In which I ponder the virtues of not playing to the room
Lately I’ve stumbled upon a wealth of bootlegs (audio and video) of early R.E.M. shows. As the kids say, it’s giving me life. This owes partly to the sheer volume of the catalogue: there are so many songs, some popping up years before appearing on any album, and if you compare them to what’s on record you will find most of them musically (and sometimes lyrically) intact. Precious few groups have sustained such a consistent sound over their careers. If they’ve been a fixture in your life for as long as you can remember, like in my case, this half-buried stuff makes for an impressive listen.
But the video footage is a joy all its own. Two performances stick out: the first from 9 June 1984 at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ, a venue which boasts a great deal of concert footage (my personal favorite is from Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ 1978 tour, but that’s another post); the second from 2 October 1985 at a small venue in Germany (I think near Munich)—as Michael Stipe tells the crowd, “We’ve never been here before and we’re not quite sure where we are.”
This is one of perhaps five full sentences he says, outside the context of a song, in an hour-and-a-half set with two encores. Only after ten minutes does he say “hi.” And it got me thinking.
What makes a successful performer? What does an audience want from them? Are they meant to play to the room, ultra-aware of being watched and listened to, or to retreat into their own expressive space as if no one is watching or listening?
My experience suggests that it is up to the performer. But R.E.M. seem to defy categorization here—among other categories—due to their duality. These performances exude energy and effort while maintaining a decidedly antisocial air. Once the quartet establish a vibe, they lose themselves in it; and yet there’s a pervasive sense of concentration, of heads firmly on shoulders. These are not guys who are about to go crazy for crazy’s sake. Everything is intentional. It’s strange, and thrilling, to observe.
Their onstage arrangement has essentially never varied from show to show. None of them spends a tremendous amount of time looking at the audience. Bill Berry probably does this the most, positioned as he is behind his drum kit, although even he seems to mostly focus on his three bandmates lined up in front of him. Mike Mills and Peter Buck, stationed at opposite ends of the stage, are constantly exchanging glances; and Buck’s tendency to travel from one side to the other affords the pair regular opportunities to check their synchronization. Buck is the most obviously energetic, jumping and bounding to and fro in a manner closest to that of a conventional rock star (you can tell he was educated in the school of the Kinks’ Dave Davies). Even so, he is usually looking down at his guitar or around the stage at whomever he is taking his next cue from.
Similarly, Mills divides the majority of his attention between his bass and his microphone. And here it bears pointing out that Mike Mills is perhaps the hardest-working backing vocalist in rock & roll history. His vocal lines, like his basslines, are wide-ranging and complex, providing a harmonic counterpoint to Stipe’s vocal lines—and often (at least in this period of their creative work) featuring different lyrics, which creates a disorienting but undeniably pleasing effect. The parts he sings are clearly composed sensitively, the perfect vehicles for his voice; and it’s a great voice, with a quality and timbre which manage to complement Stipe’s wonderfully. (I learned recently that his father, Frank Mills, was an operatic tenor, so there’s some perspective.) And for all the coordinating he has to do onstage, as these shows tell us, he presents a relatively mellow front.
(Mills, I will note, is also a diplomat. At the finish of the Capitol Theatre show, where Stipe says “bye” and walks off, Mills acknowledges the crowd and gets a fresh wave of enthusiasm in response…and after having just been jamming down in the front row to round out their final number, which I’ll mention in a bit. The crowd goes wild. Well, when your heroes up onstage are not the pandering type, you’ll take what you can get.)
Stipe, meanwhile, unsurprisingly demonstrates the least interest of all in putting on an easily-interpreted persona. He sways on his feet, he rocks back and forth, he hangs on his mic stand like he needs it to live. (At the Capitol Theatre show, he also has a lot of very curly hair, which helps to accomplish his goal for him; by the end of the next year he’s cut it short, so he finds other ways of distancing himself.) When he does look out, it’s frequently accompanied by some idiosyncratic dancing (see “Harborcoat” early in the Germany show; by the Green tour there would be more where that came from). During one encore in Germany, he actually descends into the crowd, although he spends most of that time leaning on the barricades staring over their heads, all while being close enough for them to touch him. The pinnacle of detachment.
