This article is dedicated to the lonesome misfits of Generation X. Names of people and some places have been changed for the usual reasons.
In 1983 I was an obnoxious 14-year-old nerd whose voracious appetite for music was consistently left unsatisfied. I consumed everything on the radio, which in my neck of the woods meant rock, country and pop — and that last category was decidedly my favorite. More than anything, I was way into Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls, Thomas Dolby, Spandau Ballet, Eurythmics, the Police, Culture Club and the rest of the Second British Invasion being blasted on Top 40 radio at the time. But that wasn’t enough.
I listened to my Okie great-granddad’s records (honky tonk, easy listening/exotica, western swing), my grandmother’s eight-tracks (Elvis, Bobby Vinton, the Platters), my mother’s various singles and LPs and tapes (1970s disco and R&B), borrowed media from the public library, homemade cassettes of a distant New Wave station a crafty friend recorded with the use of a high-gain FM antenna — anything I could get my hands on — and still I craved more. A beloved teacher/gifted counselor was kind enough to give me an excellent rock & roll encyclopedia, and around the same time, one of my great-aunts bought me a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone. I read about so many musicians, singers, bands old and new, and I knew there was a whole wide world of music out there — but I was only able to see it from a great distance, as through a spyglass.
We didn’t even yet have MTV in my small, isolated, rural hometown, though video music anthology programs were popping up on cable and network TV, and it must have been around this time that I also started seeing the literally life-altering Night Flight and Radio 1990 programs on the USA Network. From these I would learn about reggae, punk rock, experimental acts like the Residents and Laurie Anderson, underground cinema and lots more fringe culture I would not have heard about otherwise. As I spent my days being alternately bored to death in class and threatened by bullies in the halls of a high school that considered mandatory football pep assemblies a passable substitute for cultural education, this programming was manna from heaven.
Somewhere in this nebulum of music reportage, I caught wind of the buzz surrounding a band called REM, from someplace called Athens, Georgia. I was gobsmacked when I saw a tiny photo in some magazine, showing the band in black-and-white, one of them with his back to the camera, wearing an iconic FFA jacket, just like generations of the farm kids in my town had worn. Now that’s relatable! I wondered what these guys sounded like, and I remember perusing the music section at our local K-Mart to see if their album Murmur was to be had. No dice. They didn’t have it at Sparks Music downtown, either.
And then one day I heard that REM was going to be the musical guest on Late Night with David Letterman, and I tuned in.
When the band launched into “Radio Free Europe,” the first thing that struck me, more than the music, was their look. They were kind of — I want to say dorky, but that’s probably too harsh. They didn’t look like rock stars to me, that’s for sure. On the left was this skinny guy with short hair, looking like president of the chess club, decked out in all black, down to his tight muscle shirt, Converse sneakers and wrist sweatband, hammering the shit out of a big black Rickenbacker bass. Opposite him, a birdlike fellow with longish dark hair had on what looked like a thrift store disco shirt in onion purple (which I realize just now, while writing this, was the same shirt he wore in the song’s official music video), an open black vest draped over it, and his own black Rickenbacker guitar over that, and he skittered and wobbled around on his feet nonstop as he strummed. The guy back on the drums was all mullet and bare arms, and up front was a curly-headed moptop in an beige-on-beige ensemble perhaps lifted from his uncle’s closet, braying half-intelligible spurts of wordage into the mic. None of them was particularly good looking; Duran Duran they weren’t.
While I was busy parsing out the visual, their music started worming its way into my backbrain and by the first time the B part of the song came around, Mills’ melodic and agile ascending/descending bass line hooked me and they had my attention. They ran twice through the verse, twice through the B part, and then, there it was — the tension finally released in the burst of that call-and-response chorus: CALLING OUT! (in transit) CALLING OUT! (in transit) RADIO! FREE EUROPE! RADIO!
OK, that was pretty good.
After a commercial break, Dave walked over to interview the band. The singer guy sat in the background off-camera, apparently too shy to be put on the spot on national TV, and let bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck do the talking. They had a short friendly chat about their background and the success of their debut album, and then they played another song, one so new it had not yet been named.
