Birdie in the hand for life’s rich demand: Robert Dean Lurie’s “Begin the Begin” covers R.E.M.’s early formative years in Athens, Georgia

By on August 23, 2019

Robert Dean Lurie’s brand new biography about R.E.M.’s early years, Begin the Begin (Verse Chorus Press, published in May 2019) — the title refers to the first track from their 1986 album, Life’s Rich Pageant — is the most definitive record of their early formative years in Athens, Georgia, home to bands like the B-52’s and the lesser-known but powerfully potent Pylon (Lurie also lived there for a few years).

R.E.M. — lead singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry — may have called it quits in 2010, after thirty years as a band and fifteen albums, selling more than 85 million copies worldwide, but interest in the first act from the South to break out nationally since the Allman Brothers Band remains higher than a Georgia pine.

Lurie is a musician and writer based in Tempe, Arizona, received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He’s also authored We Can Be Heroes: The Radical Individualism of David Bowie, and No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.

Lurie covers R.E.M.’s career from just before their formation in 1980 — their lives before they were a band, their first gigs in Athens, GA, their early tours bonding in the back of a cramped van, their first recordings, etc. — right up ’til 1987, when R.E.M. moved on from indie label I.R.S. Records to major label Warner Bros.

Along the way, Lurie unearths quite a few unexpected revelations you likely won’t read anywhere else, like the fact that the band may have actually been named for an oddball photographer named Ralph Eugene Meatyard who used his lowercase initials (“r.e.m.”), and that Stipe’s early wardrobe influences can be traced back to Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall and to Blue Öyster Cult, to name just two examples.

Lurie also posits the idea that Stipe’s technique for writing lyrics isn’t as similar to the “Cut-Up Method” employed by William S. Burroughs and his friend & collaborator Brion Gysin as some writers would have you believe. Lurie writes that “Stipe’s cut-ups occurred entirely in his head. He needed no no scissors and tape — the words tumbled out already scrambled.”

Night Flight reached out to Robert via email to ask him to tell us a little bit about Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years.

Night Flight: You’ve shared a few remembrances in the book from fans and friends of the band talking about the first time they heard R.E.M. Do you remember your first experience? Which song, in particular?

Robert Dean Lurie: I was too young to catch the beginnings of the I.R.S. years. The first time I heard R.E.M., as far as I know, was when a local TV station played a clip of “Superman” during a marathon of the 1950s “Superman” TV show starring George Reeves. This would have been late 1986 or early 1987. The song made an impression but I didn’t know the band name.

The first time I became aware of R.E.M. as an entity was when I heard “The One I Love” on Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40.” That monster guitar riff — sort of like a roughed-up Byrds — came roaring out of my cheap radio speakers and I immediately thought that this was very different from everything else that was being played on mainstream radio. I bought the cassette within a couple weeks, and quickly got caught up on the back catalog. I was only thirteen or fourteen but I was already pretty heavy into the Beatles via my dad. Funny enough, I also remember discovering “Night Flight” around this time. R.E.M. were probably one of the first contemporary bands I got into in a big way.

NF: You write about Athens, GA, being a hotbed of “cultural out-thereness,” and, as a college town, you’ve described it as having a “disproportionately high number of college students teeming with lust and confusion and dreams.” Some of those feelings — lust, confusion, dreams — end up in a lot of Michael Stipe’s lyrics, doncha think?

RDL: Yes, with the caveat that the lust part didn’t become obvious until Automatic for the People (the lyric refrain in “Star Me Kitten” is actually “fuck me kitten”) and Monster. But “confusion and dreams” sums up the lyrics on those early albums pretty well, I think. In fact, If I wanted to describe this entire story in just a couple words, “confusion and dreams” fits the bill.

NF: It seems to us that maybe the Southern Gothic novels and short stories by writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner were a big influence, just like they were on the “magic realism” found in novels like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). You don’t spend a lot of time discussing this in the book, but what’s your take on the magic realist side of the band’s early recordings, mixing reality with the elements of fantasy and myth?

