R.E.M.emories: VH1 Staffers Reflect Back On Their Favorite Songs From The R.E.M. Catalog


R.E.M.‘s announcement earlier today that they’re “calling it a day as a band” after 31 years together hit the VH1 offices even harder than that earthquake did a few weeks back. As a means of aiding everyone accelerate through their own personal Kübler-Ross grief cycle, we reached out to a number of VH1 staffers and asked them to share their favorite R.E.M. memories. We sincerely hope that this feature is as instrumental in helping you reach your own personal Acceptance stage as it was for us. And if you have your own memories, please share them below in our comments section; we’d love to hear them!

I was the program director of my college radio station, Buffalo State College’s WBNY, when Murmur came out. “Radio Free Europe” was the single, and R.E.M. was opening for the English Beat and Squeeze; that’s kind of what the pecking order was for them at the time. One day, their label called and said, “Hey, we’re selling a lot of records in Buffalo, and you’re the only radio station playing them, we want to have them come play Buffalo.” We said “Great!” So they played this place called the Lackawanna Sky Room. They told us, “We don’t really have much to play, we could use an opening act.” So we offered to help. At the time, the Goo Goo Dolls were so metal that it wasn’t the right call, but there was this other little band from Jamestown called the 10,000 Maniacs. We suggested them, explaining to them that this Natalie Merchant girl, she’s great, and the band’s really cool, and you guys will get along. That’s how the friendship between the bands began, back at the Lackawanna Sky Room. They were the nicest guys, incredibly giving to the college radio stations all across the country.

My favorite song by R.E.M. is “Strange,” which is actually a Wire cover. Of their originals, “Begin The Begin” is my probably my fave. It had a really cool edge to it, and sounded a little bit different than what they normally had done. It recently came to life to me again, about a year and a half or so ago, when The Decemberists did it live with Peter Buck on stage. I thought to myself, ‘I forgot how good that song was!’, so I revisited it again. Of their later material, “Crush With Eyeliner” was my favorite.

One of my former boyfriends was hellbent on buying the identical neon star from the cover of Automatic For The People, and he finally tracked one down outside of an abandoned motel in upstate NY. I loaned him the money to have it professionally cut down, I housed it for him in my parents’ garage until he could clear out enough space in his Greenpoint apartment/recording studio, and then not long after he got the star, we broke up. Did I ever get the money back? Nope. Shouldn’t I by rights take the neon star for my very own? Yep. EVERYBODY HURTS.

In the fall of 1992, I was a wide-eyed freshman matriculating at the University of Michigan. I vividly remember making my way to the local record store, Wherehouse Records, on a crisp, clear fall night for an event that had begun to become a phenomenon around that time: the Midnight Sale. I, along with hundreds of other students, waited well over an hour in line to pick up a copy of R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People (which came in “longbox” form, natch). However, instead of listening to it with a group of like-minded friends, I instead scampered back to my dorm room, put my headphones on, and listened to it, solo, on my Discman. The album instantly blew me away, but I was especially struck by the emotional poignancy of “Nightswimming.” It sounded to me then, as it does now, wholly unlike anything else I had ever heard. The piano melody is gorgeous, the string accompaniments sublime, but it was Michael Stipe‘s lyrics and vocals that really struck me to my core. Never before had I heard a song that so accurately reflected what it’s like to actively engage with your own memories: Unlike in the movies, memories in real life rarely play out in a linear fashion. They reveal themselves to you in bits and pieces, intertwining visuals you recall with feelings that you remember experiencing at the time, but the trick about memories is that they’re also filtered through what your state of mind is in the here and now. This song “gets” that dynamic innately, and also conveys the emotional damage that can be inflicted on one’s self by wallowing in nostalgia. As Stipe sings in this song, sadly but also matter-of-factly, “Things they go away/Replaced by everyday.” Ain’t that the truth.

I was raised on a steady stream of Classic Rock radio growing up in the country just outside of Youngstown, Ohio. All of my first musical obsessions were fed to me from WDVE out of the musical metropolis of Pittsburgh. I showed up to college with a Bullet Boys cassingle, a Bon Jovi tape, a poster of Kip Winger, a perm and was ready to wow the big city of Columbus, Ohio. Here’s what happened: I was made fun of endlessly, then slowly turned on to ‘alternative’ music by my dorm-mates. My first apartment was controversial and co-ed and one of my male roommates was the COOLEST GUY EVER because he had a CD player for our apartment. I got a job and went to buy a new CD with my first paycheck. It had to be the right CD. It had to show I’d learned good taste and it had to impress my roommates. I chose R.E.M.’s Green and so began my personal life soundtrack. From that day on, my life would be scored by music and everything would be remembered by the music that was playing.

The cassingle era would have bypassed me entirely if not for R.E.M. I’m young enough, and my parents were early enough CD adopters, that although I owned a number of storybook records on LP, and a few on cassette, by the time I started owning pop music in earnest, the format of choice was CD. But thanks to my “cool aunt,” who would host my sister and me in her dorm so my parents could be free of us for a night, I somehow owned an R.E.M. cassingle before my fifth birthday. Maybe this is why I’m so fond of a song that can be so supremely annoying.

