For certain rock fans born between, let's say, 1960 and 1980, R.E.M. represents something approaching a religion. I consider myself a respectable R.E.M. fan — I have most of the band's records, I like a lot of its songs, and they always seemed to me like a pretty cool group of dudes, especially Peter Buck — but I was born in 1982. I wouldn't become a rock fan for another decade or so, and by then it was less obvious why R.E.M. was such a meaningful band. They were huge, sure. And they were still writing great songs. But all the truly special stuff they did, whatever that was, had happened back in the 1980s. Sometimes you have to live through these kinds of cultural revolutions to fully understand them.
"What is it about R.E.M. and people like you?" I recently asked the 41-year-old editor of this newspaper. I remembered him stopping by my office the day after R.E.M. officially broke up, in September 2011. He had spent the previous evening drinking whiskey alone and listening to his 180-gram vinyl copies of Murmur, Fables of the Reconstruction and Automatic for the People. ("Just the second sides of the albums because it felt like more of a goodbye," he told me.)
"I went to this R.E.M. tribute last night," I continued, "and it was all dudes about your age, and I'm trying to write something about that. Can you contextualize passionate R.E.M. fandom for me?"
"Have a seat, son," he said.
"It's just this great American story," he said. "Peter Buck and Michael Stipe are these two record-store types in Athens, Georgia, listening to Television and CBGB bands. And they hook up with this rhythm section of Bill Berry and Mike Mills, who grew up on Southern boogie and didn't care about the art underground or post-punk. But these two factions come together, and they share this will to be weird. And then they just proceed to do everything right. They play frat parties. They drive a van to play a show in New York. They split their publishing four ways. They put out Murmur, which is basically perfect. You can hear in it the Velvet Underground, the Byrds, post-punk, straight pop. It has a polish to it but also this lack of polish. Then they do four more records for I.R.S., and they keep getting better even as they're getting more and more popular. Then they sign to Warner Bros. at the right moment and release Green, and it's great, and the videos are still super-weird ..."
"But can you pinpoint why you feel so strongly about the band? Where does the extreme devotion come from?"
"I don't think it's much more than the musicianship and the authenticity," he said, then he paused. "It felt like you were bearing witness to something great and important. Listening to R.E.M. back then, you were in on something great. And anybody who was not in on it was really way out of it."
Then he instructed me to listen to Reckoning and Murmur as I wrote my column. (I am.) When I emerged from his office, I had a long, gray beard, and the moon was in a new phase.
About Sunday's tribute: Apart from the bitter cold, it was an ideal evening for a show. Teachers, government workers, mail carriers, and persons of various other professions were not required to work Monday on account of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I walked in as Thom Hoskins was wrapping up his solo set of R.E.M. tunes. In the restroom, two goofily dressed middle-aged guys were talking loudly to each other in passable-but-fake British accents. One of them was wearing sunglasses, and they both seemed very drunk. About 20 minutes later, these two men were onstage. It turns out, they were Rob Morrow, drummer for the Pedaljets, and Mike Niewald, founder and singer for the kids' rock band the Doo-Dads.
Lori Wray joined the Pedaljets for the beginning of their set, singing lead vocals on two Automatic for the People cuts: "Sweetness Follows" and "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite." Then Niewald took over vocals. He wore pink pants, a headband and the aforementioned sunglasses, and his mic grip was positively Stipe-like. They played "Driver 8" and "Radio Free Europe," among others. It wasn't the tightest set I've ever heard, but it had a certain charm to it. "It's harder than you think," Morrow said after one particularly sloppy song.
The crowd sat for most of the show, but the room was full. There were lots of men between the ages of 35 and 55.
"What do you think the chances are that we'll hear a song from an album after Automatic for the People?" my friend said, scanning the room. "There's no way."
"Maybe something from Monster?"
He was right. The closing act, the Cody Wyoming Deal, played songs only from R.E.M.'s I.R.S. era: "Finest Worksong," "So. Central Rain," "Pretty Persuasion." They looked the least like R.E.M. — in addition to Wyoming, the band included Hipshot Killer's Mike Alexander on guitar, songwriter and Vinyl Renaissance dude Erik Voeks on bass, and Matt Richey on drums — but they sounded the most like them by far. Wyoming had Stipe's jittery mumble down pat.
"Is Robert Moore here?" Voeks asked at one point, peering into the crowd for the organizer of the evening. "I don't think he's even here. I was going to tell him about how I saw R.E.M. on the Green tour with the Go-Betweens. He really loves the Go-Betweens. But I guess I won't tell it."
"Erik Voeks has amazing hair," my friend said. "It's like the hair of a famous person."
"I'd kill for that hair," I said.
Then Wyoming invited everybody from the other bands onstage for the last song, "Superman," but only Hoskins went up. Well, it was after 10 p.m. R.E.M. fans aren't as young as they used to be. With some extra time to spare, the band bravely attempted "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." It was like that scene in Tommy Boy in which David Spade and Chris Farley try to sing it in the car and give up after Six o'clock, TV hour. Some guy from the crowd went onstage and bailed them out on the second verse, but after that, it was just a bunch of mumbling and "Leonard Bernstein!" and then the chorus. Everybody knows that chorus.