RDL: That’s a good question. We know that the band was influenced by Márquez because they nod directly to his story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” in the “Losing my Religion” video. The earlier R.E.M. material could very well have a magic realist influence. Fables in particular mixes reality with myth in a noticeable way. And there is the ever-present influence of folk tales and children’s stories (Uncle Remus, The Five Chinese Brothers). But I’m sorry to say that we are bumping up against the limits of my literary knowledge —I just haven’t read a lot from the magic realists.

NF: You write that the “one-two punch of Chronic Town and Murmur captures the spirit of the town the best…” Could R.E.M. have come from any other Southern town, or is there something unique about Athens that you know about from actually living there?

RDL: I do believe Athens is a special place but I don’t want to oversell the idea that it was the only place in the South where fresh and creative music was happening. Concurrent with the emergence of the Athens scene there was some amazing stuff going on in Atlanta and also in Chapel Hill, NC. Could R.E.M. have come from one of those other towns? Probably. But they would have been a different band.

One of the things I’m trying to get across in the book is that the very specific clique of friends, fellow artists, and rivals in Athens at that time, along with the town’s culture and relative geographic isolation, all contributed to the formation of R.E.M.’s musical identity. R.E.M. assimilated their peers’ best qualities and filled in the spaces that had been left open for them in that unique ecosystem.

NF: You moved to Athens, GA, in 1992 — “a decade late” is how you describe it in the book’s Prologue — and you write in the book that Athens, GA: Inside/Out, which we have streaming on Night Flight Plus, was pivotal on your decision to move there. Can you tell us a little about this?

RDL: Sure. I grew up in Minneapolis but I have some Southern roots. My parents went to the University of Mississippi and my father is a native North Carolinian. My grandparents on both sides lived in the South when I was a kid. So, as a result of the various family trips as well as reading some of the Southern writers you mentioned earlier, I fell hard for the romantic and semi-mythical idea of the South as a unique breeding ground for great art. At the very least, it seemed like a promising college destination.

When a high school classmate showed me Athens GA: Inside Out, I felt like I had found exactly what I was looking for: a small, charmingly quirky town where the various artists collaborated, supported each other, and made effortlessly great music. I wanted to be a part of that community, and as soon as I could, I got down there. The irony, of course, is that Minneapolis had most of the qualities I sought, but the accent was all wrong!

NF: Even though you missed out on all of the events described your book, you’ve got tons of personal anecdotes from people who’ve lived there, pre- and post-R.E.M. How important was living there, amid the lingering ghosts, in writing this book, and would you have written a different book than the one you did had you not lived there?

RDL: It was super important. I don’t believe I would have written about R.E.M. had I not lived in Athens. The other R.E.M. biographers have already done a great job of telling the band’s story and placing them in the larger context of popular music. So — I felt like the only major space that had been left for me was the possibility of deepening on place. And by “place” I mean the geography, people, culture, and, to some extent, the politics of a locale and how these things contribute to the inner and outer life of an artist.

As it turned out, Athens was not the only place that could be mined further; there was more to be said about Macon (where Bill and Mike essentially grew up) and Collinsville, IL (where Michael Stipe went to high school). But yeah, living in Athens was absolutely key to this book happening.

NF: Finally, you end the book in 1987, right before R.E.M. departs from I.R.S. Records for Warner Bros. Do you have plans for a second R.E.M. book covering the band’s later years?

RDL: I could be persuaded otherwise, but at the moment I’m thinking the answer is no — for the reasons I mentioned above. After Automatic for the People, that sense of a specific place begins to recede from R.E.M.’s music. I’m not one of those people who thinks that only the early R.E.M. stuff is good — I feel that they continued to write incredible songs right up to the end — but with the bigger record deals and the accompanying changes in the band’s lifestyle and social circle, my special angle on this story disappears. I would have to find a different hook, and at present I’m not sure that I have anything to add to a story that Tony Fletcher, David Buckley, Marcus Gray and the other R.E.M. biographers have already covered so well.