If “Radio Free Europe” had set me up, well, this gentle, roughly pretty number totally knocked me down. As in the previous song, Buck’s guitar tone was entirely clean, the trademark jangle of the Rickenbacker chiming like a bell, even if it was maybe a little out of tune. There was no hard rock overdrive, distortion or fuzz, nor the barest trace of the slick, echoing sheen of digital effects ubiquitous to the New Wave records of the era. It sounded more like a guitar from the ’60s than anything I had heard in the ’80s. And as in “Radio Free Europe,” Buck broke up his straight-up rhythm playing with pretty arpeggiated ornamentation on the chorus, picking the same phrase from the song’s intro in brittle single notes as the singer mourned, “I’M SORRYYYY” over the top. Mills was right there again, too, with a clever bass part, carrying the entirety of the melody during the brief little four-bar bit connecting the end of the chorus with the top of the next verse. And this time I finally noticed the drummer, riding the floor tom heavy in the intro and those in-between segments too, adding a note of gravitas to the bottom end of this melancholy ballad, making sure we didn’t miss the “rock” in “folk-rock.”
This was the moment I fell in love with REM.
I did my best to find out more about them, but in the catch-as-catch-can media environment in which I lived, this was largely an exercise in futility. Rolling Stone named Murmur their album of the year for 1983 — over Thriller, mind you — but I still hadn’t managed to find my own copy. And then one day there was a brand new REM album at the K-Mart, one called Reckoning, with weird hand-drawn cover art, the song titles scrawled all over a multicolored snake in black ink. I bought the tape immediately and stuck it in my off-brand Walkman and let the music flow over and into and through me as I pedaled my ten-speed back across town to my grandmother’s house.
This was clearly the same band I had seen on Letterman the preceding autumn, their tunes alternately driving and moody, jangly and yowly and not a little cryptic. This was my first real dive into the band’s music and it felt a little like watching a foreign film. What is a harborcoat, anyway? Why “7 Chinese Brothers” instead of the five from the classic children’s story? Why was the pretty song from Letterman titled “So. Central Rain” when there was no mention of rain in it? What was happening in “Camera?” Who was Jefferson? And what was with this undercurrent of pining melancholy that ran through so many of the songs?
I would go on to listen to Reckoning countless times over the next year or so, shuffling it in between other cassettes of the era — Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Van Halen’s 1984, U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, Prince’s Purple Rain, the Cars’ Heartbeat City, Thompson Twins’ Into the Gap, Tina Turner’s Private Dancer. We finally did get MTV in town and I was soon inundated with repeat airings of videos by John Waite, Kenny Loggins, Phil Collins, Night Ranger, Cyndi Lauper, Billy Idol, ZZ Top, Scandal, etc., and I liked a fair amount of them. But the murky, moody vibe of Reckoning kept calling me back. There was something different happening there, like receiving a mysterious transmission in a language I had never heard before, yet I somehow understood — maybe not completely, but enough to know that the message was intended for me.
This was my freshman year in high school and I remember being stopped one day in the hallway by a kid in my grade, a ginger-haired fellow called Seth who lurched when he walked, arms almost akimbo, but with his hands hanging loose. Even though he ran with both the stoners and the jocks, cliques that were often hostile to outsiders, he was always kind to me. (This may have been at least in part due to the fact that his mom was at the time dating my father, with whom I had only recently been reacquainted after a lifetime of estrangement.) Seth asked what I was listening to in my Walkman and I took the headphones off and handed them over to him. “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” was on.
“What is this?” he asked, making a face like he was taking a dose of medicine. I told him and he listened another five seconds or so, took the headphones off and handed them back to me, shaking his head. “Man,” he said, “you got to get some Sabbath in that thing.”
But to be honest, stuff like Black Sabbath still scared me a little bit, as, having grown up in the Church of Christ, I thought it was too devilish. I was only just beginning to dip my toes into the heavier fare becoming popular on the radio at the time, stuff like Def Leppard and Ratt and Twisted Sister. It wasn’t just the Satan angle, either — I legitimately had little taste for harder music, though that would change with time. No, for now, there would be no Sabbath for me. I was busy going down the rabbit hole of “college rock,” soon to be rebranded as “alternative music” — and REM was my White Rabbit, leading me on every step of the way. They were my gateway drug, in many ways, to the proverbial “harder stuff.” (And this was before I had heard Murmur, or was even aware of the existence of their earlier EP Chronic Town.)
