I don’t think I’ve followed R.E.M. since the 1990’s—no new CDs or downloads, no concerts. When original drummer Bill Berry left the group in 1997, R.E.M. just wasn’t R.E.M. to me. But when the band announced yesterday that it would officially be calling it quits after 31 years, it still had an effect on me.
You see, R.E.M. was my band. As much as I love groups like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, they weren’t mine. They were handed down to me by previous generations—I wasn’t even alive during their true heydays. But I discovered R.E.M. on my own as an impressionable, music-obsessed kid—before the masses knew they existed. They belonged to an elite class of ‘80s bands that were mine in that sense—U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, Public Enemy. Even at that age, it was clear those guys had something “special” that distinguished them from most of the one-hit flavors of the month. They were the real deals. And there was a certain amount of pride I felt that I recognized their artistry before most other folks did. I still remember exactly where I was when I heard each of these guys for the first time.
And the first time I heard R.E.M. was one Saturday morning back in 1985. I was sitting in front of my TV watching local KROQ DJ Richard Blade’s weekly video countdown show and he introduced a new video by a rising band from Athens, Georgia of a song entitled “Cant Get There From Here”:
I was hooked. It’s hard to describe the allure of the song. It had a joyful, bouncy quality, but it isn’t what you’d describe as “commercial.” And seeing the members of the band in the video—Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry—they were definitely the anti-Duran Duran. There was nothing slick about them. They looked like the normal, if slightly scruffy, guys you’d see working at your local record store, listening to Patti Smith and reading Jack Kerouac. That was certainly part of their appeal—they didn’t seem pre-packaged like a lot of the music during that time. They were genuine.
I saved up my lunch money and bought their album “Fables of the Reconstruction” that following week and my love affair with the band began.
Flash forward to October 17, 1989. I am now at UC Santa Cruz, barely a few weeks into college when the 7.1 Loma Prieta Earthquake strikes with its epicenter just miles from the campus. The school survives largely intact, but the city of Santa Cruz is hit hard—much of the beloved downtown area is decimated. It’s surreal walking through the once vibrant downtown mall, which now resembled a war zone in some Third World nation.
R.E.M. is scheduled to perform a show at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View (just south of San Francisco) on October 21, 1989—just a few days after the quake. There’s talk that the concert will be cancelled, but R.E.M. announces that the show will go on. Tickets are sold-out, but on the morning of October 21, a couple of the girls in my dorm who have remained in school (many of the students went back home following the quake and didn’t return until classes resumed some days later) and I decide to drive up to Mountain View to see if we can scrounge up some tickets. The dorms are nearly empty and there’s a sense of uncertainty and fear in the air so a road trip seems like a good idea to relieve the stress.
We make the drive up after lunch, walk up to the box office to see if any “legit” tickets are available before we try the scalpers and, lo and behold, a bunch of tickets have just been released. We purchase three at $20 a pop and realize the tickets are for seats in the front row, smack dab in the center (advice for concert-goers: if a show is sold-out and you hear that additional seats have become available on the day of the performance, it is almost always front row seats.).
So here we were—the best seats in the house, alongside 22,000 of our fellow Bay Area neighbors days after a major natural disaster—most of us wanting to forget the difficulties of the past few days and just have fun. And the band provided that, but also a lot more.
They took the stage and immediately went into their single “Stand,” which set the tone for the whole night.
It was clear from the first chords of the song that R.E.M. weren’t going to let us forget the difficulties of the past few days. They were going to confront what happened head on and they were going to take us along with them. This version of “Stand” was both more defiant and celebratory than the version on their album. The band was telling us that they were here and were going to stand with us during this tough time and asked all of us to join them. For the next two hours, we were going to be a community. We were going to acknowledge our losses together as a community, but more importantly, we were going to find strength and comfort together as a community. In this context, the lyrics of the song took on a whole new dimension:
Stand in the place where you live/Now face north/Think about direction/Wonder why you haven’t before
The band talked about the quake and about their love for the Bay Area during their set, but I don’t really remember what they said. What I remember is the music and how it made us feel. Songs that I had listened to countless times suddenly took on a new meaning that night: “The One I Love,” “I Remember California,” “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”—it was as if I were listening to them for the first time; it was as if the group had written these songs specifically for us in the wake of the earthquake. They made the songs feel that relevant and that specific.
And when the band came out for their encore at the end of the evening and went into a haunting, stripped-down, acoustic version of “Fall on Me” while all 22,000 people in the audience sang along–many in tears–it was an amazing moment of solidarity and emotion.
It was one of those moments when all the clichés you’ve heard about how art can make a difference in our lives and heal us, blah, blah, blah, felt absolutely true. R.E.M. gave all of us in that audience a special gift. They gave us hope and optimism and joy and, most of all, a feeling of community—we were in this together and we were going to make it through together. I’ll never forget how I felt that night. And for that I will always be grateful.