That’s Me In The Corner…
Interacting with R.E.M. over the years.
By now, everybody has heard that R.E.M. have decided to make it official and retire the brand that has sustained them for three decades. Well done chaps. Sure, I wasn’t really that interested in most of the later period stuff, although I rooted for them and respected their right to do whatever they felt they needed to do. They’d earned it. I still think they are one of the better American bands of their era, and live – augmented with Scott McCaughey or Peter Holsapple or Ken Stringfellow or Bill Rieflin or any combination thereof – R.E.M. were always impressive onstage. Although, to be perfectly frank, it never felt the same after Bill Berry traded in his drum kit for a tractor in 1997, his delayed decision after suffering an aneurysm onstage in Switzerland two years earlier.
Let’s begin at the begin, to the 80s in Toronto, when I was just another guy in a band back in the Alt-club scene. My band, Life Times Nine, a duo project with bassist Andrew Snell, had been trying to go somewhere and more often getting nowhere. We had come out of punk and new wave, we were the last men standing from our first band space Invaders, and had tried another short-term post-punk-funk-pop thing called Disband which had lived up to its name and concept a couple of years earlier. The UK music scene had shifted toward synthesizer oriented slick pop and even our beloved Psychedelic Furs had become more production-y. Life Times Nine was us trying REALLY HARD to be commercial. And of course, with no idea of what WE wanted to be anymore.
There were exceptions to the crap, however, and ever since the Chronic Town EP, R.E.M. had been one of the best examples of post-punk guitar bands out there. Mitch Easter’s production really brought out Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker guitar, and while we couldn’t make out a word that Michael Stipe was singing, he and Mike Mills had a great, if unusual, vocal harmony style. R.E.M. reintroduced the word “jangle” to my vocabulary and soon I was full-fledged fan. My friend Howard Druckman was a local indie journalist and had befriended the band early on. He had regaled us all with stories of being in their Econoline van, hurtling down the 401 highway from Ottawa to Toronto where they were playing some small club, probably Larry’s Hideaway. After Life Times Nine failed to realize our dream of moving to England, just as The Smiths were breaking, I met a girl back home in Toronto named Shirley. Shirley came with me to see R.E.M. at The Concert Hall, (the former Masonic Temple in downtown Toronto). Online research confirms this date as Friday August 16, 1985, and also reminded me that The Three O’Clock opened. (I also remember them getting heckled and that I felt sorry for them).
R.E.M. were touring Fables of the Reconstruction, and I still recall the thrill of hearing “Driver 8”, “Wendell Gee”, “Can’t Get There From Here,” and the oddball covers they would do, notably, Roger Miller’s “King Of The Road” and Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale”.
They were still, of course, doing “Radio Free Europe”
and “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”
This band had layers. Buck had a great vinyl collection from his years at Stipe was inscrutable (and impenetrable) under that mane of long, long hair (how hard it to recall that hair!).
Shortly after an argument about the merits of Crowded House (I was for them), Life Times Nine disbanded. Cut to several years later, and I was about to be married to Liza. My brother Mike was in town for the wedding, and staying at the Four Seasons Hotel that week. I had heard that R.E.M. were in town, but it was a busy week for us and I didn’t want to make any plans. I had been telling my brother about R.E.M. being in town this particularly day (he’d met them on SNL I think) but we figured we’d be busy anyway so we put it out of our mind and headed back to the suite. I pressed the elevator button. It opened. Out walks Peter Buck! R.E.M. were staying at the hotel! Celebrity pleasantries were exchanged and Mr. Buck (tall Mr. Buck) insisted we be their guests at the show that night, down at Molson Amphitheater (research tells me it was Tuesday June 13, 1995, and Luscious Jackson (remember them?) opened the show.
This, you’ll remember, was their Aneurysm Tour, so named for the fact that it was a make-up tour for Monster after Bill Berry’s collapse, onstage in Switzerland, in March of that year. I remember being a little freaked out the Berry was back on the drum stand so soon, and I wouldn’t be the only one who wondered if he’d keel over again during this show. But he was solid as ever, good as new and actually better than he’d ever been. Yeah, we had a blast at the show, Luscious Jackson were also awesome, and I liked R.E.M.’s new, beefier guitar songs from Monster, such as “What’s The Frequency Kenneth?”
and “Crush With Eyeliner”
Backstage at Molson Amphitheater, Mike and I were joined by our friend Dave Foley in the VIP holding area for the post-show “meet n greet”. I glanced over and nodded at Mary Margaret O’Hara, our friend from the Toronto scene for whom I always had a special affection and who had become by now a cult personality, having become a UK press darling after backing Morrissey on his single, “November Spawned a Monster”. We chatted with Peter Buck and his wife, Stephanie Dorgan (owner of Seattle’s Crocodile Café) and I remember liking them both. Mike Mills was loquacious and friendly and quick to offer us beverages. Bill Berry was shy but no less amiable. Michael Stipe, however, was a man of entrances. Grand entrances. His arrival in the VIP area had a subtly staged quality; you knew the room had changed. He made a beeline towards, flitted over to, Ms. O’Hara, who was seated. Down on one knee to greet and her and kiss-kiss on her cheeks, it seemed like he was going to propose to her. His adoration for her was palpable, and Stipe was like Andy Warhol fawning over Liza Minelli. Mary, a down-home Toronto gal and no stranger to celebrity hangs (her sister is SCTV’s Catherine O’Hara if you don’t know), was bemused but unfazed by the treatment. I, on the other hand, was talking about it for days.
The next time, and the last time, R.E.M. crossed my path was when Liza and I had moved to Vancouver in the 2000s. Again, relying on the Internet for dates, it would appear to have been on a Sunday, December 15, 2002, at Richards’s On Richards. John Moremen and his wife Suzie Racho, both my dear friends, were up visiting from San Francisco (I wouldn’t move back there until 2006) and their great friend (the man who introduced the couple) Scott McCaughey was up in Vancouver working with R.E.M. in the studio (I believe they were recorded the Around The Sun album but it wouldn’t be out for a few years). Scott’s band with Peter Buck and Bill Rieflin, The Minus Five had picked up a Sunday night show at the club. But since everybody knew that R.E.M. were in town, everybody also knew that they would show up at the Minus Five show. I had been tipped by John & Suzie of course, so we got there at the right time. The place was packed, but sadly packed with douchey people who just wanted to see the famous guys. They were jostling folks and pushing to get their cameras up to the stage and at one John and Suzie were being trampled by some tall dudes, oblivious to those around them. After a fine (but painfully loud) set by The Minus Five, and after a bit of a wait, the predictable happened and out came Buck, Mills, Stipe, along with with Rieflin an McCaughey. They premiered some songs they had been recording, and Stipe (in a New York City T-shirt) was reading the lyrics from an enormous book he had perched on a music stand. I honestly can’t remember what songs they did, I’m not even sure if the web is right about it being 2002, so I’ll just assume it’s a few of those from Around The Sun, and probably the single “Bad Day” which showed up on In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003 compilation the following year. (Is it just me or is this “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It, Part 2”?)
Take a break Driver 8, Driver 8 take a break. We’ve been on this shift too long.
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, R.E.M.
They were here for thirty odd years now they’ve stopped.
I’d like to take it down now, and close with two of their most gentle songs, both of which I really loved.
The delicately serene “Nightswimming”
and their ersatz Brian Wilson tune “At My Most Beautfiful”