One thing about being an REM fan in 1984 was that none of my classmates knew enough about them to decide if I should be made fun of for liking them — unlike, say, the suspiciously queerish David Bowie. In the back of Rolling Stone were ads for all kinds of rock & roll swag, and one of the merchants therein sold concert tees. I sent in some of my paper route money for a Serious Moonlight tour baseball tee, with ringer collar and three-quarter-length sleeves. I was just really getting into Bowie, having recently bought both The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and the newly-released Let’s Dance, and I thought the shirt was really cool. The first day I wore it to school, as I was standing in line in the boys’ locker room waiting to be dismissed from phys ed, one of the troglodytes from my class caught sight of it, pointed and opened his yap.
“Hey, I seen that guy on TV, kissin’ another dude,” the Neanderthal brayed. “He’s a fag!”
Every eye in the room turned to me and I felt like a cartoon thermometer about to explode from the heat. Everybody waited quietly for me to respond.
“So what if he is?” I finally muttered, half-audibly. A collective gasp sucked all the air out of the room.
“What!?” barked the caveman, heaving a grunt of disbelief. “Well, you must be a fag too, then!”
The bell rang too late to save me from the long shaming hoots, the gales of derisive laughter. I never wore that shirt to school again.
A year came and went, bringing with it a series of coming-of-age milestones: I turned 16, I got my first car, I quit the paper route I had worked for four years and got a “real” job at Long John Silver’s. That summer, not long before the Live Aid concerts, REM released their third full-length album, Fables of the Reconstruction. To my surprise, MTV started airing the rather silly video for the first single, “Can’t Get There from Here,” in regular rotation.
Does this mean REM is going to get popular? Naw, they’re too weird.
I bought the cassette at K-Mart and listened to it over and over again, its moody, downcast vibe providing a rather contradictory counterpoint to an otherwise super fun summer, my first with my own car and extra pocket money.
That summer I also listened to Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair a lot, and Talking Heads’ Little Creatures, John Fogerty’s Centerfield, the Cult’s Love, the Power Station album, Prince’s Around the World in a Day, not to mention some random older records I had picked up at yard sales and pawn shops and literal garbage piles, things like The Yes Album, Creedence’s Cosmo’s Factory, the Stones’ octagonal-covered Through the Past Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2), the Byrds’ greatest hits record and Kraftwerk’s Computer World. I was deep in the thrall of the Columbia Record & Tape Club then, too, and picking up lots of the classic rock back catalog my friends were into, stuff like the Doors’ greatest hits album, Led Zeppelin IV, Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?, the Deep Purple Perfect Strangers reunion album, etc. On a trip to Wichita I found in a cutout bin not one but two vinyl records by Jason & the Scorchers, a band I had seen on TV, and on one of them I was surprised to see REM singer Michael Stipe’s name listed twice in the liner notes — once for his backing vocals on “Hot Nights in Georgia” and again for his songwriting contribution to “Both Sides of the Line.” Even when I strayed from REM, they winked at me from the margins, it seemed.
And then I met my Marya, my first proper girlfriend, who, having moved to the sticks from California, was infinitely hipper than me and everybody else in our backwater burg. She loved REM, and knew lots more than me about them and lots of other bands, too. She even had a cassette of an EP recorded by some of her Cali friends, which genuinely impressed the absolute shit out of me. Looking back now I can easily discern the acts that must have been that band’s influences — Echo & the Bunnymen, the Smiths, Siouxsie & the Banshees — but at the time I didn’t really know much of anything about those groups, so the Penguins Slept tape seemed like cutting-edge stuff to me.
In Marya I finally had someone with whom I could share my love of REM, though almost nobody else I knew could be bothered to give a lick. My buddy Jack, who was like me a pretty heavy music head, was at least tolerant of them, but most of my other friends just turned up their noses. They were going down different musical paths; a lot were into heavy metal, others preferred country or R&B, probably the majority just listened to whatever was on pop radio and called it good. This weird mushmouthed mopey jive I liked was not even on the table for consideration.
