in the last ever R.E.M. Fanclub Newsletter. I wrote it after I went down to Athens, GA for their final (I hate that word) release party for Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage.
I am an R.E.M. fan. For me, driving into Athens, GA is synesthetic. Heading up from the Loop on Oconee you hear songs fade in and out as you pass by landmarks. At every corner you see something or hear something that is tied to a piece of music. A Church Steeple to Gardening at Night. The train in the distance to Driver 8. Dudley Park to the entirety of Murmur.
The town is the living embodiment of the collective works of a band that, on September 21st, 2011, announced they would cease being R.E.M. and return to being John Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck. They were preceded in this by Bill Berry.
I came into town to celebrate the band that was. I’ve been going down to Athens for over a decade now, sometimes every year, sometimes a few years in between. In the last five years my visits were under the guises of a label executive. This time, it was purely as a fan and friend.
The news of R.E.M.’s disbandment wasn’t a shock to me, but it still struck a blow. It’s a band I dedicated more time out of my life to than I did any other pursuit. I started a fan site for them when I was 16, worked at their label. I even met my wife because of one of them. The closure of the chapter of R.E.M. was thus a closure of a part of my life, a part that I’m immensely proud of and grateful to have had, but still nostalgic for. Yet we all move on, and while I got married, got a great job, had a kid and left that job, this band has managed to consistently deliver the joyful noise that surrounded every one of my life ocassions.
As with every record since Automatic for the People, the band and the town of Athens, GA (through various charities) was holding a release party. Given that this would be the final one, I thought it as good an ocassion as any to head down south and pay my respects.
The parties were awesome. The tribute concert a joyous ramshackle affair full of friends and family (and staff) who put pretence asside to show a genuine appreciation and love for an amazing body of work. The fact that Mike Mills (“always the ham” as he said) couldn’t help but run on stage at various turns was icing. The fact that a tanned and fit Bill Berry watched from the balcony with his family was sweet.
The next days two parties had a feeling of a joyous wake. It was the last time to celebrate new material from a band that had given so much for so long. Cine held the Taste of Athens charity event, while the 40 Watt Club, yet again held a listening party full of auctions, videos and fans.
But overshadowing the events was something more.
This was more than a band. While the work they produced was in the form of music, video and art: the entity of “R.E.M.” transcended far beyond that.
It was family, in the way the band members parents and siblings were present, in some cases to continuously snap photos to send to them via text messages. The pride expressed not only in words, but in the obvious emotion and pride from seeing their sons and brothers on screen, on record and on stage.
It was friends, in the countless neighbors, office staff and spouses, children and towns people who came out many nights in a row to show their love.
And more than anything, it was fans. People from Europe. People with tatoos of lyrics (and band members!). Fans who knew all the words, all the demos, all the videos and all the history.
This mix of family, friends and fans was there to not just celebrate R.E.M. In a way, they were R.E.M. The band that was so much more than a band. They were a band made whole by the friends, families, fans and town that supported them.
R.E.M. is no more. The demos on my hard drive will never become songs (although I’m happy Instrumental 4 from Dublin became “A Month of Saturdays”). I will never again see them live nor feel the anticipation of the first listen to a new record or song. But we have not lost them.
R.E.M. is alive in the friends I’ve met. It’s alive in the fans I’ve met. It’s alive in the friendships with the staff, the band and others that I’ll hold dear for the rest of my life.
The only time I became a bit choked up the entire time I was in Athens was while watching the retrospective video in Ciné. During the part that chronicled the Georgia Music Hall of Fame ceremony, there was a moment when myself and my wife Amy were on screen, smiling ear to ear and singing along. Thinking back on how fun that moment was, and all that preceeded it including how I met her made me realize that while a band can be finite, their impact never will be.
Some day my son will ask me about R.E.M. and why they meant so much to me for so long.
I won’t have an answer.
They were R.E.M., and that is what they did.