I’ve been wondering if R.E.M. purposefully scheduled their break-up announcement for autumn. I would not put it past them. Their deft use of symbolism was always one of their strong suits. Although they’d been discussing it for some time, they made it official as the natural world was dying gracefully around us. Leaves curl, darken and spiral down. The balmy air and long days of warm sunshine dissipate, shadows lengthen ever earlier, and R.E.M., a band most fans would place in the summer of their lives, is dead, going out as they came in 31 years ago: at one with the gods.
The news hit me hard and the ache continues to play out with the unpredictability of a middle-aged man’s malady. It’s gone, then suddenly back with a vengeance radiating and referring itself to other places. Then just as suddenly gone again. (I’m sure the guys in R.E.M. could relate.)
Not only was R.E.M. the first band I remember claiming as “one of my own,” they were the first band I discovered and shared with someone – my dearest friend Todd, whom I always think of this time of year because of his Scorpio birthday and the fact that he killed himself in September 2004, just shy of his 40th birthday. We’d been friends since 1972 – my oldest and deepest friendship. I’m sure I am conflating my sadness at his loss, barely numbed after seven years, with the loss of “our” band. Whatever the case, I find myself playing the shimmery VHS tapes in my mind, my recollections of Todd, R.E.M. and me.
Todd and I were gawky, spotty teen misfits who shared a love of music since we’d met as seven-year-olds. Beatles, Wings, Elton John, Queen, Kiss, Led Zeppelin – these were our totems. But with puberty came punk and Todd, a fat kid with bright red hair, glommed on to all things edgy, even cutting the word FEAR into his forearm to freak out his tormentors at school (it worked). He lost a lot of weight and literally rebranded himself a punk, sporting a Mohawk, painting the words Killing Joke across the back of his leather biker jacket. I listened to the Cure, U2 and Flying Lizards LPs with him, but I wouldn’t find true, shared sacred ground with my friend until R.E.M.
Even though Todd had cast his lot with the punks and the Rocky Horror kids, he and I both were lost. He was more troubled than ever, actually. (Hormones giveth and hormones taketh away.) Prior to discovering R.E.M., neither of us had enjoyed that particularly enveloping warmth that comes in the light of recognition of a band as one of your own. There’s an intoxicating, tribal intensity particular to youth in that specific epiphany. We knew it existed, but we mostly made fun of it.
I didn’t know what I was missing. I loved my bands, sure; I listened to them relentlessly, learned to play my bass along to their records as Todd strummed a Univox guitar and frequently corrected me. That was devotion, right? Yes, but we felt no real kinship with Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury. We’d bought into the paradigm of fandom as being akin to “Lord and Subject.” We figured the Beatlemaniacs, Deadheads, and all those who felt a sense of family fandom were just, well, loopy.
On December 13th, 1981, Todd and I went to see a band to which we’d sworn fealty: Bow Wow Wow. Todd liked their punkiness and the fact that Malcolm McLaren, former Sex Pistols svengali, managed them. I was still a little snobby about chops and liked that they knew their way around their instruments, a rarity in those days. We both lusted after 16-year-old singer and former London laundromat worker Annabella Lwin. We’d pored over their singles, cassette EP, and one album. These were our Talmudic texts.
Due to Annabella’s age, the gig could not take place in a bar, so it was an all-ages affair in the basement of the Biltmore Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. Opening act: R.E.M. (This has been erroneously reported as an R.E.M. headline date.) I was 16, Todd, 17.
We loved R.E.M. The fact that we didn’t plan to see them – in fact, knew nothing about them – lent a touch of the fateful to our discovery and subsequent adoration. Most of the crowd consisted of frat guys and their dates mixed with arty kids, both groups from the University of Georgia in Athens. Despite historic disharmony between these two cliques, something about being in the basement of the Biltmore, digging the pop-punky R.E.M., equalized them all. (I maintain this rare synthesizing factor as being the cornerstone to the band’s eventual worldwide success.) Although R.E.M. had been together a little over a year, they’d risen fast. The audience screamed requests between songs and danced until the floor was slick with sweat. I saw the band live at least ten times after this – even saw them inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 – and they often kicked ass, but R.E.M. was never better than in that hotel basement in 1981.