Marya had set up a grotto in the loft of the weird old farmhouse where she lived and we were forever up there having sex, and despite the size and breadth of our combined collections of music, it seems like the two albums that got played over and over while we were doing it were, for better or for worse, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits and U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. In retrospect, perhaps “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Positively 4th Street” and songs inspired by the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and the assassination of Martin Luther King weren’t the best bellwethers for our relationship.
Inspired in part by the tape of Marya’s friends’ band out in Cali, she and I and Trevor, a Black kid from our school who owned a rather spartan drum kit, started a band, such as it was. I bought my first electric guitar, an old Custom Kraft made in the ’60s, from the legendarily shady local pawn shop, but it only had five strings on it. I don’t know why I didn’t buy more, but for some reason I didn’t — or perhaps I did and the same one broke again. At any rate, I actually used the hobbled axe to write a couple of rudimentary songs, to which Marya penned lyrics. We rehearsed these a few times and then one day invited a couple friends over to hear us perform in my grandmother’s tight living room while the old lady was away. I think we played three songs, one of which was a cover of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” I’m sure we were terrible, but I still recall one of our originals fondly, at least, even if I can’t for the life of me remember its title. I wish I could hear the old cassette tape we made of that now; I’m sure it would be a hoot.
Marya was a grade ahead of me in school and graduated in the spring of 1986, moving on to the local community college and leaving me with one year left to go in high school. That summer, almost like clockwork, another REM album dropped. And this one was way different from what I had come to expect.
From the serpentine guitar figure and burst of distorted feedback that opens Lifes Rich Pageant to the secret bonus track at its end, this was the first REM record to dispense with hyphenated prefixes like folk- and alt- and just straight up rock. “Begin the Begin,” “These Days,” “Just a Touch,” “Superman” — all busted out of the meek, gentle REM framework of old with loud, brawny guitars and spirited delivery from frontman Stipe, who appeared to be finally coming out of his shell. Drummer Bill Berry was given more opportunity to rock out, too, and as always, Mills provided more than his share of the songs’ melodic structures with his creative basslines and trademark vocal harmonies.
But there are just as many laid-back numbers on Pageant, and while that’s par for the course on any REM album, here they are beautifully augmented with pump organ and piano parts, also courtesy of Mills, and layers of guitar (and even some banjo licks) from Buck. Also notable are the thematic threads that run consistently throughout the length of this record, primarily those of nature and our relationship to it, and political oppression. “Fall On Me,” “Cuyahoga,” “Hyena,” “The Flowers of Guatemala,” “What If We Give It Away?” — all explicitly or figuratively address the debasement of the earth and/or the people who live on it, exhibiting a consciousness that had largely been absent or at least marginalized in their earlier work. Perhaps it was no accident that Stipe was now routinely singing clearly enough to make out his lyrics.
I guessed a big part of the new sound could be put down to the production of the album, provided by Don Gehman, a guy best known for working with John Cougar Mellencamp. It was even recorded in JCM’s studio in Indiana! This seemed to me like a dangerous flirtation with the mainstream, but I cannot say I didn’t enjoy the results, as Pageant quickly became a favorite album of mine. I reckon it didn’t hurt that despite what it might have done to any hypothetical hipster cred I might have had, I actually liked Mellencamp a lot, and it wasn’t that hard for me to draw a line between the agrarian undercurrents in his music and REM’s.
And then the “Fall On Me” video started playing on MTV — and not just on the new “alternative music” show 120 Minutes, either. The single made the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and I was flabbergasted the first time I heard it on my local FM rock radio station, right alongside Van Hagar’s “Love Walks In,” Ozzy’s “Shot in the Dark,” Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”
What the fuck is happening?
Perhaps it was a sign of the times. The ’80s were a weird era for popular music, with all sorts of novel flash-in-the pan acts hitting the charts, and old radio warhorses reinventing themselves for the video music epoch. One-hit-wonders abounded and the rather broad stylistic range of the Top 40 made for strange bedfellows. “Fall On Me” wasn’t just nestled in between hard rock songs, it was rubbing shoulders on pop stations with “I Can’t Wait” by Nu Shooz and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” Janet’s “When I Think of You” and “Walk This Way” by the electrifying but unlikely union of Run-DMC and Aerosmith, “Say You, Say Me” and “Word Up!” Given the general anything-goes tenor of the day, it wasn’t so strange that REM was getting their moment in the sun, I supposed.
