There’s a place on top of a small hill outside Turner Field in Atlanta, home of the baseball Braves, where perfect strangers hail cabs and share rides, no matter their separate destinations.
Or that’s how it was, anyway, on a pleasant Georgia night in August 2013. While in Atlanta for a conference and taking in a Braves game, I shared a cab with two people I didn’t know, a man and a woman, friends in their early 30s, so at least 20 years younger than me.
They involved me in their conversation, then discovering I was from San Diego and not aware of a local landmark, insisted I join them for a late-night snack at the Varsity, the oldest drive-in restaurant in the country, opened in 1928.
The cab dropped us off at the restaurant, where we found ourselves alone in the main dining room, the dinner crowd long gone. The man had a few too many beers at the game, and needed to visit the men’s room. Talking to the woman, I asked her if she was originally from Atlanta, and she said she wasn’t.
“Have you ever heard of Athens, Georgia?” she asked.
“I have,” I said, my words tumbling out faster than I could really think about how to say them best. “R.E.M. was part of my … my path.”
I patted my chest twice, to let her know I was sincere.
The woman didn’t say anything, but raised her hand for a high-five. I answered it, and she grasped her fingers between mine and smiled, and I saw this look in her eyes, this self-recognition that she was from a place that was special, in part because people for so long had connected with that band, from that town, her town, however far away we were.
Though she may have been a toddler when R.E.M. played its first gig inside the now long-gone St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Athens in April 1980, perhaps she had some emotional connection with the band that was passed on to her.
Maybe she saw in me her father, or a teacher, or someone else who had felt the same way, who had connected with the band, as so many of us did during the college-radio boom of the early ‘80s, when indie-fueled college-station DJs were spinning records far removed from the Top 40 landscape, that clogged place where disco’s last gasp was meeting overproduced commercial pop tunes issued by superstar icons, categorically defining most everything about the decade.
College radio was the true alternative, a place where vaguely geeky and presumably foul-smelling heroes in rooms full of stacked vinyl were inciting creative fire in their loyal 400 or so listeners. Their credit remains, tragically, mostly on the back-page footnotes of rock’s history book.
After finishing our Frosted Orange shakes, a Varsity specialty, the three of us had a long conversation that likely ended with me giving some semblance of sage life advice, as I find more and more often happens when I spend time talking to young people. (When, exactly, did I become Obi Wan Kenobi?) We said goodbye, and I haven’t spoken with them since.
Later that night, after returning to my hotel, I wondered again why I hadn’t budgeted time for a trip to Athens, the birthplace of what would become one of the country’s great bands, the band a famous Rolling Stone cover called in 1987, without blinking, America’s Best Rock Band.
It was something I had wanted to do for decades, but despite many trips to Georgia, never had. I ordered myself to do just that next time I was in Georgia, probably at the same conference in August 2014.
Real life interrupts good intentions, sometimes, and it did for me when I had sudden heart trouble in March 2014, probably caused by a virus, which knocked me down hard, and almost knocked me out for good.
It took me more than a year to fully recover, and by August this year I was feeling much stronger, and found myself back at the same conference in Atlanta. This time, I budgeted a day for Athens, driving a rental car 1 hour and 20 minutes east, ready for a day exploring the R.E.M.-related sites.
On the drive, I thought about my own R.E.M. beginnings, traced to two friends I met while briefly attending journalism school at Iowa State University. Jim and Pat were wired to the alternative-rock scene of the time, and by that I don’t really mean Talking Heads and the Cure, or fellow Athens-bred B-52’s, though those bands were certainly somewhere snuggling under the alt-umbrella.
Rather, I was schooled on what the Ramones had been doing for a few years, and turned on to the charged sounds of Minneapolis cult favorites the Suburbs, and later, Boston roots-rock band Scruffy the Cat, an outfit with Iowa beginnings.
There were more Twin Cities rock-lesson plans, where Prince was far from the only game in town, as my new friends eased me into the quasi-melodic, three-piece buzzsaw that was Husker Du, and the more well-known but never well-known enough Replacements. And as anyone hooked by them knows, the fire for that impractically perfect and perfectly wayward band never dies. To this day, I never travel far without a little Big Star.
