On May 30, a bit more than two months after R.E.M. released its album "Collapse Into Now," the band's bassist, Mike Mills, was singing "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" in front of maybe 60 people at the Cubby Bear.
Mills was there filling in for fellow R.E.M. member Peter Buck, the usual bass player for the band on stage: the sports-themed Baseball Project, fronted by R.E.M. utility player/unofficial member Scott McCaughey and former Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn. That Mills and McCaughey were performing in a sparsely attended Wrigleyville club was curious.
While Mills was milling about afterward, I asked him why R.E.M. not only wasn't touring behind the relatively strong "Collapse Into Now" but hadn't even made any promotional appearances. Mills said the band -- that is, singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Buck and himself -- simply wasn't feeling it this time, and after so many years, they didn't have to do things they didn't want to do.
Afterward I called my friend Stu, who had turned me on to R.E.M. 28 years earlier, and said, "They're done."
The confirmation came in September, when the band announced it was calling it quits.
This was a tricky one to process. On the one hand, there was the end-of-an-era bittersweetness. For many of us, R.E.M. was the band of the '80s and at least some of the '90s. On the other hand was the widespread feeling that R.E.M. had peaked years ago. Many fans drew a line at the point when drummer/songwriter Bill Berry departed in 1997.
Yet Stipe, Buck and Mills rebounded with "Accelerate" (2008) and "Collapse Into Now." These were good albums -- but were they essential?
That's the question, the task we face with many groups we've loved for a long time: how to reconcile that the music matters less after a while. Paul McCartney will likely never write another song as good as his Beatles or peak Wings output, but he continues to record songs that add something to the world. R.E.M. didn't appear to have another
"Fall on Me" in them, but this year's "All the Best" still made me want to jump around.
So what does R.E.M. breaking up actually mean to us? It gives shape to R.E.M.'s career. We now know these guys won't be going around as old men playing "Radio Free Europe." They also won't be giving us any more songs that we might at first consider slight before they mysteriously insinuate themselves into our psyches.
Only when you close the book can you appreciate the full story. That's also the point when you lament not having a few more pages to turn.
-- Mark Caro