The fact that any four-year-old knew who R.E.M. was speaks not to how cool I was at such a young age (I was not cool and never will be) but to how far the music industry was willing to travel, literally and figuratively, to claim the band as their own. For everyone too young to be able to tell you why “college rock” and “alternative rock” are not the same thing, the passing of R.E.M., especially at such a late date, probably feels overstated. To many people who came of age with college rock, it’s probably impossible to overstate. I still can’t quite understand how a band from a college town in Georgia could release ten albums on Warner Bros. without making a single appreciable concession to market forces or wringing their hands about selling out. I think “Stand” has something to do with it, though.

My favorite R.E.M. album is Life’s Rich Pageant — by a long shot. Partly because I think it’s their best (angry, optimistic, edgy, pretty), partly because it was released around the time I got my driver’s license and I associate it with a sense of freedom (and shoulder-length hair), and partly because I won a bet when my high school girlfriend refused to believe that Michael Stipe was screaming “Cuyahoga.”

Have you ever cried listening to a song, just because it was so beautiful? It’s not something we necessarily share with people, but I know for a fact most of you have. I started listening to R.E.M because it was cool to listen to them. (Forgive me, I was young.) I went out and picked up the Automatic for the People cassette tape—it was the early nineties, people!—and popped it in expecting to have something really profoundly pseudo-intellectual to say to my friends. And then something strange happened. I couldn’t form a coherent sentence. I just listened! And couldn’t stop listening as I moved from tracks like “Drive” to “Man on the Moon” and finally to “Everybody Hurts.” That’s the one that brought on the waterworks and still does to this day, depending on my mood. “Everybody Hurts” spoke to me in the same way my favourite bands of all time did, like The Rolling Stones and The Who. It was every crappy break-up, every fight, every painful moment I had ever gone through rolled in to one. But that’s not the reason I cried. I cried because of the sense of connection and hope imbued. Michael Stipe got through to me in ways that I grew up to be grateful for.

Spending a long night with my best friend memorizing the words to “It’s the End of the World…”. The liner notes didn’t have the lyrics, so we just kept rewinding the cassette back, writing down what we thought were the words (“Is he saying ‘Tournament?’ or ‘Turn him in?'”) and chanting them back to each other. And then once we had them memorized, sudden outbursts of R.E.M lyrics would erupt for no good reason for months on end, much to my friends’ and parents’ chagrin. LEONARD BERNSTEIN!

R.E.M. has been my very favorite band since I was 13 years old. It’s nearly impossible for me to single out one song as their best or most influential to me, because my relationship to their music has evolved as I’ve grown up listening to their albums. My first favorite R.E.M. song was “Country Feedback” – it was the first song I taught myself how to play on guitar and it was my first AOL screen-name. In high school, I was obsessed with “Pilgrimage” and “Perfect Circle” and, of course, “Nightswimming.” By college, I was crazy about “Let Me In” and “At My Most Beautiful.” My early 20s were all about “I’ve Been High.” And I spent a memorable weekend listening to “It Happened Today” on repeat when their last (last! Auuugh!) album came out. But if I had to choose one song that has stuck with me over the years, the one song I would play for an alien who just landed on this planet and needed to understand why I love R.E.M. so much, the one song that I’ve parsed and dissected and love with an almost unholy fervor – that song would be “Belong,” off of Out of Time, the first R.E.M. album I ever owned. (It was a gift for my Bat Mitzvah). Michael Stipe’s poetry over Mike Mills’ wordless ululations combined with Peter Buck‘s arpeggio and Bill Berry‘s driving beat – it’s a perfect song. If you haven’t listened to Out of Time due to excessive “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People” overload, I urge you to go back and rediscover this track. It shimmers with pure and profound beauty.

For me, the most meaningful R.E.M. song is “Losing My Religion.” Coming from a family of mixed spiritual beliefs (mom raised Catholic and dad raised Jewish), kids in school would often ask me questions about which holidays I celebrated, and were perplexed at my juggling both a menorah and a Christmas tree. In turn, I, too, started to ask questions about what was “normal,” so my aunt sat me down when I was 7-years-old to talk about how, one day, I might have to choose a team. It was certainly a lot to process at that age, but I was calm about her instructions, and just assumed I’d have an answer when I got older, and when things became more clear in my head. Around the time that she and I had this conversation, “Losing My Religion” was all over the radio. Even though my young mind didn’t really grasp the lyrics fully, Michael Stipe’s use of word “RELIGION” and isolated quarters in the video made me think, “Oh, he must be trying to figure it all out too.” Besties! That’s what I still think of every time I hear that song.

R.E.M.’s business model (feels weird to use that word in the context of alternative music) helped put the pieces in place for a band like Nirvana to go mainstream. Because they don’t always get credit for this, maybe they purposely broke up a few days before Nirvana releases the 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Nevermind? I always broke down my R.E.M. songs into two categories: Slow and More-Up-tempo. Favorite Slow song? “Everybody Hurts”; you could really wallow in that one, and there was no guilt attached, since R.E.M. had major college radio cred. My favorite up-tempo song was “Bang and Blame.” I always like when bands rock out (that’s why I have listened to Radiohead in a while).

For me, the greatness of R.E.M. will always be Peter Buck’s guitar playing. Like Johnny Marr in The Smiths, he crafted a new virtuosic style of rhythm guitar playing that merged folk strumming, chiming single string lines and delicate chord shapes. Listen to the intro to “Pretty Persuasion,” it’s all there. It immediately gets your attention. It’s anthemic and rocking without being arena rock.

Now it’s your turn! What are YOUR favorite R.E.M. memories? We’d love to read them, so share away in the comments!

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