I had been raised on the FM rock of Queen, Van Halen, Def Leppard, etc., playing in my life’s background, and though my appreciation for those bands was and is part of who I am, the pull of these independent bands was strong. R.E.M. offered something head-turning, as I faintly and similarly remember a small handful of bands during my childhood. I was a hippie child, as in an actual child during the late ‘60s, drawn to T. Rex and early Who. Earlier, I knew something important was happening when Ronnie Bennett (later Spector) sang, and understood by age 13 that it didn’t get much more real than Johnny Cash. So somewhere within, I was hard-wired for this. I just needed someone to zap me.
Thanks to my friends, I became an R.E.M. fan just before the single “Radio Free Europe” had really taken off among grateful indie-rock fans with the release of R.E.M.’s 1983 debut album “Murmur,” on the cool indie-label startup I.R.S. Records. (The original, murkier-sounding, and mostly preferred “Radio Free Europe” single had been recorded two years earlier). And all of this long before R.E.M. signed its multi-million dollar deal with Warner Bros. Records, a deal that would catapult them to a more elevated place in the public consciousness.
Like most R.E.M. fans, we were alternately thrilled by and reluctant to accept that increased exposure, perhaps even slightly mortified to share what we knew. It’s the story of everyone who falls for a band before it becomes famous, knowing that fame is inevitable, because you recognize the magic early, and you want to hold on to it quietly for a little longer.
By the mid-’80s, I was the pop-music and film critic at a mid-size suburban daily in San Diego. I wrote about music for some 15 years, counting earlier freelance contributions here and there, compiling hundreds of album and concert reviews, interviews with music artists famous and not famous at all. I stopped writing about music not long past age 35, not only because I got older and the appeal of late nights at music clubs become non-appealing, but also for another reason: I ran out of adjectives. When I tell people that, they laugh, and I laugh along with them, and when we finish laughing, I say it again: No, seriously. I ran out of adjectives.
You don’t necessarily need adjectives to admire an abandoned train trestle, so when I made the first stop on my R.E.M. pilgrimage in Athens this past summer, I didn’t make an attempt to categorize my emotions by assigning them words.
The trestle in Dudley Park, pictured on the back album cover of “Murmur,” was simply there, surely impressive even to those not applying an R.E.M. connection, and remaining existent in part because local champions had convinced the city to keep the trestle as it is, rather than demolish it. From what I read, R.E.M. supported the effort only from a distance, concerned that their participation in a campaign preserving some of their own history could appear self-serving.
From there, I’m off to Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods, where proprietor Weaver D is known to sometimes shout out the word “Automatic!” as he takes a customer order, his restaurant’s slogan inspiring the title of R.E.M.’s eighth album, “Automatic for the People.”
Weaver hands me a paper plate piled with fried catfish and collard greens. I ask him if I can take his photo in front of the album’s poster hung on the wall, and he kindly agrees, having posed in that spot many times before to the smiles of other grateful pilgrims.
It’s only a few blocks to Wuxtry Records, where guitarist Peter Buck and singer Michael Stipe began a friendship, though the original Wuxtry’s where Buck was a store clerk was actually next door. Then only a couple more blocks to the Caledonia Lounge, called the 11:11 Koffee Club when R.E.M. played its first gig as R.E.M. on April 19, 1980, the police closing the show around 2 a.m. for that most nebulous of trumped-up charges that has attempted, pathetically, to halt rock ‘n’ roll for eons: Lack of a legal permit.
And finally, ending at the beginning, standing next to the red steeple without its church underneath, the venue where Stipe and Buck lived, and R.E.M. played its first show two weeks before the shut-down gig, even before they had chosen a band name.
Like the trestle, this steeple would be slightly mesmerizing even without a backstory, sitting defiantly, almost royally, without its bottom. Provide the steeple the story I had in my head, and it quietly takes your breath, fitting so nicely in this active and lovely college town, the steeple a character within the city’s story. I walked away happy, sweating but feeling strong in the Georgia heat, wishing I had an extra-large Frosted Orange shake in hand. The drive back to Atlanta was easy. A few hours later, I boarded a flight home.
Though I interviewed members of hundreds of bands less famous and more famous than R.E.M., I never wholeheartedly pursued interviewing any of the R.E.M. band members when they were scheduled to make occasional tour stops in San Diego, letting my fellow writers make those requests. Not that a 20-minute telephone interview with one of them would make us soul mates, but I simply preferred distance from that band, a distance that would keep them somewhat of a mystery to me.
