Tuesday, May 08, 2007

When Michael Stipe Had Hair

I’ve been doing one of those huge MP3 projects again. This time, I’m wading through all my 90s pop CDs that came out pre-MP3 boom in the late 90s, and transferring the cream of the crop to MP3. It’s a lot of stuff – adding 400 some tracks to a general Pop folder that already had 800 or so songs.

The same thing happens every time I do these projects: it occurs to me that I no longer want to own certain CDs, and in some cases, jettison entire phases of certain artists’ careers. All in utter astonishment at why I bought this shit in the first place. Sometimes, the bands do it for me in real time. I couldn’t stand Radiohead’s change of pace with Kid A, made the bad mistake of buying the electronic blip/blop follow-up, threw both out and swore to never again buy Radiohead product unless it featured two guitarists. The shock for me is that Kid A is their most popular album; it’s a piece of shit.

(Sidenote: I can't use the excuse that I "was high, man." The only time I've ever purchased music while in any state of inebration was a strange Friday night shortly after I had just been dumped by a girl I can't even remember. I went out and got drunk with a few friends. Afterwards, since I was near the Tower on 4th and Broadway, I inexplicably headed over there and plunked down what was then a good chunk of change on the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons box set -- on vinyl at the time. The next morning I woke up and thought this was totally nuts. But you know what? After playing the thing a few times, I realized it was a sound purchase, made under emotional duress.)

I now have a stack of about 30 CDs I’m going to junk. In the old days, I’d try to sell these, but now, I’d rather just throw them out then go through the whole Half.com process, which is a lot of work, to clear less than $100 over a few-month period. There are a few multiple-album dumpings. The White Stripes: after the first two albums, aside from a few songs I handily saved, the rest of their stuff sounds so bad to me. Boring, repetitive, wildly over-rated. Jack needs to stop dressing like a rodeo clown on acid and get back to business.

But the real revelation, which shouldn’t have been much of one at all, was REM’s output from the 90s on. Thus, the title of this posting … because the only REM I will now own harkens back to days of yore when Michael Stipe still had hair. And I’m not recognizing those days as being quite so golden. A few months earlier, I noted how surprised I was that a recent listening to REM’s 80s material left me feeling that a lot of their music was overly precious college rock, mainly because of Stipe’s murky poet image. The music was fine. Some of the songs are legitimately great: “So. Central Rain,” “I Believe,” “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” “Talk About the Passion,” “Good Advices,” “Don’t Go Back to Rockville,” etc. The consistent weak point is the lead singer – not his voice, which is actually fine for the material. I’m talking lyrics and image more than anything.

They had enough great material that I could see why I was a huge fan at the time. The general vibe back then was that REM was akin to The Beatles, as The Replacements were to The Rolling Stones. And both were in a friendly competition to be the best indie band around. Then REM really took off with “The One I Love” and things escalated from there, to the point where they became something far from the cool indie band they once were. The last song I recall falling for was “Losing My Religion” – the video of which imparts where they were going wrong. Indulging in all sorts of artsy imagery, pompous in a "college sophomore on his first Camus jag" way, vague hints of Stipes’ politics seeping into the music, etc. Sort of like U2, who followed a similar trajectory. Save you knew that was going to happen with U2 – REM should have never got that big. They were meant to be shaggy bohemians, not shaved-skull rock stars dressed like Johnny Bravo.

Luckily, The Replacements didn’t become rock stars, and sucked when they tried. Paul Westerberg found his niche as a tasteful cult artist, but even that’s been problematic. His albums are uniformly mediocre – just not enough good songs, plenty of songs that sound right, but aren’t quite there. To read critics’ reviews, you’d think he’s doing Exile on Main Street every time out; he’s not even doing Goat’s Head Soup. The fan base seems to be filled with very odd people who treat Westerberg like a god and maniacally shout every lyric of every song at every show. (I don’t remember Replacements shows ever being this way. They were fun. Not a church service for a bunch of people who never got past 20 in their emotional development. I don’t mind 20-year-olds with this kind of mindset, although, again, Replacements fans back in the 80s seemed like a tough, cynical lot not prone to singalongs. But when you’re 35?) As ambivalent as I feel towards Westerberg these days, his fate has been vastly preferable to that of REM.

Getting back to REM, I also recently bought the video collection of their early IRS material, and that was a fun watch. I see a lot of myself and how I was in the vibe of those videos, those college days of the mid-80s, when we were all making it up as we went along. I remember staying up late to watch the episodes the band did on the MTV show, The Cutting Edge, and thinking that’s how it should be: a bunch of skinny kids on a shoestring budget, gallivanting all over the country in a van, sleeping on the living-room floors of fans when money got too tight for a hotel, jamming in big empty rooms, not taking it all too seriously. They lived in an abandoned church, man. A fucking abandoned church! Did I mention my friends and I once chatted with Michael Stipe in a graveyard on the campus of Bucknell University on a pre-Fables of the Reconstruction mini-tour? On campus at midnight after the show. A fucking graveyard, man!

