an r.e.m. fan’s bitter reckoning

Everyone who knows me can answer these questions:

  • Who is John’s all-time favorite rock band, since he first heard them on college radio in 1982?
  • Who inspired John to learn to play guitar and become a singer-songwriter and musician?
  • Why does John act, dress, and wear his hair that way?

For those of you who haven’t already rung in (or read the title of this story) the answer is: R.E.M.

R.E.M. at The Rat in Boston, 1984. Photo by Laura Levine.


Here I won’t go into why I fell under their spell, and to this day still love them so much that I perform an R.E.M. tribute show every so often. That’s another story, a shiny, happy one.

Now, would you like to hear a very, very sad story? I thought so.

In 1986-87 I worked at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California. I set up for the live shows in “the little concert hall in the back”, and sometimes assisted the sound guy during the shows.

I usually got to meet the artists. It was such an intimate venue that we, the staff, would often hang out with them. People like Doc Watson, Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, Richard Thompson, and John Hiatt were regulars. Newer punk and college rock artists like Robyn Hitchcock, Peter Case & Victoria Williams, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets and many more came through McCabe’s to play acoustic sets. For these bands, it was like the original MTV Unplugged.

As it happens, on May 24th, 1987, a Sunday, I decided to take the night off. On the schedule was Texas Records Benefit. I didn’t connect any dots. Figured it was another bluegrass round. I called in sick.

I didn’t show up at McCabe’s that night.

Guess who did?

Oh, just Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills of R.E.M.

And Natalie Merchant.

I have to stop and gather myself every time I think about this.

Michael and Peter played acoustic versions of “The One I Love” (this was before R.E.M’s “Document” album was released in September) and “Maps and Legends”, a song from their 1985 “Fables of the Reconstruction” album.

Kendra Smith and her band Opal (soon to become Mazzy Star) played a set. A bunch of Texas Records artists including Steve Wynn, Russ Tolman, Downey Mildew, and Love Tacos played too. The musicians jammed long into the night, and all who attended had a glorious time.

You can imagine how I felt when I found out the next day.

Orange Crushed.

And, in case that wasn’t enough pain, sorrow, and regret to last a lifetime, later that year R.E.M. released their watershed single “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” from the “Document” album.

Guess what the B-side was?

Recordings of the two live acoustic songs from the McCabe’s show.

I have my 1987 12″ vinyl single of R.E.M.’s “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” right here in my hands. On the sleeve it says:

Side B.

    Cassette recording 24.5.87
    McCabe’s Guitar Shop
    Cassette recording 24.5.87
    Texas Records Lawsuit Benefit

It haunts me to this day. I could have been there. I could have met, and even hung out with my heroes. I had seen R.E.M. live in a small club in Fresno on the “Little America” tour in 1984, but there I was just a ticket-holding crowd-member. At McCabe’s, it would have been epic.

And it was, so I hear.


  1. Dude, wow. I was at that rem show with you in fresno. I don`t remember if i was with you, with you. lol I believe I was with craig dauderman. I have a great memory~ not! Anyway,still haunts you today huh, I get it. Besides that, what a cool gig you had. You can not get anymore legendary than Doc Watson, love that guy. He is one of those that that laid a foundation artist built off of. I told you my brother lives in Sac. I `d sure like to drink a pint and watch you perform. It is good just hearing from you on the web old pal!

  2. Hey Jimmy,

    I went with my sister Katherine, maybe my brother Paul. I remember seeing you guys there at the Star Palace. What a great show that was. I was up front middle of the stage, like 6-10 feet from Stipe and Buck. Not too shabby.

    Thanks for the positive twist, you are right, it was awesome to work at McCabe’s. I’m glad you know who all I’m talking about, lot of people don’t know Doc Watson. Most of the shows were bluegrass and folk. It’s still there too, on Pico Ave.

    Hey when I get this album recorded I’m going to start playing live again, and I’ll keep you posted. It’d be great to see you.

  3. I feel your pain, man. What the other poster said about you getting to enjoy many other artists who passed through the McCabe emporium, is positively true, but if you really were a big R.E.M. fan, that really was a night not to be missed. You don’t mention this in your write-up, but Mike Mills turned up partway through the proceedings, in time for the late performance (providing plinky-plonky on a delicate reading of So. Central Rain, among other things).

    It’ll be little consolation to you, but I didn’t attend the performance, either. Living on the other side of the Ocean this fact of life is easier to take for me, but listening to the two bootlegs I have of the two shows that were played (a soundboard recording of the early one only, an audience tape of the early and late shows) I get a good sense of the great atmosphere in the shop on that Sunday…

    One more thing: it’s quite remarkable that not a single picture of the event appears to be available, either in print or online. Imagine all the hooplah that would surround such a performance in this day and age, in which every single public move anybody makes is seemingly shot from at least three angles…

    1. I didn’t know Mike Mills (or So. Central Rain) showed up. Ouch, the salt hurts :)

      You are completely right – I’ve never seen a photo of that show. I doubt they asked for no photos, it was a benefit event. That is truly amazing.

      The sound engineer was a friend of mine named Barry. I should hunt him down and see if he has a copy of the soundboard recording – or maybe even a photo!

      Thanks for reading this, commiserating, and leaving a great comment.

      – John

  4. I am in the photo you have here, of R.E.M. at Boston’s the Rat, taken when they made a “surprise” appearance at Husker Du’s show. I’m the guy with the beard and glasses to the left center (Buck’s elbow is pointing in my direction). I was editing a little entertainment mag in Boston at the time and got advance word that the band would show up. They played nothing but covers and then Bob Mould came out to play “Paint It, Black” with them. Terrible sound but a fun night. That photo shows up all the time! (I once saw David Bromberg at McCabe’s. That would have been in 1980, I think.)

    1. Tom,

      I’m honored to meet you! Your face is permanently imprinted on my mind, as that photo by Laura Levine is my very favorite R.E.M. photo. They appear to be seriously kicking out the jams!

      Thank you for mentioning that they were opening for Hüsker Dü (another of my very favorite bands as a lonely teenager in the mid-’80s) – I had no idea!


    1. I remember you, Eliza!

      Wow, thank you for telling me that. Knowing that my missing that night meant that you got to experience it makes me *very* happy! You have released me from these chains of regret and sorrow. :D

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