When Galaxie 500 arrived at Bowdoin to play a show on April 5, 1991, few knew that the cult dream-pop band was falling apart.

“The notes rang out in cold clarity over the action, condensing themselves into a polar vista, beautiful for all their austerity and absence,” wrote Dan Pearson ’94 in a 2003 issue of the music magazine Stop Smiling. “Hearing it live, you were struck by this sense of space and the power of a single chord or word to ring and dopple out of sight.”

Months before, Pearson and his friend Christopher Heuer ’94 had booked the band to play in Moulton Union’s Main Lounge through the College’s Student Union Committee. In the tradition of college radio DJs eager to engage with underground artists but operating with limited budgets, they booked the band “on a shoestring,” according to Pearson. 
Last week I spoke with Pearson, who now lives in Connecticut and is working on a novel.

“It meant a lot for us to basically bring these things to Maine,” Pearson said. “Most of these bands that came up had never been north of Boston.”

Galaxie 500 had played the night before in Boston University’s hockey arena, warming up the crowd for the band’s better-known peers, the Cocteau Twins. After a transcontinental tour, Bowdoin was Galaxie 500’s last scheduled date before the band moved on to Japan.

But singer and guitarist Dean Wareham had other plans. Tensions had been building for weeks between him and the other two members of the band, drummer Damon Krukowski and bassist Naomi Yang, as they decided whether to sign to a major label following the success of their third album, “This Is Our Music.”

It was a time of transition for a whole generation of bands like Galaxie 500. Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” which signified the arrival of alternative rock on a mainstream stage, was released five months after the show at Bowdoin. 

Sonic Youth, who had been a well-established underground group in the 1980s, released their first album with the major label Geffen in 1990. Their tour the following year was immortalized in a documentary called “1991: The Year Punk Broke.”

Galaxie 500 would never make it to Japan. When the band arrived in Brunswick, a fed-up Wareham had been planning on quitting for weeks, setting the stage for Bowdoin to become an accidental landmark in alt-rock history.

“We were scheduled to go on at nine that night, but the opening band played for an hour and a half while we waited in the green room that the students had set up for us,” Wareham would later write in his 2008 memoir, “Black Postcards.”

“Being a college band, they didn’t know that the opener is supposed to play a short set and then get off the stage. We sat in the green room getting more and more irritated. And that was our final show—an annoying evening at Bowdoin College,” he continued.

Even with the internal tension, the band, with its deceptively simple chord progressions and quietly building percussion, impressed the student crowd of a few dozen that filled Moulton Union.

“It was a truly awesome show,” Pearson said. “The acoustics were awful, but it was the coolest place to have a show. 

Still, for Pearson and his peers, it was hard to square the musical excitement with the band’s apparent lack of interest in the school’s scene.

“[Dean] got so finished, he packed up and went out the door and drove away. I don’t even think he said thank you,” Pearson said. “We bought all this beer, and we wanted to have some beer and talk with them, but they just wanted to get back to Boston.”

The next morning, Krukowski called Wareham, still unaware that he intended to leave the band.

“Damon called Dean to say he was going to buy our plane tickets to Japan for the tour we had booked there, and Dean said he quit. Damon asked why and Dean said he had nothing more to say to us,” Yang recalled in a 2010 interview with Pitchfork.com.

Pearson didn’t hear about the band’s breakup until weeks later, when a tearful writer from CMJ (a music events company) called WBOR’s station manager with the news.

“It was a strange thing, because we were so excited and they were in a very different place with their relationships,” he said. “We really felt bad for a few years after, before the published accounts came out, and we thought it somehow had something to do with us.”

Galaxie 500’s records went on to become an important piece of the indie rock canon, but they remain as a tantalizing reminder of what could have been, as many of their contemporaries crossed over to commercial success while still retaining artistic control. 

The former members seem to agree that a deal with Columbia Records was imminent, had the band stayed together. Instead, the band was finished, along with the underground era it had matured in.

According to Pearson, students booking shows at Bowdoin felt the effects. All of a sudden, he said, “You weren’t talking to some dude in his apartment in Chicago. You were talking to major labels.”

“There were some very good shows, but by the time we were seniors we had really stopped trying to bring these little shows to campus,” he added. “They were putting more money into bigger acts.”

At Bowdoin, the concert itself seems largely forgotten. I did a double take when I came across a poster advertising the show on a music blog this summer. Of the Galaxie 500 fans I’ve spoken to at Bowdoin, none had heard that the band’s last show happened here.

Still, the ethos that brought the band to Bowdoin in the first place lives on. In spring 2013, The Antlers—a band whose atmospheric, melancholy guitar pop makes them a sort of spiritual heir to Galaxie 500—played WBOR’s spring concert in Smith Union before a similarly enraptured crowd.

Last spring brought an equally successful show from underground rapper Murs. While the members of Galaxie 500 seem unlikely to reunite—Wareham has a solo career, while the other two members perform as Damon & Naomi—independent music has once again found a home at Bowdoin.