Through the winter of 1979–1980, as The B-52’s and Pylon made “Athens” a New York City buzzword, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe sat around in the church, slowly working up their own act. Peter fingered chords on his black-and-white Rickenbacker—A-C-D—while Michael gripped his broken pencil piece and tacked together phrases for lyrics, classic pop concepts that he dredged from the depths of his late-night radio memories, working feverishly to purge himself of all the clichés he’d heard growing up, to free himself to express his own visions: “Living in cities, living in cars, living the way you never wanted to . . . Shaking it up, shaking it down, shaking the ways you always wanted to . . .”
Peter and Michael were already hip to their Mick and Keith routine. Everybody noticed it: Michael with the ragged, sensual, scarf-wrapped poet look; Peter with his sharp-faced scowl, tight black jeans, and dangling skull-and-crossbones earring. Together the two of them killed many early dark afternoons sitting by heaters, talking rock, and watching Bewitched, since Peter had a lusty crush on Sabrina, Samantha’s bad-girl cousin in sixties psychedelic minis. When not watching that or The Beverly Hillbillies, they jammed on a verse-chorus riff thirty-five times in a row: “G-L-O-R-I-A . . .” and tossed their empty Budweiser cans into wet-bottomed paper bags.
Peter enjoyed just doing that: drinking beer, listening to records, talking about cool shit, scanning PBS for Beatles documentaries. Although he had always thought about being in a band, he didn’t think they would ever really do anything with the songs they were writing. But Michael had different ideas. He’d heard about The B-52’s, he’d seen Pylon, seen The Method Actors. He knew it could be done. He couldn’t do it by himself, he needed support, and he and Peter just might pull it off. His high school dream still possessed him, and he felt that in his collaboration with Peter he had lucked into something good, something great.
“I had to coerce Peter into doing stuff,” Michael Stipe recalled later about his prep time in the church. “He had this feeling that everyone in rock bands were egotistical assholes. Plus, he couldn’t play guitar to save his life. We did play with some other people once. Dan Wall, who lived in the church before we did, would come over and play bass and saxophone, and some other guy played drums. We set up in the church and played a couple times, but that was about it.”
Their roommate Kathleen knew that Peter and Michael wanted to be in a band, so she also applied some pressure. She knew that Bill Berry had free time from the WUOGerz, so she told them that they should meet.
“We met Bill at a party,” Stipe remembers. “I liked his eyebrows—his eyebrow—and said that he was pretty cool. Then we went to Tyrone’s one night and met Mills and I said, ‘No fucking way.’ He was wearing bellbottoms and a stupid haircut. But it was a bargain. If we take Bill, we take Mike.”
At first, after meeting at Tyrone’s, the local club that was starting to book the local bands like Pylon and The Method Actors, the four guys kept saying they would get together, but nothing ever happened.
“It’s pretty funny,” Bill recalls. “Twice we were supposed to get together and jam but we never did. It seemed like it was never going to happen. But then I saw Pete at Tyrone’s one night and said let’s go for it one more time. And we did.
“I’m glad we did.”
We practiced in late February,” says Mike. “It was cold. We didn’t have any heat. It was in the back of the church. I was trying to play with gloves on and steam was coming out of our mouths. Bill and I had some songs from Macon. We’d messed around and put some songs together and we showed those to Peter and Michael, and we saw what they did with them and we thought, ‘That’s pretty cool. This is okay.’”
“They were all real wary of each other,” Kathleen O’Brien recalls about the four guys who were playing in the back of the church. “They were all just so distrustful. I mean, talk about four different personalities. You’ve got Peter, Mr. Atlanta, cool, rock-and-roll guy; Michael, this introverted, insecure, displaced-in-the-South artist-type; and these two from Macon—Bill the badboy and Mike the good nerd kid. They were real different but they clicked. And the thing is, they never wanted it to click. They never wanted to acknowledge the fact that they were anything. That’s why I went out of my way to coerce them to play my birthday party. I said, ‘Listen, two of you are my roommates, I’m dating one of you. If you want to make me happy, play at my birthday party.’ And they did.”
That night, April 5, 1980, it was Kathleen’s party: for her and by her; she did it all. She wanted it to be big. She cleaned the house. She bolted the front doors and posted the sign, “Enter in Rear.” She told everybody about the party. She reserved the kegs. To make the party extra special she even got a fancy tap: a big, lighted, fake woodgrain fleur-de-lis-shaped Budweiser tap—putting down a bad check as deposit. And she got the bands to play.
Not only were her roommates (Buck, Stipe) practicing in a band, but across town there was another crew setting up: The Side Effects: Kathleen knew Paul Butchart from Atlanta, having met at German Club camp one summer. Paul was playing drums with Kit Swartz, his roommate, when they met Jimmy Ellison, the husband of Vanessa, the lead singer for Pylon. Jimmy was twenty-eight—older than everyone else—but he was still a bop boy, a kid like the rest. His wife of three years was out of town a lot, still traveling with her band. With her on the road, flush full of fame, their young marriage wore thin and failed. During the days of their separation Jimmy wandered through parties, weeping after a few beers, looking for a hug. To get his mind off the agony he started playing bass with Paul and Kit in The Side Effects.
Kathleen knew they had been practicing. She asked them to play. She had her roommates’ band and The Side Effects. She rounded out a three-act night with another local band called Turtle Bay.
