R.E.M. and the legacy of that perfect circle of acquaintances and friends

I wasn’t going to post anything here about the recent news that R.E.M. was breaking up, until, at the gym this morning, I heard two network morning show talking heads going back and forth about how they’d only started appreciating the band in recent years. I suppose they could have meant that they were really into Poison and Starship in the mid 80’s, and they’re just now realizing how stupid they’d been. But, the sense that I got was that they didn’t start appreciating the band until the foursome from Athens, Georgia started churning out top 40 hits. Well, for whatever reason, it got to me. I can see people saying that R.E.M. became less relevant with time, but it really bothered me to hear people articulate the belief that the band found its creative voice with Losing My Religion. At any rate, that motivated me to come home and start typing.

R.E.M. was an incredibly important band for me in the early to mid-80’s. It not only gave me something to dance around and drink to while showering, but it pointed me in the direction of a lot of a lot of other things that would become hugely influential in my life. (For some reason, I showered a lot in the mid-80’s. At least, I have a lot of memories of drinking rum and Cokes in the shower, and screaming along with R.E.M. records. It was kind of a weekend ritual for me, like watching episodes of Degrassi Junior High wile eating tunafish on Ritz crackers, which would happen immediately beforehand. It’s still kind of amazing to me that I didn’t slip in the tub while dancing along to Murmur and kill myself.)

I know this will sound odd to a lot of you, but it was different back then, when you fell in love with a band. Before the internet, you had to actually talk with people in record stores, read zines, and do geeky stuff, like join fan clubs that would send you real, honest-to-goodness letters. I can’t remember when I first heard R.E.M.. It may have been in October 1983, when they appeared on Letterman. I don’t think, however, that I was watching Letterman every night until I was a little older. It’s more likely that my friend Andrew told me about them. I seem to recall him telling me that they visited his New Jersey college in ’83. (The early R.E.M., fueled by speed, toured like crazy.) Michael Stipe, if I remember correctly, had shaved his head like a monk prior to that show, and proceeded to lather up the remaining ring of hair with mustard and other condiments. At least that’s how I remember the story being related to me. And, at some point after that, Andrew made me a cassette with a bunch of bootlegs from their early days in Athens, back when they hosted parties in the church on Oconee Street. Or maybe I heard something about them at Country Pie, the local record store in Newton, New Jersey where I’d go to spend my hardware store money on cassettes. I can’t remember which came first. Whatever it was, though, it made a powerful imprint on my young mind.

Not only did I love those first records, and seek out every opportunity possible to see the band, but I also started digging into their roots, trying to find out everything I could about the scene in Athens around that same time. I’d already been into the B52s, but, thanks to R.E.M., I found out about Pylon, and, through Pylon, I found out about the label DB Recs. New doors kept opening up, and I kept running though them, happy to have something to feel passionate about at long last. Then, in 1987, the documentary Athens, GA. Inside/Out came to a tiny art theater not too far from where I lived at the time in Washington, D.C.. I’d go and see it, by myself, on three consecutive nights, in hopes of committing it all to memory. And the rest was history. Not too long after that, I’d decide to form my first band.

I’d taken similar journeys with the Velvet Underground and Warhol, and the CBGB’s scene that spawned the Ramones and their contemporaries in New York, but this exploration of Athens may have been the last real time that dove in and really tried to apply the techniques of historic archeology to a cultural scene in hopes of figuring out who was ultimately responsible, and what all the contributing factors were. As much as I loved the music, it was always more about the attitude with me – this idea that arose in Athens at the time that anyone could make art, regardless of whether or not they could play instruments. I know I’ve talked about it here before, but there’s great scene in Athens, Ga: Inside/Out in which Michael from Pylon, a painter by training, explains how he just decided to buy a cheap bass and start making music, irregardless of the fact that he had no idea how. It was incredibly liberating.

Linette just walked up behind me, saw what I was writing about, and said something like, “Every boy I knew went through a stage where they loved R.E.M., only to eventually turn their backs them.” And, as much as I’d like to think that I’m special, I guess that’s what happened with me. At some point, I just stopped buying records. The last one I bought was Green in 1988. I’m not sure what happened. When I’d hear their stuff on the radio, I’d like it, but it just didn’t grab me in the same way. Maybe it’s part of growing up. Maybe, sooner or later, you have to turn against those whom you most admire, in order to carve out some kind of identity of your own. Or, maybe, their music just wasn’t as compelling. Either way, I just wanted to put it down on the record that, a long time ago, they meant a hell of a lot to me. And, more importantly, they led the way to people like Howard Finster and Vanessa from Pylon who I’d actually become friends with in the real world…. It’s certainly weird how things unfold in life.

