Tuesday, 2 October 2012

(Don't Go Back to) Rockville

Were any of us ever really as young as these fresh faces? I had the pleasure of seeing R.E.M. four times early in their career, long before they had even the slightest whiff of stadium band about them. Yes, between the first time and the last time I saw them, they became huge in the context of "college indy rock," or whatever other turgid and meaningless term was applied to them and every other non-metal band of the 80's, but they were still really just an exciting, rough and ready little band from Athens, GA.

The first time was at The Antenna Club, Memphis, and it must have been very late 1981 or very early 1982, because I remember it was very cold outside, and the club was insanely crowded and very warm. They only seemed to have about six songs in their repertoire, which they played through twice back-to-back, though no one complained. They were using equipment borrowed from opening band Barking Dog, because theirs had apparently been stolen from their van the previous night. Michael Stipe danced with half a globe perched on his head, quoting from a Grandmaster Flash song now and again, apparently to stretch out the songs. They managed to blow the power in the club a couple of times, which was amazing, because one second the entire room was filled with the sound of "Radio Free Europe" in full flight, the packed house dancing furiously, only to be followed by a few seconds of silence and pitch blackness, before the emergency back-up lights flickered on. A beautiful moment was ripped away, and then started again, as if it had never been interrupted. They were an extraordinarily engaging band, despite limited musical chops and the fact that everyone was pretty much expressionless throughout, and Michael Stipe had no penchant for audience banter. I guess it was the relentless tempos, the band's absorption in the moment, and the short, sharp, and completely stripped down songs.

Two years later, their amusingly-titled second album "Reckoning" had come out, and I made a road trip to Nashville in the battleship of a car owned by my friend and former bandmate, Jones Rutledge, with the other members of my then-band, Four Neat Guys, in tow, to see them at the gorgeous War Memorial Auditorium. By this time, they had become a polished, ultra-tight, and very confident band, clearly having a ball onstage, and drawing from two very strong albums' worth of material, plus some very eclectic covers, including Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors," which Michael Stipe can be heard lapsing into towards the end of "Rockville" above, "There She Goes Again" by the Velvet Underground, and "Toys in the Attic" by Aerosmith. We left the venue feeling very excited and drove aimlessly around Nashville for hours, ranting about how great it had been, before heading back to Memphis in the early morning hours.

In 1985, I saw them at The Orpheum in Memphis, in support of the ponderous "Fables of the Reconstruction" album, and it was an equally ponderous performance, though the band was still very solid and the less self-indulgent material sounded great, along with the older stuff. Someone must have had a heartfelt word with Michael Stipe somewhere along the line, because I left the show thinking "They've lost it," only to have them return with the amazing "Life's Rich Pageant," which remains, far and away, my favorite. It was at Mud Island in 1986 that I saw them for the last time, touring in support of that album, and they sounded absolutely amazing. They were getting airplay for "Fall on Me," and the capacity crowd was singing blissfully along with every song. They were on their way.

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