r.e.m.

R.E.M.’s “Out of Time” 25 Years Later

25 years ago, I was the label manager for Warner Bros. in Tel Aviv. I’ve written about this a little bit before; it was a gig I fell into because I was in the right place at the right time, spoke English and had been working at the outer edges of the U.S. music business for a couple of years. There was a lot of music I was continually told would not ever be popular in Israel, and R.E.M. was one of those bands.

Except that it wasn’t true. We broke them in the territory during Out of Time and sold so many records (relatively) and I campaigned hard to get the band to do a promo tour of the country for Automatic For The People, back when it was hard for bands to play the country, much less come over to do promo. I was one of the many indie kids who came of age when R.E.M. were college radio darlings (I published the first R.E.M. fanzine, radio free europe and some day I will digitize the fucking things), and then later moved up in the business, and we were all busy opening the door as wide as we could for the music that we loved…which in this case, now happened to be beyond enormous.

I wish I could dig out the photographs (and I wish I had more of them) but the one pertinent story I will offer was later retold by Mike Mills at the 40 Watt Club in Athens in 1992, when the band played a benefit for Greenpeace. I came into work the next morning and found a fax from one of my BFF’s/old-time R.E.M. road compatriot, with the setlist in full, and “STORY ABOUT CARYN” written next to “Losing My Religion.” I then had to wait interminable months until I got a tape of the show.

Anyway, you should buy the anniversary release because it has amazing liner notes from the great Annie Zaleski and you should check out this fantastic BBC Radio documentary. And I can’t believe it’s been 25 years.

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F**k Yeah, Setlists

This week over at Fuck Yeah, Setlists I’ve donated five setlists from my collection: Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, R.E.M., Springsteen and the New York Dolls. If you like setlists, it’s an amazing site. If you’ve got your own setlists, he’s always looking for submissions!

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Greg Dulli
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chestnut.


5/4/85, Williamstown, MA.

June 19, 1981. That’s not the date of the photo above, but is the date I saw R.E.M. play for the first time. The way I always remembered it, this was a Sunday night, the day I graduated high school, but the calendar tells me it was a Friday night. There was a club in Mount Vernon, NY, that was an old converted bank; it was called the Left Bank, and opened my senior year of college. By virtue of not actually being in New York City, but rather in Westchester, I was freely allowed to go to shows there. I was not legal; I am not sure if I even had a fake ID at this point. But I quickly became a regular at this club, which was about half an hour from my parents’ house, and it was a godsend to a girl who wanted to be in the City but couldn’t get there every time there was a show.

I went to this show because the Gang of Four were playing. I did not know that R.E.M. were opening until I got to the club, and took up position near the front of the stage. I asked someone if they knew who the opening band was going to be and they told me “R.E.M.” I have no idea how I knew the name or had any familiarity with them at that point, because the first single wasn’t even out yet. But they were familiar enough to make me stay at my spot in the front of the stage and watch.

I wish I could tell you that I remember everything, but I don’t. I remember Michael’s hair flying, I remember thinking that he was hiding behind his hair, I remember that he was shimmying around the stage wearing brown corduroy pants, which seemed a poor clothing choice for New York in the summer. I remember Peter Buck reminding me of Pete Townshend, and I remember him asking people in the audience if anyone had an extra belt, because Michael’s pants kept falling down as he shimmied around the stage. I know that I liked them enough to go find them after the set, and ask them if they had a record out yet, and offered to buy them beers because I was graduating. And then I went and watched the Gang of Four.

This is how it began, inauspiciously, ingloriously, just another opening band and me feeling brave because I was finally getting out of high school and getting out of the suburbs and heading into the city. I could not know then that it would be dozens and dozens of gigs later and putting out the first R.E.M. fanzine and ending up working for Warner Bros. and a whole litany of other adventures around this band.

It is time to dig out the artifacts and tell the stories.

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the music of r.e.m.

Carnegie Hall, NYC, 11 March 2009

Admittedly, I am a tough audience for this show. Admittedly, I am the person you do not want to be playing in front of, the fan who knows every line and tone and shading and nuance and the six alternate takes and can quote you chapter and verse about when it was written and what the band was eating/drinking/thinking that inspired it. I admit this freely. But I am also (at least at this point in my life) the fan who gives bonus points for intent and feeling and style, and who can admit that, say, Josh Ritter was awesome at the Springsteen tribute last year.

The lineup for this show was more eclectic, more indie, more potentially precious than the Bruce one – there are no embargoed, uncool albums for R.E.M. like there are for Springsteen (although people studiously avoided Around The Sun, they also weren’t lining up to cover “Disturbance At The Heron House” either). I can’t say I was a fan of every artist on the bill, but at least I wasn’t like the guy sitting next to me, who sat down, perused the program, and loudly announced that he didn’t know any of the acts performing. By “any” he meant “anyone not from 1980” because we both applauded loudly at the Peter Holsapples and Feelies and Marshall Crenshaw types.