And to be clear, I was never one of those people who only likes an act until it becomes popular. I am not concerned with artists “selling out,” and in general am very happy when my favorite musicians find success. But there was still a little part of me — maybe it was bigger than I want to admit — that treasured REM so deeply precisely because they weren’t widely venerated. My love for this weird little band from Georgia, whose odd and spooky music had come and found me and spoken to me, was a part of my identity, as adorably pitiful as that sounds now. What would happen if I had to share them with the whole world?
I started 1987 working as a cook at Kentucky Fried Chicken; the place was alarmingly understaffed and my shifts stretched late into the night as I did the greasy, gritty, grimy work of two — and then, as my car was broken, I had to walk the mile-plus back to my grandmother’s house in the dark, so reeking of chicken that stray dogs and cats followed me down the street. After a couple months of that bullshit, I quit. I graduated high school by the skin of my teeth that May and the next thing I knew, Marya and I were both recruited by the local Kirby vaccuum cleaner organization to work as door-to-door salespeople.
The story of selling $1000 sweepers to randos in small towns all over South-Central Kansas in the late ’80s is one too grand in scope to tell here, but suffice it to say we spent a lot of time riding in a van down the long, straight highways between little farm towns. That was pretty much how I spent my first summer out of high school, and though it was a dreadful, stone cold drudge of a job, I nevertheless did sell a surprising number of the heavy, expensive American-made vacuums.
Fall brought with it my first semester enrolled in the hometown community college, where Marya had already finished a year. REM released a new album, Document, and the leadoff single, “The One I Love,” became an instant hit, reaching the Top Ten(!) before I managed to buy a copy of the album. The first time I heard Document all the way through, in fact, was the week before Halloween, when my buddy Jack and I listened to his cassette copy as we drove up to Wichita in his ’72 Cougar to see Boston on their Third Stage tour. I just had too much going on, writing and editing on three regular publications in the school’s journalism department, making new friends, getting a tattoo(!) for a newspaper story, maintaining my always-tumultuous relationship with Marya, keeping up my household chores at Grandma’s. Music was falling out of focus a bit for me.
Among the new people I met at the juco were a couple cool older kids from out of state, Nate and Jessie. They were brother and sister, he a year or two older than me and she in her late 20s, and both were into cool music. When Nate, purported to be a skilled rock drummer, asked me if I liked REM, I felt seen (and even flattered) in a way I had little precedent for. I was also delighted to meet the hippie journalism advisor, his son and the son’s girlfriend, all of whom were extremely bright, funny and serious about real-world things in a way most of the adults I had grown up around were not. I went camping with them once at the local quarry-turned-state-fishing-lake and was blown away when father and son pulled out acoustic guitars and started playing Neil Young songs around the fire. It was like an impossibly beautiful dream.
Most importantly, it was here that I met Earl, who to this day remains my longest-running and most significant musical collaborator — not to mention one of the best friends I ever had. Our initial interactions, however, were not so auspicious. He seemed like a guy with a lot going on under the surface, clearly talented and bright but tense and guarded in a way that made me wonder if he was OK. I didn’t think we would appreciate being asked, so I didn’t. On a journalism department trip to Topeka I found out that he was also a ridiculously gifted guitar player, but I only heard his playing from a distance, as I was more or less consigned to hanging out with Marya, who worked on the school publications too.
Though Earl would go on to be my musical partner for decades to follow, as fate would have it, this was about as far as our acquaintanceship would go for the time being. That winter I would make the egregious error of moving out of my grandmother’s house and into an apartment downtown with Marya, which led to me dropping out of community college halfway through the second semester of my freshman year. The mental and physical abuse she had heaped upon me with regularity for the previous two and a half years only metastasized with our cohabitation and one night it escalated to the point of no return. We broke up and I dragged my sorry ass back to Grandma’s and started doing pre-enrollment work to transfer to Wichita State that fall.
