Retrofit Digest: R.E.M. on Mountain Stage, 1991


I pulled out my copy of R.E.M.’s performance on the “Mountain Stage” radio show on April 28, 1991 the other day and about half a verse into the first song I just sort of…swooned.

Were you around then? Did you hear the show? This was, suddenly, a long time ago. A few weeks after the smash break-through Out of Time came out, just when its lead single “Losing My Religion” was everywhere, all the time. For latecomers like me — bystanders who only ever started listening when the indie band moved to Sire records and got airtime for way-better-than-anything-else-on-the-radio tunes like “The One I Love,” “Fall on Me” and “Stand” — figured out, in a hurry, that these college-rock kids weren’t just one of the two most important bands in the world (the other being U2), but were also the closest approximation of the Beatles since….well…the Beatles.

Not just because the playing was so great, which it was, or because the harmonies sounded so distinctive and perfect, which they were. Or because the songs sounded so great and had such elliptical-yet-moving lyrics, which they did, particularly when delivered in Michael Stipe’s oak-and-beer voice. But because it was all that stuff at once, all together, blended into this kind of seamless, perfectly balanced whole that you could only really describe as R.E.M.

It was mysterious, it was lovely, it was the sound of the moment, the sound of my generation coming into full flower.

Here’s a little video of the actual Mountain Stage show, the abstract poetry-meets-achingly-pure-Beach Boys-harmony piece called “Belong.”

Holy shit, right? Yes, exactly. What’s he saying? Why is that seemingly dark vision — the first words are “The world collapses…” — muttered beneath such sweet voices? I’ve been thinking about this tune for 22 years now and I’m still thinking. And wondering.

There should be wonder. There should be mystery. And in 1991, for that egg-balanced-on-end moment when there was R.E.M. and Nirvana and Pearl Jam and U2 and they were all at their peak and all at the top of the charts, weirdness and mystery were not just welcomed in to the mainstream, they dominated it. You would turn on the radio, any station at virtually any hour of the day, and hear a chain of gothic colloquialisms and half-uttered admissions of sin. I give you “Losing My Religion,” performed here on MTV’s Unplugged, almost exactly as it had been on the bare Mountain Stage stage.

Feelin’ pretty psyched? This collision of sound and words, feeling and thought, blossoms turned to full, blooming leaf, the sun on your back and nothing but clear skies ahead. It’s never going to last, but in that moment it nearly sort of absolutely feels like it might. So find that old tape, or see if your kid can digitize it for you somehow, and turn it up.

You symbiotic, patriotic, slam book neck. Right? Right.

R.E.M. – You hated them first b/c I never did

All you guys who hated them first, who wished they all could have OD’d after that first Hib-tone outtake of “Radio Free Europe” (not the one that came out, and not the cliched first outtake where they play the whole song in the guy’s bathroom with his little brother in the tub, but the one BEFORE that, where they’re not even playing and the tape’s not even on? I bet you never heard of it but that was fucking GENIUS, and if you don’t own it (in the original imaginary sleeve that doesn’t even EXIST) then just piss off right now) I’m like: Really?

They were never my college heroes. I didn’t pick up on their indie stuff and ignored the first few WB albums too, figuring….well, not much. None of my friends were into them and they weren’t on the radio in Oregon ’til “The One I Love” so, y’know. otras cosas.

But somehow it turned out I HAD heard all that early stuff, it drifted into my ears when I wasn’t paying attention, and when someone played “Eponymous” I thought, I know nearly ALL of these songs and I’m psyched to hear the other ones, too, and damn, these are beautiful-sounding, intriguiginly worded (if mysteriously uttered) songs. And the hits…I loved “Out of Time” and never actively disliked “Shiny Happy People,” b/c I love the Beach Boys too, and a hook’s a hook and sometimes who gives a shit about the lyrics? I always thought that tune was about taking ecstasy, anyway…and is there a better audio equivalent of that? (tell the nearest person you love them & hit the jump)

I thought “Out of Time” was full of great and often beautifully weird songs. Lovely instrumentals! Great, yearning harmonies! And “Belong”. What’s that even about? I don’t care, I just love how it sounds and how it makes me think about something different every time I hear it. Then 18 months (if that?) goes by and boom: “Automatic”! Even BETTER songs, the slight zing of early autumn, the insanely beautiful “Nightswimming,” the truly amazing (esp before your 100,000th listen) “Man in the Moon.” I’m in love — what’s that song? Oh, yes…”Try Not to Breathe” (remember the AIDS crisis?), and how about “Sweetness Follows.” 

“Monster” was a disappointment by comparison (but WHAT a great single in ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and how strangely erotic is “Tongue”?)  but I thought that tour kicked ass, and then “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” was probably 20 minutes too long, but had an LP’s worth of cool-to-fantastic music on it (just check out the chords on the chorus of “Be Mine,” I bet Buck STILL plays that on his guitar every day, just to remember how awesome he is). And if the albums became less consistent after Berry’s departure I made myself an album called ‘Assorted’ featuring my faves from the post ‘Hi-Fi’ albums (plus some rarities from the early ’90s) , it’s like an hour-plus and it’s one hella-fuckin great album. ” “Lotus,” “Frequency…”, “Wall of Death,” “Imitation of Life” (the BEST single they ever did, I think most days), “The Wake-Up Bomb,” “E-bow the Letter,” “Ascent of Man,” “Daysleeper,” (beautiful song), “Electrolite” (the perfect kiss-off to the 20th century) and “How the West Was Won”, and more. “Tongue,” “Be Mine.” Nothing from “Accelerate” because that’s just a great album, front to back, and there’s no need to cherry-pick. 

I already miss R.E.M. I wanted to see them play live at least once more. I really wanted them to uncork one last stone-cold brilliant album, possibly with Bill Berry onboard to stir up the original four-way chemistry. But I think they’d had enough. Even when they were good/great in the last decade or so it seemed clear that they just had….other stuff on their minds. Greatness hurts. They did it for a long time. The good news is, they’re back together with Berry again. So that vibe is back. Only it’s going on in the drummer’s barn, where they can drag out some amps, guitars, a cooler full of beer and fill the empty sky with music. I’d love to listen in, I’m sure we all would, but R.E.M. belongs to R.E.M. again. They deserve it.

So do yourself a favor and find that non-existent perfect moment version of “Radio Free Europe.” You’ll have to snatch it from the glowing hands of the Buddha (and watch yourself because he just LOOKS fat, he’s a tough little fucker), but it’ll be worth it. It’s perfect.