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When Good Bands Go Bad; more thoughts on fiction

On a certain evening last year you might have found me in the cheap seats at MSG, eyes glazed over, fingers on temples, trying desperately to stay awake halfway through R.E.M’s set. They were promoting yet another depressingly bad album “Accelerate” (I only bought three songs off this misnamed product and they were just not there at all -“Supernatural Superserious” you might remember, it walked like an R.E.M. classic and it quacked like an R.E.M. classic but it wasn’t an R.E.M. classic).

Michael Stipe is like one of those kids who was a bit shy and a bit strange in High School but morphs into a beauty in college and becomes an overbearing asshole. He is the worst sort of front man -simultaneously enervated and arrogant, Mike never stops talking down to his audience. he lacks empathy and while he is energetic, he isn’t charismatic.

Naff albums that don’t sell. Naff concerts that bore you stupid. What gives?

R.E.M., after a clutch of ordinary to very good albums released their first of four sequential masterpieces, “Out Of Time” in 1991. This was followed by one of the most beautiful albums you’ll ever hear, “Automatic for The People,” and the monster “Monster” with R.E.M’s best rock song ever “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” on one of the best rock albums in a year with an overwhelming amount of great rock albums. I saw them on the “Monster” and thought they were a bit bland (even then i didn’t think Stipe was a good front man).

But they had one more great album, the first under their huge Warner Bros. contract, “new Adventures In Hi-Fi” -an obtuse curve ball of an album that shouldn’t have worked at all.

It was R.E.M’s last with drummer Bill Berry and the price would be paid soon: a litany of real real bad stuff: “Up,” “Reveal,” “Around The Sun,” and “Accelerate”. Has there ever been such a fall off by a major band?

Why: Bill Berry? Sure -losing your drummer has got to hurt (the Stones could lose Bill Wyman, they’d be in real trouble without Charlie Watts); hubris? absolutely, when you’ve been on a roll like that it’s easy to believe you’re infallible. Finite talent? All of the above.

It happens but it’s odd. Pearl Jam have a similar story with a big difference. Pearl Jam had no $80 Million contract and seemed to push the self destruct button on purpose. They didn’t want to be “stars” and so made a concerted effort to not cater to their audience after “Vitalogy” sold a million copies in its first week. It worked.

Some folks give up: Nils Lofgren fronted an excellent rock band, Grin before recording as a solo atist and releasing “Cry Tough” . On the precipice of fame and fortune disappeared into the ranks of Springsteen’s E Street Band.

Like so many of us in the civilian world, musicians lives are filled with disappointment before the all too inevitable slide into obscurity. Your questions is this: at what point do you leave Mike Stipe to his own devices?

Reading Juliana Hatfield’s autobiography I couldn’t help but note how much better it is than Lethem’s “You Don’t Love Me Yet.” Not better written. It isn’t that. better at accepting the sexiness of rock stardom and yet bleeding it of its exoticism at the same time.

Coming up this weekend (if I get the chance): The Dead at MSG and a look back at 2008

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