R.E.M. Live At The Olympia

by twhalliii
November 7, 2009 3:55 AM
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I can hear you, can you hear me?--R.E.M., Sitting Still

R.E.M. is the absolute seminal band for me; their albums are the soundtrack of my life. I was a thriteen year-old heavy metal-loving dork living in working class Michigan in 1984 when, on Easter vacation in Toronto, I stumbled upon Chronic Town in a cutout bin at Sam The Record Man on Yonge St. From the moment the needle hit the vinyl on my shitty, department store turntable, I was literally tranformed into another person. It is hard to remember the fabric of a pre-internet, pre-iPod, pre-video on demand world, but I clearly had a sentimental attachment to the sensation of having a secret, of loving something and finding almost no connection among members of my community, my friends, my peers; is that even possible anymore? I have a very young son, and I often wonder if he will ever feel what it is like to not know a single person who shares his passion for an artist, an idea, a song. Today, we connect online, we find a universe of articles and fans sites and links and history and community among like-minded people around the world. For me, cracking open Chronic Town in Flint, Michigan as a thirteen year-old kid felt like a secret, private revolt. I would literally spend days listening to R.E.M. records, singing along in jibberish, blissfully alone, disconnected, changing into what I now consider "me." Is that possible anymore?

Smitten with Chronic Town, I immediately dove into the R.E.M. catalogue, picking up Murmur, already a year old, and Reckoning, which had just come out. I was inseparable from those records during Middle School, literally wearing out my vinyl copy of Murmur within a few months. The following spring, 1985, I picked up Fables of The Reconstruction and my step-dad took me to see the band in concert at the Fox Theater in Detroit, which blew my 14 year old mind. I can remember almost every detail of that show to this day, from the expressionistic lighting to the huge sound to the cover of Aerosmith's Toys In The Attic that came out of nowhere. The band was always mysterious; who wrote which song? What was Michael Stipe hiding from behind his curly hair? What was he singing about? Every once in a while, an interview would appear in a magazine, a clip on MTV, and I would gobble all of it up, trying to understand the band and the reasons I felt so connected to their music. It was and is a mystery to me; Stipe's voice is in my own vocal range, so I could sing along, the abstract imagery of the songs hit me, the jangly guitar connected to classic songs that I loved, there was an outsider's perspective that the band conveyed that felt true, a million reasons.

But more importantly, they were singing songs that felt like being young and feeling eternal, about the impossibile reality of death and growing old, mixed with a deeply curious attachment to passing ways of life, regional, local experience, to just living and not giving a fuck. I felt like I could live a million years, secluded and all along the ruins and on and on.

Most of all, though, R.E.M. felt like something in stark opposition to the conservative literalism of Regan's America, something much smarter and bigger than Middle and High School, connected to an almost impossibly vibrant scene (Athens GA, a place I dreamt of for years), an ideal of creative work, of personal possibility for me. There are infinite numbers of stories of kids claiming that bands saved their lives; my life didn't need saving, I was a happy, confident kid. R.E.M. didn't save my life or give it purpose, they simply offered me a portal into the possibilities of living, of a larger world. I listen to those records today and more than the music and the words, they convey the texture of memory and experience for me; they make me feel the same feelings, but through a new, changing perspective about who I am.

For no reason other than my own inability to appreciate the grand scale of the stadium concert, I stopped going to R.E.M. shows after the Green tour. And in truth, after Bill Berry left in 1997 to recover from a brain aneurysm, I felt like the band and I both had changed, which, fucking right and fair play. There was nothing revoked between the music and me, but all of doors that R.E.M. had opened for me had been populated by a million other moments, experiences, songs, shows, loves. I grew up, got older, and they did the same. I haven't felt a deep connection to the band's new work in the same way I did their 1980's work, but who feels the same deep connection as a thirty something that they did as a teenager?

I am going to die someday. I have a son to whom I want to give the entirety of the world and all of myself. I have a wife that I love in ways I thought impossible. So many things I dreamed of doing will never get done. And I feel completely content.