Now that I had more time on my hands, I turned my attention back to music. And that summer of 1988 was a big one for me. Somehow I had missed the fact that REM had put out an odds-and-sods compilation album, Dead Letter Office, the year before. On a trip to Wichita for college-related biz, I stopped at a small local music store and picked up the CD — yes, I was fancy now — and was jazzed to discover that it was bundled together on the same disc with REM’s debut EP Chronic Town. I made a point of finally picking up a cassette copy of Murmur that summer, too, and between it and the Dead Letter Office/Chronic Town CD, I found my old ardor for REM rekindled in a big way. Where the more recent albums — which I did truly love — had strayed into harder sounds and more varied, layered arrangements, this older material had been recorded years before, when the young band was still rooted in its old jingle-jangle ways, and though it was all new to me, it felt instantly familiar, like hearing an old friend’s voice over the telephone.
Perhaps the greatest gift REM ever gave me came by way of Dead Letter Office, the compilation of b-sides and outtakes — as it was instrumental in introducing me to their own musical heroes, most notably the Velvet Underground, three of whose songs are covered therein. In addition there was a great song by another Athens band, Pylon, and even covers of Aerosmith and Roger Miller. Peter Buck wrote the liner notes and referenced bluegrass progenitor Bill Monroe. This was a new look at REM for me, one that explicitly exposed their influences and gave a peek behind the curtain of their earnest public image to reveal a playful goofiness I would have scarcely suspected to exist.
1988 was truly my personal REMaissance. I now owned their entire official catalog, plus a live cassette bootleg I had picked up somewhere. It was poorly recorded and cheaply reproduced, but the urgency and energy in the band’s performance nevertheless threw fuel on the renewed fire of my love for them. I couldn’t wait to hear what they would do next.
And then something monumental happened. My friend Aidan, long in the habit of tuning in and recording far-off radio stations, came over to my house one afternoon with a cassette in his hand. “Listen to this,” he said, handing the tape to me and gesturing toward my cassette deck. “I found a radio show coming out of Wichita late at night and they play all kinds of crazy stuff.”
Intrigued, I stuck the tape in the machine and pressed play. The first thing I heard was this:
I don’t remember now what else was on that tape, but I do know I tuned in that very night to 89.1 FM, the college radio station based at Wichita State University. They had only recently boosted their signal strength from 10,000 to 100,000 watts, making it easy to pick up even 50+ miles away in my hometown.
Here it was, finally — the spigot of cool music I had needed to slake my thirst for years. In the remaining weeks before I moved to Wichita, I listened night after night and heard all sorts of strange and beautiful and sometimes terrifying stuff. There was Das Damen, Jandek, Camper Van Beethoven, the Fall, the Mekons, Pere Ubu, the Butthole Surfers, Screaming Trees, Joy Division, Patti Smith, K.D. Lang, Sugarcubes — and local acts, too, like the Blivets, Klyde Konnor and Joe’s Nose. I was totally freaking out.
Summer ended and I moved away from home and into one of the tall, twin brick dormitories at 21st & Hillside in Wichita. I had a jean jacket and wrote REM in giant letters across the back using a cotton ball dipped in bleach, resulting in many people taking to referring to me as “REM Guy.” In the weeks to come I would make a shitload of new friends, some for life, and also I would drop out of college forever. In the meantime, REM released not one but two albums — a “best of” called Eponymous, which included alternate versions of several tunes and one that had never before been released, and a few weeks later, their major label debut on Warner Bros. Records, Green. Of course I had to have both.
Eponymous was not as revelatory as Dead Letter Office had been, despite the inclusion of the elusive “Romance,” which had previously only appeared on the soundtrack to a failed movie notable mostly for numerous rock-and-roll cameos. In the end I suppose it was mostly IRS Records’ last chance for a cash grab on the back of the REM catalog as the group jumped ship for the majors.
