Friday, October 14, 2016


R.E.M., Toronto, April, 1991

THE BAND IN THIS PHOTO ARE ABOUT TO BECOME ONE OF THE BIGGEST in the world. R.E.M. had just released Out of Time a month before I took these photos, and the band I discovered in college - the textbook college rock band - would be stadium headliners soon enough, mostly thanks to the success of "Losing My Religion."

It was probably the last moment when I'd have the sort of access that would let me shoot Michael Stipe and the rest of the group - who I'd last seen at a house party at a friend's place after they'd played Massey Hall on the Life's Rich Pageant tour - together for a NOW cover story. It was a very big deal. I just wished I still cared.

Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, R.E.M., Toronto, April 1991

I was a huge R.E.M. when I first heard them in college, before I'd even heard of the term "college rock." I reviewed Reckoning for my college paper, and bought records by any band mentioned in the same sentence; in retrospect, my passion for the band was a huge contributing factor to becoming a music critic not long after I dropped out - they were the sort of group who encouraged a nerdy sort of fandom, and a connect-the-dots search for influences, whether it was the songs they covered, the bands they toured with, or the people they worked with.

But that felt like a long time ago when I set up in the hotel room where I took these shots. This was early in my NOW days, when the paper still had its mandated-from-above cover template that squeezed the subject into less than half the frame, with plenty of neutral space for type, which explains the colour slides I shot with Stipe and bassist Mike Mills. I even remember hanging up after getting the call with the assignment and thinking "if only this had been five years ago."

Michael Stipe, R.E.M., Toronto, April 1991

They were perfectly nice. Michael Stipe complimented me on my shoes. These are perfectly serviceable photos, and fulfilled the assignment without a hitch, but I know there's a lack of enthusiasm behind the camera,

I've written about my falling out with R.E.M. before, at length, but the short version is that they simply became less interesting to me the moment I could understand what Michael Stipe was singing - or more to the point, when he decided that we needed to understand what he was singing about, in plain language. A band whose musical world was mysterious and gnomic suddenly became didactic; they had opinions about politics, and had causes they wanted us to support. "Fall on Me," for instance, was apparently about acid rain. Who, I still wonder, is actually for acid rain?

R.E.M., Toronto, April 1991

And, not surprisingly, they became musically much less interesting. I keep looking at guitarist Peter Buck in the group photos. More than Stipe, he was my favorite member of R.E.M., the record store clerk-turned-guitar god. He looks a bit sullen here, and in my mind, the only explanation is that he'd woken up to realize he was the guitar player in the band that had just recorded "Shiny Happy People."

A decade later he'd be arrested after a drunken incident in first class on a British Airways flight. I felt so sorry for him when I read about it, as inexcusable as his behaviour was; I already had a narrative in my head about growing self-loathing, and a man standing onstage in front of thousands of people, thinking to himself "Why couldn't I have joined Rain Parade?"

And so, a very big deal shoot, except to me. I still wish I cared more. I wish I'd tried harder to get something good. But mostly I wish they'd broken up after Reckoning.

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