One day in the distant past when my brother and I were driving to Yosemite, we had this great idea for indie rock fans which was meant to alleviate the problems of touring. We were going to start a whole town that was just chock full of rock clubs, so that instead of bands having to go on tour and lose money seeking their audience, the fans would take on the monetary burden of seeing them instead.
The town would provide more than just a place to see your favorite acts play new hits, though. To attract repeat patrons, it would have a profusion of different-themed clubs, like there was one called “Covers” where your favorite bands came and only played covers, and one called “Switch,” where bands who were in town would exchange members (or instruments) and play each other’s repertoires, and there was one called “Backstage,” where you watched the set from the back instead of the front, only heard monitor sound, wore a laminate, and got your beer by plunging your hand into a cooler of melted ice.
Part of the idea was to make the fans act like they were on tour, instead of the bands. There were different kinds of hotels you could stay at, with different pricing, ranging from sleeping on someone’s floor during a loud house party (for free!) to the higher end type of hotel with a pool in the center (fun fact: the majority of spinal cord injuries caused by diving happen in this kind of hotel, when drunken male idiots jump into the pool from the balcony). The town was going to have a museum as well, and in it, there would be all the old vans of your favorite bands. For a fee, you could sit in a smelly one for eight hours straight with people you didn’t like, and stuff like that.
|a Fellow, a Decemberist, a Fastback|
Since this was pre-Branson Missouri, pre-Britney residencies in Vegas, pre-E-Bay and pre-Air BNB, I think we were pretty clever. Today, people do all kinds of things like this – they have baseball fantasy leagues and go on spring training trips, experience eco-vacations where they build bridges or help save orangutans; there’s even (I’m told) a South African safari you can go on with Robyn Hitchcock where he will sing you songs at night round the campfire. But back then, there weren’t those things and doing anything like that was monetarily out of reach anyway. And for whatever reason, “going on tour” seemed like the most romantic and hard to achieve dream – something someone like me, who was not in a band and was a girl to boot, could never ever dream of doing.
Except that I did it. For ten days in March and April of 1992, I Went On Tour with the Young Fresh Fellows and the Dharma Bums, in Europe, no less. I went with my friend Lisa, who was president of their record company, Frontier. We went because we could, and I feel fairly sure we may be the only two women who were not actual musicians and not sleeping with someone in the band who have ever had this opportunity.
|Young Fresh Fellows, Nijmegen 92|
This isn’t the time or the place to tell the story of that tour, but suffice to say it could easily have been the best ten days of my life. Many years later, I was reminiscing about a few of its highlights with head Fellow Scott McCaughey, who had by this time joined a new band called REM. He’d just headlined with them in front of 250,000 people at Rock in Rio in Brazil. “Oh, but believe me, that night in Spain was way more fun,” he said.
And I am sure that it was, because the mind boggles at anything getting better than that. Sometimes, when I am at Victoria Station in London, I look wistfully at the exact spot where we all parted company, the Fellows and Lisa and I. I remember us sitting there at 4 in the morning, waiting for the tube to start up, covered in Euro-grime and tear stained with laughter from a ridiculous all night journey on the Calais ferry back to the UK, and I just smile and smile.
|Me: Berlin 92|
Anyway, afterwards life went on for all of us, as it does, until one day a few weeks ago, it – life – almost stopped for Scott, when he suffered a stroke while on tour with Alejandro Escovedo. Very soon thereafter, Scott’s friends in Portland Oregon rallied round to have to raise money for his considerable rehabilitation expenses.
Scott has a lot of friends. And Portland has a lot of musicians. The result was a couple of events that were well worth getting on a plane for. Dubbed “Help The Hoople,” the concerts were held at the Star Theater and the Wonder Ballroom, and featured sets by musicians and bands like the Dharma Bums, Justin Townes Earle, Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers and James Mercer of the Shins, M. Ward, Alejandro Escovedo, the Decemberists, and various intricate incarnations of members of them all, including people from Sleater Kinney and R.E.M. The music ranged through Hood’s earnest and lengthy rumination on race relations in the South (“What It Means”), Mercer’s solo-greatest hits set (“New Slang” and “Simple Song”), the Filthy Friends and Alejandro Escovedo’s hard rock (including a cover of “All The Young Dudes”), the Decemberists fantastical/historical folky jangle “Hamilton”-inspiring rhyming slang pop, and of course, a set by 3/4s of REM: “You Are My Everything” (James Mercer on vocals), “The One I Love,” “Texarkana,” “Rockville” and “Superman” (with Mills on vocals) and, on the final night, “I Believe,” with Colin Meloy on vocals.
