I admit it: when I heard about R.E.M.’s recent official breakup, my first thought wasn’t about all the great records we’ll never hear. Though Accelerate had its moments, I jumped off the bus after Automatic For the People. I’m sure I’m not alone. However, to the extent R.E.M. was a huge part of my younger years and musical development, I couldn’t help but feel melancholy about it. Still, it provides an opportunity to give their back catalog a fresh listen.
Between 1983 and 1987, R.E.M. played at Rutgers University three times. I missed their first show in 1983 (the tale of which I told here), but I saw the other two. Recently I found a copy of R.E.M.’s last Rutgers show online. It was at the Louis Brown Athletic Center on Livingston College on Thursday, October 23, 1987. Here is the set list (scroll down). And here is what I wrote about it for Writer’s Block #3 in the summer of 1988:
“Mostly I kept thinking of the first time I saw R.E.M. at an outdoor show during the Preconstruction Tour – so inspired, so full of life, and I left thinking that this was the greatest thing I had ever seen. Here, the crowd sucked and the band was undistinguished, although never really boring. I kept waiting for even a fraction of the spark that energized that first time. It never happened. Sonic Youth played the campus the next night to a way smaller crowd…a more apt contrast there couldn’t be.”
Pardon me as I sit here and marvel at just how arrogant and jaded I was in college. Here was R.E.M. on the friggin’ Work Tour – their last stop before the Green/Out of Time flourishing of superstardom, and just a few thousand feet from my dorm room in the Quads. And all I could say was “meh?”
While not quite the spiritual experience that the Preconstruction show was, R.E.M. in 1987 was still amazing. Listening to these MP3s, I’m struck by just how solid they were. Michael Stipe made even this large arena show feel spontaneous by changing song structures – for instance, starting “Driver 8″ and “The One I Love” by himself, with the band coming in for the first choruses. And the crowd may have been a typical collegiate throng, but given the band onstage, it should have been easier to just ignore them.
I actually covered the show for the Targum, managing to wangle myself an All Access pass. Wandering around in a corner of the gym post-encore, I realized for the first time just how boring and awkward backstages can be. Eventually the band came out, and I got to speak to Stipe and Bill Berry for a minute or two apiece. Berry was about as cool and laid-back as you’d expect, cracking jokes and taking everything in stride. I asked Stipe if he had a message for the Rutgers student body (a question I would never ask now). He took a scrap of paper and wrote:
CHALLENGE YOURSELF BEFORE YOU CHALLENGE OTHERS
It hung on my bulletin board for years. I’ve tried to follow that advice, albeit mostly failing in the process.
Here are three recordings from that show.
R.E.M.: “Midnight Blue” (Live 10/23/87)
This is one of my all-time vivid concert memories. In the middle of covering this Lou Gramm hit single, Stipe was hit in the head with a glowstick. You can hear the exact moment it happens on this MP3. He then spends an entire verse chastising the thrower. The thunderous applause that followed is heartwarming and hilarious to hear now. I hope the thrower still feels bad about his action (because you know it was a him). Amazingly, the band actually did come out for another encore, though it did take them 10 minutes.
R.E.M.: “It’s The End of The World As We Know It” (Live 10/23/87)
This has never been my favorite R.E.M. recording, but it was stunning live. At this show, Stipe started out with a string of oblique references to current events (hear the crowd give it up for the quality of NJ water!), then the four drum rolls, and the effect is electrifying. Just listen to the way the audience shouts along on the last verse. Such a moving moment.
R.E.M.: “Exhuming McCarthy” (Live 10/23/87)
Always liked this one. Probably the first time I ever heard the word “realpolitik.” (They also introduced me to the word “kiosk” a few albums earlier.)
R.E.M.: “Can’t Get There From Here” (Live 4/28/85)
Breaking news – I finally found a torrent of the ’85 Busch College Center set. Note the screams of surprise and excitement during the second chorus and at the end. Remember, we’d never heard this song before.