It was in Athens, Georgia that a fresh-faced quartet first radiated the chirpy sounds of college rock.
R.E.M. created my soundtrack for growing up. More than any other band or musician, the alternative rockers are inexorably tied to so many of my memories of the past three decades: Dancing as a toddler in my living room, going to one of my first arena concerts, and road-tripping around the United States with my wife.
I’ve always felt that R.E.M. ran parallel to my life. It helps that the band formed around the time I was born and hit their multi-platinum peak just as I was beginning to buy albums for myself. Thankfully, when R.E.M. broke up in 2011, it didn’t spell my end, too.
But before R.E.M. did any of that, its band members met in Athens, Georgia, a sleepy university town in the American south. During a trip to nearby Atlanta, my wife and I drove over to Athens to spend a day discovering the remnants and reconstructing the fables of R.E.M.’s formative years.
As we rolled into town, we stopped by a quaint tourist information centre, stocked with little handbooks to guide you to Athens’ Civil War sites and historic homes. Tucked among those booklets was a guide to the city’s rock and roll background. The friendly man behind the desk asked if he could help us and then tried to hide a grimace when I replied that I was a huge R.E.M. fan. “Oh yes,” he nodded weakly, “we have some of that history, too …”
That didn’t bother me. I wasn’t there to see one of the last double-barrelled Civil War cannon in existence (although we did find it in front of City Hall and learned that its only casualty was a cow, because the cannon never worked properly). No, I wanted to bear witness to Athens’ rock heritage; the place where America’s first college rock enclave sprung up. Although bands such as new wavers The B-52s, folk-rockers the Indigo Girls and jam band Widespread Panic also come from Athens, just about all the sites in that US$2 booklet were related to R.E.M.
One of the locations was Wuxtry Records, the establishment responsible for creating R.E.M. Guitarist Peter Buck was working at the shop when he noticed a customer buying records by The New York Dolls and Patti Smith. He and the customer, future R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, became friendly over their shared music tastes.
Wuxtry has moved around downtown Athens a few times, but it retains the hallmarks of a great record store – creaky wooden floors, rock posters covering the walls and stacks of vinyl all over the place. One of the saddest casualties of the Internet is the American record shop, the sort of place where music fans gather, argue about their favourite songs and, sometimes, start a new band.
There was more to see: for instance, a decaying church steeple that was the last remaining part of the building where R.E.M. played their first show on April 5, 1980. Buck and Stipe had joined up with University of Georgia students Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry (drums) to form a group that had yet to settle on a name. The quartet played a friend’s birthday party in a converted church, most of which has since been torn down to make room for apartment buildings.
The vine-covered steeple is still there, complete with tributes to R.E.M. scratched in the red bricks and empty liquor bottles left at the cement base. (By the way, R.E.M. became the band’s name later when Michael Stipe randomly picked it out of the dictionary. Some things are better left to chance.)
Just outside downtown is Weaver D’s, a green-bricked soul food restaurant that used to be a hangout for R.E.M. The restaurant’s slogan, “Automatic for the People,” would be re-appropriated for the title of the band’s 1992 album (an undisputed masterpiece, but that’s another column).
Unfortunately, Weaver D’s was closed that day, so we had to get our fried chicken lunch elsewhere.
And then there was my favourite R.E.M. artifact – the Athens railroad trestle (a sort of bridge) that was featured on the back cover of the band’s 1983 debut album, Murmur. This structure – long since out of use and falling into disrepair – had little to do with R.E.M.’s formation or music, but it’s an image that’s iconic for R.E.M. fans. As for me, it had everything to do with my earliest memories of this band that represents so much of American music.
Before I knew who or what R.E.M. was, I remember staring at the back cover of that album, looking at the faded picture of that trestle. Before I knew faces or names, or even really understood the music, R.E.M. was a trestle – this intricate, strange, beautiful, impossibly durable structure (which might have more than little in common with the band’s music).
The guys in R.E.M. were determined never to make the same record twice. They pulled off the trick of making records that all sounded different – exploring folk, hard rock, pop and electronic music – but always sounded like R.E.M. The band’s 15 studio albums synthesise almost everything that’s wonderful about American music. On my day-trip to R.E.M.’s hometown, that railroad trestle embodied the band’s incredible legacy.
I’m just glad Athens kept the two-barrelled cannon from blowing it to bits.