Sunday, October 9, 2011

R.I.P.: Steve Jobs and R.E.M.

“Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.”

Post on YouTube below the video for R.E.M.'s “Losing My Religion.”

I knew neither Steve Jobs nor any members of the band R.E.M. (who announced their break up about a month ago), so why does it feel I've lost people I know? Only one of these passings is truly tragic – the ridiculously unfair early death of Steve Jobs at 56 – and yet it is as if with his passing (and to a lesser extent, the breakup of R.E.M.) that an important part of my past has now, well, passed.

My first computer in 1989 was a Mac Plus. At the time, I was terrified of computers, but a friend had convinced me that Apple's products were the perfect vehicle for someone with my limited computer skills. I took her advice. I pulled the machine out of the box, followed the clear instructions, hooked up the wires, flicked the switch and it started up (okay, I had one brief panic call to the very helpful Apple Help Desk, but that was all). I managed again without any trouble to configure the machine and get it ready to accept programs. That, too, was painless. Within an hour of pulling the computer out of it's box, I was working in Microsoft Word on a device that, to me, was blisteringly fast (I know, don't laugh too hard). At that time, it was the culmination of work begun in 1977 by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Over the next decade, I continued to work with Apple products because, compared to the still-daunting PCs, they were people friendly. In 2000, I finally became comfortable on PCs, because the office I worked in used only those. Since Mac and PCs were coming closer together (PC makers realizing the superiority of the Mac model), I didn't have much trouble transitioning. I still found them clunky compared to the Mac, but I was able to move beyond it. Around that same time, my last Mac (a Power Mac) went into its death throes. (I stupidly used a cheap surge protection power bar and a lightning strike in 1999 had burned out the printer port – other damage probably occurred and, in the fall of 2003, it finally gave up the ghost.) For several years, I didn't own a computer at home (I used the one at work for whatever writing I was doing) until 2008 when I fortuitously won the PC laptop I am now writing this on.

A young Steve Jobs
I did not lose my interest in Apple products, though. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, I watched the rejuvenated Apple (Jobs had been ousted in 1985 and only returning in 1996 as CEO) under Jobs leadership push our whole world in ways that continues to resonate. First there was the iMac – the candy-floss coloured computer that restarted the company's fortunes in 1999; but the revolution really began with the iPod in 2001. Today, it is hard to see anything but those iconic white earbuds in people's ears as they listen to their hours and hours of music (music that people can buy legally for usually around $1 a song from Apple's iTunes). Other innovations followed including the iPhone (they have now overtaken RIM's Blackberry as the prime smart phone), and finally the iPad which is also becoming quickly ubiquitous (people claim these flat-panel computers will replace laptops with conventional keyboards – I, for one, have issues with that as I'm very comfortable with the conventional keyboard).

And Jobs was there to introduce all of them. I no longer use the products (limited budget being the prime demotivator), but I sure followed each announcement he made, and each product he personally launched (my intention, however, is to eventually move on to the iPhone). By his very presence, it was clear that he was actively involved. It is not overstating it to say that we have now lost our Thomas Edison (or should I more accurately say our Nikola Tesla, since many believe, myself included, Edison was a timely pilferer), our Henry Ford, and perhaps even our Leonardo di Vinci. Jobs was a perfectionist of the best kind. He pushed himself and his people to create technology that was as near-to-perfect as they could get it before it was even released (he repeatedly postponed both the iPhone and iPad releases until the technology was absolutely ready – a mistake RIM made, to maybe their everlasting regret, when the rushed their disastrous Playbook to market). And now he is gone. Sure, Apple will continue to innovate and bring new products to the market (including some that Jobs was actively involved in up until he died), but we've lost a genius and innovator whose like we will not see again in our lifetime. CBC Radio's business analyst, Michael Hlinka, said very early on Thursday morning that, with the death of Jobs, in ten years Apple will have little of the relevance that they have today. I fear that he is right.

Just a month before, I experienced another “death” with the dissolution of my favourite band of the 1980s and early 1990s, R.E.M. I first encountered the band in 1984 when my roommate at the time played their groundbreaking first album, Murmur (1983). I was immediately smitten. I had no idea what lead singer Michael Stipe was singing (he was a notorious mumbler in the early days; some said that even as he became clearer, his opaque lyrics remained indecipherable), but the music seemed the perfect extension of the then-fading New Wave/post punk sound I liked so much. Songs such as “Radio Free Europe” and “Talk About the Passion” captured my ears like no other music had in four or five years. A live performance of them playing on Letterman in 1983 (see it here) shows visually and musically they were clearly out of the New Wave/post-punk tradition (Stipe hangs onto the mic stand like Ian Curtis of Joy Division). The jangly guitar and bass of Peter Buck and Mike Mills, Bill Berry's percussive drumming and Stipe's unique vocals drew me in. I just had to find out more about this band. 