For the same reason, I had no interest in bumping into any of the band members while in Athens, unlikely because at least some of them don’t live there anymore. Two still live there? One? None? It doesn’t matter, because I don’t really need to shake their hands and say thanks. I want only the pieces of their past available for easy-reach nostalgia, connected to strong emotions weakened by years passed, now alive again. The sort of visceral connections that conjure memories crackling with images of youthful good times, emotions that still beat even in a slightly damaged heart.
So, why R.E.M.? Like I said, I ran out of adjectives some time ago, about the same time my metabolism slowed, and a few years before I had children. The life-changing realities of parenthood became so energy-consuming, I often even ran out of nouns.
Yet, now well rested, I’ll attempt to rekindle the ability: Michael Stipe’s lyrics that wrapped ideals inside images, ideals that I agreed with and images I eagerly captured in my head. Lyrics I felt that I easily understood even in the early years, when Stipe was celebrated (mostly) for delivering lyrics not easily understood. It wasn’t always so much what the words meant, but how they felt when they fell into my brain.
Buck’s relentless string experimentation that cried with authenticity, whether hard electric or throwback barren and simple, arrangements that blended melody and dissonance with something like a lion tamer’s whip. Mike Mills’s blissful harmonies and crunching bass lines. Original drummer Bill Berry’s equally ferocious but well-considered backbeat that harnessed the sound, all of this colliding into a Southern-gothic storytelling rock stew of social and cultural observations, merging with the band’s own personal memories and self-images, caressed with depth-charged sonic creativity. Really, about as American as rock music gets.
This isn’t a story, though, trying to capture in words the sound of a vital American band, a band that disbanded in 2011 after more than 30 years of valued service. Rather, it’s the story of one man’s specific pilgrimage to Athens, Georgia on a humid August afternoon, a pilgrimage made by so many before him, hiking around a train trestle and then up a hill to see a separated church steeple, slowly disappearing middle-age defied briefly, again.
And this isn’t so much a belated fanboy confession as an eager, sweaty handshake with my past. It’s not meant to sway anyone’s thinking on them. It’s about me, so I’ve littered this mini-memoir with personal pronouns. Please try not to trip on them.
I don’t even necessarily call R.E.M. my favorite band, though the band is certainly among my favorites. As a critic, I learned around Day One that you write for yourself, not the masses. It’s the only option. And you hope a few of them hop on the back of the sled. I also learned to just say so if I liked something, and crow with defiance if I really liked it. Chronic cynicism is for sissies. I rediscovered that anew every time I praised a new band or film or play, and even one person wrote to me and said: I didn’t know this and now I do. Thank you.
These days, I do what dads everywhere do with their patient offspring, explaining to them the who’s, whats and whys of my youth, and providing them examples at decibels meant to help convey a message. I see my 16-year-old daughter discovering new, independent bands that haven’t crept into the establishment Top 40 pile, bands that likely began two years ago playing in small rooms, permits unnecessary until 2 a.m., when the cops showed up.
I see her friends tell her about other such bands, and she passes the word to yet other friends, and her younger brother, and I think she inherited something from me, and I see that she is also kind to people in need and lost animals, and I’m pretty sure I did OK.
I’m hopeful that for she and her friends, the lyrics from “These Days” on my favorite R.E.M. album, “Lifes Rich Pageant,” so urgently defiant but optimistic regarding many morbid particulars of the ‘80s, might still apply:
We are young despite the years
We are concern
We are hope despite the times
Or I crank up “I Believe,” the Southern-styled banjo opening followed by Stipe’s vocals creating a call to action, and I let the lyrics do my parenting for me:
Trust in your calling
Make sure your calling’s true
Think of others
The others think of you
Or perhaps more gently and personally, and finally, my wish for both my children, also from “These Days”:
Take this joy wherever, wherever you go
Meanwhile, I’ll drift off again tonight with a bucket-list item emptied from its home of more than 30 years, thanks to my summer pilgrimage. Then I’ll slide eventually into the sleep state rapid-eye movement, creating potential for dreaming of more discoveries ahead, despite the years. No permit required.