As I mentioned, prior to that night, we’d lusted after Annabella. But the chiming, leaping, bass rumbling, Cousin It-style Stipe-swirling and Rickenbacker strut of those four still-pimply garage rock stars gave rise to Todd’s and my first man crushes, our first rock and roll bromances. We would each buy R.E.M.’s much-ballyhooed debut single “Radio Free Europe b/w Sitting Still” – for a buck, I think, at the Biltmore – and go home with ringing ears, touched soul-deep by the evening’s events.
Bow Wow Wow, incidentally, was great, very exotic, with piratey conceits, a couple Mohawks, and impressive instrumental facility; plus Annabella, swirling to the Burundi beat, was just as teenage gorgeous and come-hither charismatic as we’d hoped. But the four skinny dudes tearing shit up like nothing we’d ever seen had already stolen our hearts and provided us with that first blast of these are my rock and roll people.
Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe seemed like family; they easily could have been our big brothers or neighbors. (Eventually, they would be the latter for me.) As with older siblings, we were fascinated by their clothes; the wrinkly, Rimbaud-esque, Patti Smith Group-inspired threads, Buck’s Beatle boots, Townshend leaps and flopping French cuffs, Stipe’s layers of threadbare sweaters and thick tangle of bangs shrouding his pock marked cheeks, willowy Mills’ gray coveralls and high tops. They looked cool yet seemed not to have invested much time in doing so. “Oh this ole thang? I just got it at AmVets for, like, fifty cents.”
About their fashion: Make no mistake, while R.E.M. made early claims (finally abandoned sometime in the ’90s) that it was all about the music and only the music, these guys had contrived (and I don’t say that pejoratively) a look, a style, and they worked it. And, picking up our cues from them, we noticed, but claimed not to notice. All wide-legged trousers and knit shirts went into the garbage with the running shoes. The thrift store shabby chic, with the Future Farmers of America jackets, occasional bolo tie and cavalierly unpressed dress shirts, made the fashion bell clang loudly for the first time in our teen brains: time to get schooled in this new look, which, by design, required not money but knowledge of the right shops (Potter’s House in Athens was deservedly legendary) and much imagination if you wanted to make an impression without looking like you were trying to make an impression. Todd was better at it than me. Almost every post-R.E.M. Athens band – and many elsewhere – subscribed to this look until everyone’s houses smelled like thrift stores.
And yes, like everyone else, we had no idea what mushmouthed Stipe was singing, not a fucking word, but like legions of fans, that genius stroke – not wholly original (see “Louie, Louie” and almost all the great Rolling Stones songs) – seduced us, eventually prompting repeated listens, conversations, bemused irritation and hilarious imitations. The hilarious part was not always intentional.
Todd got really good at aping Michael Stipe’s look, with hair in the face, dervish dancing and baggy, second hand clothes, which he had a knack for digging out of piles of fabric in dusty, dried out thrift store backrooms. He even had Stipe’s body language down – an effete, hip swaying mix of hauteur and coiled shyness. (Stipe himself would later coin the term “loud shy” to describe this.) In the early ’80s, drinking age was 18 in Atlanta, so Todd made it into the clubs – mostly 688, Atlanta’s premiere “new wave club” – for a few months until I got my fake ID sorted. Todd’s future wife Clare Parker – a former flame of Stipe’s – later confessed to Todd that she and her crew made fun of him mercilessly, calling him “The Michael Imitator.” He charmed them anyway.
In the early days R.E.M. was still accessible and Todd came home from seeing R.E.M. play the Strand in Marietta, Georgia, with news that he’d struck up a conversation with Stipe, who was sitting alone on the curb being arty cool, probably smoking unfiltered Camels. Todd labored to maintain his composure as he related Stipe telling him, “Nothing’s really changed except we can pay our rent now.” Yeah. Right.
Stipe also told Todd about the impending release of their EP Chronic Town, the booster rocket that would carry them to a height where the blast of their debut LP Murmur would send them into the ether. Todd and I began playing our own instruments with more inspiration, heading down the trail of “what would R.E.M. do?” Within months, our own Converse-clad feet were treading the same beer-soaked boards on which Our Heroes had rocked, and we enjoyed a sustained feeling of fraternity as we watched our surrogate older brothers ascend to bigger and bigger stages like the Agora Ballroom, The Fox Theater, and, amazingly, Late Night with David Letterman, where, to our astonishment, they acted bratty. (Stipe virtually ignores Letterman.)
