"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Dreading R.E.M. 

Twenty years ago, I first saw R.E.M. perform at a dingy dinner theater here in Seattle that has since been demolished and replaced with a parking lot. Michael Stipe was in a cast - the consequence of having stepped on a venomous fish a few days earlier, we were told - and Pete Buck played like a madman. This Friday night, I will see them again - for the 7th or 8th time, if I remember correctly - at Seattle's newly refurbished opera house, Marion O. McCaw Hall. I am anxious about the prospect, the same way one might be anxious about seeing an old girlfriend who has fallen on hard times but remains inexplicably alluring.

In 1986, I bought Life's Rich Pageant (still my favorite) the day it was released; I listened to it three times before dinner that night. Incidentally, that's more listenings than I have given to R.E.M.'s last three albums combined. I never made it all the way through either Up or Reveal, and I am just this minute getting around to listening to the latest offering, Around the Sun. My initial impression (I'm currently on track 10) is lukewarm at best. I am more likely to go back to Reckoning, or Document, or even Green or (no fooling!) New Adventures in Hi-Fi than put this record in the player again. Just because you write one sorta-decent song, that doesn't give you the right to record 13 (barely) different versions of it and call the result an album.

Still, I will be at the show Friday night, and I will be glad for it. I always enjoy watching Pete Buck play, and I get a kick out of hearing Mike Mills try to sing. And it's good to see old homeboys Ken Stringfellow and Scott McCaughey (late of the Posies and the Young Fresh Fellows, respectively) any time I can. The reviews so far suggest that the band is not shy about mining its catalog on this tour, with at least three gems from the aforementioned Pageant - "Begin the Begin," "Superman," and the startingly lovely "Cuyahoga" - showing up from time to time. The times being what they are, we might even get "Exhuming McCarthy" or "Little America" - who knows? I expect to be entertained, but I do not expect to be wowed. Which is sad, because at one time I would not only have expected it, I would have counted on it.

Which leads me to wonder: How does it happen that a band could once have been so important to me, but now seem so inconsequential? Have they gotten old, or have I? Is the fault in our (rock) stars, or in ourselves? Will I ever again feel the chills I felt in that decrepit old dinner theater, when Michael Stipe made Lou Reed's "Pale Blue Eyes" sound like something he himself had written? Will I ever again have my breath taken away, as it was in 1985 when I saw R.E.M. open their set with an angry, blistering version of "Feeling Gravity's Pull"? Sitting here today, it seems unlikely. And damn it, it's not fair. It's inevitable, it's predictable, but it's not fair.

But - I hear that McCaw Hall is very nice. A proper, civilized space, just right for old folks to sit quietly and listen respectfully to dusty old songs. I'm looking forward to seeing the place; I'm sure it will be grand.




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