When R.E.M. announced their breakup back in September, reactions from critics and bloggers fell into one of three categories: summaries of an influential career; personal accounts of the group as gateway to subterranean scenes (ending sometime in the ‘90s, of course); or facetious assertions that they’d already broken up years ago.
My obit for the Athens, Ga. band could never be so flippant because I was one of the dwindling faithful. Long after the masses jumped ship, I remained. I knew the second half of their 30-year recording career not as the obvious commercial decline, but a rich period of experimentation that spawned excellent albums like Up, Reveal and Accelerate. Even their admitted worst record Around the Sun had a few brilliant songs.
But the same week the disbanding brought renewed interest, I spotted their 2008 photo book R.E.M. Hello – MSRP $29.95 – at the Dollar Tree. Two copies right there, nestled among the no-name crime novels, obscure self-help books, and an early adventure tale from L. Ron Hubbard. I had to buy both copies out of respect.
What’s more of a shame than their company on that shelf is that R.E.M. Hello documents some of the most celebrated tours of their career. During their last decade of touring, R.E.M. turned in some of the most inspired, impassioned, energetic performances of any band, young or old, completely eradicating any remnants of their sterile Monster Tour shows from 1995. I’ll never forget how their politically charged show at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre in October 2004 impressed even my old jaded, New York hipster friend, who boasted of seeing them open for the Cramps at the Peppermint Lounge in ‘83 (under the name It Crawled From the South) and naturally swore them off after the I.R.S. Records years.
“Wow, they were great,” he told me at show’s end, completely surprised. “Michael Stipe is just one of the all-time great frontmen.”
Stipe had indeed become a great entertainer in recent years: extroverted, cordial, funny, and always trying to put on the best show he could. It’s no wonder that R.E.M. lost more fans the more comfortable on stage he became, because the singer’s “enigmatic” persona was a huge part of their early appeal. What a sin it must have been to see Stipe actually enjoying the spotlight, or playing “Shaking Through” as a request for a new bride at a 2003 Chicago show, or explaining his “West of the Fields” lyrics at a Berkeley show in 2008, or – gasp! – finally having his lyrics printed in CD booklets.
None of this turned me off, because to me the group was never the quirky college-radio grassroots phenomenon or even the political rock songsmiths of the late ‘80s. My era’s R.E.M. was the highly successful baroque-pop sensation of 1991-1992, when the fragile melodies, acoustic instrumentation, and eccentric ballads of Out of Time and Automatic for the People finally won over the kid who’d avoided anything without heavy guitars or a hip-hop beat. Their weird anti-love songs and thoughtful videos were a true “alternative” in 1991, when the biggest story in rock was the return of Guns N’ Roses. Visually they stuck out like a sore thumb on MTV, looking like uncles or librarians in their wrinkled, regular clothes. One member was balding, another wearing huge glasses, the next sporting a uni-brow, and worst of all, only one had long hair!
The release of “Shiny Happy People” remains the gutsiest move in their career, especially for a band that’d had their big break with edgy rockers like “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. Sure, “Stand” was goofy and corny, but this song and video, with its ridiculous choreography and bright clothing, were something else. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich famously mocked the clip on MTV News, calling it “very UN-heterosexual.” How much more “punk” was the cartoonish “Shiny Happy People” than Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from later that year, which was still a grinding, aggressive hard rock anthem? Thrift store clothes do not a strong digression make.
It was an incredible inspiration to see such a band – with absolutely no regard to what's "cool" or “hip” or "masculine" or “youthful” or “bad ass” or “rebellious” or even "rock n' roll" – conquering MTV and the charts because of their art alone. This had a profound effect on my own art appreciation throughout my life and my willingness to explore the gentler, more vulnerable side of music.
Nirvana and Pearl Jam reissues can’t escape the “grunge” tag, just as Murmur can’t leave “college rock” behind, yet Automatic for the People remains an unfettered masterpiece 19 years later. The album was reportedly playing on Kurt Cobain’s CD player when he killed himself, and I’ve always wondered what song he went out on. Hopefully “Try Not to Breathe” or “Find the River”.
Neither of these songs appears on R.E.M.’s new retrospective Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011. Yet the two-disc set is the most effective introduction to the band yet, with 40 songs spanning both the I.R.S. and Warner Brothers years for the first time. As with all compilations, there are some unfortunate omissions (What, no “Wolves, Lower”, “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, “Cuyahoga”, “Near Wild Heaven”, “Drive”, “Star 69”, E-Bow the Letter” w/ Patti Smith or “Walk Unafraid”?), but the first-time anthologizing of key tracks like “Country Feedback” and “New Test Leper” (and the rightful prominence of Green album) compensate nicely.
The three new tracks (recorded last summer) are unfortunately sub par, especially “A Month of Saturdays”, which sounds like a quick demo. But their inclusion provides proper closure, proving they gave us everything they had (something foreshadowed by the lyrical letdown on their last album) and that they, as Rob Sheffield recently put it, “ran it into the ground.” Not all of it was great, but the vast majority of it was.
My final two cents as a fan and critic? (deep inhale) A) Automatic for the People is their finest album, followed by Green and Out of Time; never before or after did they match this four-year period (1988-1992) of undeniable melodies, lyrical potency and imaginative instrumentation. B) Up (1998) is a ragged masterpiece, a compelling document of a band breaking up and piecing themselves back together. C) It’s criminal that their 1982 Chronic Town EP has not received the deluxe treatment it deserves; the true start of their renaissance. D) Their catalogue comprises the longest run of excellent albums by a single artist in modern rock history; I can’t even think of another. Even Around the Sun was 1/3 good, while all their others are at least 2/3 good. E) A huge part of what made R.E.M. so unique was that the traditional leads (singer and guitarist) were complete amateurs and wrote their own respective books, while the rhythm section (normally in the background) were highly accomplished musicians who injected amazing dynamics into each song. F) Mike Mills is an unsung genius. Just listen to his bass lines on any album. G) Dead Letter Office is the single greatest b-sides collection in history. H) The bootleg everyone should track down is a show at Oakland Arena in November 1987; surprise guest Warren Zevon plays kickin’ piano on a few songs, including their cover of Wire’s “Strange”.
