'Begin the Begin' Book Excerpt
In Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years (out now from Verse Chorus Press), author Robert Dean Lurie turns back the clock to the formative years of the wildly influential group, tracing their origins back to the fertile Athens, Georgia rock scene, investigating the formative influence of the South in their work, and talking to a host of observers from those days.
We're proud to present this excerpt from this important piece of music journalism.
FROM "BEGIN THE BEGIN":
A needle drops on a record. The static crackles and pops. And then, emerging from a space between the speakers, the galloping of horses’ hooves—in the form of guitar arpeggios, bass harmonics, tom-toms—pounding the riverbanks, heralding an arrival. Then a shriek—not the kicked-in-the-groin yelp of Robert Plant or Steven Tyler, more the startled exhalation of a young Confederate soldier caught in the chest with buckshot. Then:
Suspicion yourself, suspicion yourself, don’t get caught.
Suspicion yourself, suspicion yourself, let us out.
This is the illusion, and the truth. Dispatches from a South that never existed, from Southerners who were not really Southern. Who reinvented pop music without having any credentials for the job. Four young men of—initially—middling talent who left the door ajar and were just as surprised as anyone when scattered fragments of genius blew in. Perhaps they wanted to sound like the Velvet Underground but didn’t have the patience to stick with that “Heroin” drone. Maybe they wanted to mimic Television but none of them had the chops of a Tom Verlaine or Richard Lloyd. The singer wanted to be Patti Smith, but his fondness for Tammy Wynette kept getting in the way. Through no fault of their own, and against all logic, they ultimately upstaged many of their influences. And they arrived at their “accidental” stardom via a series of carefully calculated steps.
In a corner garden, wilder lower wolves!
I arrived in Athens, Georgia in 1992, a decade late. But the ghosts of the town’s fabled music scene—the loose collective of college students and sundry misfits that had birthed the B-52’s, Pylon, and R.E.M.—still lingered. Like Ross Shapiro—later of the excellent indie rock band the Glands—a wiry, darkhaired guy of indeterminate age who regaled customers at the Gyro Wrap with tales of that seemingly long-ago time. “By 1986 I was already talking about the old days,” he’d say wistfully as he carved thin slices of meat off a rotating spit. And there were the members of R.E.M. themselves—who were not ghosts at all, really, but not exactly corporeal either. In 1992 they all still lived in the Athens area and were striving mightily to hang on to the notion of being a small-town band. They navigated the waters of their recent international fame a little shakily, doing their best, at home, to ignore the dropped jaws and wide-eyed stares of newly arrived University of Georgia (UGA) freshmen who were unschooled in how to handle sudden close proximity with celebrity. R.E.M.’s supposedly reclusive singer, Michael Stipe, hit the town just about every night and could typically be found hovering on the periphery of the audience at the 40 Watt Club—checking out performances by new bands (the Daisy Group) or old friends (Bob Mould, Robyn Hitchcock), or ambling out the front door of the Globe, always unshaven, always wearing a hat, and usually rolling a cigarette. On rare occasions the entire band might be glimpsed ensconced in a booth at this or that bar, their animated discussions of their next move blending into the innocuous chatter all around them.
The unspoken rule around town was to leave them alone, and apart from some of those overeager freshmen, people abided by it. Still, when you’ve got a lot of people in a cramped space, all keenly aware of the identities of the men in the corner, all trying mightily not to look, not to stare, the air itself takes on a nervous energy: the electricity of expectation, of anticipation, the loading up on stories to tell later.
These were the years when Athens pretended to be jaded about its most successful musical export. In 1992 the rest of the world was fawning over the band’s new album, Automatic for the People, many declaring it their best yet. But you wouldn’t have known that in Athens, where the old-timers still talked about the 1981 shows at Tyrone’s and most everyone else seemed to draw a line after the Reconstruction tour of 1985. Even though R.E.M. were still there, ever-present, people spoke mournfully of a vanished era. They spoke of R.E.M. in the past tense because their R.E.M.—Athens’s R.E.M.—was long gone. Perhaps it had been that way ever since the release of the band’s first LP, Murmur, and their first out-of-state tours in the early ’80s. The irony is that during those fabled glory days—particularly during that now legendary run of gigs at Tyrone’s O.C.—these same kind of people (sometimes the exact same people) berated the young band for being too conventional, too conservative . . . You know, they sure as shit weren’t Pylon. “Golden eras” tend to be moving targets, never recognized as such at the time, constructed and mythologized after the fact.
I was one of those University of Georgia freshmen shamelessly gaping at Stipe and company; at the same time, I was largely unaware of the significance of much that surrounded me. When I took up residence in Reed Hall, at the time (1992) virtually unchanged from the late 1970s, I had no idea that I may have been living in the fourth-floor room that R.E.M.’s drummer Bill Berry had inhabited 13 years earlier. And when I hung out with residents of the subbasement—a claustrophobic space full of young bodies with very little adult supervision—I knew nothing of its significance as an incubator for the legendary Athens music scene.
Reed Hall was still a wild, happening place in my day. Friendships were forged there, hearts broken, bodies entwined and decoupled in a feverish waking dream. Most of that was due to the natural, combustible energy of hundreds of young adults gathered under one roof, but perhaps part of it came from the spirits still clinging to the beer-stained walls—the psychic imprints left by some crazed girls raising hell a generation earlier, bursting out of the confines of their suburban lives, parading their outrageousness before the openly longing stares of Bill Berry, Mike Mills, and other soon-to-be movers and shakers in the nascent scene—young adults still growing into their own bodies, thinking, My God, I don’t know if this is heaven or some kind of irresistible hell, but I’m going to throw myself into it.
Excerpted from "Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years" by Robert Dean Lurie. Copyright © 2019 Stenotype Arts LLC. Reprinted with permission of Verse Chorus Press.