Thursday, February 28, 2008

A bro bestows the treasure trove of a lifetime: R.E.M.

This is one of those rare events that stands as an unusually vivid memory nearly 20 years later.

It was the spring of 1989, March 18th actually... and I was hanging out in the fraternity house I had pledged the year before... I'm trying to recall what I had going on at the time, but it couldn't have been very important. I know I was hanging out in my room on the second floor of the wing of the house, which was sorta designed like a Motel 6... probably trying to decide what to do for the night. I want to say it was the weekend, more than likely a Saturday.

Then he appeared, knocking on the door unnanounced... I hadn't seen him in quite awhile, as
he didn't live in the same place I did. Skinny had arrived, and he had an extra ticket for the R.E.M. concert playing across the street at what was called at the time the ASU Activity Center, located on the campus of Arizona State University. It was literally across the street from our house, probably a 1000 foot walk.

"Get ready dude, the show's starting soon." he said.

Flattered that he had thought of me, and reacting to the spontaneity of the moment, "It's
right now?" I asked. "I don't know much about this band... you might have to give me R.E.M. 101"

"No problem" he said. "Let's go!"

So off we went. I was only vaguely familiar with the last couple of albums from the band, and radio friendly songs such as "The One I Love" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." I knew nothing of the band's catalog before 1987... however I'd get a pleasantly heavy dose of R.E.M. 101 that night.

As we settled into our seats in the small basketball arena, we realized we were sitting in a sea of familiar faces and friends all around us. Nowadays I find that I appreciate shared experiences like that, under the guise of the unadulterated freedom of college life and affordable spontaneity --- something that probably wasn't quite realized at the time --- and in a heavier sense, definitely underappreciated.

The band opened their set with "Begin the
Begin," which I guess made sense considering the title... however I still had to lean over to Skinny and ask the name of the song and the album it was from.

"Life's Rich Pageant" as he responded with the album title.

This question asking exercise
went on throughout the night, as more of a play-by-play exercise than anything, and not one time did he complain about my questions. He seemed to be happy to be educating a friend on a band he liked.

R.E.M. were touring on an album they had released the year before, Green. While I had heard the CD a couple of times, the songs only rang as vaguely familiar. I enjoyed myself nonetheless... and there were a few surprises that night.

The band employed some unique features for the visual part of their show that I hadn't seen before, nor since at any concert... and I've seen over 100 of them...

I recalled noticing, before the set began, an old classroom film projector on the soundcheck island. It became apparent THAT was going to serve as the video footage for the night. In the advancing video and computer-driven technology of the time, it was nice to see someone using older technology in a quirky and inventive way. As the projector flashed scenes of this and that on the screen behind the band, the effect of the silhouettes of the band members and heads of the audience ended up being more compelling and interesting than what was on the film... at least that's what I remember about it.

In another unique and original maneuver; at one point during the set, lead singer Michael Stype whipped out a megaphone and decided to abandon the use of his
microphone. If my memory serves me correct he used it during the song "Orange Crush."

It was one of those moments where one has an epiphany; something to the effect of "Wow, I'm witnessing something very cool and unusual."

R.E.M. present a unique sound, serving as an original blend of many influences... I hear the Beatles in them, I hear Johnny Cash, and I hear some folk leanings. I see the influence of some punk, as well as Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground with the Warhol spin in their live visual presentation... and being from Athens, Georgia, I know there's a southern influence somewhere in there; however I can't really pick it up or identify what it would be... I guess Cash was from the south.

As expected, we all went back to business as usual after the concert... but R.E.M. resonated with me. In short time I became a big fan of the band, would collect all their material, and would see them live again in the 1990s. That may not be the last time.

R.E.M. would move on to discover international success of the release of their next project, 1991's Out of Time, spearheaded by the mandolin-driven superhit "Losing My Religion." They would follow that project with several more successful projects and tours over the next 10+ years, going on to sell millions of albums and entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after the turn of the new millennium.

I take some pride in discovering R.E.M. right before they became really big. I guess I can park my car in the "old school" lot of the band...

...and Skinny deserves all the credit.

Being the Curious George that I am with music, I have usually sought out most of the bands I listen to, as I've noodled through LOTS of material out there... so that being said, I can probably count on one hand the number of bands that have been introduced to me by friends which I've really taken to.

R.E.M. is one of those bands. S

Set list for ASU activity Center on 3/18/1989:

Taken from The R.E.M. Timeline
support: Robyn Hitchcock
set: Pop Song 89 / Exhuming McCarthy / Welcome To The Occupation / Turn You Inside-Out / Shaking Through / Underneath The Bunker / Orange Crush / Disturbance At The Heron House / Feeling Gravitys Pull / Flowers Of Guatemala / Begin The Begin / World Leader Pretend / Tired Of Singing Trouble-I Believe / Pretty Persuasion / Superman / Get Up / Auctioneer (Another Engine) / It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
encore 1: Stand / Boy (Go) / Fall On Me / You Are The Everything
encore 2: Finest Worksong / King Of Birds / Summertime / These Days / See No Evil
encore 3: Dark Globe / Harpers / Crazy / Perfect Circle / Academy Fight Song / Radio Free Europe / After Hours