Friday, December 27, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: R.E.M.: Perfect Circle



I need to say upfront that I immensely enjoyed reviewing this book on a deeply personal level. While I grew up listening to mainly the bands of my parents' generation, who still make up probably half of my overall listening choices and of which many bands rank among my all time favorites (The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, etc), I also am a great fan of many of the American and British alternative/indie (depending on which side of the pond you were on) bands of my own era of the 1980s and 1990s.  Chief among them are the first band of my own time that I really and truly properly "got into," R.E.M.. Quintessentially American with their Southern and folk roots, but also drawing heavily from the British-dominated rock of the 1960s, R.E.M. were the first band that were "mine." I distinctly remember really liking their songs "The One I Love" and "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" when I first heard them as a seven year old in 1987. The videos for those two songs were in heavy rotation on MTV (back when MTV actually played music) and the songs were always on the radio. Once Green came out in 1988 and "Stand" was their big single in 1989, I was hooked and from that moment forward, I was a hardcore fan, devouring everything and anything they released, and even seeing them three times in concert (all in 1999: once in London, once in New York City, and once in Boston). During my first year in college, a friend sent me the excellent book "It Crawled From the South" by Marcus Gray, which to that point was hands-down the definitive book on R.E.M., and one which I read and re-read countless times over the years. Upon calling it a career in 2011, I wondered if and when there would ever be a definitive account on their entire time together, not least of which because this was the rare band of the past thirty years that not only had a legitimate mystique and aura about them, but also literally built themselves from the ground up.

***special thanks to Charlie at Omnibus Press and Midas PR for sending me a copy to review!***

Perfect Circle is actually the third and final version of Fletcher's biography on the band, being first published in the late 1980s as a picture-heavy (in his own words) book titled Remarks and then subsequently updated and fleshed out years after as Remarks/Remade. Along each step of the way he's had the full cooperation of the band and their associates and as such, this can be considered as their authorized biography.  The author does state in his introduction that he has not updated the text from Remarks/Remade, only added it to it, and this does become noticeable in a few places (such as when he states that a certain single or album is their most recent "as of 2002," for example, even though the book and the band's career carry on beyond that). However, such things are minor and not particularly noticeable unless you're looking out for those sort of things (as I was). 

On to the book now, it starts off with the backgrounds stories of the four band members and how they came to be in Athens, Georgia by early 1980 when the band was formed. While the author doesn't go into too much detail beyond the basics, it's enough and a welcome change from many books where the life stories simply take up too much time. Eventually, the band forms and play their first gig, even though they lack a band name, in April 1980. From here, the narrative is both exceptionally detailed but eminently readable at the same time. Whereas many books tend to either get bogged down in details when the discussion turns to such things as record contracts, royalties, management, etc or gloss over them as superficially as possible, in Perfect Circle, Fletcher is able to convey the (often) convoluted details in a very engaging was, helped along by numerous firsthand accounts from the parties who were involved, whether they be former record company executives, A&R men, producers, management staff, etc. It also helps shed new light on some notable behind the scenes goings-on, such as why the band left I.R.S. Records when their deal was up in 1988 even though it seemed like the perfect label for them (the band knew if I.R.S. sunk all their money in advances, there would be nothing left for promotion), why Warner Brothers was the major label they eventually signed with in '88, how and why they negotiated their mammoth renewal with them in 1997, their eventual climb to the top of the music world in the late 1980s/early 1990s, their time as the biggest band in the world in the 1990s, and finally their slow commercial (but not critical) decline and eventual disbanding in 2011. For a band that overall was pretty "boring" in the sense that there was never any drug or alcohol abuse, brushes with the law, groupie stories, or public fighting, the book still makes for gripping reading, based solely on the personalities of the band, the fantastic music they made, and how they achieved it all. From the relentless touring in every little town and big city across the entire US, to the uncompromising and independent way they approached the writing, recording, and promotion of their albums, R.E.M. were truly a grassroots band and reading this is not only exhilarating but inspirational, even though there's probably no way any band could do it today how R.E.M. did it in the 80s. From their eventual emergence from cult heroes (MAJOR cult heroes, I should add) to their international breakthrough into the mainstream in the early 1990s, it's all discussed and brought to life. Parts that I was particularly interested to get to, being a longtime (in actuality, nearly lifelong) fan, included the falling out with original manager Jefferson Holt in 1996, Bill Berry's departure from the band in 1997, the lone disastrous album that was 2004's Around the Sun, and the 2011 break up of the band. I knew as many of the (intentionally) sketchy details over the years but I really wanted to see if Fletcher could and would shed new light on any of these, and while there were no groundbreaking revelations, he did fill in enough gaps to give a more fully formed and informed story behind each of these events. I won't give any of these away and I'll allow the readers to find these out for themselves, but I will say as a longtime fan that I was satisfied with the way these (and other matters) were handled in the book.

While the book clearly benefits from the author's access to and friendship with the band, it's also the fact that he is also a huge fan of the band himself that makes it such an enjoyable read. Additionally, Fletcher is very even-handed with the band and does not shy away from objectively discussing the bands failures, as few and far between as they remarkably were in a thirty-two year career, alongside their more numerous successes. He also injects a bit of personal opinion and editorializing when discussing songs or albums which are interesting to read, especially if you agree or disagree with him. As for negatives, I will say that personally, the editorializing got a bit tiresome when he discussed R.E.M.'s political stances, not because I disagreed with them (and I do disagree, vehemently, but that's besides the point), but because this was the one part of the book that the author did not treat objectively and it got tiresome. Finally, a few instances of sloppy editing were pretty noticeable, with a couple of glaring errors sticking in memory: first, discussing U2's parallel career trajectory by discussing their 1987 album The Joshua Tree and their subsequent album Achtung Baby from "1981" (he meant 1991). The worst error was the second one I want to point out, where he describes R.E.M.'s induction to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and their backing fellow inductee Duane Allman! Even though I'm a fan of the Allman Brothers Band myself, most music fans will know that Duane tragically died in 1971 and that his brother Gregg is still alive and it is he who Fletcher was talking about. I have to believe this was down to sloppy editing and not poor research, as the information is readily available online. If it is down to poor research, that doesn't make it  any less inexcusable. But while these errors are the most egregious they're also the majority of them...overall, the book was very well done. Finally, a seemingly minor quibble of mine is the cover; I understand that Bill Berry left the band in 1997, but still, I feel like a cover photo including all four members of R.E.M. would have been more appropriate, especially as he still cast a presence and influence over the band even over the final fourteen years of their career when he was absent. I simply feel like that would have been a slightly nicer touch, but perhaps that's just me.

Notwithstanding how much R.E.M.'s music has meant to me on a personal level for the last 25 years and counting, this was an exceptional book and probably one of the best band biographies I've ever read. As such, it's a must-read for anyone who is a fan of the band, or even just a fan of the great indie/alternative music that came out of America in the 1980s. While the band is now defunct, this book is a very worthwhile read and will have you reaching for the albums to listen as soon as you're finished reading...I know it had that effect on me!

MY RATING: 9/10

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