Going to school at James Madison University in Harrisonburg VA in the 80s didn’t exactly land me in the music mecca of live shows. The Busboys made an appearance, local and regional bands on the Frat circuit, some country crap, but nothing newsworthy. If you wanted to see music before the days of smartphones, you either read about it in Rolling Stone, heard a radio ad, or got a phone call from a buddy at a different school & planned the proverbial road trip.
When my buddy Blaine called me and told me Minutemen were opening for R.E.M., the only question was “who’s driving?” I rallied 4 of my closest musical enthusiasts (my roommates) and we pulled together a plan to drive 2 hours down Route 81 South to Radford University. I had never been there, but through the next couple of years, Progressive Penny happy hours at the Bus Stop and tales of Radford, “where men are men & so are the women” became that of college lore. December in Virginia is only cold when you have to make that two-hour drive in a VW Beetle with no heat. Smitty, our pilot for the evening had a hole in his floorboards. I can’t recall if it was by design or not to access the keg he had in the trunk, but whatever works. No heat, cold beer, munchies, party favors, time to roll!
To put this show in context, R.E.M. was THE college band at this time, the kicker was Minutemen were opening! I was a huge Mike Watt fan, admittedly my roommates did not know much about them. Believe me, they were quite familiar as Double Nickels on the Dime was in the heavy rotation on the trip down. Of course lots of R.E.M. too. Fables of the Reconstruction was the “latest release. Murmur already played out with Chronic Town being the intro to the world from that band from Athens. I digress.
Music cranking, beer drinking, two bio breaks for “Thimble Bladder” Erdmann and we were primed up for the show as we navigated Radford. The plan was to meet Blaine at his dorm, as fate would have it, we were late and went straight to the venue.
As we fumbled around campus and finally found the Dedmon Center, Minutemen were a few songs in. It was so freaking cool for me to see them, as my only connection to them was my cassette. They embodied the spirit and sound of the early 80’s rock underground although I didn’t realize it at the time. Two weeks later D. Boon was killed in a van accident, thus ending Minutemen, but the Punk roots they laid down would seed so many bands.
They kicked ass and it was fun, I don’t really remember anyone enjoying it quite as much as I was, but it was like catching lightning in a bottle and I was loving it!
At the break we ran into my friend Blaine and started to get prepped for R.E.M. There was a real buzz about them in the college ranks as you “heard” so much about them. For many, without ever really seeing what they look like, and a few cryptic vinyl covers, they were a real mystery. I was probably one of the few that actually had seen them previously. I saw them in Philadelphia in 1984 they played with Joan Jett, Madness & the Police. R.E.M. was still a bit of an underground band and not widely accepted that day to put it politely.
Stage lights down and R.E.M. comes on stage. It was a general admission show so we carved some space and prepared to take it all in. The crowd was loud and obnoxious at times. As I think back, between Minutemen & the anticipation of many people seeing R.E.M. for the first time, this makes perfect sense now. This show typifies R.E.M. and the early raw energy they had. They were trying to make it, get their name out there and become famous without showing it. No holds barred, the part of a band’s evolution that if you are fortunate to see, you are witnessing something special. No going thru the motions, not just another gig, they put a lot into their live performance and it showed.
Seeing Driver 8, Pilgrimage and Pretty Persuasion were absolute highlights. Stipe was muttering something before Gardening at Night, some say it was a poem, I think he was just whacked out. Carnival of Sorts became all distorted and Peter Buck just left the stage for a brief period of time. The music stopped and the rest of the band put down their gear and the crowd just looked around as if this might be part of the show? All told, Toys in the Attic–> Life and How to Live It–> Talk About the Passion the closer, were absolute keepers this many years later. Thirty songs start to finish, we were completely drained! The banter, excitement, adrenaline rush had all come to a crashing halt when the show was over.
The absolute satisfaction and knowing smiles that we had all just seen something pretty special still resonates with us today. We needed to get our asses in the non-heated VW Beetle and drive back to the ‘Burg!