Oh. Was it because the lady was too befuddled to turn it off, I wondered? Or was it the song choice?
Neither, she replied: “It makes me sad that I will never see REM play “Gardening at Night” again, and that I don’t even really want to.”
And yet she can. Well…sort of. Because just the other night someone posted a video of REM on YouTube from 1982 and I accidentally clicked on it. I say “accidentally” because doing so caused an actual accident. Before I clicked, all was well. After, I was a goner. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, reliving my youth.
More often than not, when you look back at the bands you loved when you were little, it turns out they were silly, or sophomoric, or are just so dated that you can no longer look at them without laughing ruefully at your folly. Even the good ones tend to sound thin and wavery from this distance: seldom do you get that punched in the face feeling that you got from hearing them at the time. Maybe it has to do with technology? Things filmed on iPhones, I find, aren’t very emotionally resonant; and board tapes – of which I have a few – never capture the feeling of being in the audience, since they tape what’s coming through the monitors.
The you-are-there quality of this one was entirely different. The minute it began it was like I was grabbed by G-Forces and smacked into the wall of the past. Flattened. It was so evocative. First, blacked out, a shout out to the openers. “Thanks Peter Holsapple. Ghengis Khan. Let’s Active.” Then: “Mirror,” he says. “Flower.” And then suddenly the scene appears before you, smelling of stale beer, and I swear: it took my breath away. There he is, Michael Stipe, in all his youthful beauty, bee-stung lips, hair flopped over his forehead and that particular way of dancing: swinging his arms like an ape, hunching over and backing away from the mike in a way that, the first time we saw it, I and everyone I knew immediately began mimicking it. I had forgotten the origin of the move.
Then he begins singing. “Suspicion yourself suspicion yourself suspicion yourself don’t get caught." Oh yeah. "Wilder, lower, wolves,” he sings, on “Wolves Lower,” the opening track on Chronic Town, and then continues on through the rest of those songs plus a few tracks from the soon-to-be-released album “Murmur” and a couple unreleased tracks (which we will all hear many years later on “Dead Letter Office,” but not until then.)
Presumably your interest in this video tape is dependent entirely on your interest in REM back then (not now); I don’t expect those who weren’t there to sniff the aroma of that it exudes, but I do think the lady next to Isabelle in seat 28B will. To begin, it is shot in close up, on film no doubt, and I think it’s on a tripod. Actually, there are two cameras, and their footage is spliced together, but they are both stationary, which is one reason this doesn’t have the same feel as so many music videos today do, where they train your eye on things they want you to see – bassists, drummers, feet; close ups, etc. I hate that feeling. Indeed, sometimes when I’m watching live streamed video, like from Primavera, or a ‘live' concert video of a band, I feel like someone has seized my head between their hands and is turning it from side to side, like at a tennis match. It’s so unpleasant. But this video is just the view of one single eye – the camera’s, so the performers jump in and out of frame sometimes but it doesn’t matter, it feels way more like being at the concert.
Anyway, I loved everything about it, including the cuts away to the album cover of Chronic Town, which presumably masked moments on the video tape that the videographer didn’t want seen. What I liked about those cutaways was that, in 1982, I was so obsessed with that record that I would often stare at the cover while I listened to the music on it, completely absorbed by the image of the gargoyle, and I did the same thing with “Murmur” and kudzu as well. It was different then, of course – since we didn’t have videos, we didn’t really know what the band looked like except for maybe a blurry photo or two; we only had the album cover to think about. But that cover in particular captured the mystique that REM cast over my musical world of the moment.
Chronic Town was barely twenty minutes long but those twenty minutes changed my life. I have never been so insane about a single, short piece of music before and obviously I am a lunatic. Today your ipod can keep track of how many times you play something. Back then there was no such form of measurement, but this EP definitely tops anything else I’ve heard before or since, in part because it was so damn short. In those days, bored by suburban life, we used to drive to San Francisco almost every night in Isabelle’s old VW bug, with it on a C-30 cassette tape and it would play 3 times through before we got there and three times through on the way home: six times per trip, four or five times a week, and that’s not even the times we listened on shorter journeys.