Their second album, Reckoning (1984) had been released earlier that year. I rushed out and bought it (and at the same time found an 12” which contained earlier versions of “Talking About the Passion” and “Shaking Through,” plus two songs from their earlier EP, Chronic Town). As with Murmur, I still had no idea what Stipe was saying, but songs like “So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)” and “(Don't Go Back To) Rockville” attracted my attention. R.E.M. took elements of bands such as '60s groups like The Band and The Byrds, combined them with the rougher edges of New Wave acts like The Jam and The Clash, plus a heavy dose of southern Gothic, to create a sound that was simultaneously familiar and completely unique. The more I listened, the more I wanted to see them live.

In support of their fine fourth album (probably my favourite), Lifes Rich Pageant (the possessive apostrophe in “Lifes” was deliberately left out), they announced a tour stop at Toronto's legendary Massey Hall. When R.E.M. first began touring, Stipe was so shy that he insisted on singing with his back to the audience. On this night in September 1986, things had clearly changed. The roadies set up the stage after the opening act, The Feelies (a band formed in the late 1970s that R.E.M. always acknowledged was an influence on their sound), had done their thing. The roadies set Stipe's mic and stand at mid stage, right in front of the drum kit. The first thing Stipe did when he came on stage was to grab the stand and emphatically thump it down right at the front of the stage. The concert itself was intriguingly divided. For the first 30 minutes, we couldn't hear a word Stipe was singing, and it wasn't because he was doing his usual mumbling. His vocals were being completely drowned out by the band. He was aware of this too, because during early songs he kept putting his hand atop his head and lifting it up again and again (a universal sign that I've seen in many concerts to say to the person on the mixing board, “I can't hear myself”). So, the first half of the concert was a lost muddle. The last hour was fine, with the sound mix solved, but it was clear that R.E.M. were not satisfied, because for the encore, after a 90 minute show, they played for another 45 minutes. 

The encore made that show one of the best I'd seen in that decade because they pulled out all sorts of things (I've always felt it was as if they were saying “sorry for the crappy sound at the start; we want to make it up to you”), but the one moment I remember the best was Stipe calling then-girlfriend, Natalie Merchant (lead singer of the 10,000 Maniacs), out on stage. They proceeded to do a beautiful duet of a Willie Nelson song (I don't recall which one), but you could tell they still had a strong emotional connection because the feelings in the song made the hairs on my arms stand up. We found out after that, just before show time, R.E.M.'s sound mixer had broken his leg and had to be replaced by The Feelies' sound mixer who was completely lost trying to give R.E.M. the sound they preferred.

Shiny Happy People
It was only with the album after that (Document 1987) that they really hit it big. Featuring the song “The One I Love” with its bitter, frequently misunderstood lyrics (most people think it's a love song): “This one goes out to the one I love/This one goes out to the one I left behind/A simple prop, to occupy my time/This one goes out to the one I love...,”  the album broke them out of their college-radio niche. It was followed by Green (1988) and then finally, Out of Time (1991), the album that made them a true mainstream act. Their cryptic, beautiful song, “Losing My Religion” (many believe the song is about Stipe coming to terms with his sexuality) was a monster hit and the band left venues like Massey Hall and smaller ones far behind. The album also contained their most ridiculous song and hit, “Shiny Happy People.” The video featured Stipe and The B52's Kate Pierson smiling like lunatics as they danced and shimmied with a bunch of extras.

I still actively followed the band for the next two records, Automatic for the People (1992) and Monster (1994), but then, for whatever reason, my interest began to fade. Unlike Steve Jobs, who continued to become more and more relevant, R.E.M., from their next album, New Adventures in Hi Fi (1996) onwards, began to slip creatively. Where Jobs died during an assent and while he was clearly at the top of his game, R.E.M. gradually began to fade. There were a few songs in subsequent albums I quite liked, such as “I've Been High” from Reveal (2001), but as my politics started to evolve and R.E.M. became more entrenched in an anti-Bush world, my patience grew shorter and shorter. Their penultimate album, Accelerate (2008), had two songs “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and “Accelerate” I quite liked musically for their hard-rocking sound (though derivative and not at all unique), but the lyrics were infantile. I was completely unaware they released a new CD this past May, Collapse Into Now.

I'd moved on, but the band seemed stuck in amber. So, during this past September when they quietly announced their break up (a break up that was seemingly done by a group of men who still loved and respected each other), I was saddened because how much they had meant to me in the past. But I accepted it with a bit of a shrug. Stipe, Buck and Mills will continue to make good music independently, but they just won't be doing it together anymore (or for now, as a reunion is always ... inevitable?).

However, the death of Steve Jobs was devastating, because a genius had left the building and in his case there is no chance for a reunion.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. The event on Tuesday, October 18, for the novel at the Bayview Village LCBO's Lifestyle Kitchen (Bayview and Sheppard Avenue in Toronto -- 2901 Bayview Avenue, Toronto) is now sold out. Stay tuned for other events.

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