Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years'

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Robert Dean Lurie's 'Begin the Begin.'
Robert Dean Lurie's 'Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Having covered the Minnesota music scene for a while, I recognize characters like this. The guy who opened for Prince the first time he played First Avenue. The guy who recorded the Replacements' warehouse parties. The guy whose band backed Bonnie Raitt on her debut album. Bob Dylan's BFF. They're known to superfans, but not to casual fans. Some biographers will call them up, some won't. These are the kind of characters who Robert Dean Lurie looked up for his new book Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years.

Here's Romeo Cologne, the D.J. who now spins for funk nights at a venue that bills itself as "Atlanta's oldest strip club" — but was an art student with Michael Stipe back when the future R.E.M. singer was "just a guy from St. Louis" who wore his hair in a "reverse mullet": party up front, business in the back.

Here's Craig Franklin, a high school bandmate of Stipe's: at a battle of the bands, their cover of Rush's "Working Man" lost out to a piano-laden rendition of Bette Midler's "The Rose." Stipe told Franklin he didn't sing, but Franklin didn't care: "You look like a rock star," he said.

Here's Kathleen O'Brien, a college classmate who introduced the nascent duo of Stipe and Peter Buck to the unlikely rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry. Here's Paul Butchart, whose band Side Effects headlined the April 1980 show in a former church where R.E.M. made their auspicious debut. Here's Ingrid Schorr, a friend whose family asked her to return to Rockville, Illinois because her cousin was coming to town; when she got back to Athens later that summer, there were R.E.M. playing a song Mike Mills had written just for her. Lurie reprints a copy of the lyrics dated Aug. 17, 1980 and signed, "For Ingrid. Love, Mike."

Stories like these bring vivid life to the ascent of a band who always seemed, as the title of their 1991 commercial smash put it, Out of Time. One of the most intriguing observations repeated in Begin the Begin is that when they started out, R.E.M. were one of the least weird bands in a scene known for musical experimentation.

Members of R.E.M. were even in some of those stranger outfits — for example, Stipe played Farsifa in a proggy group called Tanzplagen — but R.E.M. quickly became one of the scene's breakout successes, building audiences in part because of their willingness to bash out accessible covers of songs by the Velvet Underground ("There She Goes Again"), the Monkees ("[I'm Not Your] Steppin' Stone"), the Rolling Stones ("Honky Tonk Man"), and the Sex Pistols ("God Save the Queen").

"I'll be honest with you," says Mike Richmond of the band Love Tractor, "and say that it was hard for Love Tractor, because we felt that we were an original band and R.E.M. was just this cover band, and all of a sudden that wasn't true."

The band's grounding in the Athens scene helped steel their spines: they wouldn't sign to a major label until they were well-established, and even accessible originals like "Radio Free Europe" would remain deliberately mercurial, with lyrics that were never precisely nailed down.

As the band's first single, even that song's mix changed: an early cassette demo version was remixed for the official 45 release, though the band preferred a Mitch Easter mix that they put on their first greatest-hits collection. All four members were making strong contributions, and Stipe was content for his voice to be coequal with the other instruments. How should this music sound?

The muddiness of R.E.M.’s 1983 debut LP Murmur was part of its distinctive appeal. As one fan who followed the band up from Athens notes, "1983 was the year of the Police's 'Every Breath You Take,' Yes's 'Owner of a Lonely Heart,' Lionel Richie's 'All Night Long,' Michael Jackson's 'Beat It,' Irene Cara's 'Flashdance,' Michael Sembello's 'Maniac,' and Billy Joel's 'Tell Her About It.' This is the world into which Murmur was unleashed."

Although none of the band members granted interviews for Lurie's book, the author still paints a strong portrait of their evolution — particularly that of Stipe, who increasingly came into his own voice in more ways than one. Decades later, he cited the Reckoning (1984) song "Camera," a tribute to a former lover who died in a car accident, as the first time he felt comfortable using his lyrics to address substantive topics. While his lyrics were still elliptical, they started to become understandable in at least a literal sense.

Lurie is also insightful on the subject of Stipe's fluid sexuality. While Stipe first found lasting love with a man he started dating in the '90s, during R.E.M.’s early years he mostly hooked up with women, and while the connections weren't in the context of committed relationships, he wasn't a girl-in-every-port type like many of his peers. (Among those promiscuous peers, the reader might be surprised to learn, was R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills.) One of his lovers, for example, was Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs: a band numbered among the many openers R.E.M. helped promote far beyond the extent of typical headliners.

The book ends when R.E.M. sign to Warner Bros. in 1988, though the band would continue to remain based in Athens. In fact, the more time they spent in Athens, the stronger their music became: like Prince (whose Paisley Park was the venue for Out of Time’s mixing), the members of R.E.M. drew confidence and creative freedom from remaining off the record industry's beaten path.

Still, it was hard for locals not to look back. Lurie himself, he writes, first landed in Athens as a college freshman in 1992. You'd still see R.E.M. — especially Stipe — out and about, he writes. Still, it wasn't the same. He remembers the local gyro-shop proprietor slicing meat, telling his customers that with respect to the Athens music scene, "By 1986, I was already talking about the good old days."

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