December 11th, 1985. Clowes Hall, Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana. Although I had seen plenty of music at all ages venues/happenings like Muncie’s “No Bar & Grill”, REM was the first real concert I had ever been to. I say “real concert” because REM was an actual national act, actually touring to support to an actual LP (“Fables of the Reconstruction”) that was released and distributed by an actual national label. Oh – and they had an honest-to-God light show, which somehow made them more of a big deal to me. I liked REM a bunch; but even more than REM, I was there to see their opening act: The Minutemen.
The Minutemen were an acquired taste for me, but I did eventually take to them in a big way and I haven’t stopped listening to them ever since. Their songs were short bursts of frenzied energy, brilliance and originality that had absolutely no pretension whatsoever. Each piece stood out as a lean piece of commentary, introspection, humor or some combination thereof. Bassist Mike Watt was the reason I started playing bass, and he continues to be the bassist and dude that I want to be when I grow up. I was jazzed up about the show, practically skipping into Clowes Hall with my brother Joe and the Snyder brothers, assuming everybody had the same affection for the Minutemen that I did.*
I was so wrong. We stood on the main floor near the back under the balcony, which was sparsely populated (although REM had a large dedicated following, they had not yet reached stadium rock status) save for a handful of frat bros here and there. The bros in the row of seats behind us sat for most of the show, taking swigs out of a flask disguised as a pair of binoculars. They only stood up from time to time to shout things like “YOU SUCK” and “GET SOME LESSONS”. The clapping for the Minutemen between songs was sparse and scattered throughout the massive theater. At one point, Mike Watt – very much resembling Fidel Castro in his olive drab fatigues – in a moment of excitement, threw his hat into the crowd. They returned it to him real hard. That seemed to succinctly sum up that crowd’s feeling on the Minutemen.
The theater went dark when REM was to take stage. The sound of a locomotive was blasted through the darkness, louder than I had ever heard. The bros behind me began cheering wildly. REM had not even taken the stage and already the anticipation was notched up to fever pitch. Eventually, the opening notes for “Gravity’s Pull” sounded; the lights came up and everyone pushed toward the stage. The show was on.
It was amazing. REM’s energy was high. Michael Stipe was like a whirling dervish, a danger to himself and the people nearest the stage. It was loud and theatrical; lights and the occasional sound effect between songs made it feel more like a performance than a rock show. The crowd – though relatively small – was loud and enthusiastic. If memory serves me correctly, REM did three encores to an appreciative audience.
At some point, all four of us left the show to go to the toilet and cop a smoke. There, in the vestibule of the auditorium, freshly showered and unnoticed by anyone milling about, was D. Boon and George Hurley – 2/3 of the Minutemen. I couldn’t believe it. We continued to the toilets as though we hadn’t seen them, and tried to remain cool as we discussed in the bathroom whether or not we should go up and talk to them. My buddy Matt Snyder had no fear in that regard. He marched out and initiated a conversation with D. and George. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have come as any sort of surprise that both men were accessible, friendly and fun to talk to. Like their music, D. and George were ego free. Even though I felt like a goof asking for it, both men were happy to give us autographs. They borrowed a Sharpie from a merch table and signed my sweatshirt. When D. asked Matt if he could write “U.S. out of El Salvador” on his army parka, Matt told him that it was his dad’s parka, and that his dad would not appreciate the sentiment. D. and George had a great laugh about that. They were really nice guys.
That night, I went home with an REM concert shirt and autographs from two dudes I greatly admired. Both bands were phenomenal and provided an excellent musical contrast that was uncommon back then. REM would go on to achieve the success they very much deserved. For the Minutemen, it was their second to last show ever: D. Boon died in a car accident in Arizona on December 22nd. It was the first “celebrity”** death I ever felt personally.
* - In fact, this blog takes it's name from a Minutemen song.
** - I reckon D. Boon would hate that label.