Above all else, R.E.M. seemed like a gang, a confraternity greater than the sum of its parts, an amalgam of nerds, hipsters, rock scholars and artists whose combined power could sell out the venue and rob you of your girlfriend. (They’ve acknowledged this.) This tight-knit quality was part of their template: “We’re friends, first and foremost. This is the source of our power. Letterman can kiss our cracker asses.” The balls! Todd and I were inspired by this and tried to adhere to it, but the fact is, being in a band together strained our friendship. Our band lasted only one year, but luckily our friendship survived. Friendships are work under any circumstances, but alliances that remain within longterm groups are rare indeed. Who else? U2? The Stones? One is hard pressed. It almost seems Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe stumbled onto a formula as unlikely and as potent as the recipe for Coca Cola, also an accident, also from Georgia.
I moved from Atlanta to Athens in 1984, ostensibly to go to school, but mostly to partake of the scene. I crossed paths with The Guys several times. They were all gracious, especially Bill. Mike Mills was a little prickly. I was playing in Athens band Go Van Go, helmed by the “granddaddy” of the Athens scene Vic Varney, whose first band the Method Actors, cited by Buck as a “huge influence on R.E.M.,” had been part of the First Wave of Athens bands which included the B-52s and Pylon. Vic goes down in history as offering R.E.M. their first out-of-town gig, and his cachet opened a lot of doors for me.
When I settled into a room in Vic’s house, a stone’s throw from a couple R.E.M. houses, the band was still intent on staying in the cheap little town that birthed them, despite being able to afford to live anywhere, even then. Bill allowed himself a cool vintage car and they all bought houses, but mostly R.E.M. was absent the year I was there; the boys were in an Econoline, on the road, flogging sophomore LP Reckoning to their metastasizing fanbase. Go Van Go happened to be in New York, playing at Danceteria around the same time R.E.M. was playing the Beacon Theater, and they put us on the guest list with Kate Pierson of the B-52s, who had a place in NYC. Kate looked around at the sold out crowd and laughed, “Sea o’ white boys!”
The rare occasions R.E.M. was around during my 12 months in Athens, they endured the palpable adulation choking the air when they entered a party or bar, and the increasing sniping of jealous fellow Athens bands who clucked about their drug use, salivated over their money, murmured about their sex lives, and variously called them Raving Ego Maniacs and Rear End Men. Sometime in the ’80s I read felt tip pen graffiti on – you guessed it – a bathroom stall that proclaimed: “I gave R.E.M. herpes.”
After I moved to Manhattan in ’85 and joined the Fleshtones soon thereafter, Todd became a respected musician in Atlanta. Our separate paths would continue to intersect with R.E.M.; to our delight, we both ended up working with members. Although, in my case, “working” meant sharing the stage of the Uptown club with Buck as the Fleshtones tore through several three chord songs on a tour stop in Athens. Onstage, Pete was brazenly sloppy, cocky and magnetic, his face a manic mess, his body blundering into mine by accident and by design as he screamed into my microphone. I mostly retain images of repairing to Pete’s impressive, refurbished old house and drinking more beer than I ever had before and later paying the price on the tiles of a pretty young woman’s bathroom.
While R.E.M. was reaching its early ’90s apex, Todd was helping eccentric Atlanta scenester Benjamin form the Opal Foxx Quartet. This band often consisted of at least 12 members and mostly played covers in a distinctively shambolic-yet-mesmerizing style. Benjamin dressed in drag to perform as Opal, barking and braying like Nick Cave and/or Tom Waits. On a good night, the band would bring the house down. Benjamin knew everybody, including Michael Stipe, and Stipe, an Opal Foxx fan, asked to produce the band.
Despite Stipe’s imprimatur, no record company would touch The Opal Foxx Quartet. (The recordings are available online as The Love That Won’t Shut Up, also well worth your time.) Although his endorsement got them to Manhattan for a gig or two – a trip the sweaty horde made packed into an illegally converted U-Haul, which I will never forget seeing and smelling on a summer day in the West Village.
