On our ride up to Maine via Boston, where my oldest son and I caught an awesome pitching performance by the Tigers’ Justin Verlander over the Red Sox at Fenway, last Thursday, my wife told me some details of a dance party that neighbor friends had hosted a few nights earlier and that I had missed. My wife had a great time, even if the music selection was a bit more like a typical wedding mix than she would have hoped. She loves to dance. I feel incredibly self-conscious in my rare efforts at dancing (badly), but the party did sound cool: good company, a rented dance floor on the couple’s back yard on a beautiful night, etc. My wife reported that the dance party reached its peak during a run of B-52s songs. Then she unintentionally warmed the cockles of my heart with this report on the dance party’s low point:
As I mentioned yesterday, I finally picked up Warren Zevon‘s largely overlooked Sentimental Hygiene, his 1987 release with members of R.E.M. and other guests that signalled a return to form following a particularly long and intense period of drug and alcohol abuse, even by this hard-living cynic’s standards. Five years after Zevon’s unexpected premature death by lung cancer (who didn’t think he would OD?), this album stands as a bookend to the artist’s typically other overlooked work, 1980’s Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. Considering I’m listening to this album for the first time ever and it sounds exactly like every other album I’ve ever heard by the guy, my initial thoughts follow in cut-up fashion. My thanks to a variety of critics and bloggers, who did the heavy lifting and posed, sometimes unintentionally, a couple of piercing questions.
Do we try over spilt milk?
The last thing I want to do is make this into a pile-on session on the pride of the American ’80s underground, REM. If you’ll recall, some Townspeople already had the opportunity to do this when the band we inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame some weeks ago.
We are not here to indict the recording career of REM, Mike Mills’ shocking switch to the Nudie suit and unkempt hair Look, or even Michael Stipe’s overall Look portfolio. Today, there’s but one Rock Crime for which REM must answer: the video for “Losing My Religion”. Love the song itself or hate it – and surely there are many on each side of that fence – it is solely the 1991 MTV Music Awards‘ Best Video of the Year, directed by Tarsem Singh, that is accused of high crimes against rock.
If you were anywhere near a tv in the early ’90s, surely you’re all-too-familiar with this video. There’s the religious imagery and obvious hints at the framing of famous photographers’ works as well as the works of Caravaggio. There’s tho whole Soviet poster art/salt of the earth imagery: large-nosed, honest folk with stubble and somber faces, looking off into the distance or, briefly, directly at you, the viewer of these important messages from a singer who’d already made a career of mumbling nonsensical lyrics to cover for his near-crippling introversion. Jeez, does anyone look like they’re having a good time in this video?
I’m a little surprised R.E.M. doesn’t seem to get its props from the general RTH community. They have (well, had) a driving, melodic rhythm section; a wankery-eschewing guitarist with (judging from interviews) an encyclopedic knowledge of rock; and an eccentric lead singer who pushed them into new territory. They’re kinda like XTC in that regard.
Sure, their brand of jangly college rock became a cul de sac thanks to lesser lights. And yes, their preachy brand of political gesture sure can grate. But – of their early work — I submit that Murmur is a still-intriguing bit of mystery with genuninely innovative production, and Reckoning shows that they dial down production quirks and still make interesting music.
So what’s the deal? Their sound has aged much better than most of their ‘80s-era brethren. Is it Michael Stipe’s androgyny? Isn’t that taking RTH’s pro-wrestling inclinations a little too far?
At the very least, please watch the above clip and tell me that’s not a great performance of a great song!
So: REM is set to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. There have been a number of laughably inane choices made by… well, by whoever does the choosing over there — but this one causes an especially bitter bile to rise in my gullet. I mean, really — why REM? Okay, so that first album was a breath of fresh air with a good four or five songs on it, worth listening to more than once. And you might get me to admit that you could make a decent C-30 mix tape of their better material from across their career, but — I mean, come on! What good did their existence bring us? Who’s next? The B-52s?
Anyhow, as much as I find REM’s music boring, repetitive, and just plain irritating, I’m not going to waste any of your valuable time trying to explain just how much they suck. And I’m certainly not going to do so in the context of a spurious discussion of whether they “deserve” to be in the RRHOF. (In truth, I suppose they’re perfect for the Hall. Just don’t put ’em anywhere near the Seeg, or the Zeez.)
No, instead, I thought I’d just riff on a central component of that band’s utter lame-assedness: their front man, Michael Stipe.