IN THE HANDS OF THE FANS: R.E.M.

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Ed. note: a few months ago we ran a contest here at the site giving readers a chance to win vinyl and DVD copies of R.E.M. Unplugged 1991 and 2001 (Rhino/Viacom) which documented the group’s two key appearances on the MTV Unplugged series. To enter the contest you had to submit an R.E.M.-centric-related story, anecdote or appreciation. We received a slew of entries, many of them apparently from readers that didn’t bother reading the terms of submission (they only sent their name and mailing address). Several, though, were corkers, including the winning one by Christopher Keller, who recalled for us a chance encounter with members of the band. That, along with several others we enjoyed, are below. –FM

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Reuniting the Band, by Christopher M. Keller, Esq.

I was attending the UGA School of Law between 1996 and 2000.  My first job was at a local restaurant called The Last Resort.  Athens is a pretty small town, but Last Resort is frequented by all of the R.E.M. guys and there were a variety of experiences over the years (my wife nearly punching Michael Stipe in the face comes to mind, but isn’t something that I want the world to know) but my favorite is probably my (unintentional) reuniting of the band.

It was in the fall of 1997, I think, though it could have been 1998, but regardless, Berry had finally left the band, leaving the town of Athens in shock.  Everyone knew about his health problems and no one was surprised he decided to retire, but there was something of a (claimed) surprise by the other band members when Berry announced publicly he was retiring.  From what I heard, he may or may not have told everyone before he decided to leave.  Regardless, Berry and his friends were eating on the patio, when Michael (yes, that is how we would refer to him) came in, saying that he was meeting friends.  Always helpful, I showed him onto the patio, “come with me”.

When we walked onto the patio, Michael stopped, turning white, looked at me, then at Berry and his group.  Michael started to say something along the line of “That’s not who I am meeting….” But we were already out and too close to walk away.  Pleasant “Hey”(s) were exchanged, with hugs and small talk, but Michael repeatedly (and imploringly) looked in my direction.  He quickly said that he was meeting Hassan, the owner of Marrakech Express, and left the group.  As we walked out of the patio, Michel turned to me and said, “I didn’t need that”.

Later in the evening, Bertis Downs, their attorney and eventual manager, came into the restaurant.  We were on friendlier terms … more so than with Michael, and he complimented me for “reuniting the band”.  He later explained that it had been several weeks since Berry announced his retiR.E.M.ent and that the band had somehow avoided running into him during that time.  Of course, Berry never came back to the band, but I like to think that I paved the way for reunions such as the one at the 40 Watt before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

You know, now that I read the story, it doesn’t seem as unusual as it did at the time.  Let me tell you about the time that my wife raised her fist to punch Michael after he pushed her when we were in the Living Room….

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 First Time’s Always the Best Time, by Matt Kessler

So my first encounter with R.E.M. was as a freshman in high school. I took a theater class and we had to write a play, and in the play there was a scene where a bunch of the “nerdy” kids in school were wandering into the classroom after being bullied, and the teacher suggested we play “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. as we walked on and found our seats. It was my first time hearing R.E.M. and the song echoed in my head for weeks after the play, and then I dove into their catalog and became a lifelong fan!

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 Smells Like Teen Spirit, by Tim Taylor

Like certain smells can bring back memories, the album Automatic For The People always brings me back to that one girl. I had never listened to R.E.M. before that, but now I can’t hear them without thinking of her.

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 Anarchy on the AM, by Darren Thornberry

Well, just a simple story. As a kid in rural Alberta in the late ‘80s, I was getting a massive dose of hair bands on the radio. I have no doubt that was to be my destiny as a music consumer UNTIL “Stand” somehow snuck under the wire of our lonely AM station. I will never forget the explosion of my musical consciousness that song caused, and I will forever be thankful to R.E.M. for a string of great albums. The band, which I was lucky enough to see on the Monster tour in 1995, also opened the door to wide swaths of music I never would have found without them.

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The Shocking Conclusion, by J. Batchelor

I’ve been a huge fan since hearing Murmur which happened about the time Rolling Stone Magazine named it Album of the Year.  In a small town in eastern North Carolina, I lived a bit off the beaten path and wasn’t as up to speed on current music in those pre-internet days as if I had lived in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area.  Still I purchased Murmur (probably in Raleigh or Chapel Hill on a visit but possibly in Greenville) and was totally blown away on first listen.

Next I got Chronic Town and pretty much purchased each album when it came out after that.  I first saw R.E.M. in Page Auditorium at Duke University in Durham, NC when I drove up with a friend in September 1984 a couple of days before my 29th birthday.  I was lucky enough to see R.E.M. four more times before they split up, including the show in Raleigh at Walnut Creek Amphitheatre when Bill Berry rejoined his old mates on stage in 2003 and again at Walnut Creek when Don Dixon, Mitch Easter and Johnny Marr joined the band on stage in 2008.

Still, there are other interesting bits, like when I took a diversion off the road in 1990 coming back from my old room-mates wedding in New Orleans and went to Athens and visited Wuxtry Records (where Michael and Pete first met).  I ended up staying there overnight and saw “friend of the band” Robyn Hitchcock play a solo acoustic show in the 40 Watt Club (this would be a few years before Peter Buck bought the Club to save a bit of Athens history from the destruction that is called urban renewal).   A couple of years later, I happened to be in London when I read in TimeOut that there was going to be a benefit for Bosnian Refugee Relief with members of R.E.M. and Robyn Hitchcock, Peter Holsapple and others performing.
Along with my friends, I went looking for the venue but apparently we got Liverpool Street and Liverpool Road mixed up and never found the place (though I have since acquired a bootleg recording of the performance).  And speaking of bootleg recordings, I stumbled into a record store in Nuremburg, Germany three or four years later and bought a bootleg CD of R.E.M. doing a benefit show in the 40 Watt Club from November 19, 1992.  On another trip to Europe in 1993, I got off the plane in Riga, Latvia and the radio in the airport was playing a song that featured what was unmistakably Michael Stipe’s voice.  I was somewhat shocked because it was a song I had never heard and I was very familiar with all of R.E.M.’s material.  The song was “Alive and Living Now” with Michael as guest vocalist for the Golden Palominos.  As soon as I returned home I bought the CD and the earlier Album by the Golden Palominos that also featured Michael singing (and if I’m not mistaken Mike Mills played bass on a song or two).

Since the breakup of the band, I’ve been lucky enough to catch Peter Buck performing with Minus 5 and Mike Mills performing with the Baseball Project.  Unfortunately Peter was not with Minus 5 the second time I saw them or with the Baseball Project when I saw them.  He was off doing his own gigs.

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Previously in the BLURT  “In The Hands Of The Fans” series:

Tori Amos, “Out of the Darkness”

Captain Beefheart, “The Nose Knows” & Other Tales”

 

 

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