Cue the rapid-eye-mourning.
R.E.M. shocked the rock world today by announcing a wholly
unexpected breakup. "As lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided
to call it a day as a band," read the not-terribly-explanatory statement on
their website. "We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and
of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by
our music, our deepest thanks for listening."
Now, if they'd put a fork in it five or ten years ago, when R.E.M.
really did seem to be running on fumes, everyone would have understood and
murmured appreciatively, quietly pouring out a 40 in their honor. Reveal (2001) or Around the Sun (2004)? Now, those
are the kinds of wan, can't-even-rouse-the-faithful albums that bands are supposed to break up on.
But jaws dropped at their pulling the rug now, because R.E.M. was on a roll that bands aren't supposed to experience going into their second
decade together, much less their fourth. Three years ago, the revved-up Accelerate got the kind of "return to
form" reviews veteran bands would give a tired limb for. Ditto for its follow-up,
Collapse Into Now, released just this
past March. (Recent deluxe reissues of beloved '80s albums like Life's Rich
Pageant only magnified the renewed lovefest between R.E.M. and their public.)
Even more curiously, for the conspiracy theorists among us, the announcement
comes just days after lead singer Michael Stipe posted nude photos of himself
on his Tumblr page. Could that have somehow prompted a major band squabble over
Skype? Or perhaps it was just evidence of an overall midlife crisis that also
precipitated the split?
Not long after the group statement went up, individual members went onto
R.E.M.'s website to go into slightly more detail about the breakup (but not the
"A wise man once said, 'The skill in attending a party is knowing
when it's time to leave'," wrote Stipe. "We built something extraordinary
together. We did this thing. And now we're going to walk away from it."
"Dear John" letters get any less sentimental?
Bassist Mike Mills went into more detail about the psychology behind
the split: "During our last tour, and while making Collapse Into Now
and putting together this greatest hits retrospective, we started asking
ourselves, 'What next?' Working through our music and memories from over three
decades was a hell of a journey. We realized that these songs seemed to draw a
natural line under the last 31 years of our working together."
Knowing that speculation about squabbling would immediately commence,
Mills added, "There's no disharmony here, no falling-outs, no lawyers squaring
off. We've made this decision together, amicably and with each other's best
interests at heart. The time just feels right."
Guitarist Peter Buck offered the sweetest sendoff. "Mike,
Michael, (former drummer) Bill (Berry), (manager) Bertis (Downs), and I walk
away as great friends. I know I will be seeing them in the future, just as I
know I will be seeing everyone who has followed us and supported us through the
years. Even if it's only in the vinyl aisle of your local record store, or
standing at the back of the club, watching a group of 19-year- olds trying to
change the world."
Of course, no spurned lover wants to hear "See you around, downtown!" as a cheery sendoff. And R.E.M. fans who grew up—or grew old—thinking of the band as a sort of
trusted friend may initially feel aggrieved as much as grieved by the refusal
to go out with a farewell tour, not to mention the suddenness of a statement
that might as well say, "This one goes out to the one I've left behind…"
Then again, there's certainly a wisdom to, if not leaving the party
early, then quitting on top. It's a kind of "top," anyway, since appreciation for the band's recent revitalization hadn't translated to anything like the album sales of
Perhaps it's time to reflect on the very miracle of a band of youths
holding it together for more than three decades (or mostly together, since
Berry's exit in the late '90s reduced the core quintet to a trio). Rock bands
are like youth clubs, or gangs—not necessarily meant to grow old gracefully,
however much we like to think of them as a collective pal instead of guys who
barely keep it together through years of grudges and learned tolerance. Groups that come to be relatively elderly, in rock years, are more like old married couples, for better or worse,
with all the love and enmity and senses of appreciation and obligation that entails.
Maybe Josh Weinstein (Tom Servo from TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000) tweeted it best: "I think it was nice
of R.E.M. to wait for all the kids to grow up before separating."
But the dream that these precarious unions can endure indefinitely isn't over.
Okay, U2: It's up to you
to live forever.