Green, on the other hand, grabbed my interest immediately and alternately thrilled and confounded me. Years later I would read that the band intentionally set out to “not write any more REM-type songs,” and boy, did they succeed. From the unabashedly deliberate bubblegum of “Pop Song 89” and smash hit “Stand” — which went to number six on the Billboard Hot 100 — to rockers like the tough “Orange Crush” and the greasy “Turn You Inside Out” to gentle acoustic driven numbers with piano, mandolin and accordion such as “You Are the Everything” and “World Leader Pretend,” this was a whole other REM, and I was conflicted about it. One day I was shocked to hear a five-year-old boy singing “Stand” while jumping around in ebullient abandon; I could scarcely believe REM had reached such a level of cultural saturation.
OK, it looks like they really have “made it.” Good for them. They’re still my boys. Right?
The next March, the local rock station T-95 hosted a bus trip up to Kansas City’s Kemper Arena to see REM in concert. I remember one of the DJs on After Midnight reading a list of upcoming live dates, announcing the show by saying, “On March 4 at Kemper Arena, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians will open for a much less talented band.” I was shocked at the audacity — who the fuck was this guy!? I had never heard anybody shitting on REM from a position of greater coolness and didn’t know how to process it. I had assumed they were universally beloved by all hip people. As years went by I would come to understand this was far from the truth — but it didn’t change my feelings at all, and in fact only made me love REM that much harder.
My buddy Bob and I, who were sharing an apartment suite at the campus-adjacent Wheatshocker Apartments, managed to score tickets to the Kansas City show and we rode up on the bus and really had a fantastic time, despite Stipe’s throat being in poor shape at that show from heavy touring. The band did three encores, ending with a cover of VU’s “After Hours.” We got back to Wichita in the dead of a freezing cold, windy night, our ears ringing and our hearts full.
It wasn’t long after this that REM was featured in a big Rolling Stone article about their evolution from indie darlings to burgeoning mainstream stars. In it, Peter Buck said:
“There are a lot of people who like bands when they’re smaller — and I’m one of them. I really love the Replacements, but I don’t go see them now. I saw them in front of twenty people fifty times, and the same with Hüsker Dü. The last time I went to see Hüsker Dü, I was, like, 800 people back and getting elbowed in the gut by a fat guy with a leather jacket. So whenever people say, ‘You’re just too big, I don’t enjoy going to your shows,’ I say, ‘That’s fine.’ I understand the people who say, ‘You’re too popular. I’m going to go follow the Butthole Surfers.’ That’s valid.”
I was struck by the how this hit home with me. REM had always been my standard bearers, but now, though I still loved them deep down in my heart, my musical world had expanded far beyond its old borders, and I was increasingly falling under the spell of harder, weirder, more exotic stuff — including the Butthole Surfers. I had grown up and moved away to college and left behind my old friends; would this happen with my favorite bands, too?
And it wasn’t just me changing, either. Just as I had matured as a person, REM had grown as a band — and there was something about Michael Stipe’s evolution as the band’s frontman in particular that nagged at me. I had loved him as the guy too shy to talk directly to David Letterman, and was proud of him as he clearly became more confident in his art and his abilities over the course of multiple albums. But now I got a whiff of what smelled like art school pretense that grew more overpowering with each new video, Stipe increasingly appearing to dominate the old Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe vibe with bold and dramatic aesthetic choices that I found excessively rock-starry, and to my mind, clashed with the overall image of the band. But maybe that was just me being stubborn about accepting their artistic growth. In the end, I was willing to be open-minded about it, and see where they were going.
I saw REM once more on the Green tour, this time in Oklahoma City, with my friends Karl and Harvey. Pylon opened the show and I sat in rapt attention through the entire evening’s program while my two cohorts spent the whole show in the beer line with a rando we met in the crowd, a tall, friendly rich kid who kept buying. This show was shorter than the first I had seen, but the band was hotter, and this time they closed with, of all things, a cover of Cameo’s “Word Up!” After the show the three of us got into drunken/stoned shenanigans driving Karl’s VW GTI around a very dicey part of OKC, but that is a whole other story in itself.
Around the beginning of 1990 I was gorging myself at an all-you-can-eat buffet at the Pizza Hut on Wichita’s North Broadway, just up the street from my little apartment, when I caught sight of Earl, who I had not seen since my days in community college. Considering that we had not really hit it off back then, I was surprised when he approached me rather eagerly and said hi. As it turned out, he was living about a block away from me. I told him I had been playing music with my friend Karl on drums and a young woman I had just met, Shirley, on bass, and invited him to come over and listen to a cassette we had recorded at one of our practices.