That said, whatever connected inside of me, it is still very much alive. Today, I picked up a copy of R.E.M.'s new album, Live At The Olympia which has essentailly forced me curl up in a ball in my bedroom with my headphones on, a irrevocable grin plastered on my face, emotions and feelings I haven't had in years flooding through me. It is an absolutely amazing retrospective of everything that made the band vital, crucial, meaningful to me. The song selection is unreal (they play so many of my favorites) but it is the muscular, urgent sound of the performances on this record that prove just how important and powerful a band R.E.M. are. All of that is well and good and yes yes yes, but the real gift here is the way Michael Stipe just CRUSHES these songs-- I just can't believe how good and clear he sounds on this record; the performances of Sitting Still, Carnival Of Sorts and especially 1,000,000 as they are performed here are achingly, jawdroppingly great. I had forgotten what they mean to me and this album feels like a reclamation of everything I loved about discovering their music, everything I was and wanted to be. I can't believe it. It's still there and I forgot how much I missed it.

What Was

What Is

Brilliant fun to feel all of this again. xo

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More: Music, Personal


  • Sean O'Sullivan | December 30, 2009 5:41 AMReply

    Wonderfully written Tom and so much hit home with me also. I was not a real 'music' person until I heard Green when I was 13 years old and it all changed from there.

    One of the many great aspects to REM is that 5 people could listen to the same track and derive 5 different feelings and emotions from it. And they are all right! Especially with the earlier stuff.

    Really enjoyed reading that from someone else who has clearly has the same connection to this wonderful band and their music and I have.

  • twhalliii | November 19, 2009 8:27 AMReply

    Thanks for the kind words all...

    Lisa, it's funny you mention CUYAHOGA in this way; when LIFES RICH PAGEANT appeared in the late summer of 1986, I was 15 years and was an opinionated left-wing kid who was living in a dying rust belt city in the Midwest. Jobs were disappearing, there was escalating poverty and violence in my hometown, we had a very polluted river running through the heart of town, etc. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan's fantasy vision of America was holding sway, greed and wealth were the dominant aspirational values and the whole society seemed to be at odds with what I and my community were experiencing.

    So, when I put on that album and heard that song open with "let's put our heads together and start a new country up", it felt like a call to arms and reaffirmed the power of music to build bridges across an otherwise alienating dominant culture. But for me, it is also one of the most explicit narratives in R.E.M.'s catalogue; The Cuyahoga river caught fire many times and the outrageous idea of what a burning river means for our country blinded by a "to the victor goes the historical narrative" mentality was very explicit for me;

    "Let's put our heads together/ and start a new country up
    Our father's father's fathers tried/ and erased the parts they didn't like
    Let's try to fill it in"

    How? with an explicit memory of youth, of harmony with nature, of swimming in the river. But the river's on fire... they "burned the river down"

    This was the period of HIV and AIDS destroying lives while greeted with government silence and inaction, environmental concerns were taking beginning to blossom (PAGEANT is clearly a response to that), the US government was fighting secret wars in Central America; there was just a huge disconnect between youth culture and the national blindness. I can't imagine a more perfect image for reform than being a kid on a river bank and now realizing the river of your youth is on fire.

    I never found Michael Stipe to be cryptic or obscure; I think lyrically and artistically, he was someone who found affinity in the Beats, in experimental and queer fiction, in 1970's downtown and no-wave music; coming directly out of that time and into the early 1980's it makes perfect sense. I guess if you were looking back from today, all of that context is missing, but that is what makes living through it, and living through it as a young person, so meaningful for me; it was the way I connected to big ideas and the flow of the battle between history, politics and art.

  • Lisa | November 19, 2009 7:12 AMReply

    I think it is interesting how the writer found meaning in the band's older work but is not attached in that way to following releases. And, of course, a lot of times it happens, a band will produce a meaning-intense album, go through a highly productive phase, and never come back to the height they once achieved.

    Yet, REM has done the same with New Adventures, for example, as they did during their glory days.

    Since I was not paying attention to REM, or since REM didn't speak to me when I was 12, 13, 14-years-old, I was not able to appreciate the sense and meaning they were making at the time, or whatever, and now that I am equipped to get it, it still lacks something, it still lacks, and will always lack the meaning their work held, at that time.

    I think it is a very interesting aspect of creative work that during the time, the exact historical place, that an artists creation lived and breathed, so did meaning live and breath. There are references, for example, in songs that are past, that no longer exist, that no longer matter or have any significance, even if they're known. We can not understand a song completely if it is referring to a history we are not living. The music still holds meaning, but it is much different, personal maybe, but not the same as it was "then". No amount of nostalgia will take you back.

