FLASH-BACK/FAST-FORWARD: R.E.M., Austin, & Me

In which the No
Depression co-founder ruminates on all
things Pete Buck-ian, and more, with the annual SXSW festival as a gathering
point…

 

BY PETER BLACKSTOCK

 

If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you probably know
that for the past year I’ve posted daily entries from three decades of logs
I’ve kept which document all the live-music
events I’ve attended. Over the weekend I began assembling what I’d post this
week, and for today, I selected the following entry, from 23 years ago in Austin, Texas.

 

***

 

March 21, 1989

R.E.M. with Robyn Hitchcock, Erwin Center

Chickasaw Mudd Puppies with Texas Instruments, Continental Club

 

It’s an evening that has loomed large in my memory over the
arc of my career as a music journalist. Among my extended circle of friends and
acquaintances in the Austin music scene of the
1980s, R.E.M. was special: They were the little band that could, four friends
who rose up from the Athens,
Ga., underground with a bunch of
great songs and a determination to make music their way — and it had worked.
Even if we might not be able to match their level of achievement, the fact that
R.E.M. had pulled it off gave us hope it could be done, and done right.

 

As a wide-eyed and aspiring young music journalist, I’d
grown up with them, following their gradual transition from clubs to small
halls and finally to the Erwin
Center, the city’s
largest venue. When I interviewed Peter Buck for a preview of the Erwin Center show in the
local daily paper, it felt like finally reaching the top of the mountain.

 

In some respects it was a bittersweet summit. Much as we
were all thrilled by the band’s success, seeing them with 10,000 other fans on
this tour behind their album Green was a bit different from the crowds
of a few hundred in the early days. It turned out that Buck had a similar take
on things when I asked him in our interview how it felt to be playing the
biggest room in town.

 

“Well, I’m really ambivalent about it, to tell you the
truth,” he said. “You know, I personally prefer playing in front of a
couple hundred people. But needless to say, that doesn’t pay the rent. And if
we were going to play for a couple hundred people, we’d tour from now until
about the end of the century and still not finish. So, you know, you’ve got to
be a little pragmatic about it.

 

“But, you know this kind of tour and the reception to this album is kind of freeing us up so that
the next tour we do, we can probably do what we want to. Play 4,000-seat halls
if we want to, do that for a week. We’re all getting a little bit older. We’re
certainly not as old as Pink Floyd or anything, but I’m not sure that I’m going
to want to tour for eight months of the year after this.” (Those comments
turned out to be a pretty fair reading into the band’s immediate future: They
didn’t tour at all behind their next album, Out Of Time, even as it
soared all the way to #1 on the pop charts.)

 

If interviewing Buck was a milestone for me, the icing on
the cake came later that night after the Erwin Center
show. March 21 was a Tuesday evening just two days after the third South By
Southwest Music Conference had wrapped up, and some wise booking agent had the
foresight to book Athens band the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies — a hometown favorite
of the R.E.M. camp — into the storied local venue the Continental Club (along
with Austin garage greats the Texas Instruments). Everyone pretty much knew
what would happen, and so we all hightailed it over to the Continental as soon
as the Erwin
Center
show concluded. Sure enough, in due time the R.E.M. guys drifted in.

 

Eventually I found myself standing by the water cooler at
the end of the bar next to Buck, and I introduced myself, explaining that I’d
done a phone interview with him a few days earlier. He seemed a little
surprised: “I’m not quite used to the idea of rock critics being younger
than I am,” he remarked. I took that as a compliment, but I also found it
an insight into how the band was transitioning from the role of upstarts to
that of statesmen. Perhaps they were becoming the new boss, but it was
reassuring to see that in fact they weren’t like the old boss. (Getting to know
Peter a bit better over the following decade, when we both ended up in Seattle, only underscored
that point.)

 

 

 

 

 

Fast-forward 23 years to this past Sunday night, March 18.
Another SXSW is freshly in the books, and Austin’s
hometown hero Alejandro Escovedo is holding court on that same venerable
Continental Club stage, joined by a cast of top-flight local musicians and a
pretty cool array of special guests, from Jesse Malin to Lenny Kaye to Rosie
Flores. Soon, Alejandro would call Peter Buck and Mike Mills up to the stage (view a clip of them onstage doing “Rockville” as filmed by Mario Escovedo); but for the first few songs of the set, as I’m over at the end of the bar by
the water cooler, I look to my left and see Peter, hanging out in the crowd and
taking it all in, back in his element with a couple hundred people in one of
those places where it all began. (Partial setlist pictured above.)

 

Suddenly I realized the significance of where we were
standing. I gave him a nudge and said, “You won’t remember this, but we
met 23 years ago in this exact same spot.” He didn’t recall at first, but
when I mentioned the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies, that night came back to him.

 

A few moments later, he and Mills were onstage with
Escovedo’s band, playing the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around” and
R.E.M.’s classic “Rockville.” It
felt like, to borrow the title of another of their songs, a perfect circle.

 

“I don’t feel like we’re leading any kind of parade or
anything,” Buck had said over the phone back in 1989. “But if maybe
the way we go about doing business is an inspiration to younger people, people
starting bands, that’s great. It’s nice to know that what you’re doing really
means something.”

 

[Peter Blackstock grew up in Austin
and worked for SXSW as its archivist from 1989 to 1997. He co-founded the
bimonthly roots-music magazine
No Depression in 1995 and served as its
co-editor until it ceased printing in 2008. He is not affiliated with the
magazine’s present website.]

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