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.

End Of The World
Begin The Begin
So Fast So Numb
Boy In The Well
Welcome To The Occupation
Get Up
High Speed Train
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

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