    Also, I think meaning emanates between the artists and the audience. It is the listener, the one who appreciates that endows the work with meaning, it is their understanding of it, the way they relate to it, as Greg McGarvey describes so beautifully, finally, that gives an album the life and legitimacy that an artists craves.

    Having a lot of fans is nothing, have that many fellow humans to share and celebrate a temporal and beautiful truth is.

  • Lisa | November 19, 2009 6:21 AMReply

    I have a completely opposite sense of the band's work. My meaning stems from their New Adventures album onward, New Adventures being the peak, for me. When I listen to any of the 80s classics, I can hardly relate, I hear glimpses of ideas, from what I can understand, the words buried in purposeful slurs, the lines drenched in crypticism. Yet, the band seemed to hash out all of those ideas and express them magnificently in the New Adventure masterpiece. I enjoy the earlier work, in other words, only in relationship to the later work that seems to explicate their obtuse sounds.

    I certainly share the feelings the writer has toward the band, and that connectedness they build, they create. It is as if they reach out to each fan individually and invite us to share in their magic, an amazing and generous act, that I somehow believe is an innate drive, a drive to feel the connection come back to them, a dynamic that is central to their art, to sustaining their craft, that createsthe music, a give and take, a back and forth, a gorgeous ebb and flow.

  • Lisa | November 19, 2009 4:43 AMReply

    Cuyahoga, for instance, is one of the band's older songs that I thought was fairly clear in meaning, yet it left out yards of practical sense. I guess it is the style not to reveal too much in art, not to express the ideas behind the song's creation, and in some cases because the artist is not yet able to articulate that sense, and in part as a safety valve, a place to hide one's real thoughts, a good idea generally speaking, and also a cover for ego.

    In New Adventures, however, How the West was Won and Where it Got us, explains "Let's build a new country" why we need to build a new country, and why the "Cuyahoga" of this song, "western civilization," I mean, happened. It was an interesting concept, in Cuyahoga, that meaning dissolves, that meaning is not in things or places but in memory and presence, so to place that sort of concept on western civilization, that which, at the time of the song was a reality, is still a widely-held reality, but "How the West.." breaks through the charade, and each song on the album articulates the point further and guides us toward a place we can be, if we can't exist here. Which is an idea they continue to hash out in following albums. In New Adventures, for example, he sings, "Call me a Leper," if I am not accepted as I am, in this culture, showing how hateful the 'west' is and how much we need to be freed of its constructs.

  • Dr. Debbie | November 18, 2009 7:26 AMReply

    Thank you for a beautifully written, heartfelt review. I got the REM bug when I was holding my six month old, watching the band on "MTV Unplugged." I had been waiting to hear good music again ever since the Beatles split up in 1970. Thank goodness for the wonders of this band! Just like when I was a kid listening to the Beatles, I never know what REM will put out next, I just know it will be great!

  • GM | November 14, 2009 6:30 AMReply

    Tom. Beautifully written. You've pretty much described how I felt when I first heard the Accelerate album, a record I think is one of their finest. Looks like I'll have to check out LATO as well.

  • Greg McGarvey | November 14, 2009 12:25 AMReply


  • Bennett Summer | November 12, 2009 10:09 AMReply

    Beautifully written. I discovered R.E.M. when I was just twelve, six years ago, and was completely changed. I have often said that Michael Stipe is talking about me, that he knows exactly how I felt in different parts of my life. Their songs are a narration to different periods of my life and embodiments of my thoughts. Really, I can't say with any other band that they speak my soul but Nightswimming is pretty much a summary of who I am and why. No other band has touched me so deeply and changed me completely. Really enjoyed your article and I look forward to all of Stipe, Mills, and Buck's future works!

  • GB | November 11, 2009 1:08 AMReply

    I'm sure your article will strike a chord with many people. It sure did with me! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, it sums up so many things about why this band remains important and relevant (in my life at least!)

  • robyn johnson | November 7, 2009 7:11 AMReply

    oh tom! this makes me want to run straight to wyatt earp. r.e.m. was a seminal band for me also. thanks for writing this, off to the record store.