Earl did show up, and he did listen to our tape — and to my total surprise, he seemed to actually like the handful of songs we had put together. My love for REM was evident in the style of my compositions, and it was revealed the Earl was a big fan, too. In fact, we liked a lot of the same stuff: Tom Petty, Indigo Girls, Kate Bush, Violent Femmes. When I told him my band had been asked to play a friend’s house party for our debut, he immediately asked if he could sit in with us, and mentioned that he had a PA system we could use, with microphones and everything! Of course the answer was yes — he was a thousand times more talented than any of us. Earl’s and my partnership as musicians started there and I am pleased to say continues at least sporadically to this day.
Over the next couple years I took a lot of LSD, listened to more and more far-out music, and drifted farther and farther out of the orbit of REM. The boys from Athens took a break themselves, too, going nearly three years without releasing a new album. When Out of Time dropped in 1991, I honestly couldn’t be bothered. Propelled by the mandolin-driven “Losing My Religion,” the first REM single to hit the Top Five, Out of Time became the first REM album to go all the way to number one on the Billboard 200 album chart. I briefly worked an overnight DJ shift on the local classic rock radio station, KRZZ (where the ZZ stands for “ZZ Top,” and where we roll the most rock!), and “Losing My Religion” was in regular rotation between musty old standards from Fleetwood Mac and Gregg Rollie-era Journey and hot new rock singles from the likes of Jeff Healey. Nothing made sense anymore.
Additionally, Out of Time included “Shiny Happy People,” a confectionery so saccharine that the band itself eventually disowned it despite it being one of only four Top Ten hits they enjoyed in their entire career. Peter Buck couldn’t even get it up to wear something colorful for the video shoot, as he had been directed. (Bill Berry at least smiled.)
Years went by. Automatic for the People came and went, then the heavy-guitar smorgasbord Monster, which I heard ad infinitum thanks to my first wife’s having received it for Christmas in 1994. Despite (or maybe due to?) my familiarity with the latter, I just wasn’t into it. The last time I was explicitly aware of a new REM album release was 1996, when New Adventures in Hi-Fi came out and “E-Bow the Letter” was placed in heavy rotation on T-95, which by then had been rebranded as a “cutting edge rock” station in the wake of the Nirvana revolution. Of course I remember —fondly, even — the radio singles “Man on the Moon” and “Everybody Hurts” and “Nightswimming,” but the deeper cuts on these albums were lost to me.
The band would go on for another fifteen years after this, producing five more full-length albums before breaking up amicably in 2011 — but looking just now through the track lists of Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate and Collapse into Now, I am struck by the fact that I recognize only a handful of song titles at all, and I fail to conjure up even the barest melody from that period of REM’s output. It is like catching up with an old sweetie on social media after years apart, seeing what they have done with themselves since our paths last crossed, but at a remove of decades of time. REM and I never had a falling out, there were no hard feelings. Somewhere along the line, we just lost touch.
In the course of writing this story, which took a surprising length of time, I listened to all the old REM back catalog from Chronic Town through Out of Time, the point where I had more or less stopped paying attention back in the day. And I skipped forward and audited tracks from the later albums I missed, too, and found myself strangely unaffected. If you had told me in the summer of 1988 that there would come a time I would not be actively involved in REM fandom, I would have laughed in your face. But as is so often the case in relationships of any kind, the parties involved grow and change and evolve — as often as not on divergent paths. Nobody is right or wrong, we just go different ways.
I also have had time to meditate on the considerable scorn I have heard heaped upon the band from people cooler than me over the years, and maybe I better understand now where they were coming from at the time — but in the end, I recall in far larger measure the warm fuzzy sense of camaraderie I have gleaned from sharing my love for the band’s hallowed early days with fellow fans, a far-flung network of former isolated weird teenagers who, like me, once heard the call of REM’s murmured secret language, and recognized it as a beacon of hope for their kind. I’m a better man for having loved them, and I owe them my eternal thanks for finding me.