But the 90s version of REM is just so awful. Michael Stipe, of course, is the key, but the rest of the band seems to have lost its ability to write good songs. “Man on the Moon”? This song is so bland and inoffensive – hardly a fitting tribute to Andy Kaufman. “Shiny Happy People”? Even if it’s being ironic, it’s still a deeply foul song. “Everybody Hurts”? I don’t like Sean “Puffy” Combs, but I’ll give him credit for lampooning this song in his "All About the Benjamins" video for being the hack pussy-work it is. “Nightswimming”? A song about skinny-dipping late at night. Written by a guy in his mid-30s. Who the fuck, in his mid-30s, still goes skinny-dipping? This is the kind of thing ROCK STARS do, as they rarely have to get up at 6:30 the next morning -- John Cougar could have written this song. “What’s the Frequency Kenneth”? I guess this is the guys getting back to their “rock” roots. But it’s boring as shit: a neat summation of REM’s 90s output.

I can’t even recall what the song was, but REM did a video where they showed up at a New York City high school to play for the kids. And the kids looked perplexed. I’m assuming most of them had no idea who REM was, and didn’t care. So you have the visage of these increasingly haggard looking guys wearing these manufactured Chess King rock-star duds, jamming out on some tuneless song, for a bunch of kids who think they’re a joke. All I could think was, “Once you make a few million dollars through a bogus record contract that the label wishes it could rescind in light of greatly diminished sales, reality becomes a distraction.”

After wading through their 90s discs this past weekend, and salvaging four tracks from all of them, all I could think was, don’t blame the band, blame me. I was an asshole for buying all these CDs long after it had been made clear to me that the band was phoning it in shortly after their first stadium tour.

Why did I do it? Partially out of loyalty, because the band genuinely meant something to me in the 80s, and I had faith enough in them that they’d somehow “find the magic” again, a false hope bolstered by critics who tend to make really bland albums by previously-indie bands like this sound like they’re worth purchasing. (And they rarely are.)

I think a greater reason is cultural inertia. Which is to say, when something that was once good and right in our culture hangs around, despite the fact that it has seen better days, there’s a strange cultural force that compels people to stick with it, full well knowing they’ll be disappointed. I believe this force has kept the music industry afloat for decades. It’s surely kept dozens of long-in-the-tooth bands around long, long past their prime. Part of that is nostalgia. You want to go on being the relatively innocent kid you were, plugged into a genuinely heartfelt and exciting experience. By buying that band’s now-shitty albums, you go on having faith that they’re still somehow the same people, as you are, too, by extension.

But part of it is just business. The album comes out, it garners anything from favorable to rave reviews, and after awhile you realize that when a record company throws seven and eight figure sums into signing a band (which is what inexplicably happened to REM in the early 90s), they want some ROI (Return on Investment) and are going to do everything they can to make this happen. I know REM’s albums have sold like shit-flavored ice cream since the mid 90s. (And rightfully so!) But to gather by the tour support they routinely get (I hope they recoup some of that money on the road), the publicity for each album, and the critics in their back pocket, you can suss out that it would be in their best financial interest if you bought the album, even when you sense it’s going to be a dog. (The last album I bought had a song called “Imitation of Life” which was a fantastic return to form the band – the rest of the album was so fucking bland and pointless, just not something I’d ever listen to again.)

For me, REM is the Alt 80s version of Rod Stewart, someone who plummeted from respectable creative heights (his first few solo and Faces albums are still incredible) to what we thought was horseshit (“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” … followed by his 80s synth-pop period), but wasn’t that bad compared to the absolute horseshit of Stewart singing standards. (Whoever’s buying these albums, and someone is because they’re sizable hits … fuck you. There’s something really wrong with you. Allow me to reiterate: fuck you. If you want to hear standards sung a few thousand times better, drop me an email.)

The thing is, not many people are willing to bust REM on sucking at that same level. But they are. I’m sure they’re still a bunch of nice guys. That Stipe can look you in the eye and have an earnest conversation that makes you think he’s a wizened southern nut. And that Buck still has that cool record-store clerk countenance about him. And in Mills you can still see that gawky kid playing bass in a Georgia high-school marching band. But for the life of me, something died a long time ago, it started reeking like roadkill skunk on the Dixie Highway in late August, and it wasn’t until a week ago that I finally came to my senses and buried it. My bad!


Jordan said...

I'll take your White Stripes Cds -- the post Green REM you can leave for our friends at Waste Management.

William S. Repsher said...

Done deal -- I think I have the next two albums after that. Stopped totally on these guys when Jack started looking like that kid in high school with a peach fuzz beard, who wore a cap and got a little too far into Dungeons and Dragons.

PJ said...

You have to hand it to Michael Stipe, though: for 25 years he's managed to resist the (I imagine strong)impulse to foist some kind of tortuous avant-garde David Byrnesque theater piece on the world. I imagine something about Chilean politics utilizing puppets.