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Summer Concert Memories: Elvis Sunglasses, Michael Stipe and Me

by on June 06, 2020 5:00 AM


Summer in America has always meant touring artists crisscrossing the country to put on great shows. This summer those concert tours are another one of the annual rituals lost to us.

Like missing sports, missing concerts is not life or death. But in their absence it seemed like a good time to recall memories of concerts past. And that resurfaced a story about R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe ripping me off. It wasn’t at gunpoint or anything like that, but more on that later...

Across human history, music has been an important part of culture as the soundtrack to life. Songs become ingrained in our minds forming associations with events and moments both good and bad.

Years ago U2 lead singer Bono talked about how the imprint of a song or chord on the brain is akin to our olfactory senses. Certain aromas call to mind memories of Mom’s kitchen, or a great meal, or the perfume of an old romance. 

Songs are much like that and there may be no greater manifestation of that than at a concert as live music forms a bond and creates more shared memories. Three years ago at the U2 “Joshua Tree” tour, the crowd sang along to almost every word to every song from that 1987 landmark album. It was a near-religious experience for a show celebrating the 30th anniversary of a masterpiece.

This past year, R.E.M. celebrated the 25th anniversary of their 1994 album “Monster.” In the summer of 1995, they played outdoor shows across the U.S. and that brings us to the scene of Michael Stipe’s heist.

It was June 10, 1995, at what was then called the Star Lake Amphitheater near Pittsburgh. My wife and I had moved back to State College a few months earlier. Since she had never seen R.E.M. live, I made a trade with a friend at WDVE in Pittsburgh. Four Penn State-Michigan tickets for four tickets to the R.E.M. show. 

We got tickets that were front row/dead center and he got to sit on the 50-yard line for Penn State’s “Snow Bowl” win over the Wolverines. What happened at the R.E.M. show remains almost as strong in memory as the fake field goal that beat Michigan… almost

In 1995 I was the proud owner of Elvis-replica sunglasses. We’d spent a few years coaching in Virginia and on trips home we drove through the town of Front Royal, Virginia and a store that sold “Civil War and Elvis Memorabilia.” There was no way I could just drive past without a stop and that is where we got those sunglasses. And of course those glasses made their way to the R.E.M. concert.

Around the middle of the show, Michael Stipe noticed the glasses and pointed at us to toss them up. He put them on as he sang the song “Man on the Moon,” which makes reference to Elvis. After the song the glasses were placed back by the drums.

When the crowd thinned out after the show, we asked one of the stage crew if he could get the glasses back. We could still see them.

He replied, “If they’re up there, you’re not getting them. Everything on stage after the show goes with us.”

Although I was out the $4.99 I’d paid for the shades, we had a pretty good story. But it doesn’t end there.

About two weeks later I was at home and the phone rang, back in the days before everyone had cellphones.

“Hello?” I answered

“You have a collect call from……”

And my friend’s voice yelled, “It’s Mark…take the call, take the call.”

Fearing an emergency I accepted the call.

“I’m at Madison Square Garden, he’s wearing the glasses. Stipe came out wearing your glasses.”

As Michael Stipe walked on stage for the opening song of the concert he was wearing the Elvis sunglasses. Another friend sent me a Boston Globe picture of Michael Stipe wearing the glasses when they played there. Other friends reported back from all over as the tour continued. The Elvis shades were having a great time traveling the country.

After the tour was over, we thought the story ended there. Then they released a documentary called “Road Movie.” There in the opening song was Michael Stipe with the Elvis Sunglasses…..

All these years later, it is impossible to hear Stipe’s iconic voice and not think about that moment. That is the beauty of live music.

Here’s hoping that in the near future, musicians and artists are back on the road bringing people together and creating the kinds of memories that bring smiles to the faces of so many, smiles that linger even decades later.

State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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