Friday, September 23, 2011

A Perfect Circle: Goodbye R.E.M.

The Variety Theater
Photo courtesy of The Variety Theater.
It’s fitting that the person who introduced me to R.E.M. is the same one who told me that after 31 years together, they’d called it quits.  I remember very distinctly that I was reluctant to go see them when they came through Cleveland in 1984 (July 10, to be precise; Dream Syndicate opened) – I don’t remember why – but my friend convinced me to go.  They performed at The Variety Theater, a small venue on Lorain Avenue that had seen better days.  There were lots of empty seats at the back of the theater and the bands’ friends and girlfriends sold t-shirts near the lobby.  Michael Stipe hadn’t yet created his stage persona and he merely stood behind the microphone, clutching the stand, looking as if he was trying hard to pretend the audience wasn’t out there.  He wore a white button-down shirt and his face and long curly hair were softened and blued by the stage lights.  The combination of his obscure (and hard to understand) lyrics and rich voice with a touch of the south pulled us into a small, intimate circle.  He was mesmerizing.  By the time the show ended, I was hooked.  Like patients slowly coming out of the ether, my friends and I sat in the car afterwards listening to Murmur, reluctant to shake the spell.

Worse for the wear: Part of a record store
poster for Reckoning, their second album.
Photo courtesy of moi, poster courtesy of L.
I listened to them practically non-stop from that point on.  I collected interviews and articles, clipped photos, wasted hours in front of MTV hoping to see their videos and even developed a small cottage industry around my obsession - creating pen and ink portraits of Stipe (with a loyal customer base of one).  If I sound like a 1960s teenager in the throes of Beatlemania, that wouldn’t be too far off. (Understandable at my age, but the older and ostensibly more rational felt the same way.   A music critic wrote in a review of Murmur that angels in heaven wouldn’t be strumming harps, they’d be playing R.E.M. songs on Rickenbacker guitars.).  R.E.M. was the dominant band on my personal Generation X soundtrack.  Through them I learned about Patti Smith, Athens, Georgia and the folk artist, Reverend Howard Finster.  I saw R.E.M. another six times and (through the same intrepid friend) met them backstage at another Cleveland concert (1985; The Three O’Clock opened).  I still have the album cover with their signatures.

I carried my love for R.E.M. to college with me – Chronic Town is inextricably linked with my freshman year, windows wide to let in the warm late summer nights and an overworked small radio/tape player splattered with oil paint.  I sought out local bands that covered their songs.  I found another benefactor to buy my R.E.M.-related artwork and hitched a ride with a guy named Blaze to see them at the Taft Theater in Cincinnati in 1986 (Fetchin’ Bones opened).  As thanks I gave him the trampled $20 bill I found on the floor after the show. 

Michael Stipe, Miami Univ., OH
Photo courtesy of Kristin Foster.
The blush began to retreat slightly from the rose during my senior year when R.E.M. came to my university.  It’s not that I wasn’t thrilled they would perform there, I was just saddened that they’d gone mainstream – they had to have if they were including my pink-and-mint-green, preppy university on their tour schedule.  I didn’t even join my friends sleeping in line the night before tickets went on sale (but I did get a ticket nevertheless…).  And when a fellow classmate appeared on stage next to Stipe, signing to King of Birds, I was thoroughly hurt and offended.  You bet your sweet bippy I was jealous!  It should’ve been me up there except for the fact that I didn’t know sign language and as a shy and inept teenager, I wouldn’t have had a clue as to how to end up on stage anyway.

As the years passed, R.E.M. inevitably toyed with their signature sound just enough to alienate me – committing the ultimate unpardonable betrayal of favorite band to loyal fan who was “with them from the beginning.”  Additionally, I wasn’t interested in knowing their politics or hearing which celebrities they were mingling with at parties.  I guess I got stuck back in 1984: the indecipherable lyrics; the shy, curly-haired singer with the gentle voice, the sweet hope of friends selling band t-shirts on a fold-up table and the sound of “Perfect Circle” playing through the speakers of a darkened car on a July night in the parking lot of The Variety Theater.

(Goodbye R.E.M…and thanks to L for bringing me to them.)


  1. Ahhhhhhhhh my dear friend, I just love you to pieces! Giggled thru this while being transported back to those awkward, dorky years so filled with passion (and bad accents). Off to download me some Murmur and Dream Syndicate. Well done!

  2. Olive, you turned me on to REM freshman year at Miami! i'm forever grateful for that. Once i was introduced i was forever hooked! A huge highlight of my college days was camping overnight for REM tix. So fun (sorry, but it was!). I am so sad. But so grateful to have had 25 years of REM (and 3 concerts, not sure who opened!). K

  3. nice. I wondered what you thought of their announcement this week. I always think of you when I think of rem - I had never heard of them until you played their music for me in the fall of '86. you made me a cassette tape before I left for europe at the end of that year - I can still picture your ballpoint all caps label - R E M - I'm sure that tape's still around, stored in a box with other mementos in the third floor studio of bruce's building in cincinnati. I liked the music back then, but mostly enjoyed it because it reminded me of you, while I was traipsing around far away. of course I had no means to play it while I was traveling, but I could look at the tape - and I can remember being stunned one night, while in rave club in amsterdam around 4am, to hear the dj play an rem song - I'd always thought of them as an obscure band from georgia that only you knew about, and hearing them in that alien environment seemed like a little piece of home suddenly appearing to offer me reassurance. I haven't really kept track of them for years - if I ever really did, so the news that seemed to surprise so many others this week, surprised me only because I thought they'd "left the party" years ago - although, I guess I was the one who'd left, and hadn't noticed that they'd stayed on... my only other real recollection related to rem is when a year or so later a friend went to an rem show - probably that same one that you didn't do the signing for - and somehow talked her way onto the band's bus and disappeared for most of a week... when she finally reappeared she had some good stories about her foray into the land of groupies and to prove she hadn't forgotten me, she'd swiped a pouch of michael stipe's drum tobacco for me, she was intrigued that we both smoked the same brand... I smoked the drum, appreciating her intentional and michael stipe's unintentional generosity, but when I put that cassette into the player, I mostly thought of you.

  4. After 26 years, I finally (this morning!) took that ratty Reckoning poster in to get framed. The woman behind the counter looked at it, looked at me and said: "31 years." She was into R.E.M. as well.


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