Below is an exclusive excerpt from Chapter Four of Robert Dean Lurie’s Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years about R.E.M.’s very first gig in front of a live audience at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church — known simply as “The Church” — located at 394 Oconee Street in Athens, GA. Stipe lived there at the time, and it served as a practice space for the band for many years.

When their turn came, Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe took the “stage” fortified with booze, adrenaline, and take your pick of what else. Nerves ran high, and the performance certainly had all the shaky qualities of a debut. The band still hadn’t even committed to a name. And yet something stood out. As [the Side Effects’] Paul Butchart remembers, “They sounded more like a real band that was tight and everything. They were really good. I know they were better than us, but that didn’t matter at the time.”

Kurt Wood [of the Woggles] adds, “I thought they had the most… chops or whatever. It was still pretty loose. Everyone was pretty drunk.”

Any partygoers who didn’t lose track of time were probably surprised by the number of songs R.E.M. played. They did two sets, and included amid the generous quantity of covers were a number of songs that would remain in their set for years, a few of which would make it onto record: “Just a Touch,” “All the Right Friends,” and “Mystery to me” among them.

The covers included three songs that would become band signatures over the next few years: “There She Goes Again,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” and “Secret Agent Man,” along with crowd-pleasers by the Stones (“Honky Tonk Woman”) and the Sex Pistols (“God Save the Queen”).

By any measure it was a varied and impressive set list, all the more so for a band making its debut. Although no one could have predicted the turnout, the members of proto-R.E.M. clearly had had some kind of premonition that this would be an important performance and had prepared accordingly.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for those in attendance was just how animated Michael Stipe could get in front of an audience. Typically quiet and withdrawn, he turned into a spinning, vibrating maniac when performing the more aggressive songs. Almost no one in attendance had seen [Stipe’s earlier band] Gangster play, so no one had heard him sing before.

In It Crawled from the South, Marcus Gray states that Stipe became virtually “incapacitated due to alcohol consumption toward the end of the band’s set, necessitating the participation of audience members to help out on vocals.” Gray suggests that the performance could have gone on longer but “the gig ended abruptly when half the group fell off the altar, the floor fell out, and Michael burned himself with a cigarette ‘real bad.'”

That bit about the floor must have been an exaggeration. Or perhaps even the loss of the floor couldn’t derail the event, since there was another band that performed later that evening: a trio of interlopers calling themselves the $windle$ who asked if they could play a few songs using the equipment the Side Effects and R.E.M. had been sharing.

This group, so nearly forgotten except for the diligent efforts of the people who maintain the online R.E.M. Timeline, consisted of Chuck Connolly (known around town as “Chuxtry” due to his employment at, you guessed it, Wuxtry Records), his brother Paul, and a drummer named John Underwood. Paul Butchart remembers that “they sounded like a British cover band, right down to the fake accents.” He also believes that it was the $windle$, not R.E.M., who performed “God Save the Queen” — an assertion that directly contradicts Bill Berry’s own recollection, but, given the Dionysian nature of the evening in question, has at least as valid a claim to reliability. Or perhaps both bands played that song.

The $windle$ ended their short set with John Connolly yelling out in the snottiest Johnny Rotten impersonation he could manage, “Congratulations! You’ve just been swindled!”

No one had really gone there that night specifically to see R.E.M.; free beer was probably a much bigger incentive than any of the live music on offer. But clearly the new band had made an impression that would last beyond the hangover. As Kurt Wood drove away from the church in the early morning hours of the morning, his friend and passenger William Orten Carlton (known by everyone as “Ort”) turned to him and said, half seriously, half tongue-in-cheek, “If they can keep this up, they’re going to end up being bigger than the Beatles.”

Watch a full 50-minute set from The Pier in Raleigh, N.C., filmed on October 10, 1982, right here:

A huge thank you to Robert Dean Lurie and Portland, Oregon’s Verse Chorus Press for the exclusive excerpt from Lurie’s excellent new book, Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years, and to Joanna Schwartz for the use of her iconic photos (including the book’s cover).

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.