And, here, if you haven’t heard it in a while, is Radio Free Europe:

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34 Comments

  1. Tommy
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Mark – I, like you, thought that REM was one of those bands that comes around once in a generation and you were damn glad you found them. I first heard them in the basement of a friend who was off to college and we joined up in the Summer to shoot the shit and talk and listen to records. I was up here at EMU and was into the first wave of British bands at the time. My contribution to the listening sessions were early Furs, Bunnnymen, Joy Division, XTC and U2. Something about that sound that just was right for me at the time. The music had a desperation that you could somehow feel – it is hard to describe. REM was like that too, and I would say that their first five albums compare to any bands five consecutive releases very favorably (the only thing I think is close is the Stones in the 70’s, where everything – minus perhaps Some Girls – was ballsy, bluesy, and drug induced mayhem).

    Makes me think back and wonder if any other readers ever frequented a place in A2 called Make Waves on State Street. It was the place in town to get Punk and New Wave music and clothing. Fond memories indeed.

  2. Edward
    Posted September 25, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    REM was the template for how college radio favorites became successful.

  3. Posted September 25, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Degrassi! I loved that show! Had such a crush on Snake. Remember when we found out his brother was gay? Good times.

    I loved this band until the Orange Crush-Stand-Shiny Happy People trifecta and then it kind of fell apart from me. They got me back though with Strange Currencies. I love that song for reasons I don’t think I can explain.

  4. Posted September 26, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    I have always hated REM. I never will understand what could possibly be good about them. I lived in the South in the 80’s and was subjected to their drivel and, worse yet, their fans , on a daily basis.

    Good riddance.

    Mind you, like all opinions on music, this is just my opinion.

  5. Tommy
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    Simple, straighforward, stripped down alterna-twang. That is what was good, and new, and refreshing about them Pete. I can see why many in the South could not comprehend their goodness as the messes were trying to find the replacement for Lynyrd Skynyrd at the time.

  6. Burt Reynolds
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Starship Rules!

  7. Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    On the contrary, as a Southern band, they were wildly popular.

    I really didn’t get it. I even had the misfortune of seeing them not once, but twice. The Athens scene just never clicked with me, though my opinion certainly matters not.

    I have to say that Skynrd were infinitely worse all four times I’ve ever seen them.

  8. Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry, mark, I shouldn’t have even commented here. If one can’t say anything nice….

  9. Bob
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    They were so important for pop music, and so good during the IRS years. I’m not sure I can think of another band who hurt their own legacy more by staying together. They were mostly awful for more than twenty years. Even the Stones manage at least one good Keith Richards song every release. They just became increasingly insufferable as individuals, even Mike Mills and Buck came off as jerks in recent years.

  10. Edward
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Didn’t Peter Buick get thrown off an airplane a few years ago for dumping a yogurt on someone’s head?

  11. Lynne
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    ahhh. I remember how I found out about REM. A friend in high school who was very into alternative music gave me a tape of Chronic Town sometime in the late spring of 1982. I loved it! Some of my fondest memories are of the huge arguments we had about the lyrics.

    I’ve seen REM live dozens of times, all over the country, including in some pretty small venues. Some of my best memories are of singing REM songs with my friends in various situations. The best was having a friend sing “Everybody Hurts” to me while on a hiking trip. I had pulled a muscle in my leg and every step was agony. We were at the last big climb before the camp site and he scampered up the hill and stood at the top singing “Everybody Hurts” as I screamed at him that the only reason I was coming up the hill was to kick his butt. :) Ahhhh. REM is totally part of the sound track of my life :)

    But like you, I abandoned them too. I stuck it out a little longer and Monster was the last album I bought from them. I still listen to those old albums but you know what, even though I’ve liked their newer stuff when I’ve heard it on the radio, I’ve found that I can meet my REM needs with the 10 albums I own so I don’t feel any real need to buy their new stuff (which to me, sounds a lot like their old stuff)

  12. Kristin
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    When I transferred all of my albums to my pod I realized how much REM I had. I didn’t love the later stuff like I loved the early stuff, but I kept buying it because I felt like they deserved me to take their entire oeuvre into account. Also, I was a DJ on WCBN in the early-mid 80s, and, you know. That stuff was way up on the request lists.

  13. Posted September 26, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I like Howard Finster’s music better.

  14. Mr. X
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    This is a nice post, even with the stuff from Pete. Pete, by the way, also hates the Beatles. But I think you probably could have guessed that. Thanks for sharing your memories as to how you were first exposed to REM, everyone.