You had your Rachel Yamagata and your Keren Ann, but I have to say that Ingrid Michaelson kicked their asses down 57th Street, in terms of the category of “Solo Female Performer” this evening. The first two were perfectly fine, but Michaelson was the first one to bring a truly unique interpretation to her version of “Nightswimming”. A quirky performance for a quirky song, and I’ll give her points for wearing an evening dress but going barefoot.

I know I’m going to like Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey no matter what they do, and bringing along Don Dixon certainly isn’t going to hurt their cause. “Fall On Me” was simple and bright and a nice way to kick things off. Bob Mould got the first big round of recognizable applause, and his “Sitting Still” was the strongest contender of the first third of the show. He was followed by the Feelies, who took things up a notch with a version of “Chronic Town” that could have been played at Maxwell’s in 1985. It was hard to stay seated for that one.

(The one part of these shows that I absolutely hate is the announcer who introduces each act. I appreciate knowing who everyone is, because admittedly I wouldn’t know (and from the balcony, where I have sat more than once, you sometimes simply cannot tell). But what I don’t need is to be told what song they are going to perform, nor do I need what are supposed to be cute or clever turns of phrase (and are anything but). Please, lose the announcer, or confine her job to just telling us who the artist is – at the most name the album, but don’t spoil it by telling us what song it is right before they’re about to play it.)

You’re not going to be surprised if I tell you that Rhett Miller covered “Driver 8” or even that Calexico (the house band for the evening, and a fine job they did) covered “Wendell Gee”. You might be surprised that Glen Hansard covered “Hairshirt,” up there with a mandolin all on his lonesome (and apologizing in advance that there was one chord he didn’t know, and that he had been hoping to run into Peter Buck backstage so he could ask him about it).

Marshall Crenshaw came out and gave us a very Marshall Crenshaw-like interpretation of “Supernatural Superserious,” which was elegant and well-presented and particularly telling in that it followed the most dire performance of the evening, Guster’s rendition of “Shaking Through”. I realize that I am biased in that I do not like bands of Guster’s ilk, but it was like someone took a sledgehammer to this lovely, delicate song and drenched it with over-mic’d banjo. The Mummers String Band would have brought more subtlety to the song than Guster did.

I say this before I tell you about Kimya Dawson. I was not a fan of the Moldy Peaches, but I have a heckuva lot of respect for Kimya Dawson as an artist. However, I but a lot of explaining to do when she walked on with a costumed ensemble who performed an interpretative dance while she played an acoustic version of “World Leader Pretend” (telling us that she loved the song so much she didn’t know if she could actually play it), accompanied by a xylophone player. (And by ‘xylophone’ I mean the kind of thing you buy in the musical instrument aisle of Toys-R-Us.)  I closed my eyes to listen because I didn’t want to burst out laughing, but by the end of it, I had to give the group my respect; it took a lot of work and planning and practice, and a lot of guts to get up there and do that tonight. (Although we were still taking bets between ourselves as to which member of R.E.M. – they had given it away at the intro that all three original members were here – was laughing the hardest during the performance.)

I enjoyed Jolie Holland’s version of “Rockville” and TV On The Radio came by to sing backup (although no one could actually hear it. For all the technical wizardry involved in presenting 20 artists, you would think they could have mic’d vocals properly, but it was sadly lacking this evening – Kristen Hersh was a casualty of this for certain, with an otherwise fine version of “Perfect Circle” butchered by unintentional vocal distortion). Darius Rucker – yes, that Darius Rucker – who is now a country artist of some success, was probably the most surprising performance of the night, with a heartfelt rendition of “I Believe” for which he absolutely, positively did not require a lyric sheet.

It was nice to see Patti Smith get the last slot on the bill, and she came out with Tony Shanahan on piano to perform the surprising choice of “New Test Leper”. However, as soon as she sang the opening line – “I can’t say that I love Jesus” – the choice made sense, one confirmed later by J. Michael Stipe himself.  Our Patti managed to lose herself halfway through, not for lack of preparation (and I won’t admonish her to use a lyric sheet, because then she’d need her glasses, and she hates that), but because she had simply lost herself in the song. I found it charming in the extreme.

Once she was done, Michael, Mike and Peter came back out, along with Patti, Tony Shanahan, and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, and after a series of heartfelt thank you’s – including echoing Dar Williams’ thanks for supporting the arts at this time – Michael uttered the now-mandatory, “That’s Mike, that’s Peter, I’m Michael – we’re R.E.M. and this is what we do,” and Michael and Patti dueted on “E-bow The Letter”. I am touched by Michael dropping to his knees while Patti sings, I reflect how lucky I am to have seen them play together as often as I have, how I have seen R.E.M. with Springsteen and Pearl Jam and the Minutemen and the dB’s and the list goes on and on until my brain hurts and my eyes fill up and I smile. I am lucky.

The musicians left the stage after the song was over, returning with the rest of the artists for a final bow. No jam session, no second number. If that sounds ungrateful, there were a lot of empty seats, this was not an inexpensive show, it was a benefit, and it might have been nice for one more song, something more uplifting, perhaps, to round out the show.  It was certainly a full and satisfying night of music, and you can’t blame me for not wanting it to end.

(Or wanting “Country Feedback”. There.)

