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.