I saw R.E.M. for the first time the night I graduated high school; they were opening for the Gang of Four at a club in Mount Vernon, NY, called the Left Bank. (It used to be a bank. You get it.) The thing about the Left Bank is that because it wasn’t in New York City my parents were somehow okay with me going there, which made it a lot easier on me because I didn’t have to engage in elaborate subterfuges to go out. I could just tell them I was going to the Left Bank.
Mount Vernon was closer, and at the time safer, than going to a club in New Haven, which was the next civilized outpost from the town of Stamford, Connecticut, where we moved to when I was 10 and which was (and still is!) a vast wasteland devoid of anything worthwhile or interesting. New York City was 45 minutes on the train and probably close to that if you drove. Which, of course, I never did. Certainly I would have never done so without my parent’s explicit permission.
The attraction for me was the Gang of Four. I didn’t know R.E.M. were opening until I got there and then felt very au courant that I knew who the opening act was, had heard their music, and was interested in seeing them, instead of occupying time while whatever crappy local band got their 20 minutes. I can still see them on the tiny stage, Michael almost falling over, Peter whirling like a dervish. Michael’s pants were precariously attired on his body and I remember Peter coming over to the front and asking if anyone had a belt he could borrow.
It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t anything I had ever seen or felt before, but it also felt … sympatico. They were speaking a language I understood at an elemental level. This feeling would, over the years, grow into a relentless pursuit that sent me running up and down the Eastern Seaboard seeing the band, which led to me starting the first R.E.M. fanzine, radio free europe (I swear I will scan those very very soon and put them online), and all sorts of other hijinks along the way, the favorite of which was when a END CONSTRUCTION sign was appropriated along the way and turned into END RECONSTRUCTION; said sign was then handed off to the road crew who brought it out onstage at the very last show of the Fables of the Reconstruction tour. (I tried to locate this image but have not gotten to those boxes yet. Sorry.)
Let us fast forward many years later. It is the 1990s and I am living in Tel Aviv, Israel, where I am the Label Manager for Warner Brothers Records. Out of Time is the new record from R.E.M., a band who had, prior to Green, probably sold about 500 records total within the territory. (Keep in mind that a gold record at the time was only 20,000 records. It’s a small country.) You can believe that I planned the shit out of this release, despite nonstop reminders that they were not popular.
I was good at my job, I knew that tastes were changing, and I liked the record. It was also my job to promote the priorities of my label in my territory. I also did not think I was wrong.
Y’all. Not only did I promote the shit out of this record, the media response and the sales of the album was enough to get Warner Brothers to suggest to the band that it would be worth their while to visit Israel on their European promotional tour. Bands barely came to Israel on tour back then; they did not schlep to the Middle East on promotional tours. And yet, there I was one night at the airport waiting for Peter Buck and Mike Mills to get off the plane. I was feeling pretty good about life at that moment. The thought that ran through my head was Patti Smith’s “We created it / now take it over” exhortation; the kids who were crazy about the next wave of music 10 years earlier were now out here pushing it forward. It was very personal; it was also the very thing I was paid to do.
They did radio. They did television. They talked to pretty much every journalist that was worth talking to. At some point along the way, I told Peter and Mike the story about how no one called “Losing My Religion” by its actual name. At the time, I used to help out my friend Liron who DJ’d at a local club, and I mentioned to him one night that I couldn’t believe that no one came over and requested the song, which had been at number one for a few weeks already. “Oh, they do,” he said. “But they don’t know what it’s called. They come over and ask for ‘O life’.”
If you have the Automatic For The People 25th Anniversary box set or are a fan of recordings of illicit origin, you may have listened to the live recording from November of 1992 at the 40 Watt in Athens, GA. During that show, Mike Mills introduces “Losing My Religion” with an abbreviated version of this story, and explained that it became their motto whenever something happened during their trip: “O life.”
“And so now, for you,” Mike finishes the story, “O life,” the audience says back to him.
A very good friend was at that particular show and I walked into work the next morning to a long hysterical fax (it was the 90s, cmon) with the setlist and next to “Losing My Religion” saw it said “STORY ABOUT CARYN.” I called and woke her up, demanding details. She was able to tell me that the band recorded the show and I either found it in London or one of the local record stores ordered it, because now R.E.M. did sell records in Israel—OOT went gold, as did A4TP — and I sat at home, headphones on, giggling madly.
[it was the 90’s, guys]
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