During this time, Todd stayed with my wife, Holly, and I. Holly loved Todd, and he and I always effortlessly picked up the thread of the ongoing conversation that was our friendship. Regarding working with the guy who, a decade earlier, proved so inspirational to us, Todd was surprisingly circumspect, even nonplussed by Stipe’s stardom. (That would have been harder for me.) He had nothing bad to report about Michael, no real diva gossip, although he did say Michael once pulled rank on the raggedy band, half-jokingly saying his opinion on a certain vocal track should be appreciated because he was “one of the pre-eminent rock stylists of the 20th century.”
Not long after this R.E.M. lost me. New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996) was the last album I made it all the way through, and when Bill Berry quit in ’98, they just weren’t the same band anymore. A really good band, but just not as good, for my money. Bill was the secret heart, an accomplished songwriter. (“Everybody Hurts,” “Perfect Circle,” and “Driver 8,” I’m told, are his and “Fall On Me” is mostly his.) He was also a great backing singer, an invaluable multi-instrumentalist and, I know from a good source, a sublime whistler. (Still is.)
Lots of folks thought the band lost its mojo when he quit, but R.E.M., true to form, gave the impression they could not have cared less what people sniped about. They made some wonderful singles, Michael became a successful film producer, Pete played on and produced lots of CDs, and the band took on the stadiums of the world with bona fide rock star gusto, laughing, as ever, in the face of age, health problems, divorces and rumors of Michael having AIDS. Who cares? We’re playin’ Rock In Rio!
I was always happy for The Guys and glad to have crossed paths with them on their way to that hallowed ground of “dream come true.” The connection Todd and I made to the band in those early years has remained strong, visceral, emotional; it’s the soundtrack to the teenage chapter of our friendship. As often happens with a band one discovers during the crucial crucible of teendom, the music retains a singular power to reconnect to a priceless time of discovery, a promise of long days and summer pleasures that seem, for the duration of the music, not so far away, still visible in the rearview as we hurtle ever faster on a one-way road into the future, into the autumn of our lives.
By the late ’90s, my moment with R.E.M. had passed and I was in the thick of a new phase – forsaking the rock and roll road for a stab at stability. I’d found joy as a stay-at-home dad. Sometimes, in that rare eye-of-a-hurricane stillness that came when my small child was asleep, I noticed the ever-fading ringing in my ears leftover from the old days. My son grew and childhood memories rose in me, refreshing moments of Todd and me enjoying music, taking on life together, as friends, much like our heroes in R.E.M. My son moves into the world now, finding his traveling companions and connecting to bands that will be the soundtrack to his own adventures.
Todd became a dad too. But the new millennium brought a resurgence of psychic demons that’d first entered his life in our teens. The complicating factors of physical illness, financial woes, poorly maintained medication and other mitigating circumstances, proved too much for him. Todd killed himself in September of 2004, leaving behind a wife and two-year-old daughter.
I’ve read that a difficulty of divorce is that one loses the repository of information provided by a spouse, which includes shared memories made more real in the sharing. Anyone who’s endured any kind of loss, be it broken marriage, crumbled friendship, death or relocation, knows all about this. Sometimes it’s a good thing, of course; some relationships share mostly painful memories and are better left severed. Either way, the connections to the past grow more threadbare, details crumble like the edges of a leaf and, for better or worse, the unknowable future looms ever larger.
I’m glad the guys in R.E.M. stayed close. I know they lost friends along the way, through death, distance and acrimony, but apparently, their four-way friendship survived against incredible odds. The landscape of memories they share is incomprehensibly vast to me.
And I’m glad they told us all about their breakup in autumn. Perhaps it is easier to accept loss as Nature is reclaiming the warmth, the green, and the light, all the while offering up bounties of that which grew in the summer sun.
For me, that bounty includes standing next to Todd in the basement of the Biltmore Hotel as four scruffy guys opened up our hearts and minds to a whole new way of playing in a band; sitting on Todd’s bed in his teenager room, marveling at the lush sounds of Murmur, hearing our fluttering, inchoate desires and attitudes given melody and form, if not distinct words, our friendship galvanized by the music; sitting on a porch at a beach house in 2004, reminiscing deep into the night as our families slept, just weeks before he took himself out. We talked about art, music and women, the expansive past we shared and the possibilities of the future, all while the waves rolled in, and out.