But oftentimes he faces the wings or even upstage. This can’t be without purpose: as the editor of the German footage astutely explains, his costume for that show consists of a jacket with a photo of “Ronald McDonald” (Reagan) taped to its back, “most likely in protest of U.S. deployment of Intermediate Nuclear Force systems in West Germany, Italy, and the UK in 1984.” It makes sense that he would want the German crowd to get a good look at it, which would require him to turn away. (I don’t understand most of his wardrobe choices, but then have I ever understood anything about him? The man is an enigma.) And this was in the years before the band’s material became overtly political, so it speaks volumes.
What really strikes me about Stipe here are these unique ways of communicating the urgency of his messages, because they are in fact urgent. That said, it’s probably little wonder that his best and most reliable means of this communication is his voice. Despite his unassuming demeanor and his stumbling around, despite the fact that his lyrics are still largely unintelligible in addition to being inscrutable—or maybe because of all these components—he sounds like a particularly gifted town crier, with a power and a persistence and an ability to reach his listeners which have rendered him peerless. It’s funny, honestly, to see this voice encapsulated in this personality.
One indication of the group’s self-containment is their willingness to get in each other’s spaces. Aside from the itinerant Buck—who, during the Germany show, runs over to split his rare backing vocal with Mills–Stipe visits Mills’s corner and Berry’s domain in back, almost always dragging his mic stand along. They are continuously checking in with one another, continuously engaging one another. At any given moment, someone is moving; just one of the ways that it’s difficult to pin any of them down.
From a musical standpoint, for as many of their own songs as they play, they don’t shy away from covers; but even these seem bizarre. Staples of their mid-’80s shows include two Velvet Underground songs, “Femme Fatale” and “Pale Blue Eyes.” While it’s been famously said that not many people bought the Velvets’ seminal album but everyone who did went and formed a band, I found it odd to take material I associated with Lou Reed—known for his dry, minimum-effort vocal style—and hear it through Stipe, whose vocal style can never sound any less than wholly invested. A late-1984 show in Yokohama, Japan, ends with “Femme Fatale,” and it’s positively disarming to hear him: high, hollow, vulnerable. (It may be the only time I believed him when he sang about a woman, but I digress.) Meanwhile, the Capitol Theatre show’s encore features guest appearances from Roger McGuinn (playing “So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star”) and John Sebastian (playing “Do You Believe in Magic?”) before they all top it off with Them’s “Gloria.” And the Germany show ends with a version of “Paint It, Black,” which—notwithstanding the irony of this appropriation by a band whose stage presence is everything the Stones’ isn’t—lyrically comprises about a third of the original.
It’s eclectic, to say the least. It goes to show the vast number of influences R.E.M. drew from. No wonder they sound so intelligent; they really did their homework.
As human beings, we’re predisposed to desire the unavailable. Which makes these methods catnip to onlookers whose interest is already piqued. But I was amazed, as I watched, by the balance they maintain. They walk a fine line between accessible and inaccessible. They’re here to put on a good show, but they’re not here for you. You just happen to be a witness to said good show. You’re incidental.
In a year we’ve spent celebrating entertainers like Elton John and Freddie Mercury—true showmen and masters of their craft—it’s worth meditating on the legitimacy of the polar-opposite approach. It’s okay not to be a show pony. In fact it’s clearly possible to succeed while, if not ignoring your audience, being so absorbed in the act of collective performance that it becomes almost exhibitionist.
My start in dance classes and school choir taught me that performing was synonymous with…well, facing the people who were there to see me. By the time I got into theatre at age nine, the principles of enunciating and cheating out were second nature. The idea that anyone could turn their back on these principles (pun intended) and be equally, if not more, compelling was anathema to me for a long time. Since then, it’s safe to say, my horizons have been wildly expanded. Depending on the image you aim to present, sometimes disengaging from the crowd is for their (and your) own good.
So next time you find yourself itching to explore a new corner of the Internet, consider the vintage R.E.M. rabbit-hole. (On second thought, it’s more like a well: it hits you really hard and there’s a lot of echo.) It will remind you that some things are still beautiful.
Happy 61st birthday to Mike Mills (and 63rd to Peter Buck, which was 6 December)!
Image: cover of the LP released by the Bad Joker label