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they shifted the statues for harboring ghosts

R.E.M.
Madison Square Garden
June 19, 2008

mapsandlegends Last night, Michael Stipe commented at the conclusion of “Harborcoat” that he’d never realized how influenced they had been by the English Beat. Continue Reading »

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welcome to the occupation

R.E.M. at Madison Square Garden, 11-4-04

r.e.m. 11-4-04 msg

First show after the election. I can’t even imagine how the band, as well as any other musician involved in Vote For Change, were feeling, today of all days. So I was not expecting a party or a powerhouse, and I didn’t get either. But they got up on that stage tonight and played for all they could muster and for all they were worth. Madison Square Garden or not, at times they each looked dejected, tired, dispirited, and I don’t know who could possibly blame them. But equally, at other moments it seemed like the music was pulling them up and giving them strength.

I’d wondered what Michael was going to say tonight, and was surprised when they walked out and opened with “It’s The End of The World As We Know It,” and not the party version. It was grim and determined, but still with a fair amount of humor. The song ends, and I wait for him to speak, again, but instead, they slam into “Begin The Begin”: “Silence means security silence means approval…” and suddenly this song is far more political than I ever thought to consider.

Third song, still no comment from Michael – it looks at times as though he thought about saying something, and him and Peter were talking to each other off mic every other song or so. This time, “So Fast So Numb,” which exactly described how I felt Tuesday night: “So fast, so numb/that you can’t even feel.”

“This song takes place in Tennessee,” was a preface to “Boy In The Well” – a literal reference but also reminding me of electoral votes. Then, sixth song, “Welcome To The Occupation,” and I realized that Michael probably wasn’t going to say anything tonight, but that he didn’t have to – the music was saying everything.

“This next song takes place in Ohio,” prefaces (of course) “Cuyahoga” is and the mention of Ohio received more than a small amount of booing, but then the opening line: “Let’s put our heads together/and start a new country up,” brought cheers.

I don’t recognize the next song, it’s sparse and semi-acoustic, until the first line:

Readying to bury your father and your mother…

“Sweetness Follows.”

An old R.E.M. friend and I used to have this theory of “the one” — the one song from every album it was yours. We had the same songs from every album and for a short time were convinced this meant we were destined for each other. But, that aside, I can’t even say it’s a song I’ve been chasing. (“Fretless,” now that’s another story…) Hearing this now, here, tonight, this week, was like finding a wildflower in the desert, it was a touch of beauty in the midst of desolation.

I think the band gained something from the performance as well, as the rest of the set seemed to have more energy. “Final Straw,” tonight of all nights – it’s a shame that it seemed to be lost on most of the audience, as the reality it depicts isn’t going anyway any time soon now.

Finally, Michael manages to speak to us. He explained that he didn’t know what to say, and that he still didn’t, and that he was just going to let the music do the talking, and talked about the healing power of music and a good pop song, which brought us into “Losing My Religion,” which had Michael doing his best to Be Michael, and I can’t blame him for seeming relieved to careen into “Walk Unafraid”.

And then, lone spotlight on Peter, someone nearby yells, “Play it, Peter!” and I drop my head backward, stare up at the ceiling, one arm in the air, as he hits the opening chords to my theme song, my #1 R.E.M. song for all time, “Life And How To Live It,” and it was 1986 again, down to my best R.E.M. companion, Miriam, right next to me. It was like having a cool drink of water when you needed it most, it was inspiring and restorative and – I hate to use this word because it’s the buzzword of the week and the rest of the month and the rest of the year – healing.

The encore is fun – “Kenneth” and Steve Wynn (ex-Dream Syndicate) coming out for “Permanent Vacation” (still kills me I never got to see Springsteen do this with them), and “Man On The Moon” for the last song. Michael drops his pants – I have no idea why, then again I don’t know that I’ve ever had an explanation for anything Michael has done onstage – and they walk off.

r.e.m. 11-4-04 msg

At one point during the show, a security guard saw me scrawling down the setlist and handed me a piece of paper, which I unfolded to discover the printed setlist. It’s accurate, with the exception of one song that was handwritten in at the end but then wasn’t played: “You Are The Everything.” It’s a shame they didn’t (although Michael taking his pants of kind of meant there was no way they could go into a poignant semi-acoustic anthem about the unity of mankind) because we needed it.

The house wasn’t full, it was a “very strange Thursday night” (to quote Michael), and it’s an odd album to tour behind. I can’t blame them for not being on their A game, but on the other hand, it hardly sucked or was a performance unworthy of R.E.M., and frankly, they’re entitled to a little humanity right now.

Setlist:
End Of The World
Begin The Begin
So Fast So Numb
Animal
Boy In The Well
Welcome To The Occupation
Outsiders
Get Up
High Speed Train
Cuyahoga
Sweetness Follows
The One I Love
Wanted To Be Wrong
Imitation of Life
Final Straw
Losing My Religon
Walk Unafraid
Life And How To Live It

Encore:
What’s the Frequency Kenneth?
Drive
Leaving New York
Electrolite (on the setlist as an alternate: E-Bow The Letter)
Permanent Vacation
DJ
Man On The Moon
(handwritten and not played: You Are The Everything)

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