By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
“This next song,” Michael Stipe said, “is a request.”
The number wasn’t a surprise. Much like right now, the country was leading up to a big election year. It was startling the band would start playing requests just two songs in to the set. But what made “World Leader Pretend” seem so stunning was that I had requested it.
Oh, I’m sure I’m not the only person who logged on to R.E.M.’s Website, selected the upcoming concert at Starlight Theatre and plugged “World Leader Pretend” into one of the three request slots. In that moment, however, it felt like the band was playing for ME, way up near the top of the theater bowl.
That feeling was reinforced two songs later when Stipe announced another request. “Fall on Me” is my all-time favorite R.E.M. song, and occupied another of my limited request spots. Those two moments, coupled with that night being my first (and now only) time seeing R.E.M. in concert made the night an incredible experience that cemented my passion for the band.
Shortsightedness prevented me from seeing R.E.M. eight years earlier, when they sold out two nights at Sandstone Amphitheatre in 1995 with Sonic Youth. Despite promoting the critically derided (but personally beloved) “Monster” album, that was R.E.M.’s first tour since the gigantic success of “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts.”
Eight years later the band was in a very different place. Drummer and not-so-secret weapon Bill Berry had left and the remaining trio had released three increasingly experimental records with decreasing results. They had toured faithfully during that time, but always skipped Kansas City. In 2003 they were pumping a greatest hits collection and the generally lifeless “Around the Sun” was right around the corner. In that moment R.E.M. seemed like Johnny Unitas with the Chargers or Babe Ruth with the Braves. “Accelerate” and this year’s “Collapse Into Now” proved they were more like Bobby Hull with the Jets.
And now, nearly exactly eight years to the day1 after I saw them at Starlight, R.E.M. are done. Buck will probably continue to play sideman to Robyn Hitchcock and Scott McCaughey, Mills will make pleasant but unnecessary James Taylor-meets-Brian Wilson solo albums, and Stipe will direct films and make weird solo albums that sound nothing like R.E.M.
I’m happy that R.E.M. decided to call it a day instead of endlessly releasing uninspired product (I’m looking at you, Red Hot Chili Peppers). But I’m also sorry that I likely won’t hear the new sounds of three of my favorite musicians working together again.
R.E.M. have always been a part of my musical landscape. They were legends when I discovered music, and it makes me sad to think they now only exist in history. But I’ll always have the tape of “World Leader Pretend” and “Fall on Me” in my mind.2
1 Setlist.fm reminded me the concert was on Sept. 17, 2003.
2 If anyone has a real recording of this night, please let me know.