R.E.M. has reached its destination

It's been a rough year for the rock 'n' roll in my life.

I lost the White Stripes back in February. I toughed that one out and moved on, comfortable with my memories of seeing the band live multiple times and using the break-up to explore its late catalogue to find treasures unknown.

On Wednesday, I was dealt another blow when my friend woke me with a text saying that R.E.M. had broken up after 31 years.

(This has always been a major sticking point with this particular friend. He is a impulsive sort who can't wait to share earth-shaking news. It's pathological. And since he lives in the Midwest, he's always two hours ahead of me. I'm usually asleep when he sends these brutal wake-up texts at six in the morning his time. Paul Newman died. Studs Terkel died. The White Stripes broke up. The Bears signed Jay Cutler to a contract extension, etc. I implore to him to allow me to enjoy part of my morning before the real world comes crushing down. He doesn't listen. So it goes.)

I'm 33. For all intents and purposes, I don't know life without R.E.M. And now it's gone. This bothers me for reasons I have difficulty explaining.

These boys from Athens, Ga., pulled off a near miracle career. They sold untold millions of albums, appeared on countless film soundtracks, television commercials and soft contemporary radio stations, but (mostly) managed to keep hold of their artistic integrity until the very end.

I think my favorite R.E.M. story involves its much-discussed contract with Warner Bros. back in 1996. The band was coming off three mega-albums — "Out of Time," "Automatic for the People" and "Monster" — that reaped crappy music industry awards and hours of MTV airplay. Warner Bros. inked them to an $80 million record deal. I can imagine WB execs drooling at the thought of more "Losing My Religion" and "Everybody Hurts" cuts streaming down the pipeline. Songs that are tailor-made for WB's cross-promotional music/movie/ad campaigns.

R.E.M.'s indie fans, those who longed for the "Murmur" and "Life's Rich Pageant" days when the band cut weird albums about train conductors and chemical weapons, wrote the members off as sellouts. However, R.E.M. had the last laugh on everyone.

After the contract, the band went on to produce some of its most challenging, least radio/MTV-friendly work since "Pageant."

Each album came in with dwindling returns on the Billboard charts. Finally, R.E.M. seemed to slip completely from the cultural dialogue.

It seemed perfectly happy doing so.

I'm no expert on the later stuff, but what I have heard is pretty damn good. Certainly better than what you're going to hear at a hipster club in Portland this weekend.

Michael Stipe. Peter Buck. Mike Mills. Bill Berry.

Each one of these guys could have led a band, a good band. And that was the secret to R.E.M.'s power.

Stipe is among the all-time most interesting lead singers. The dude is weird enough to make it impossible to take your eyes off him, his impenetrable lyrics ready-made for long discussions over cheap beer in a dorm room and his indecipherable singing style valued sound and texture over clarity. For Stipe, the musical pronunciation of a word outstripped whatever meaning it might have in the context of the song.

If Stipe was the general, then Mills was the band's secret weapon. I'm going to put my finger to the table and say that Mills is the best backing vocalist of the past 30 years. I can't think of anyone close. Don't believe me? Listen to his support on several songs of "Life's Rich Pageant."

Never forget, Mills composed "Nightswimming" off "Automatic for the People," among the most haunting and life-affirming rock songs you've ever heard.

I'm as guilty as anyone of losing interest in a band that has been around as long as R.E.M. I fell off soon after "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" and only sporadically throw on the next five albums.

That ends tonight.

The one positive of a great band's break-up is that the work is given closure, making it easier to approach the old material with the same verve as the new. Knowing that "Accelerate" is the last R.E.M. album makes it inherently interesting. I didn't give it much thought upon its release a few months back.

I've been listening to it the entire time I've been writing this column. It's a fine, fine album.

Now I want more.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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