  15. Demetrius
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Who are the Beatles? I have honestly never heard of them …

  16. Meta
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    REM guitarist Peter Buck yesterday thanked a jury which cleared him of going on a drunken rampage aboard a British Airways plane, in which he sprayed flight attendants with the contents of a pot of yoghurt.

    The band’s singer Michael Stipe and Buck’s wife Stephanie burst into tears as the jury cleared him of a charge of being drunk on an aircraft last April, two counts of common assault, and one charge of damaging BA crockery.

    After the verdict, Buck shook hands with junior prosecuting counsel Edward Lewis and told him: “I’m sorry about this whole situation.”

    Buck did not deny his behaviour but claimed a Zolpiden sleeping pill reacted violently with alcohol, turning him into a “non-insane automaton”.

    He told the trial at Isleworth crown court that he remembered nothing between shutting his eyes in his first class seat and waking up at Heathrow police station believing he must have suffered a heart attack.

    David Bate, QC, prosecuting, told the court the sleeping pill story was a “desperate lie” told to protect Buck’s multimillion pound career.

    But the jury – who had been sitting opposite Stipe, Mrs Buck and REM bassist Mike Mills for the final week of the trial – evidently disagreed.

    Leaving court grinning broadly, with an arm around Stipe, Buck thanked the court and jury. “I’m obviously relieved to be finished here and I am looking forward to returning my attention to my family, to my band, and our music,” he said.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/apr/06/world.jeevanvasagar

  17. Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Obviously, the rise of sharia law in America is to blame.

  18. Posted September 26, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Demetrius — the Beatles were a British band from several decades ago. They played rather saccharine pop music, appealing mostly to teenage girls.

  19. Meta
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Rebuttal.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVf5Cr4M-F8

  20. Posted September 26, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    And watered-down imitations of pieces others had done earlier. As tape collages go, this one is more inventive, don’t you think?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MckifQZuIxE&feature=related

  21. Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Well played.

    I still like the Beatles, though.

  22. Bob
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    John Cage and Yoko were old friends, long before she met Lennon. John Lennon and Cage liked to cook macrobiotic meals together too.

  23. Mark
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Must be where he’d his ideas.

  24. Bob
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    That Cage bio that came out earlier this year is a really good read too. He was an interesting cat. One of the countries leading experts on mushroom hunting.

  25. Posted September 27, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    My old classmate, Kyle Gann, wrote a nice book all about Cage’s silent piece, 4’33”: “There Is No Such Thing As Silence.” I recommend it. He and I once performed Cage’s two-piano piece, “Experiences 1.” Ah, memories.

  26. Oliva
    Posted September 28, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Gosh I liked reading about those early (earlier) days–really got across a precious thing, a kind of love, and the very sweet magic of deep feeling it can spur/stir in your life, what it brings along and lets happen. I love hearing about the shower ritual too and feel a need to hear some old REM songs now and next time I shower (sometime soon, ha ha). (Will hear “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” and get a very mushy heart . . . )

  27. Levi
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    I spent a few years hearing the early REM music (mostly by accident at friends’ dorm rooms). Not terribly impressed. Cute little ditties, I guess.
    I just wonder what would make someone say they were “relevant.”
    Folk-rock, country-rock, whatever. Straight forward. Not mind altering. Just background stuff.
    And what would make them less relavant now? Their popularity? I must have missed something.

  28. Edward
    Posted October 10, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Put on your yogurt protective clothing. Peter Buck’s back is healed, and he’s going on tour.

    http://www.remhq.com/news_story.php?id=1461

  29. Mr. X
    Posted November 14, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    An interview with Stipe about the breakup is on Salon today.

    http://www.salon.com/2011/11/14/michael_stipe_why_r_e_m_called_it_a_day/

  30. Posted July 14, 2012 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    Nice piece my friend.

  31. Posted July 14, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Hey, Vanessa. I’m glad you found this. It’s nice to know that you’re visiting the site on occasion. One of these days, I need to post that interview I did with you and Michael on the site.

    For folks who don’t recognize the name, this comment comes from one of my favorite musicians of all time, Vanessa Briscoe Hay, formerly of Pylon. I’ve written about Pylon a lot in the past. They’re responsible, among other things, for me starting my first band. They’re also some of the nicest, most genuine people you’ll ever meet… and wrote damned good songs.

  32. Posted July 14, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Here’s Vanessa’s Wikipedia page.

  33. PRD
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    My best lovemaking was done to REM.

  34. anon
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    no wonder she left you

One Trackback

  1. […] as big of a fan as my friend and colleague Joe Csicsila and I think local blogger/man about town Mark Maynard kind of summed it up for me in a way with this post on his blog.  Sort of; I’m no musician and not really a fanatic about anything, but there was a time […]

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