R.E.M. was my second rock concert. My first was a Sunday afternoon punk show at a small club in downtown Dayton, OH. All I remember was the first band on the bill was called Sunken Giraffe. My friends and I saw them again at a different sort of concert. Turns out they were members of another local school's marching band. Their drummer, Tyler Trent, went on to play with the late, lamented Brainiac. What happened to the rest of Sunken Giraffe I don't know.
To get to the R.E.M. show required a fair amount of navigation. My friends–Bryce, Adam, Renee, and Jackie–I had to show up at our nearest Ticketmaster outlet the Saturday morning tickets went on sale. This was a stand that sold lotto tickets and magazines at our since-razed local mall. (For some reason we all went. This was a big deal.)
We, or at least I, had to convince my parents that this would be a safe show. That it was at the same venue where a stampede left 11 fans of The Who dead in 1979 didn't help. (For the longest time that event linked The Who in my mind to dangerous, probably satanic bands like Motley Crüe, Ratt, and Wasp.) It also required getting a ride. We were all 16 but not allowed to drive the 60 miles to Cincinnati, especially at night. Thankfully, Adam's father volunteered for the job.
The opening act was a duo called the Indigo Girls. They played acoustic guitars at a volume that filled the coliseum and left the crowd impressed and ready to buy their still-unreleased self-titled second album. I never did and I came to dread the Indigo Girls and the shrill polemics that would become their bread and butter. But it all worked for that set.
I considered myself a pretty big R.E.M. fan going in, although I don't think I owned any of their albums before Document. I knew the "hits" from Eponymous and I knew Document and the then-new Green very well.
We watched the band from a considerable distance and while I'd love to write about that night as a revelation, it wasn't. I was too far away to get the full impact of the music and too distracted by merely being at a real rock concert. And while I think we all left convincing ourselves it was a great experience, it felt like more the impression of a great experience. The band had cool abstract films playing behind them and, looking at the setlist at R.E.M. timeline, I now see that they pulled together a diverse set from throughout their career. (The site also confirms my memory that Stipe launched into a rendition of Gershwin's "Summertime" near the end of the show.) I could tell they were good. And I knew I had to get more R.E.M. albums, if only to hear that "Cuyahoga" song again. If I wasn't hooked before, they had me now. Hours spent taping live performances off of Saturday Night Live and MTV Unplugged, record store sessions looking for b-sides and CD singles with live tracks, and money spent on mail-order bootlegs would follow.
It wasn't until I saw Tourfilm a few years later that I got a good look at how strange Stipe looked on this tour, with his raccoon mascara and close-cropped hair on the side of that gave way to a weird braid in the back. In some ways I was only seeing what I wanted at the time. At 16 I saw R.E.M. as the summation of everything I wanted from a rock band: They had great songs, mysterious lyrics, and all the right politics and though they were hardly obscure they still felt like a shared secret. They also felt like part of a rising tide. Any generation that grew up listening to R.E.M. was obviously going to stop abusing the earth and supporting stupid right wing politicians. Obviously.
Later years proved both that there was more and less to the band than I thought at the time. R.E.M. made some less-than-stellar albums (most of which are better than their reputations.) R.E.M. listeners didn't, it turns out, save the world (though maybe there's time). They're just a band. We're just fans. In that moment, however, I didn't see any of that. But I also couldn't fathom that a band would still be a part of my life 19 years later, not so much because I didn't think they'd be around but because I couldn't conceive of 2008. But here we are all together again.