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Going Back to Rockville

After a decade of international stardom, R.E.M. hasn't lost its southern accent.

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R.E.M.

at the Auditorium Theatre, 10/25

The last time I saw R.E.M. live, Reagan was president and Nirvana wasn't even a twinkle in David Geffen's eye. Michael Stipe still had a full head of long blond curls (and oh, how the girls of Indieland--and some of the boys--would grieve when he shaved them off). For the first time R.E.M. was popular enough that you could go to a show and run into casual fans--they were the folks dedicating the band's brand-new hit, "The One I Love," to their sweethearts.

This bizarre misreading of the song--"A simple prop / To occupy my time" is hardly an endearment--would've been an affront to the R.E.M. fans I knew in the early and mid-80s. Stipe's mush-mouthed, impressionistic lyrics were an irresistible temptation to us, and we studied every word on the band's first few records, intelligible or not. One friend swears to this day he can hear his name in "Kohoutek." Others wrote poems and stories based on what they thought might've been going on in "Harborcoat" or "Talk About the Passion." Once I visited a friend in Athens, Georgia, R.E.M.'s hometown, and we not only made a pilgrimage to the abandoned church where the band had allegedly lived but drove a good hour on deserted red-clay roads out to Philomath simply because it's mentioned in "Can't Get There From Here." ("If you're needing inspiration / Philomath is where I go.") The town was just a strip of buildings along the road, every one bearing a hand-lettered sign advertising a deer cooler, a taxidermy service, or both, and as we walked the length of the main drag we stumbled on the front half of a deer drawing flies in a drainage ditch. The weed-choked old cemetery, with rusty knee-high iron fences enclosing many of the plots, was by far the least creepy thing about the place.

In his new book, Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South (Free Press), music journalist Mark Kemp chronicles the complicated relationship that the generation before mine has had with the south and its signature sounds--this is the generation with memories of jim crow and desegregation, of Martin Luther King and the first wave of Stax soul out of Memphis, of white southern boys stealing the blues back from Clapton and Page and bringing it all back home, mutated once again. Lynyrd Skynyrd was a brilliant band, and Kemp sees them as standard-bearers in the fight to shake southerners free of their racist legacy--and of the burden of guilt they bore on behalf of northerners still in denial about their own unenlightened past. But Skynyrd was long gone by the time I came of age, and the southern indie rockers I grew up with saw the band as part of the old guard that had to be swept away. What we wanted this time was something less macho, less anti-intellectual--music that understood what it was like to grow up a very blue person in the very red states.

R.E.M. was a real beacon to a certain type of frustrated, ambivalent southern kid--the kind with too many books and nowhere near enough interest in football, the kind whose southern pride surged up when they read Thomas Wolfe and Flannery O'Connor, not when they watched a Civil War reenactment. (Really it comes down to a question of which lost cause you favor.) Patterson Hood, front man of the Drive-By Truckers, has written eloquently of what the Replacements and their northern kin meant to him in the 80s, but southerners could love R.E.M. without putting aside their regional loyalties--the band's early sound was as thoroughly stamped by place as Stipe's thick Georgia drawl. As murky and mysterious as a kudzu-draped forest, heavy with regret and loneliness, it was also enlivened by the twang and rattle of raucous Athens house parties. I'd chalk that up to the push and pull between Stipe and lead guitarist Peter Buck--Stipe was a tortured, twitchy art geek, hiding inside oversize jackets and behind his famous hair, and Buck was a shit-kicking garage-rock type in tight jeans, a guy you suspected could actually play every note of "Free Bird" if he ever chose to.

In the late 80s and early 90s, though, with Green and Monster (disastrous and dubious, respectively), it seemed to me that the guys in R.E.M. were becoming Americans rather than southerners--they were shedding their accents gradually, like newscasters in training. I didn't imagine they were doing this consciously, only that as their fame spread they were naturally spending lots of time in places like New York and Seattle. I wasn't about to get too worked up about this, considering that I was doing pretty much the same thing: I'd left Virginia to go to college in Ohio and intern in New York. When Automatic for the People came out in 1992, R.E.M.'s sound was still instantly recognizable, for Stipe's voice if nothing else, but it seemed that all the band had accomplished in years was to provide some of the better songs on 'XRT--I could barely remember how or why I'd loved its music with such haunted passion almost a decade before.