A couple weeks after the Dollar Tree incident, I noticed U2’s gigantic picture book U2byU2 in the Novato Library’s oversized book sections. There it sat, right between the Beatles and Frank Sinatra, which is probably where Bono has always aspired to be. I pondered the longevity of R.E.M.’s legacy, now that they’re kaput. I also wondered where their book would go. Probably near the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and the Monkees. Although R.E.M. Hello only measures about 10 x 9, I think I’ll donate a copy to the library. Who knows? Maybe some unsuspecting music fan will stumble upon it one day and wonder what a mandolin is.
Come to think of it, I didn’t hate ALL of the snide breakup tweets. After the news broke, @peterbrynes tweeted, “The best part of REM breaking up is that they might inspire U2 to do the same.”
Earlier today, after scuffles over the permitting process at Occupy Santa Rosa came to a head, the Santa Rosa Police Department began issuing eviction notices to unpermitted tents on the lawn of City Hall. Many protestors refused to acquire permits in the first place, citing prohibitive modifications to the original agreement with the City Council after last week's jubilant but intense meeting.
The eviction notices were placed on tents this afternoon. The mood at the encampment presently is watchful, as unpermitted campers plan to practice civil disobedience in response to the order. Nico, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College who has been camping for the past couple of weeks, said today that he was willing to risk arrest. A police officer on the scene said that the city had tried to work with the campers, to be cordial, and that they didn't have orders yet for when the actual evictions would take place. "It could be tonight, or it could be five days from now," the officer told me.
But many people on the scene think that SRPD will move on the camp in the middle of the night, "after dark"—the same approach used at Occupy Wall Street in New York earlier this week, when police in riot gear descended on the Zuccotti Park encampment, clearing it of all tents, most controversially the OWS Library, from 5,000 books were confiscated.
For now, protestors, campers, allies, press and police officers continue to mill about the camp, waiting to see exactly what will happen.
This time of year, as the air turns brisk and icy, North Bay beer aficionados start hankering for dark, sweet ales that warm the body and soothe cold bones. With an ABV of 9.9% (hot damn!), the roasty, luscious Lagunitas Brown Shugga' ale has become a highly-anticipated go-to ale for the winter season. But this year, you can just forget about that whole deal. Due to a brewhouse working at full capacity churning out 80 gallon batches of in-demand IPAs and Pilsners, the popular Sonoma County brewery had to call it a wrap on Brown Shugga' for 2011. Lagunitas has a knack for names (Wilco Tango Foxtrot, Undercover Investigation Shut Down, The Hairy Eyeball) and the replacement beer is no exception. Welcome to the "Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale Brown Shugga' Substitute." The bottom of the six-pack contains what amounts to an awesomely self-deprecating short story explaining exactly what went down:
"This sad holiday season we didn’t have the brewing capacity to make our favorite seasonal brew, the widely feared BrownShugga’ Ale. You see, we had a couple of good years (thank you very much) and so heading into this season while we are awaiting a January delivery of a new brewhouse we are jammin’ along brewing 80 barrels of IPA and PILS and such every 3 hours. A couple of months back we realized that since we can only brew a mere 60 barrels of Shugga every 5 hours, that we were seriously screwed. For every case of Shugga’ brewed, we’d short 3 cases of our daily brews. The new brewhouse will help insure that this kind of failure never happens again. It’s a mess that we can not brew our BrownShugga’ this year and we suck for not doing it. There is nothing cool about screwing up this badly and we know it. Maybe we can sue our sorry selves. There is no joy in our hearts this holiday and the best we can hope for is a quick and merciful end. F*@& us. This totally blows. Whatever. We freaking munch moldy donkey butt and we just want it all to be over …."
Let's see if the lack of Brown Shugga' this year will create chaos on par with the Cabbage Patch Kid Christmas Shopping Frenzies of Yore when the beer returns to shelves in 2012.
As Occupy Wall Street enters its second month, people across the country have taken up the banners of the movement, galvanized by membership in the 99%. And though stark images of violence, broken windows, burnt dumpsters and graffiti in Oakland's city center have become the focus the protest's media coverage, what I saw during the afternoon on Nov. 2 was a peaceful, positive show of people power.
All photos by Alma Shaw
The Alameda Labor Council serves hamburgers, beans and rice to a long line of people before the 4pm and 5pm marches to the port.
The march took us through downtown and into West Oakland. As we neared the port, the crowds grew thicker.
The 4pm march pours into the port. Trucks were unable to move through the traffic. Omar Benjamin, Director of the Port of Oakland, confirmed the closing of the port at an evening news conference.
“Maritime operations remain effectively shut down. And the port is working to ensure that all workers in the harbor area can get home safely… It is our hope that the work day can resume tomorrow and port workers will be allowed to get to their jobs without incident,” Benjamin said.
Once the protesters arrived at the port, they stood on top of trucks, waved flags, danced, listened to a band playing through bicycle-powered generators, fed their babies, chatted and blocked entrances.
A second wave of marchers came through at about 5:30pm. Crowd attendance estimates run in the thousands. The march was peaceful, with minimal police presence.
As it grew dark, marchers continued to pour in and out. Families with baby strollers, people on bicycles, elderly folks in wheelchairs, the old, the young, all walking back and forth across the bridge.