R.E.M. Retirement Leaves Impossible To Fill Void

R.E.M. calls it a day, as friends, as we always knew they would...
  |   Comments

R.E.M. RetireR.E.M. have retired.

I like that word: retired. Not broken up. Retired. No attorneys have been called. No one has used the phrase ‘musical differences.’ No ‘f- yous’ have been shouted before limos screech away into the night. After 32 years, they have -- as the band’s statement read in the most R.E.M.-way possible -- ‘called it a day.’

I want to pause a second and commend BlindedBySound. As a guest here, I am not tooting my own horn as I compliment this site for staying away from the following ready-made, corny one-liners, because Lord knows no one else on the Internet has been able to control themselves from using: ‘The End of R.E.M. As We Know It,’ ‘Permanent Vacation,’ ‘Endgame’ or ‘I’m Out Of Here.’

Ironically, this isn’t the first time that word has been used in R.E.M. lore, as Bill Berry famously retired too, back in 1997. Not to belabor the point, but Bill didn’t quit R.E.M.. David Lee Roth quit Van Halen. Bill wasn’t fired, like the late Rick Wright from Pink Floyd (at least four times by my count). He didn’t go form his own band, like countless other spurned drummers. He retired, and good old Bill was last seen moving bales of hay on his farm in Georgia.

As an aside, I have long maintained that Bill Berry would be the best next-door neighbor ever. He seems like the kind of guy that would mow your lawn just because he already had his mower out and you have looked busy lately, or invite you over to watch the Georgia/Florida game on his flat-screen, and have beer and hot dogs waiting to boot.

That’s the sort of things kindly Southern gentlemen do when they retire, and Bill Berry is retired.

Words mean things. They have different connotations. We have almost forgotten in today’s soundbyte, limited-space, text-and-Twitter-fed world that there is such a thing as nuance, and the words we use matter. It stands to reason that the words we use to describe the end of R.E.M. matters.

Don’t believe me? Say this out loud: ‘R.E.M. broke up.’ Doesn’t sound real, does it? The phrase rings dead in your own ears. You might as well have spoken a series of unrelated words or gibberish. When the sentence finally sinks into your mind, a whole series of unpleasant images starts to form. One of former friends fighting in a studio or in an office. Maybe Michael Stipe threw an ashtray at Mike Mills when the latter suggested Stipe couldn’t rhyme ‘kangeroo’ with ‘tank.’ Or maybe Mills insisted that Peter Buck pick up one of those oh-so heavy banjos for the chorus of a song, and Buck responded by throwing said banjo – and his biggest off-plane fit ever.

I can’t picture that and neither can you. And that’s because it didn’t happen, because R.E.M. didn’t break up. They retired.

Now, say this out loud: ‘R.E.M. retired.’ Goes down a lot more smoothly, doesn’t it? For me, the phrase is met with the briefest second of disbelief, followed by a rush of sad resignation. ‘Aw man. What a bummer. But I can see it.’ The word retire speaks to a completely different set of images. One of friends hugging, shaking hands and crying. One of bittersweet good-byes and cleaning out desk drawers and packing up instruments. I can imagine Stipe thanking Mills for all the great harmonies. I can imagine Buck telling Michael his is going to miss hearing his howl over the bridge of ‘Life And How To Live It.’

At the same time, I can imagine none of this taking place, and the three simply agreeing ‘It’s been fun, but it is time’ and walking away without any further comment. How R.E.M. would that be? R.E.M. informed the world that it was time for them to no longer exist via a simple message on their website.

Whether the end was pre-meditated and long-considered or a spur-of-the-moment reaction to a fruitless recording session, we may never know. Either is plausible, because R.E.M. didn’t break up yesterday; R.E.M. retired, and I’ll be damned if the world doesn’t seem just a little bit emptier for it.

Here’s hoping there are many years of photography and film production (Michael), golf and activism (Mike), side projects that can now be center projects (Peter) and even more farmwork (Neighbor Bill) ahead for these classy sons of the South.