Television Performance, 1983
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File Under Sorry
On October 3, 1983, my two most favorite things of the 1980s collided . . . before I knew they were going to be my two favorite things of the 1980s.
In face, I don’t think I’d watched Late Night With David Letterman when R.E.M. made their U.S. television debut on his show. While I had probably read that Letterman was subverting the entire form, I still associated the entire form with Johnny Carson, who, was, you know, for my parents, not me.
Not to mention that if I was awake at 12:30 at night — or 1:00, because Fresno’s NBC station, I was, you know, doing anything but watching TV, for fuck’s sake. It’s not a coincidence that I get into Letterman a few months later, it was after I was able to record his shows every night and watch them the next day.
Anyways, I made an exception and tuned in to see R.E.M. in the same way I used to tune into Tomorrow for The Clash or The Jam. And in hindsight, what I got was both an anomaly for Dave and totally on-brand for R.E.M.
The first Dave anomaly was that R.E.M. got two songs — pretty unheard-of for a band with only one album on an indie label — and even weirder, after the first song (“Radio Free Europe,” naturally) instead of Dave having Mike Mills and Peter Buck back to his desk for the interview, Dave went over to talk to them. According to Mike Mills in 2015, that was the reason that Michael Stipe sat down and didn’t talk to Dave — because he assumed that wasn’t the plan.
And of course, in 1983, it always made sense for it to be the two extroverts — Buck & Mills — to be the ones who were interviewed. And this is where you could see just how smart they were: they held their own with Dave, Peter Buck explaining the Athens scene, Mike Mills explaining that Murmur came out with a lower list price, and definitely amusing Dave — who of course, got a couple of great jokes — in the process.
Oh, and according to Mills, an incredibly typical Dave joke prior to their performance:
Peter and I were sitting in the dressing room drinking beers and Dave walked in. He looked at the beer and he says. “You guys nervous?” We said, “Yeah, a little bit.” He said, “Don’t worry, it’s not like it’s a real show or anything.”
In any event, after the interview, R.E.M. did the coolest thing: they played a brand-new song. Which, at that time, didn’t even have a name!! But, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense: at that time, R.E.M. was always writing, and they loved to put new songs in their set from the moment they wrote them, so from the band’s point of view, it was just what they did.
And, of course, it was also a message to their fanbase: we’re sticking around, we’re looking forward, stay tuned
Oh, and it didn’t help that it was a pretty good song, obviously going to be called “I’m Sorry,” featuring a ringing guitar riff setting up the title chorus, and great backing vocals on the later verses, as well as forceful drum work from Bill Berry, and even a bit of an instrumental rave-up at the end.
As a teaser for their next record — still six months away! — it couldn’t have been more perfect.
R.E.M. on Late Night With David Letterman
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