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The Stub Project: Slipping into an R.E.M. black hole at the Greek Theatre 8.9.1999

February 26, 2012

It has been theorized that R.E.M. sleep is correlated to important memory functions, so it is with some consternation that I don’t remember a single thing about seeing R.E.M. at Los Angeles’s  Greek Theatre in 1999. I don’t remember going or wanting to go or being there or regretting having gone. None of it. This show is a complete black hole. This stub is a crumb on the trail to nowhere.

It makes me wonder if something traumatic happened there. Did they play “Everybody Hurts” and make me cry? Embarrassed, perhaps I fled to the bathroom, where I was molested by a gang of cross-dressing, indie-rocking thugs? Maybe that’s it. Clearly, something really bad happened … or maybe it was just so boring my memory rejected the proceedings on principle.

Obviously, it’s one or the other.

I see now that they did not play “Everybody Hurts” that evening.

Okay, that settles it, the show must have been really boring. What a relief.

Like so many people I know, I really liked R.E.M. in high school. The one two punch of Chronic Town and Murmur was a knockout that spoke to me even if Michael Stipe’s mumbling vocals didn’t always make sense. And that, I suppose, was the point. R.E.M. was a balm to my own bumbling inarticulateness. There was something really deep there, but I couldn’t quite get at it. Sure, the music wasn’t particularly demanding, but it was new enough at the time to feel fresh. Considering that I was listening to an inordinate amount of the Grateful Dead at the time, it wasn’t a very high fence to jump.

I continued to like them through college, enough that my girlfriend and I drove to Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City to see them in March of 1989. That show, I do remember and the best thing I can say about it is that it happened. I was there.

I suppose they were trying to mock the pretense of playing in an arena. As they took the stage the words “Hello (insert your city here). We are R.E.M.” were projected on the screen (or something along those lines). The entire exercise left me cold. As I look at the setlist a long repressed memory of the the group participation moment that occurred around the song “The One I Love” brought back a resurgent wave of nausea. Synchronized crowd games, whether in jest or not, always make me think of fascists. There were more sing-alongs and more annoyingly literal projected film clips. All in all it was an unfortunate exercise in wink-wink irony that inevitably undermined the music itself.  I remember the bar we went to afterwards more fondly than I do the concert. Somehow, though, I doubt that there was enough whiskey there to wash away the saccharine aftertaste of seeing “Stand” performed live.

I’m not quite sure where along the line it became an embarrassment to like R.E.M., but I suspect it began with “Stand.” Back then, popular success was the sign of being a sell-out. Or sucking. Sure, “Stand” was obviously a joke. Michael Stipe himself said it was based on the stylings of The Bananas and The Archies. He wrote the stupidest lyrics he could think of it. Naturally, it made it to number 6 on the Billboard chart. I’m not sure what exactly he thought he was proving, other than to throw a bone to Warner Brothers, who had just signed R.E.M. away from IRS for $6 million. The 1980s were a more idealist time when bands were not applauded for whoring out their songs. R.E.M., though, wanted it both ways. They wanted the money, but they wanted to be worth it, so they wrote a “hit” and acknowledged that it practically required a lobotomy to write.

Once upon a time, there was a bedroom quality about R.E.M. that made it easy to think of them as your secret. I’m not sure that I literally thought that, I’m sure I would have recognized that they were indeed popular. After all, their debut LP Murmur was named best record by Rolling Stone in 1983 beating out Thriller and Synchronicity. But before the advent of the world wide web it was a lot easier to pretend that you weren’t like everyone else, that your friends and your wants and desires weren’t replicated in pods all over the country.

I suppose seeing them in that Iowa basketball arena in 1989 was the beginning of the end for me. The year before R.E.M. had released Document and with the success of the single “It’s the End of the World as We Know It …” they played their first stadium dates and they weren’t such a secret anymore. Indeed, when you’re just one person in a sea of people singing along, it’s safe to say that the secret is out. Some people find comfort in that, some people feel like maybe what they had isn’t so special anymore. R.E.M.’s songbook is chock full of anthems. In many ways they should be the perfect arena rock band. But for me those songs were diminished by the spectacle of projected images and Michael Stipe’s spastic antics. He is an artist that is best heard and not seen. For better or worse, Michael Stipe is the physical embodiment of what sometimes makes R.E.M.’s music cringe-inducing. While his theatricality can feel artificial, I believe he is ultimately sincere. Nonetheless, at his worst he reminds me of Robin Williams, possibly one of the most annoying human beings alive.

Williams – Stipe: Separated at Birth?

Yet, when Williams puts his buffoonery back in the box, he’s actually a pretty great actor. The same can be said for Stipes’ singing.  If Michael Stipe could have just been a bit less animated, maybe his songs would have a better chance to be liberated from his persona and take on their intended universality.  So often he seems like he’s maniacally trying to start a fire onstage when all he really needs to do is have faith in the music.  Note in this video of So. Central Rain and the cover of John Fogerty’s Have You Ever Seen the Rain?, Stipe is somewhat subdued. He lets the song do the work for him. Interestingly, he’s actually wearing a picture of Ronald McDonald crossed out on his back emblazoned with the words “No Clowns.” If only he had taken is own advice more often.

Whereas the Grateful Dead arena show was predicated on being a communal experience, seeing R.E.M. with so many people somehow cheapened my emotional connection to the band. It was like when I found out that the first girl I ever kissed had bestowed that honor on pretty much every boy in my eighth grade class.

The success was not an easy pill for the band to swallow either. After putting out an album a year since 1981, they took a three year break between Green and Out of Time. Neither of those efforts particularly caught my interest, but 1992’s Automatic for the People did … My skin tingles at the thought that 1992 was twenty years ago. It is the only album of theirs that has any nostalgic value for me and it’s probably because it is their most emotionally bare set. From the opening chords of “Drive” to the optimistic closing notes of”Find the River” Automatic for the People is R.E.M.’s masterpiece. R.E.M. – Find The River – MP3

They should have simply stopped there. They never came so close to touching the sun again. Oh sure, it’s easy to mock “Everybody Hurts” as I did earlier, but that song is like emotional kryptonite. I bet it’s saved some lives and the tears I’ve cried when listening to it make me wonder if maybe mine is one of them. Say what you will about Michael Stipe but “Everybody Hurts” took some serious guts to sing. There’s honesty there. It is the opposite of the cynical, irony-laden decade from which it came. It is the opposite of the show I saw in Iowa City in 1989.  All these years later, “Everybody Hurts” remains revolutionary in how thoroughly uncool it is.

And with that artistic gift, R.E.M. became a guilty pleasure. Like a broken hearted girl gorging herself on Haagan Daz,  I’d enjoy them at home, alone, late at night. Automatic for the People provided comfort in the solitude and sadness that in so many ways defined the 1990s for me. I suppose I held my reaction to “Everybody Hurts” against R.E.M. as if I’d been manipulated into feeling when I didn’t really want to feel at all. My reaction really said so much more about me than it did about them. They were merely the screen upon which I projected my own embarrassment and self-consciousness on.

Maybe everything I love about that album is why I don’t remember seeing R.E.M. that night in Los Angeles. For me, they are a band to be enjoyed by myself. Seeing them live is like having an intimate conversation in a crowded library. I’m too self-conscious to let it be real. Where the music needs a counterpoint, it’s accentuated by the spectacle that is Michael Stipe. Sometimes it’s best just to close your eyes and let the music do its work. For this listener, R.E.M. are like their song “Nightswimming.” They deserve a quiet night, alone.

R.E.M. – Nightswimming – MP3

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 26, 2012 2:40 pm

    Reblogged this on Espacio de MANON.

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