Thursday, August 16, 2007

R.E.M. Live & James Agee

Honestly, I had forgotten what an incredible live band R.E.M. is until I was scanning the channels one day a while ago and came across an airing of the R.E.M. live video "Perfect Square." It made me think back to the first time I watched "Tourfilm" and how awestruck I was. I realized I was actually watching a movie of a concert rather than simple a concert video. Haven't not seen them live at that time I also understood for the first time that the energy and emotion of a live R.E.M. performance is as strong as any band out there, much less one that has been around for 27 incredible years. Without question, there have been ebbs in their recordings at times, but watching "Perfect Square" affirmed that they are still a remarkable live band.

I also recalled the time I saw them while in college in Knoxville, TN. They were in the midst of somewhat of a comeback after surprising most listeners with a louder rawer record in "Monster". Personally, I liked the record OK, but I still preferred their earlier material (and still do). However, it was a spectacular show. For the first time in years I enjoyed hearing Man on the Moon. The most breathtaking moment of the night however came as Michael Stipe announced that playing this show in Knoxville is an opportunity to do something he had always wanted to do. He then began to read from the prologue to James Agee's posthumous masterpiece, A Death in the Family. The prose, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, was written years before the book was published and was chosen as the introduction. As expected, Stipe's attempt to read from this piece was interrupted several times by screams and yelling, but after saying that he would start over and asking for silence, he read portions to a nearly silent crowd. It was one of the most intense moments I have ever experienced at a concert. I'm proud off my association with Knoxville and thus my extended association to, what I consider to be, one of the most tender and poetic pieces of prose in American history. I have copied the entire text below, and I could not recommend strongly enough that anyone moved by the passage below read Agee's full novel. I had prior to this show and it is one of the few books I have read that I feel actually shaped me as a person. Don't worry, I'm going to post some live tracks after the literature lesson.

Knoxville: Summer of 1915
James Agee 1938

We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.

...It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto: a quiet auto: people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them in vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squaring with clowns in hueless amber. A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping; belling and starting, stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter; fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten. Now is the night one blue dew.

Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose.

Low in the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes...
Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces.

The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.

On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there... They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they are very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine,... with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in the summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.

After a little I am taken in and put to be. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, no ,will not, not now, noter; but will not ever tell me who I am.

Begin the Begin (Perfect Square)
A perfect song to start off any mix, much less a live R.E.M. mix.
These Days (Tourfilm)
I love the energy and angst in this song, especially live.
Maps and Legends (Perfect Square)
Staying old school, just a great use of imagery and a great song. The bridge is terrific.
Orange Crush (Perfect Square)
This one's always been one of my favorites. The gun-fire drum fills really set each break off.
Man on the Moon (Live at Glastonbury)
I really only enjoy this song played live.
Feeling Gravity's Pull (Tourfilm)
The feedback/noise laden intro segues perfectly into the harmonics of the opening.
World Leader Pretend (Tourfilm)
If I were going to pick one song to play to describe/typify R.E.M., this just might be it.
I Remember California (Tourfilm)
Loved the studio version, but the muted guitar rhythm brings this version to life.
The Great Beyond (Perfect Square)
One of the better songs and, yet again, more great uses of imagery.
You Are the Everything (Tourfilm)
I should pay royalties to the band for all the mixed tapes I used this song on. Shh don't tell them though.
Perfect Circle (Tourfilm)
One of their earliest tracks, and yet still an incredibly tender song with a stunning melody.
So Fast, So Numb (Perfect Square)
The best song on an overlooked album. The live version rocks with the best of 'em.
Country Feedback (Perfect Square)
Hands down, my favorite R.E.M. song. To this day I can't understand Out of Time. It features some of the darkest bleakest moments of the bands career transposed against some of the most sickening sugar coated tracks. In the end, though, this song, both musically and lyrically completely transfixes me with every listen.

R.E.M.
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