Friday, January 3, 2020

Certain Songs #1718: R.E.M. – “Just A Touch” | Medialoper

Album: Life’s Rich Pageant
Year: 1986

. . .

File Under Whoo-hoo-hooo!

The fifth time I saw R.E.M. was supposed to be once again at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley on September 26, 1986, but it got totally short-circuited by a rainstorm that was powerful enough for the band to walk onstage and cancel the show before it started. Unlike the first time I’d gone out of town to see R.E.M., this was a full-blown roadtrip — many people in many cars — we retreated to a cheap-ass hotel and everybody got blind drunk, before heading back to Fresno the next day. Though I do seem to recall that was the night someone I’d previously seen as kind of a nemesis became a lifelong friend.

I think the hotel thing was improvised in the face of trying to make it back to Fresno in the kind of weather that would cancel an outdoor concert, meaning that pretty much everybody slept on the floor, thus the need to get that drunk. The 1980s almost killed me.

And, of course, we stopped at the Westly rest area on the I-5 — which I just googled to make sure my memory was correct, and of course, it has Yelp! reviews now (“it was fine, but these weird-ass college-students kept taking pictures. I think they were on the drugs.”) — on the way home the next day to take pictures. At least, I hope these pictures are from that trip: it was one of the last things that Tim did with our social circle before leaving for England to get married.

That said, as you can imagine for a bunch of starving college students with day jobs, there had been a pretty decent amount of planning ahead for this trip, and with the make-up show less than a week away — October 1 — not everybody could turn around and drive back up. This meant that I could ask that girl I’d been chasing — who hadn’t even been around when the original road trip was planned — to go back up there with us. Sneaky!

And so naturally, R.E.M. played the worst show I’d ever seen them play. Well, that’s not true: while the original show was at the Greek Theatre, an outdoor amphitheater, the make-up was at the godsdamned Oakland Coliseum arena, and even though entire swaths of that cavern were blocked off with canvas, the simple fact was that R.E.M.’s sound system simply wasn’t up to the task, and so they felt like they were just too far away. It had only been two years since I’d been dancing two feet away from Michael Stipe at the Star Palace, and now they were just tiny dots, barely heard.

Between that, and my obvious nerves about the burgeoning relationship I was clearly embarking upon, I really don’t remember much about that show, but the internet tells me that “Just a Touch” was one of the encores, and I have no doubt I would have loved it had I heard it, as “Just A Touch” is one of the greatest rockers R.E.M. ever did.

It was also one of their earliest songs, revisited for Lifes Rich Pageant, but with the new-found musical sophistication they’d acquired in the half-decade, so “Just A Touch” rocked the fuck harder than pretty much anything they ever recorded, but also had Mike Mills touches that wouldn’t have occurred had they recorded previously.

Not to mention, I love the opening: a feedback-laden Peter Buck bashing out Townshend-esque power chords bouncing off of Bill Berry’s drums while Stipe yelps the first line:

Oh well, what in the world? Women in black
Don’t you remember? Sun is packed
A day in the life, well, nobody laughed
Look to the days, how long can this last?

Hey, I knew women in black! A whole bunch of them! What in the world, indeed.

At some point, accompanied by Mike Mills and Bill Berry screaming with delight, they just fucking roar into the chorus:

Kevin heard it on the radio, Hugh informed word of mouth
Carla, Carla, Carla read it in the news, caught it all, just a touch

At some point, Mike Mills is also playing almost boogie-woogie piano and just after the bridge, adds my most favorite part: as Stipe has worked himself up into a wordless yodel — “whoo-hooo-hoooo! whoooo-hooo-hoooo” — add a full-throated organ to boot. That’s right: R.E.M.’s most ferocious rocker has basically the same instrumentation as mid-1960s Dylan. Folk rock!

But, of course, given the velocity, “Just A Touch” is much closer to punk rock than it was folk rock, and at the end, Stipe is howling “Just a toooo-hoooo-hooo” that basically devolves from there while Mike Mills is peeling off a crazy-ass piano solo, until “Just A Touch” ends up crashing into a wall while Stipe channels his inner Patti Smith while screaming “I’m so young, I’m so goddamn young,” which seems like a homage and a throwaway but also thematically connects “Just a Touch” to both “These Days” and “I Believe,” the other great uptempo songs from Lifes Rich Pageant.

“Just a Touch”

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