A couple years ago, a friend from back then who reads my music writing online e-mailed to blast me for forgetting where I'd come from. I'd used a snarky line about "the sticks" one time too many for him, and though I'd intended it affectionately I hadn't conveyed the sentiment just right. Was my southern citizenship being revoked? And if it was, would that even upset me? For insight I went back to Fables of the Reconstruction, an album that has functioned quite well for me as an oracle since it came out in 1985. Yes, it would upset me--listening to the overgrown, recondite southernness in those songs, I knew I didn't want to end up one of those midwestern liberals who comes to the big city and beats all the regional idiosyncrasies out of herself. It still gets my blood up when folks try to blame the current American political situation entirely on the south--and I imagine the guys in R.E.M. would hear those as fighting words too. It didn't shock me that the boys had signed up to do MoveOn.org's Vote for Change tour--they're already perpetual benefit players, and hardly shy about their politics--but it was a surprise to hear that they were holding their own, in terms of partisan fire anyway, next to Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. This I had to see.

The Vote for Change tour didn't come through Chicago last month, and I didn't make it to Detroit. I settled for a plain old R.E.M. show at the Auditorium Theatre a few weeks later. It might be the best place I'll ever get to see them, now that they're ginormous rock stars--it's well-appointed and relatively intimate and seems a hell of a lot smaller than it is. And their 13th album, the new Around the Sun (Warner Brothers), is my favorite R.E.M. record in several years--faint praise, I admit, but praise nonetheless. It strikes a fine balance between hope and despair, between brooding ballads and charmingly rickety stabs at anthems, and it's low on generic college rock and wannabe tres-moderne drum-machine crap (U2, I'm looking at you). The six-person version of the band treading the boards these days has a beautifully filled-out sound: Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow reproduce onstage the interlacing guitar and keyboard parts from the album, and bassist Mike Mills is still the perfect vocal foil for Stipe. (Drummer Bill Rieflin--best known from Ministry--has replaced Joey Waronker, who replaced founding member Bill Berry in 1997.) Stipe himself seems a lot more comfortable as the center of attention, right down to his vaguely hip-hop hand motions. If white dorkiness is a dialectic, with Moby at one pole and Eminem at the other, Stipe's somewhere Mobyward of the midpoint--the blue stripe of makeup he wore across his eyes was more Hamburglar than Marilyn Manson.

The set itself carefully balanced upbeat and down-tempo tunes, old material and new, for almost two hours. Though R.E.M.'s been huge for a long time, the band was ambivalent about its position for years, and that uncertainty and self-criticism seem to have helped it learn to refine and control every detail of a performance. Last week many of those details seemed marshaled into a collective posture of defiance--Stipe even held a silver cassette player next to his mike to insert the sample of army defense counsel Joseph Welch into "Exhuming McCarthy" ("Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"). R.E.M.'s anger is the anger of the reformer, not the revolutionary, but that makes it a good match for the anger of all the latte-drinkin', Volvo-drivin' middle-class urban Democrats who want to send Dubya back to Crawford for good. (Those Democrats also undoubtedly make up a significant slice of the band's current demographic--I doubt you'll find too many R.E.M. fans in a typical black bloc.) When Stipe dedicated "I Wanted to Be Wrong" to President Bush ("God gave us the upper hand / There's honor among thieves"), a few outnumbered Republicans made their discomfort known with boos. They soon quieted down again, but if the song's sad, bitter plea touched anything in them, Stipe broke the spell for sure when he came out for the encore modeling a Kerry T-shirt like Ben Stiller on the runway in Zoolander.

In bluer-than-blue Chicago it's easy to sneer at a rich rock star parading around in a Kerry shirt like he's making some sort of huge statement. But if you can look at Stipe and see not an out-and-proud, film-producing, Q-Tip-schmoozing international celebrity but instead a shy, arty introvert trying to find his way in darkest Georgia, where the Dixiecrats long ago defected to the GOP (and perhaps the last one still standing just challenged Chris Matthews to a fucking duel), maybe you'll understand why he seems so excited now to wear his sentiments across his chest. That's not to say Stipe's southern love of mystery--his reliance on allusiveness, indirection, and camouflage--is entirely absent these days. I picked it up best on the very new "Boy in the Well," the very old "Sitting Still," and the counterpoint he sang when he yielded the lead-vocal spot to Mills for "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville," a song I've always thought was at least partly about the sadness of the south losing its best minds to the promise of brighter lights, better jobs, and more humane politics elsewhere.

Of course, the belief that southerners can get away from small-mindedness and intolerance by fleeing the south rests on the ridiculous assumption that small-mindedness and intolerance don't exist anywhere else. Walking down Michigan Avenue after the concert I was accosted by a carload of guys who'd presumably spotted the Kerry/Edwards button I'd forgotten I had on my coat. "Dem!" they yelled. "Fuck you!" (Never having been addressed as "dem" before, I failed to come up with a timely riposte.) There's no reliable way to escape the shit that people forsake the south to avoid--which means there's no real reason to leave the good parts behind either.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.

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