Friday, June 24, 2005

Under the stage with R.E.M. - 1984

I worked for Student Union Activities (SUA) special events committee my sophomore year at K.U. (1984-1985). Our first big show that fall was R.E.M. at Hoch Auditorium (September 14th). The dB's opened.

R.E.M. released their Reckoning album that spring and So. Central Rain broke through to a larger college audience. It moved from the KJHK playlist to the jukebox at the mainstream Jayhawk cafe, a 3.2 beer bar on Ohio street. Booking R.E.M. was a coup for SUA special events director Fran Macferran. The timing was ripe to attract a large crowd. This wasn't lost on the R.E.M. people. The next time they came through Lawrence, wait a minute, there wasn't any next time. This was R.E.M.'s last appearance in Lawrence, though nobody knew it then, not even the far-sighted Macferran.

Macferran and KJHK station manager Stu Wright were responsible for "Day on the Green Hill", a free concert on the hill at Memorial Stadium. The hill show in the spring of 1984 (featuring headliners Get Smart) was my first collaboration with Macferran's SUA and following its success (it was a small but appreciative crowd) he asked me to join the special events committee for the upcoming school year. Wright graduated (and later managed a Denver band called The Fluid), but the fall of '84 special events committee featured other KJHK staffers including station manager Barb Robertson and promotions director Rob Leichter.

We met a couple of times in the weeks that led up to the show, but the bulk of the planning was in place by the time we got back from summer vacation, a testament to Macferran's skill as a promoter. He knew what had to happen to get R.E.M. on the SUA schedule and he knew how to secure the venue. This was accomplished by telephone from his SUA desk. He couldn't predict (or control) the inevitable chaos of show day and needed the rest of the committee members to assist on site that day.

Our instructions for show day were simple; report to Fran Macferran in the back stage area of Hoch Auditorium as soon as possible. What time? It didn't matter, come as soon as we could get there. He assured us we'd have things to do. I was a gopher.

The band arrived and the crew began building the stage, positioning the lights, and setting up the speakers. The "Little America" tour was the biggest production yet for R.E.M., in contrast to their two previous appearances in Lawrence, the last being in November 1982 for a show with the Mortal Micronotz at the Opera House. Many expected the band to stop by the KJHK studios for an interview. I remember tuning into the station that day. Rob Leichter and Mike Chitwood did a weekly "What's Your Problem" call-in show and somebody phoned in to ask when the R.E.M. interview was going to happen. It didn't. (In a previous visit they stopped in the station and were somewhat amused by the record review taped to the cover of their chronic town EP. They took a pen and wrote their rebuttals on the sleeve and autographed it. This created a station heirloom that remained in the stacks for many years, but was gone on my most recent visit to the KJHK studios in 2004.)

The R.E.M. tour bus was parked on the access road behind Hoch auditorium. The bus exterior was non-descript and the rotating placard above the driver's seat read Nobody You Know. Michael Stipe stood outside the tour bus signing autographs for a few savvy fans who knew who it was. There were no security people in this area at the time and it wasn't a problem for the band that year. KU parking services prevented unauthorized vehicles from parking in the area for the concert but that was it.

I was given all-access credentials and felt quite important. The moment faded when we received our first assignment: laundry. Barb Robertson and I drove over to the Laundromat at 25th and Iowa to do the band's wash. The guys themselves also needed a scrub. Rob Leichter led Mike Mills (and whomever else) down to Robinson Gymnasium for showers. The dressing rooms in the rear area of Hoch lacked amenities. I don't recall actual dressing rooms. The band mates readied themselves on their bus, and spent some time in the catering area/green room that was assembled in the storage room under the stage before and after the show.

The appearance of the New West Promotions dude was another sign that R.E.M. wasn't the same band that college kids saw at the Opera House or Off-The-Wall Hall. Although this was a co-production, SUA did most of the logistical support. I don't remember what New West brought to the table other than perhaps coordinating ticket sales for Kansas City outlets.

Keith Lueke was the New West rep on-site that night and he butted heads with Macferran right away. The two show runners were a contrast in styles: Lueke was a throwback to the WKRP days of 70's style rock promotion with blow-dried, thinning hair, tinted aviator style glasses, and a satin concert jacket. Macferran was an all college radio type: short hair, blue jeans, black t-shirt and chuck taylor all-stars.

I don't remember any of the actual beefs between Macferran and Lueke that night. Lueke showed up several hours after Macferran and I think Macferran resented Lueke's interference. I played go-between at times; conveying messages between the two camps as the evening progressed, and everybody got paid, had a good time, and went home happy.

I was pressed into security service after the doors opened. No alcohol was allowed. I felt out of place policing the crowd for booze. I wasn't old enough for anything other than 3.2 beer. My approach was to deal with the obvious offenders as they passed through the front doors of Hoch, and look the other way the rest of the time. I didn't have to wait long for the first not-so-clandestine attempt to carry in contraband liquor. A guy walked with his jean jacket under his arm and two Pabst Blue Ribbons cans fell to the floor as he walked past. I reluctantly claimed them in the name of sober justice! He was bummed. Hmm, warm Pabst Blue Ribbon. A different vibe permeated backstage with beer and drinks on ice in the green room under the stage. After 20 minutes on sobriety watch, Fran asked me to interview a guy at the box office who had a delivery for Peter Buck.

I interviewed the young man; early 20s, dark hair, tallish, over 6ft, Caucasian. He told me Pete Buck ordered an Embarrassment cassette tape and he was there to deliver it. I went back to the green room and found Pete and asked him if it was true. He said yes, he wanted an Embos tape and so I got the guy into the auditorium and took him backstage to deliver it. I think it was Fran's idea to let him drop it off. I don't know who the delivery guy was. It wasn't Bill Rich and it wasn't Kevin Gasser, but it was definitely a Rich protege. He gave Pete the tape and they chatted for a few minutes. I thought it was cool that Peter Buck was an Embarrassment fan and even cooler that he spent time with the label/delivery guy.

