Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's (Not) the End of the World As We Know It

Although as I type no truly earth-shattering news has broken from anywhere around the world, it is still likely that September 21st, 2011, will be remembered for more than the announcement from R.E.M. that the band is splitting up. Yet this news strikes a loud chord with me as I've been onboard, though as you shall read not always comfortably, with the Athens, GA. outfit for over half my life.

For a long period I was utterly obsessed with R.E.M., possessed of a love and fanaticism so deep that amongst my friends, and further afield, my name became, to a degree, synonymous with the band's. Even today when describing the level of unreasonable fandom I reached, I recall the sad time I ordered an expensive and awful CD from Italy by a band called Flor de Mal, simply because R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills performed handclaps on two tracks. Seriously. It could have been Silvio Berlusconi, MC Hammer, or even you, dear reader, clapping away on this terrible band's excuses for songs, and I'd have never known. That CD remains probably the worst thing I've ever heard, but it had to remain in the collection because of my insane completist attitude when it came to R.E.M. I had to have everything - every note, every collaboration and guest appearance, also amassing over 400 bootlegs of mainly live stuff down the years.

So, as you'll understand, I have previously entertained how I would greet this news when it eventually happened. There was a time in my life, at the height of my fanboy madness, when upon receiving the announcement I'd have probably cried my eyes out, fainted, contemplated ending it all; run amok with a machete; turned to crisis counselling; got hopelessly drunk and called my friends in hysterical despair, or hammered on their doors in the middle of the night, caked in mud and snot, adamant that there was no hope left in this world anymore.

Dropping into the BBC website earlier, as I do a few times a day when working at home, I discovered the news as it was breaking. I read the headline, Rock legends REM announce split, and my instant reaction was, believe it or not, calm relief. There was not, and still is not, any feeling of upset. I'm just kind of glad it's all over because, let's be honest, R.E.M. have been in terminal creative decline since drummer Bill Berry left the band 14 years ago, and should have disbanded long before now.

They hit an absolute peak of genius with the masterpiece, Automatic for the People, and from that point, with the exception of four or five songs on each successive album, I believe they've been struggling. New Adventures in Hi-Fi was quite good, but way too long; Monster was just messy with a glammy cockiness that didn't suit them; Reveal and Around the Sun were, in a nutshell, utter garbage. I have played the latter precisely twice - the second airing just to see if my ears had deceived me the first time around, to see if it really was as bad an album as I initially thought. It was, and has remained unplayed since. Reveal suffered pretty much the same fate in this household, with maybe four spins max, as I desperately tried to find something within to restore some faith.

Up, however, as the first post-Berry era release, is a bona fide stunner. I seem to be the only one that thinks so, but it remains a personal favourite boasting, in my opinion, several of their very best songs. I thought there was cause for optimism for the future of R.E.M. when I heard it, but that proved largely unfounded. To my bewilderment, Accelerate was widely lauded as a mighty comeback, but to these seasoned ears it sounded like a bunch of middle-aged guys trying way too hard to remain relevant and cool, and failing. Collapse Into Now, on the other hand, contains flashes of the great R.E.M. of old, but for me it's too little too late, as all signs of true inspiration deserted R.E.M. many years back. That they swore they would never release a live album, yet released two in the last four years, provided me, at least, with all the evidence I needed that the writing was on the wall.

For a fan as passionate as I once was, it was a sad situation to realize I was becoming worried about the quality of each forthcoming new album - losing my religion, as it were - rather than greeting the news with the gushing excitement and anticipation I used to. It is this emotion, I guess, that lies at the core of my relief at the news the band is splitting up. Their legacy remains by and large awesome and hugely influential, so I'm glad that in calling it a day they can keep it that way without delivering yet more stuff that would surely be pale imitations of the incredible material they were once capable of.

All this latter career anguish voiced, this band will remain a massive part of my life forever. Their music and politics have shaped my thinking in more ways than I can mention. I have so many fantastic memories from the 11 times I had the joy of seeing them play live. Really, I have stories you would not believe, so be sure to ask me one day. I still have, yes, all the CDs, all the bootlegs and self-made compilations of rarities and whatnot (though, you'll be delighted to hear, ditched the Flor de Mal abomination years ago). I don't collect R.E.M. stuff with any real appetite anymore, but would pick up a reasonably priced gap in my collection if I saw one. And I've delibrerately extricated myself from a position of obsession with this or any other band. It's just not good for the old noggin (or wallet). As important as music is, it's just music. There are many more important things in life than music and material goods, and after so many years of obsessing over R.E.M., their product, and too many other things, it feels very good to be able to keep it all under firm control these days. I'm a much happier person for it.

As expected, I've had a few emails from friends today about this news. My witty friend Jon in Victoria, also a huge fan, whose email subject header was the quite brilliant, REM Collapse Into Now, Literally, summed it up nicely in saying, "At least they left us some of the finest music in the history of that there pop." Indeed they did, and let's not forget that the IRS deluxe anniversary reissues series will be concluded, so those releases are something to look forward to. Who knows, there may even be a final album or albums of unreleased material, and presumably some solo ventures ahoy, so in reality R.E.M. and the sum of its parts is probably going nowhere for a while yet! Despite my relief that this chapter of the band's and my life is now over, then, I could only ever be happy about the fact they will remain visible.

All that remains is for me to wish Michael, Peter and Mike every success and happiness, thank them from the bottom of my heart for so many wonderful memories and so much great art, and say in all sincerity that I look forward to their next individual moves - with excitement and anticipation, even. They may come back refreshed and inspired to offer up incredible work once more, but if it's not I'll be the first to say so!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Well, Fancy That! # 2

We had friends over for dinner last night and, thankfully after dining, conversation turned to the gargantuan crocodile caught in the Philippines. This led onto chatter about the oddities of nature in general, especially the comical Blobfish, a creature so ludicrous you couldn't make it up.  Then this morning the Sympatico website was carrying a clip of film of a creature I had never previously encountered, something so crazy I can barely believe my eyes: the Devil's Flower Mantis. So, take a look at this piece of film and then try to tell me that he isn't the most astonishing insectidude you've ever seen! Look at those legs! What the HELL?!