Sunday, March 13, 2011

1989: Culture After the Quake, part two

This was my last article for the doomed  Santa Cruz Sun, a casualty of the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. This was just a lighthearted concert review that seemed to have some resonance at the time. Subsequently I reported on the quake and its aftermath for Thom Zajac's Santa Cruz Comic News, and I'll be re-posting some of those articles in days to come. Please remember that you can donate here and here and here and here to help out the victims of one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history. 

Like everyone else, I was in desperate need of some diversion last weekend; I wanted to hear some loud rock 'n' roll, preferably in a huge crowd of people. Luckily, I had purchased tickets, weeks before the quake, for a show at the Shoreline Amphitheater, featuring my old favorites NRBQ and my new favorites REM.

I never miss a chance to see NRBQ, who l have repeatedly praised in these pages before. The world's greatest bar hand lost none of their impact playing to the half-filled outdoor facility. Allotted a mere half hour as the warmup act, they burned through a half-dozen tunes, all from their new album, at frighteningly rapid tempos. Al Anderson in particular performed guitar heroics above and beyond the call of duty, while we drunken partisans shrieked encouragement. "Who the hell are those guys?" asked a stunned REM fan. NRBQ, we told him, NRBQ.

Before relinquishing the stage, the 22-year-old New Rhythm and Blues Quartet offered up an incendiary version of Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll," which they dedicated to the people of the Bay Area. A half hour later, REM appeared with an equally relevant selection: their annoying pop hit "Stand." The tune, which even its author once called "the stupidest song ever written," took on new meaning to the thousands of quake victims in attendance. The invitation to "stand in the place where you work/think about direction/wonder why you haven't before," contained unintended ironies, which were not entirely lost on the music fans, though most of whom were too busy dancing to stand and ponder them.

It was but the first of many epiphanies provided by the band's expansively thought- and dance-provoking oeuvre. Like the greatest of rock lyricists, singer Michael Stipe gives us words rich with ambiguities, which resonate in a variety of contexts. Like NRBQ, he dedicated one song, "You Are the Everything," to the victims of the quake, but nearly every song seemed to relate in one way or another to the tragedy that had changed everyone's lives four days earlier. The band's central concern is Environment, in every sense of the word: not only planetary, but also inner and outer environments (both of which were equally shaken on Q-day) and the relationship between the two.

Even before witnessing them in action, I had regarded REM as one of the finest American bands of the past decade, endlessly replaying their recorded work in the weeks before the show. Not long into their 2-hour performance, it hit me that there was no other band in existence I would rather be spending that time with, so perfectly suited were they to the needs of the moment. While the recent work shows an increasing command of melody and dynamics, their music is propulsively rhythmic, with a cohesive group sound that deemphasizes soloing. Instrumentalists Buck, Mills and Berry sounded like a single player, and the sameness of the songs became a virtue. While films of environments, both urban and natural, flashed on the screen behind them, REM treated their emotionally fragile audience to one long song-cycle, a nervous celebration of this crazy life on this crazy planet.

Before the show, my friend asked me which songs in particular I wanted to hear; I mentioned "Pilgrimage," "Finest Worksong" and my favorite, "Exhuming McCarthy," all of which received triumphant readings, but I forgot entirely about the Perfect Song for the moment. When it began, with a military drumbeat and the lines: "That's great/It starts with an earthquake/Birds and snakes and aeroplanes/Lenny Bruce is not afraid," I knew, along with the other 18,000 souls present, that this was the catharsis we all needed so badly. Listening to Stipe's kinetic array of images, which recalls Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business," we all waited for the moment when we could chant as one:

It's the end of the world as we know it 
It's the end of the world as we know it 
It's the end of the world as we know it 
And I feel fine

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