The dB's opened and they were great on stage and off stage. I'd been asked to hang out near them in case they needed anything. I don't remember anything specific other than I was impressed with how friendly they were in general. Peter Holsapple was very chatty. I lit a few cigarettes and got refreshments for them.

Even though the Embarrassment wasn't there that night, their reputation was not lost on either band as my previous story about Pete Buck and the Embo cassette illustrated. The dB's also paid homage to the Embarrassment on stage as John Cheney recalls:

dB's made the crowd very happy by playing a cover of Sex Drive. I thought they were better than REM. I was a volunteer stage crew member for that show. I didn't talk to any of those guys, but saw one of them side stage when REM was on stage. He gave two of us a thumbs up when he realized we were munching on REM's snack tray.

Around this time Fran recruited me for my next special assignment. The T-shirt vendor needed change for a hundred dollar bill. In fact he needed 100 one dollar bills. Fran pointed me toward the vendor in the Hoch lobby and he handed me a wrinkled c-note.

It was after 6pm and all the banks were closed. In high school, my friend Greg Fornelli worked at the local grocery store and they were always up to their armpits in cash. I got in my Datsun pickup and drove to Rusty's IGA at 9th and Iowa. I bypassed the checkout lanes and went to the courtesy booth. The nice grocery lady took a look at her cash reserves and declared them short of a hundred. Before I walked out she gave me a tip: try the movie theatre.

I'm not sure how she knew it but that's where I got the change. I don;t remember if the Hillcrest theatres weren't able to help me, in retrospect that seemed like the logical first stop since they were right around the corner from Rusty's. I don't recall success there. I ended up downtown at the Granada where the box office gal directed me to an assistant manager who counted out a hundred singles, no questions asked.

I returned to the lobby about 30 minutes later with a thick stack of dollars. He gave me a free t-shirt for my trouble. It was a simple black R.E.M. short-sleeved job with a cryptic symbol that resembled an eyeball on the front, and the words "seven Chinese brothers" on the back. I loved that shirt. I kept it for 15 years until my wife, unaware of the quest for one hundred singles, threw it away. Ah, wives and the old t-shirts they loathe, a match not made in heaven.

The crowd gravitated toward the stage after the dB's finished their set as Jeff Hekmati remembers:

They had put several rows of chairs up-front closer to the stage, but there was lots of open floor, roped off, between the front row and the stage. People ducked under the rope, moved up front and stood in front of the seated elite. Before and during the DB's, security was successful at making people leave. I knew that they were slowly losing control, so I moved against the ropes for when the inevitable happened. As soon as the lights went on for REM on stage everyone rushed to the stage. I was about 5 rows of standing people back, but at 6'2" I had a great view. The people who had "front row seats" were irate. I didn't care. They were all probably connected to ticket master or something.

My duties were complete once R.E.M. took the stage. I was free to watch the show from the wings or go find a seat in the auditorium. I did both. Toward the end of the show I met my girlfriend near the front of the stage and we hung out. It was fun. I don't remember many of the actual songs they played. I pretty sure they covered all the tracks on Reckoning and I have a distinct memory of them covering bits of Moon River and the theme from Ghostbusters. They didn't take themselves too seriously. They wanted to have fun too.

After the show, a handful of faithful concert-goers waited outside the backstage entrance. They hoped to meet with the band members. I thought they'd hang out for awhile, give up, and go home. I was very surprised when somebody opened the door and let them all into the green room. I decided to follow them down to see what happened.

The band was in the green room and they spent the next half-hour chatting with the fans that had waited for just such an opportunity. Unlike before the show, the shy Michael Stipe appeared for the post-concert hospitality session. He had a bag of Drum tobacco and rolled a few homemade cigarettes. We all hung out and I thought it was so cool of the band to do this. It certainly wasn't planned. But there we were, drinking Heineken with the boys.

That's my favorite memory of the evening but it would not be my last encounter with band members. R.E.M. returned to Kansas City for a Memorial Hall show in the fall of 1986. I opted for a different show that night. Richard Thompson played Parody Hall downtown. He played two sets and during the intermission in the packed club, I brushed against a gent carrying some drinks through the crowd. I turned to offer an apology and there was Peter Buck. He and Mike Mills came by after they finished thrilling the masses in K.C.K. We chatted for a moment but I didn't want to bust his chops. After Richard finished (a great show by the way), I asked Mike Mills when they were coming back to Lawrence. He assured me they'd return, but their college campus days were gone with the Heineken under the stage at Hoch auditorium in 1984.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Lueke visited my sister a few weeks ago. He is now working in Minneapolis for a company that buys up people's life insurance policies for pennys on the dollar and waits around for them to die to collect. Seems fitting for the stiff he was and is.....

Still amazed at how you remember these details, I barely remember that the show was at Hoch......

Dave Smith said...

Saw the same tour in Glenwood Springs, Colo. At the Hotel Colorado Ballroom, about 200 people sat on the floor and watched Dream Syndicate open. Days of Wine and Roses! REM brought pizza onto the stage as they opened with what I don't remember exactly. Great show.

Mizer said...

Keith hit hard times and wound up driving a cab in KC during the early 90's........FJ how you can remember names, times and date is scary. Now you know why I can not run for public office.

Anonymous said...

Can you remember your girlfriend's name?

Fowler Jones said...

Sure. Her name was Kathy.