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Rapid Eye Movement Live in the Athletic Center

REM, May 3, New Athletic Center.

The lights abruptly fell in the athletic center. Distant echoes of a freight train rumbling against iron tracks came from the speakers. I was alone in a crowd of strangers waiting when REM came to Boston.

The band members entered the stage quietly, shining flashlights like thieves. They are from Athens, GA, on a long college tour to promote their soon-to-be-released album Preconstruction. They had played at Princeton University the night before.

Here is lead singer Michael Stipe, hiding in a large overcoat, his hair covered by a drooping baseball cap put on backwards. White charcoal stains the skin under his eyes like mourning tears. His hands are taped.

These hands tear at his face when he hugs the microphone. Off the band goes. Like a train, the band hurtles through the set. There is little talk. Often the only thing Stipe says after a song is "Thanks."

More than half of some 25 songs they played were new. Only two songs came from their first album. They notably left out their hit single "Radio Free Europe," perhaps to say that no band should be trapped by the past.

In the Preconstruction concert, REM's songs dealt with expectations and the disappointment that comes with them. "Gravity calls," sang Stipe at the top of the set. In "Camera," Stipe stood still staring, and said, "I fell by your bed once. I didn't want to tell you."

Ever since its conception, REM has tried to gain a rapport with its audience through sound alone; Rapid Eye Movement, band of dreams. The band cannot reach the audience through words, because Stipe mumbles his lyrics with a rasping, pleading voice.

Many people don't like the band's music. It is easy to listen to bands which integrate memorable lyrics with a catching melody. REM often defects from the popular format.

But the combination of murky lyrics with straining guitar often strikes one unexpectedly. During "South Central Rain," Stipe turned his back to the audience and cried out in pain. "Sorry ... sorry ... sorry."

At times, when the music of guitars, bass, and drums swell, he flits and floats and sleepwalks across the stage. Someone hands him a bouquet of flowers. He drinks in the fragrance.

Here is the thin Mike Mills, wearing a black Neats t-shirt, glasses off. His bass underlines Peter Buck's piercing, sometimes droning, Rickenbacker. Stipe and Mills sing different halves of a lyric, overlapping layers of sound. Bill Berry holds the band together on drums.

This band has come a long way. In a bar in Albuquerque, NM, drunken patrons paid them five hundred dollars not to play. At an Air Force base in Wichita Falls, Texas, they were pelted with oranges and death threats. The crowd yelled: "Rock 'n' roll, rock 'n' roll!" Buck, REM's guitarist, grabbed someone and asked, "What .. do you mean by rock 'n' roll?"

Answer: "Def Leppard."

"At the end they booed so loud we came back and did an encore," Buck said.

Times have changed. Murmur and Reckoning, the band's first two LPs, won accolades from music reviewers and college radio stations. REM is still an obscure band. The MIT audience was receptive. It was not as enthusiastic as last year, when Cheap Trick played.

But REM was the band that was willing to take a risk. It explored new musical ground at the possible expense of the audience's rejection. Their experiments are getting better known as they tour the colleges. They may well be setting a new trend in contemporary music.

Thomas T. Huang->