R.E.M. announced Wednesday that it is calling it quits. The Athens, Ga., band that pioneered a distinctive, arty college-rock sound was a group that meant a lot to many people.
The group was the first rock band I felt was truly my own. It wasn't the first band I saw in concert (that distinction falls to Billy Squier and Jimmy Buffett), but it was the first band I saw purely of my own choosing. For those other shows I was along for the ride with friends.
In 1984, my senior year of high school, I jumped into a 1964 Ford Galaxy 500 with my buddy Kevin Rooney and we drove from my home town of Southern Pines, N.C., to Greensboro, N.C. to see R.E.M. on the "Reckoning" tour.
I remember almost everything about the show.
The openers were Dream Syndicate. R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe barely addressed the crowd and stared straight into a bank of lights at stage left for most of the concert. Somebody in the crowd yelled "Play it, Pete!" during guitarist Peter Buck's solo during the song "Camera." For an encore, they played "California Dreaming" and several country tunes. At the time, I had a bad reaction to the country songs. I bet I wouldn't feel the same way today.
I even remember the merch I bought at the front of War Memorial Auditorium [Black T-shirt, button, tour program -- all gone now except the tour program].
All these years later -- after a long string of mediocre, late-career albums -- I don't feel the same passion for the band. My admiration for several of its early albums hasn't dimmed, though. I recently listened to "Murmur" and thought it sounded as fresh and vital as the day it was released. I still enjoy "Life's Rich Pageant" and "Document" although "Reckoning" isn't quite as awesome as I thought as a scruffy 18 year old.
R.E.M. played at least twice on the Peninsula. A look through the archive tells me they rocked Hampton Coliseum Nov. 8, 1989, and Oct. 9, 1995. Folks over at the Coliseum say the 1995 show drew 9,500 fans -- a healthy crowd for a band that, even then, seemed past its prime.
I was in the audience that night. I remember only a few things about that show. Stipe had developed into a flashy, cocksure front man. His ego might have inflated a tad too much. Buck looked sort of tired -- his leaps and dips seemed obligatory.
This was not the band I loved so much as a teenager.
And yet, I confess, 16 years later, I'm sad that they've finally said goodbye.