Friday, September 23, 2011

"There wasn't even time to say, Goodbye to R.E.M...."

September 21, 2011, 5:05 pm

I hadn't seen the news until late this afternoon; been busy today with an extensive project that, coincidentally, included writing a little bit about a side-project of R.E.M. Just three days ago, I'd posted to Facebook about Sept 18th marking 28 years since the first time I saw them play. (At the old Austin Opera House.)

Fair to say they changed my life in a pretty major way. My early experience is much like what others have recounted, in terms of hearing something in their music that started them down a new path. I think that's why they were such a big deal for a long while, and so influential -- because a whole lot of folks our age told that same story. They were largely responsible for my first giving a chance to music that was outside the mainstream.

They were my favorite band throughout the 1980s, with the possible exception of 10,000 Maniacs (who I discovered in part through R.E.M.) and the Austin band Zeitgeist (all of whom held R.E.M. in high esteem). Seemingly everyone I knew at the time placed them on a pedestal, sort of shared with the Replacements, but with an appreciation fully for the art of the music (whereas the Replacements' legend was partly tied to drunken antics, alongside some seriously great songs). A phone interview with Peter Buck for an Austin American-Statesman preview of their March 1989 Erwin Center concert was kind of a rite of passage for me; I'd probably never been so nervous for an interview, but he turned out to be really easy to talk to.

Fate intervened in the '90s. In the fall of 1991 I moved from Austin to Seattle, and, lo and behold, who shows up in town the following summer but R.E.M., doing some work at a local studio on what became Automatic For The People. Buck (recently divorced) fell in love with the city, and most specifically with the owner of the cool local nightclub, the Crocodile Cafe. He moved to Seattle, taking up residence in a house within shouting distance to Kurt & Courtney's place down the hill.

We ended up more or less in the same circle of friends, largely via Crocodile Cafe booker Scott McCaughey, who eventually was enlisted into R.E.M.'s lineup at the tail end of 1994. Sometime around then, a friend of mine named Gary Heffern decided to record a song I wrote on an album he was doing for a small German label; Gary had a way of enlisting anyone and everyone to play on his records, and so it was that Peter Buck ended up playing bouzouki on a song I wrote. (Still kinda freaks me out to this day.)

McCaughey's first tour with the band was in January 1995 in Australia. Realizing I could tag along for a few days and sleep on the floor in Scott's hotel room, I booked a flight to Sydney and caught the band's three shows there plus one in Adelaide. The last night in Sydney is the one I remember the most; we went to some seaside park late at night after the show, and Mike Mills was pointing out to everyone where the Southern Cross was in the sky. At some point, Bill Berry and I were tossing a frisbee back and forth on the grass, basking in the balmy January summer night on the other side of the world. I didn't really get a chance to know Bill but he sure seemed like a good guy; I was horrified when I heard about him collapsing onstage in Switzerland two months later and nearly dying from a brain aneurysm. I think he did the right thing by calling it quits shortly after that, but the band was never quite the same.

Our paths crossed in Vienna in the fall of 1998, where I caught them at a live-radio performance, but after I moved to North Carolina, I didn't see them again until they came through the Triangle in the fall of 2003. They had a day off in town the night before the show, so I met up with Scott and Peter for dinner in Chapel Hill. Knowing they were sometimes open to spontaneous guerrilla musical performances (particularly under the guise of the Minus 5, a side-project band Scott and Peter had formed a few years prior), I stopped by a tiny little Chapel Hill dive called the Cave and suggested to the band playing there that night (who happened to be friends of mine) that they might wanna leave their gear set up after they finished their set, just in case. Yep Roc's Tor Hansen and I dropped a few hints during the course of the evening, and sure enough, sometime past midnight, everyone strolls on down Franklin Street to the Cave, and a makeshift Minus 5 (with McCaughey, Buck, Mills, Pete Yorn, Ken Stringfellow and probably a couple others) proceeds to rock the joint till closing time. That was the talk of the town for all of one day, until it was superseded the next night when Bill Berry showed up at R.E.M.'s outdoor-arena gig and sat in for a song during the encore, his first turn in the drummer's chair with the band in seven years. (I think he played with them one other time since then, at a special event back home in Athens.)

The last R.E.M. show I saw was at a fitting place for my own personal history, I guess -- a taping of Austin City Limits three years ago during SXSW. Of late, I've been more likely to see Scott and Peter when they're touring with The Baseball Project, a terrific band that writes really cool songs about mostly obscure baseball players and historical events. (ESPN has championed them the past year or two, doing special promotions with them on their website.) I presume that both the Baseball Project and the Minus 5 will continue, and perhaps even step up the frequency of their performances, in light of this news. On the other hand, I wouldn't blame Peter or Scott for just deciding to take a break...but as long as I've known either of them, it's just never seemed to be in their nature.

So I'll raise a glass to R.E.M. tonight. Had they not come along, it's entirely possible I would have led a very different life.

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