What was it that captivated me so? Well, to begin, the stream of consciousness lyrics, the impressions they gave, the jagged snippets, the phraseology …they made me understand so much about language, poetry and even authors like James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon, who, prior to hearing REM, I just dismissed as being ‘too hard,’ or ‘gobbledygook.’ It was after hearing REM that I read “V’ and “The Crying of Lot 49,” without which my life would be a poorer place.
So there’s that. But beyond lyrics, of course, driving the lyrics, there was the music, the 12 string jangly guitar, the speedy arpeggios, the hollow, droney voice of Stipe, harmonizing with Mills pretty sin-song; the snare. Their sound was so complete, so fully realized, so in and of itself, that it is weird to think that they were a trio, a thing that didn’t strike me at the time. I do recall that I read somewhere at the time that Buck was influenced by the Velvet Underground and Big Star and the Byrds, but you know, although I made a point of listening to all that music immediately, I couldn’t hear it at all; to me they came straight out of nowhere, and immediately filled the vacuum that was my mind.
Of course I didn’t know much about music at the time (or even now, to be honest), so it was easy to impress me, but I still think they made something new out of what they had heard, something that felt like mine in a way that those old bands surely didn’t. For my era, they were my Beatles, and the way that I first saw them was like going to the Cavern Club, or the Reeperbahn – and then going over and over again.
The tape is from 1982. The first time I saw REM was in 1983, in June, about six months or so after this was taped, and I remember that Isabelle and I, who were then djays at the local college station together, simply waited and waited and WAITED for them to come, and then when they finally came we saw them a whole ton of times in a huge rush that basically laid waste to every other show we’d seen prior to it.
I thought that I must have been imagining that, or somehow conflating three different years, but it turns out to be absolutely true: According to Wikipedia, the band played the Bay Area four times between June 14 and June 22nd of 1983, and that list is missing the secret show at the Catalyst that is the one I remember best.
Isn’t that fantastic? Well, fantastic or pathetic, since it is surely what laid the groundwork for a lifetime of concert idiocy, like up and flying to Paris to see the Replacements (in 1986), or – say – driving to Vancouver to see Midnight Oil, which I just did a few weeks ago. (*see "Alone With Lucifer.") Sadly, when I get into this state about a piece of music, it doesn’t even feel like I’ve really seen a band until I’ve seen them like five times on the same tour, and forcing that to happen is my version of self care. Back before the internet, I kept my concert tickets in the freezer, just in case the house burned down; today you can get into a show without doing all that spade work, but it’s still kind of a weakness; even as we speak, I have stashed a single ticket to a special show in a secret city this summer that I refuse to tell anyone about.
Air Supply, Vangelis, REO Speedwagon; Asia, Foreigner, Journey, Loverboy, the Little River Band, Christopher Cross...what more needs to be said about a year when the only tolerable song in the entire Billboard Top Fifty is…um, wait, there IS no tolerable song in the top fifty, if, like me, you don’t care for Joan Jett. These acts, with their vapid lyrics and overproduction and their super soft centers, like the worst possible chocolates in a box of a very very cheap bad brand, overlaid the atmosphere at the time. Hearing REM just wiped that shit out. Clean slate. Brand new. From then on music was dark blue and turquoise, like the cover of “Chronic Town.” It shone in my ears. It was gilt.
It was more attractive, inside that moral kiosk.
But time changes everything, right? And now Isabelle doesn’t want to see them anymore, and it comes out of cell phone on airplanes and is hushed away by flight attendants, and those of us who once proclaimed “I AM REM” as if they were Spartacus or something, hunker down with embarrassment, and no one else even gets it. The flickering light of a youtube video notwithstanding, there seems to be no link between 1982 and now, no way to draw those experiences together. “You had to be there” has become the motto of our age. However, there is this: I was, and thank heaven for that. I was.