Secret Pop

Oct 30, 2003

The Bad Pocket

Josh took me to a somewhat secret, last-minute R.E.M. concert at the Avalon tonight. It's a very little theater (that used to be the Hollywood Palace), and it was a rare-ish opportunity to see the band in such intimate quarters. We got there early, and had to stand on the floor -- staking out our spots -- for a good two hours before the band came on. That had its taxing moments. But we also had no idea we would be sandwiched between a pair of rude, middle-aged jerks in front of us (both of whom were taller than us and one of whom was wearing a Dickensian top hat [and, no, he wasn't Tim Burton, so I can hardly think of a reason for such fashion buffoonery] that he overheard us expressing concern over and snidely told us he would take off when the show started, as opposed to standing there, teaching some of us what it might be like to listen to Michael Stipe singing from behind a statue of Abraham Lincoln -- P.S. He never took off the hat) and a pair of overdrunk, overgrown former frat boys behind us who sang at the top of their lungs, knew the words to nearly all of the songs, and when they didn't know the words, yelled "Woo!" at piercing levels. And when I say they were former frat boys, I just mean they probably sell pagers for a living now. One thing interesting to note about the two singers was that -- gorillas though they were -- even they seemed to grasp that the refrain of a song comes around again. So, when the band played a song they couldn't possibly know the words to yet (owing to the fact that it was written yesterday in some cases), they still managed to catch on to the refrain and sing along at those parts, too. And they sang loudly. As if they were in a church choir singing R.E.M. songs for Jesus. I say this because, in many church choirs, singing badly is seldom frowned on as long as you're doing it for the man upstairs. Then, the more you suck, the more moved people are. They claim that you're "filled with the spirit" as opposed to "lousy" or "cursed with a foul throatbox" or "tone deaf." These guys were actually not singing off-key, but they sang so loudly and so persistently that it wasn't until more than an hour into the show, when intolerable back pain prodded me to go to the back of the room and sit on the edge of a raised booth (where Catherine Keener was sitting -- her hair looked very over-processed, but she was playing air drums in her lap) for the last few encore songs, that I could actually hear Michael Stipe's voice at all. They even belted out the ballads. And when they weren't belting, they were crying out their "Woo!"s and triumphantly announcing to each other that the worldwide radio listening audience just heard them. How sad that is. That any pleasure could be gained from standing out on a radio simulcast as that asshole who yelled just there. During the quiet part of the song. When everyone else was remembering a break-up or where they were in 1991. Or when Michael Stipe was taking a breath. When the band played Losing My Religion and Peter Buck's mandolin solo arrived, the two dudes let out long gasping "Woo!"s that made it impossible to hear what he was playing. And seeing me put my fingers in my ears at the end of every song in preparation for the ensuing "Woo!"s did not deter them. The short, fat one even yelled out "Go Pete!" at one point. As if Peter Buck was competing in a swim meet.

Josh and I had earlier exchanged dubious glances when we realized that there were "winners" there from the local Star! radio station. We wondered if we are actually very uncool to want to go to a concert that Star! would be enthusiastic about. I rationalized that Star! plays all "popular" music. Even some good stuff. So we braved on. But it's clear that the people we were standing next to would have been just as at home in Margaritaville as they were in our company. I even whispered to Josh wryly, "They must think they're at a Jimmy Buffett concert." It seemed possible. Has Jimmy Buffett by any chance ever covered all of R.E.M.'s songs? I wouldn't be surprised.

I guess the other culprit for the overall sense of fizzle was the sound at the Avalon. I just don't think it was powerful enough. Had it been louder, I might not have been able to hear the karaoke twins' renditions. And when I call them twins, I should let you know that I don't think they were related at all -- they were more like the two guys in the cartoon who get stranded on a desert island and one thinks the tall, thin one is a hot dog and the other thinks the short, fat one is a hamburger. I would still have been able to feel the tall one's breath on my scalp every time he aspirated a lyric beginning with "b" or "p." Gross. I feel like I need to wash my head. But, yeah, it could have been much, much louder without having done any harm. Josh and I both noted that the mix was sort of dull and flat. The instruments were non-distinct and the vocals could have stood at least two or three more servings of juice.

Years ago, like in the early '90s, my sister was dating a fellow who woke up one day in a panic having dreamed that R.E.M. had all died. Their tour bus had been in an accident or something like that. And it took some convincing to get him to believe that he had dreamed it and that they were all still alive and well. For weeks and months afterwards. He wasn't completely sure. I sometimes think of that story, which became the stuff of an inside joke for all of us for years to come, when R.E.M. is the subject of conversation or when a song of theirs is playing. It's strange how things like that hang on. And then there are the other things that are true that you sometimes become convinced you only dreamed. All very confusing.

So, the band not being dead after all, it's a shame that this event wasn't more of a coup. Josh got our tickets from some special phone number published by the R.E.M. Fan Club and by the time I called back to try to get an extra ticket for Krissy, the number had been changed to an unpublished number. I understand people were selling these very hard-to-get tickets for huge sums on eBay. I don't wish I hadn't gone, but it's just a shame it wasn't a more majestic evening. I thought about the first time I heard R.E.M., which was nearly 20 years ago, when a cool girl I met at the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., named Pauline Chiou told me they were her favorite band, so I looked for them. I think I saw them perform on Late Night with David Letterman before I actually bought their record. Pauline also introduced me to Joan Armatrading by sending me a cassette copy of the wonderful album The Key. So double points for her. She was a bona fide savant in the hip music department. Which reminds me, I was at the gym today, reading the closed captioning on VH-1's I Love the 80s Strikes Back (WHILE I was on the elliptical trainer -- not just sitting there reading), and David Lee Roth was talking about that strange period when KISS took off their make-up. You know, when Lick It Up came out and we all got to see that Gene Simmons was (as was pointed out on the same VH-1 program by that guy who played Johnny Bluejeans on that show Viva Variety!) just a very, very ugly Jewish man. David Lee Roth said that they removed the make-up to "bonafy" themselves. And even though I place this word in quotes, because it's what he said, I assure you that it is not a word. It's David Lee's clumsy verb-ification of the phrase bona fide, as if it was really the past tense of something. He followed this comment by making a bad pun using the word "veil." I don't think this is important for you to know or remember, but I do think it's a good idea to point out mistakes made by David Lee Roth whenever they present themselves. It will limit his influence and protect our youth. So I am vigilant. Wait, though, this paragraph started in an attempt to acknowledge that this band has been making music for over 20 years. That's stunning to me. Imagine getting to do the thing you love and being paid heaps for it and being followed by throngs of devoted fans -- albeit some of them intolerable boobs -- and having it go on and on and on like that. Lucky bastards.

But you're probably still stuck on the fact that I competed in the National Spelling Bee as a child. Well, believe it. It's true. I was the contestant from Guam. And, after I'd been eliminated, when I was in our room at the Capitol Hilton by myself, I tried to watch little snatches of a rated "R" movie -- I think it was Spring Break or Hot Dog -- so that I could see nudity but not have it show up on the room bill. If my mom was ever the wiser, she never let on.

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