"Orange Crush" from the album Green
In April, Rolling Stone's David Fricke had this to say about R.E.M.'s latest studio album Accelerate: "[Michael] Stipe has not sounded this viscerally engaged in his singing and poetically lethal in his writing since the twilight of the Reagan administration ... but he is not merely protesting the mess of the nation. Accelerate is total-victory rock; Stipe making promises he knows he can keep."
The twilight of the Reagan administration? It was during that time that R.E.M. issued its major label debut Green — an album whose environmentalist themes proved to be ahead of the times.
Amid all the recent Election Day commotion, it occurred to me that election week marked the 20th anniversary of the official release of Green. Inspired by curiosity, I dug up a transcription of a rambling, in-person interview I did with Stipe a few years ago at the 283 Bar in downtown Athens. I met the frontman for a lengthy chat about music and politics over several beers.
"My overall memories and feelings about that time period of '88 and '89 — outside of my own silly little experience — I remember all of that through this kind of hyper-political thing," Stipe said. "For me, the world was crashing down around our ears. We had become this nation ... everything had become so unbearably conservative and filled with really wrong intentions. I'm not being subjective when I say that. People were operating from these very unbelievably selfish and fucked up points of view, and it was encouraged and demanded by the government. Everything for me there was colored by trying to grasp who I was and what I was, politically, and trying to express that. It came out through our music. Frankly, looking back on it, in kind of plunky and embarrassing ways. I mean, some of those songs are quite beautiful, but some of them are just horrible tirades."
For R.E.M., 1988 was both a turning point and a starting point. Stipe, drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills had just signed a multi-million dollar, five-record deal with Warner Bros. It was big step away from their college radio star status. Things were changing in their hometown as well. A harder rock/pre-grunge push had established itself among many bands. College station WUOG 90.5 had established their feisty, twice-a-week local radio show "Sound of the City." The first annual Athens Music Festival took place just weeks before election day, with Widespread Panic, Vic Chesnutt, The Indigo Girls, and Stipe sharing the stage. The place was teeming with activity.
And it was the dawn of the first Bush administration.
"It was very contained, but the alternative was so far in the other direction," Stipe said of the art music scene of the autumn of '88. "The whole yuppie thing had not quite arrived yet, but all the signs were there. And Reagan was still president. There was a seismic shift in the attitude of the country when he was elected into office, and it was palpable here, certainly in a university town."
I asked Stipe if he remembered the release day of Green, and if he was in Athens at the time. He was almost sure he was in Athens, because he had to vote in town. He also mentioned that the first year he actually voted for somebody was in '92 with Bill Clinton.
"The year with Dukakis — that was horrible," he remembered. "I was so terrified at the thought of Bush becoming president that I actually got another passport. I 'lost' my passport. I got another passport, thinking I might need an extra one if I need to leave the country suddenly. I know I was here right before. I remember where the Dukakis headquarters were, and I was working the phones there. That's how strongly I felt against Bush. I just felt like the puppeteer had taken over — the puppet had gone off into La La Land and we were getting the real thing, and I thought it was a bad idea. I wasn't really that far into Dukakis as a politician or as a candidate, but what fucking option did we have? There wasn't one."
If this year's Accelerate was a remarkable return to "rock" form, perhaps Green was the first step in a cyclical tale hinting at promises and victories to come.