17 May 2001 - Yonge and Dundas Streets, Toronto, Canada

By Alok Ghai

When I heard the news, I was shocked. R.E.M. One show only. May 17th. FREE! This, on top of Oasis on the 22nd (to which I have tickets) and U2 on the 24th/25th (to which I do NOT have tickets). My three favourite bands, all in one week, and I could see two of them. Not bad!

That is, until I checked my trusty day planner. Yes, there it was: Thursday May 17, 2001 – “Marketing Exam; 8:30 AM”…not good. Not good at all. The show was due to start at 12:15 PM, and there I was, stuck in a hole. However, this would not be written were there not a good end to the story.

The good news is that the exam, which was originally supposed to be three hours was condensed to two. So I made a deal with myself. “Self,” I said, “if we can get this puppy done by 10 AM, we are seeing R.E.M., no questions asked.” So, at 9:55 AM, on the morning of the 17th, I handed in my exam, and, for better or for worse, I was off to catch one of the greatest bands in music history. Marketing class be damned. This was an important calling.

I found that even on Toronto’s perpetually slow transit system, I was down at the corner of Yonge and Dundas by 11:30 AM. Plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere for the first real street party of the spring. After finding my little space in the crowd, from where I could stand on my toes to see the stage, and not be crushed, I discovered that there was also a video screen to catch any moments I missed. Finally, at 12:30 PM, fifteen minutes late, but well worth the wait, the stars of the show took the stage. Their excuse? They slept in. Still students at heart. I can relate more than I'd like.

"Today, je suis un canadien.” ("I am Canadian" - incidentally the slogan for a popular brand of Canadian beer) And so it began with Michael Stipe proclaiming his love for Canada, and then launching into the new single, “Imitation Of Life.” Fourteen more songs would follow, including a portion of the new album, and many timeless classics. “The Great Beyond” in fact, was not only a great song, but a call to the heavens to pour down buckets of rain. Spirits were not to be dampened, however. An impromptu, a capella snippet from “Have You Seen The Rain?”, in mock tribute to the weather, was followed by more dancing from the ball of energy that is Stipe. “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” and “The One I Love” went down well, but the sound of 15,000 – 20,000 people (depending on what you read) singing along to “Losing My Religion” and “Man On The Moon” borders on the surreal.

Finally, after a very generous distribution of fruit to the crowd by the band, it was time for the encore of 1984’s “So. Central Rain” and 1987’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. It could’ve been the end of the world, and the crowd would not have cared. For a little more than an hour, we were entertained by musicians who, after twenty years in the entertainment business, still have not let cynicism and frustration enter their music. The melodies are crisp, the lyrics are meaningful, and the presentation takes you away from the world, to somewhere better, even if it’s for a short time. That’s something money can’t buy. On this day, even a lack of money could not prevent anyone, regardless of their reality, from being taken somewhere better, and being made to believe that it could become true.

Memorable quotes from Michael:

1. "You get what your pay for! It's a free show! The guys are going to do instrumental versions of many of our songs and I'm going to cough my way through them!"

2. "Today, je suis un Canadien!"

3. (Singing as it starts to rain) "I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain? ... (Speaking) Did Bob Dylan write that? Creedance, right, whatever. Bob Dylan's about to turn 60. How about that shit?"

4. "I just want somebody to tell me I'm not going to get electrocuted in front of a live audience! ... Now that would be a spectacle."

5. "Apparently this morning The Toronto Sun -- it's The Sun, right? -- verfied that the New Delhi Monkey Man and George Bush are the same person -- terrifying poor people around the world!"

6. "Are you getting wet? (Speaking to an audience member) No honey, the rain did that, not me, but thank you for the sentiment."

7. "I fucking hate balloons! They've scared me since I was three years old. (Right before stomping on a black balloon that had been floating through the crowd.) You keep your ballons at home there, buddy, or I'll give you some Stipe!"

8. "Can we say hello to Vancouver without getting booed?"

9. "Bowl of fruit anyone?" (Right before tossing bananas, oranges, peaches, prunes, etc. into the crowd.) Peter says we don't want any of that coming back up here, all right?"

10. "Thanks a lot! See you soon! Good Night! (pause) Actually, what I meant to say was, Thanks a lot! See you soon! Good Day!"

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