I was driving home the other night and heard a haunting, beautiful song on CBC Radio 2. Rich Terfry told us it was the final single from R.E.M., who broke up earlier this fall. When I got home, I listened through their final album, “Collapse into Now” to try to find it again, but I couldn’t. It turns out that the song wasn’t recorded until “Collapse into Now” was completed. The band went back into the studio this past summer and recorded it separately. Part of them was thinking that this could be the first song on a new album, but I think Michael Stipe knew that this was going to be it, and this final song would be a break-up letter to the fans.
When I heard R.E.M. broke up a couple of months ago, I wasn’t upset. In fact, I felt a little bit of relief. Their past couple of albums had one or two good songs each, but it really seemed like they had just run out of steam. But when I heard this final single the other night, I thought about how great it was that a band that stuck it out for 30 years could finally look each other in the eyes, shake hands, and say, “We did it. We set out what we wanted to do”. I’m imagining this, of course. I wasn’t there. I like to think that they went out on their own terms, and that this final song was part of the plan.
Knowing this about this song, hearing it a second time actually brought me to tears. It really is one of the better R.E.M. ballads, like Nightswimming or even Everybody Hurts, although I never really liked Everybody Hurts the same as everyone else seemed to. I guess I have been in denial about R.E.M.’s break up and now this single has forced me into a sort of musical mourning. The music video is just a simple one-take shot of Kirsten Dunst listening to the song as Michael Stipe sings it to her off-screen. Simple and beautiful. We could be remembered for far worse.
Thinking about a band purposely leaving behind a legacy brought to mind a conversation I had with a friend at a funeral almost a year ago. We were kinda joking how at weddings there’s an expectation to send guests home with little treats, like cookies, or wee bags of jelly beans or whatnot, but you don’t ever see that at funerals. We came up with the idea of distributing a CD loaded with the deceased person’s favourite songs, or at least a representative mix of what that person was all about, so that down the road if you were feeling sad and missing that person, you could pop in that disc and spend some time in that person’s head space and world. I wish I had a disc like that of my Dad’s. For sure there would be “Rhythm of Life” from Sweet Charity, “Yellow Bird” (trad.) and “The City of New Orleans” by Arlo Guthrie on there.
“Best of” lists are silly things. You’ll always leave something off, you’re often comparing apples and oranges, they are prone to change and you’ll let certain biases creep in. For example, are you thinking of just what you’re listening to now, or are you trying to impress somebody, or are you trying to not look like an ass, are trying to fit in? But they also provide a context and a focus. The soundtrack of your life. Who can argue with that? And you wouldn’t look like an ass, you’re already dead, after all.
Now I’m not planning on leaving this rich pageant we call life anytime soon, and I hope to live long enough to revise this list many times before I shuffle off this mortal coil. Having said that, one never does know when one’s number is called. Here’s a list of 13 songs that will approximate what I’m all about, if that even is possible. Without explanation or apology. If you’re superstitious, stick R.E.M.’s last one on the end. I think it belongs.
2. Keep the Car Running-Arcade Fire
3. Take Five-The Dave Brubeck Quartet
4. Andante Festivo-Jean Sibelius
5. Solsbury Hill-Peter Gabriel
6. My baby loves a bunch of authors-Moxy Fruvous
7. King for a Day-Thompson Twins
8. Bizarre Love Triangle-New Order
9. Alone again, Or-Love
10. Granite Years-Oyster Band
11. Mary’s Place-Bruce Springsteen
12. Adagietto-Gustav Mahler
13. The Raider’s March-John Williams