There are those who might quibble that this is not seeing REM, but I am not among them: to me it was more as if I’d gained admission to those clubs I made up on the drive to Yosemite all those years ago. Later, Jason said, “It doesn’t even matter who sings REM songs now, it only matters that the band is the same.” But the way that I’d put it is different: I’d say, it doesn’t matter who sings REM songs because we are all REM. Well, some of us may be more REM than others: when Meloy sang “Down By the Water” with his own band the Decembrists with Peter Buck on guitar, he said, “You’ve heard this song earlier in the night, only we added a few chords.”
And it’s true, it turns out it is “The One I Love,” revisited, although in some amazing way I like it better. I like it better because it builds on it, like a sequel, or a second floor. It uses the original song like a framework on which to hang a higher flag, or to tell a different story, and by so doing it makes the song grow bigger and stronger and brighter and more resonant. It’s as if the music we love is a beautiful tree, and the branches are reaching higher and higher, and those of us in the audience, and on stage as well, have internalized REM’s whole catalog as bodily nourishment, informing our folk tales and our personal histories. The Decemberists have, for sure, and if I were REM I would take that as the highest possible compliment. I heard that at sound check they were all looking at their i-phones to figure out the lyrics, but I know the lyrics to "I Believe" by heart:
Trust in your calling, make sure your calling's true;
Think of others, then others think of you...
practice, practice makes perfect,
But perfect is a fault, and fault lines change...
And change is what I believe in."
You know how people talk about ‘self-care’? This is my version of it: treating myself to an old school road trip, returning like a dog to its vomit. Going to the Scott shows was just like old days when I was a rock critic really – meeting up with Lisa, Jason, Hammi, and others in some rando city; drinking at some old man bar beforehand, then watching R.E.M. rock it out. The only difference is, there’s now direct public transport from PDX into town; during sets I can post pix and comments to twitter, and, oh yeah, I wear glasses now.
But self-care is one thing, health care is another. I dislike intensely both the fact that we are all so much older now – old age, as my mom says, is not for the faint of heart — and even more that, whatever one’s health care situation is, one needs to give fundraisers to support the cost of it. There’s something badly wrong with the American situation, because not everyone has friends like Scott’s, who can auction off their rickenbackers or write $5000 donation checks, but everyone is at risk for stroke.
From what I hear, Scott is doing better than expected, and he has a support system like nobody’s business, yet even he is struggling financially with what is actually a fairly normal situation. And that’s not right.
|scott and gross deli tray, germany 92|
But thinking those dark thoughts about the horrible place our country is in can only lead to depression. Another way of looking at it is that generosity can sometimes be its own reward. The thing is, we are living through such terrible times now. It makes it even more important to know who your friends are, and to foregather. I swear, sometimes I feel like one of those characters in “Station Eleven,” wandering in the wilderness, looking for other survivors, and I know I am not the only one, either. On the second night of Help the Hoople, the concert at the Wonder Room, a Portland musician named Casey Neill said something similar on stage. He was talking about how it awful the times are and how bad we all feel about it, and he said, “So my New Year’s resolution is…”
And then he paused, and made this gesture with his hands. I suppose what he did was wring them, like a lady in a Victorian novel; yes, he seriously wrung his hands. And as he did this, we all knew exactly what he meant, he didn’t even need to speak it. But then he did. He paused, and said, “It’s…”
“…to carry this feeling we all have in this room right now, this love and companionship and community, out in to the world and spread it.”
|Thanks, Portland. Stay weird!|
(You can still donate to the Scott McCaughey Fund, by clicking this link: https://www.gofundme.com/c3npfr-scott-mccaughey-medical-fund.)