R.E.M.’s ceaseless support, remixed
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
As 2022 sort of trudged into its inevitable halt and lurched into 2023, I found myself stuck in some habits. Not necessarily a rut and not necessarily a dark place, but in a routine that isn’t always the healthiest or most productive.
So I turn to those heroes from the past. I reinvested in watching soccer (futebol), turning a blind eye to the monstrosities of the event and enjoying the World Cup, then watching endless highlights from the game’s history via youtube. I check in on Keith Richards, marveling at the Stones’ body of work and trying to cop all those riffs on guitar myself. And, once again on top of that hill, there stands R.E.M.
This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself sliding out of one year and into another with R.E.M., though this doesn’t feel the same as those in the past. As I write this, Lifes Rich Pageant is on the turntable and a used copy of Fiction, a biography written by David Buckley, sits on my desk, unread except for the acknowledgements and introductions. That will come next. It all feels good.
As with any good kick, I’ve been all in on all the phases of the band. Special attention was paid to their early-to-mid-nineties peak, of course, then I went back to their earliest records, watched as many live videos as I could handle, listened to bootlegs from their 1995 Monster tour, tracked down a couple of documentaries for good measure.
And I went back to 1998 and 2001, and their Up and Reveal albums, respectively, to give them a little more time than I’d dedicated to them back in the day. After the departure of Bill Berry and with the natural discover of new bands and the restlessness of my late teenage years, this was an easy time to take the band for granted. They always shifted their style and approach from album to album, but those two albums specifically didn’t grab me the way they would now. But they lingered.
A few weeks ago, this all flashed me back to my time at a certain New England grocery store behemoth in the early 2000s. I was probably 19 or 20 and certainly not at the peak of my R.E.M. interests. But I never lost total track of them. The good little music buyer I was, I had Up and Reveal on CD, and I kept tabs on their whereabouts, even if I hadn’t taken in those albums with the fervor I had for New Adventures in Hi-Fi or Monster. In particular, there was one random track on Up that seemed a little too soft and a little too mushy for my tastes upon first listen. However, trapped in a sea of Celine Dion and the latest boy band hits and whatever other soft pop drivel the muzak programmers had determined best encourages customers to buy milk and bread pumping out of the store’s PA, I was more open to ideas.
Which brings this entire exercise, finally, to “At My Most Beautiful,” an ode to Brian Wilson’s semi-classical approach to rock and roll, as well as a straight love song from a band that always seemed to delight in dancing around the fact. But the version they played on the store wasn’t the one I’d glazed over on Up. The backing vocals that seemed so distracting were gone, the production stripped away to the point of sounding like a live version from some made-for-television concert I’d somehow missed. Was it from their second Unplugged appearance? I had no idea.
There were not many songs that were ever worth paying attention to during work hours. Most pushed their way past pushy customers to burrow their way into my head, unwanted. But this one would pop up every other shift or so, three minutes and change of peace amidst the long hours and awful patrons I (mostly) silently suffered.
And it was so simple. Michael Stipe’s delivery over the strings wasn’t maudlin or overwrought. He was straight-forward, honest and delivering a message I could only hope to one day deliver to someone myself:
I've found a way to make you
I've found a way
A way to make you smile
I’d learn much later that this was the “Radio Remix” version, issued on a single that might’ve skipped past me within the CD section at Circuit City or Best Buy. And it wasn’t until I was well into this latest deep dive into R.E.M.’s oeuvre that all this came back to me, and I realized I still hadn’t definitively tracked down what, exactly, that version was.
Since it is very much not the early 2000s anymore, it took seconds, maybe, to finally nail down which version was providing this tiny oasis of bliss to my ears twice a week in between counting out change, selling lottery tickets and paying out refunds on expired cream. And I listened to it a dozen times in a row upon rediscovery, this one little nugget of happiness from a relatively unhappy time.
Through it all, R.E.M. seemed to be there more than most in those difficult periods — flashes in high school, later when I was grasping at straws in the desert, and so on. I found comfort in this band that was seemingly always there and would always be there.
The consummate professionals and purveyors of good taste that they were, though, they’re not here anymore, having declared all the best and calling it a day more than a decade ago. And the music remains, as always, ready to pull the light from the dark when needed.
Jan. 4, 2023
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org