The "light" he bitched about eventually illuminated the imminent dangers of his accidental image as the self-detonating idiot savant. He wobbled onto the wagon. Unfortunately, this also robbed him completely of his unique edge, and warped him into a factory of mild, schmaltzy, dyslexic pop duds. Most folks gave up on Westerberg; Paul's been rejected. His sobering artistic demise is one more shrapnel of sadness in a business where good people flash-and-burn like tinsel on tinder.
This, by the way, is all preamble: It leads roundabout to the question of the month. It's an old, enigmatic question we must -- for the soapbox of this column -- ask once again. When asked why R.E.M. signed with Warner Bros., Michael Stipe replied enthusiastically, "Bugs Bunny!" So the question is this: "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"
I'm referring to the wonderfully hyperactive opening track of R.E.M.'s perpetually rejected, critically lambasted 1994 album, Monster. An apt title, Monster. Rows of this seemingly despised CD -- with its orange sleeve framing a blurry graphic of what appears to be a gooney bugbear on PCP -- sit thick and unthumbed as a yellowed Rolodex of ultimate failure in used bins everywhere. Why? What, in fact, is the frequency here -- the spunky sound waves which sent droves of new and old fans scurrying to claim their depreciated commodity's resale value? Four bucks, Kenneth? What the fuck?
If any band in recent times has been held up, with a merciless regularity, to Westerberg's scrutinizing "light," it's R.E.M. They're so good at this point that they can't win. This Athens, Georgia outfit have incessantly -- with guts, integrity, and a cohesive sense of musical purpose -- remade themselves according to their own needs and their "by-committee" desire to stay both interested and interesting. Monster, which followed their masterwork Automatic for the People, was the alleged nadir, the ebb at which many of their core fans abandoned them for good.
And, sure, I'll admit it: As an R.E.M. fanatic, I rejected it, too. It made no sense to me, initially: too slick and obvious, too monotonous, too Stipean self-referential. It's taken five years for me to comprehend the emotional and artistic importance of this particular achievement, which is not to say that it's an album that was ahead of its time. In fact, it's entirely of its time: a difficult, transitional era of personal chaos and loss for the band, in which their friends River Phoenix (to whom the album is dedicated) and Kurt Cobain irrevocably departed from this well-lighted place.
Grief, defiance, and the ambiguities of a weirdly millennial sexuality occupy this mid-decade fusion of "bang and blame." This is a distinctly L.A. album, R.E.M. style -- one which peels away the plastic surgery disaster of false fronts and fame's games.
So the frequency, really, is survival. But as what we are dealing with here is rejection, let me suggest this: roundup (or reclaim) this reject entitled Monster. Don't be afraid. It's a good monster. Grant it some new ears. It's certainly a cheap enough gamble, overflowing those low-cost used bins as it does (it's almost an industry joke, how copies are always coming in). But for some unforseeable reason, Monster now sounds better than ever. It ain't over 'til that skinny, bald freak really is "outta here" -- gone away on that long drive up Mullholland Drive, where everyone's a star tonight.