Through the circuit—record stores, road talk, radio station—word went out about the party. “Park down that side street, you know, turn off by the Jesus Saves sign just before the river. Or park in the big lot by the river, you know, by O’Malley’s. Park up in town, if you have to, and walk down the hill to the church. You know, that church down Oconee where they have those killer parties.” “Where that cute guy from Wuxtry lives?” “Yeah, him. That’s the place.”
The church filled.
Again, like the body twists and tail flicks that choreograph a school of fish, like with rumors and the language of crowds, inside the church word got around: “Through the hole in the closet. Go through the hole in the closet.” That was where the fun was.
The crowd in the bedroom mills and wonders and stands patiently, waiting in line to crawl one by one through the hole into the sanctuary. Once in the back, word goes around to keep to the right, the boards on one side are rotten: Keep off, or risk a leg, ankle, worse. Everyone who made it into the back was drunk, stoned, or tripping, yet still wise enough to stay away from the broken floor.
On the makeshift stage the bands play and drone. The crowd shifts and rotates, clusters round, then circulates out again, back through the slow flowing hole and up into the bedrooms, looking for the brother with the MDA, looking for a joint to silence the ringing in its ears, waiting in line to pump more beer from the kegs.
“Ahhhhhh ahh ahh ahh ahhmm not your stepping stone, not your steppin’ stone, not your steppin’ stone . . .” an un-named band sings, and the crowd stands and watches, some wince, as Peter practices his first tentative twirls and Michael hangs onto the microphone like he would for the next swift decade, entrancing a stunned and surprised audience.
The crowd that night wasn’t one of fans, they’re strangers and friends, beer hogs and party hounds, students on a mission to make as much noise as they can before having to go back to class. The members of the bands that played weren’t stars. They were just the latest to find out how much fun it was to play pretend with your friends: And that night they became the new kids in the scene, the latest to show that playing pretend is its own reality, the next generation of Athens bands after the B’s, Pylon, and The Method Actors.
By the end of the night someone had stolen the fancy Budweiser tap and Kathleen lost her deposit.
After the tap was stolen at the party Kathleen had to make good her deposit. The guys in the band decided to help her out. When Mike Hobbs from Tyrone’s, the club in town where Pylon and The Method Actors were now begrudged modestly but intensely attended Wednesday nights, asked them to play a show, they agreed. They needed to make some money to pay for the taps. To warm up, they played for free at a fundraiser for Rick the Printer’s 11:11 Koffee Klub.
At the end of Washington Street on the edge of downtown, Rick Hawkins had rigged an empty space with a coffee bar and some hotplates. He called it the 11:11. Its slogan was “Do you know where your coffee cup is?” Rick had come to Athens in the early seventies. By the time he was twenty, he owned a building near the Oconee River where he set up his Volkswagen repair and print shop, and which became a listed welcoming hostel for any wastrel hippie Rainbow Family member who wandered through Athens.
The Koffee Klub was where the kids went to hang out, sample bohemian decay. Coffee was speed to the nineteen-year-olds who rendezvoused at the dark dingy space to prepare for their nightly ventures into the underground. Coffee became the object of a cult, and its sipping became a ritual. At the Koffee Klub the only record played on the toy stereo there was “Heartbreak Hotel.” Over and over.
Before the band played at the Koffee Klub, they finally gave themselves a name. They figured if there were going to be posters, they needed to call themselves something. They rejected all that they considered: Twisted Kites, Cans of Piss, Slut Bank, The Male Nurses. Then Michael Stipe started flipping through the dictionary. He knew that had been the technique used to name the Dadaists and he figured that was good enough for them. He poked his finger onto a page. “How about R.E.M.?” he asked as they all sat around the church.
“What’s it mean?” Mills asked.
“Says here ‘Rapid Eye Movement,’” Stipe said, “but we can just use R.E.M.” “Sure. Okay. Why not?” Peter said. That was it. They had a name.
During the show at the Koffee Klub a guy watched from the audience. It was Bertis Downs, a law student who didn’t want to practice law. Bert had already met Bill on the Contemporary Concerts committee and he had met Peter at the Wuxtry because they both were Neil Young fans and Peter would turn him on to obscure bootlegs and new releases. Bert was loving it. He loved it up to the point that the police came in response to a noise complaint and shut the club down.
After the plug was pulled by the cops, Bert pulled Peter aside. Bert went up to him and said, “Y’all are going to be big. Bigger than the Beatles. I mean it, man. I swear!”
Peter sneered, chuckled and said, “Yeah, right.”
There was Bert Downs, this crazy law student, saying R.E.M. was going to be bigger than big. The cops had just left, all around them people were drinking coffee with curdled milk and bourbon, and Bert kept repeating a prophecy that this band which had just been silenced by the law would someday be bigger than the Beatles.
All Peter could say was, “Who’s got a beer?”
In May, R.E.M. opened for The Brains, the Atlanta band led by Tom Grey, who had filled in for Mike Green on keyboards during The Fans’ L.A. fiasco two years earlier. Athens critics on the school paper claimed R.E.M. blew The Brains away. Atlanta critics, however, claimed that that opinion was just another expression of the pro-Athens chauvinism felt by the town since The B-52’s, Pylon, and The Method Actors had appeared. The debate was never settled. It just widened the rift between the two cities.
In June, Peter’s brother Ken moved out of the church. Bill and Mike started staying there.
“I stopped going to classes and school just slipped away,” Bill recalls of those first few months of being in the band. “I think I kind of wanted it to happen. Like habitual criminals who want to go to jail so they don’t have to do anything. I think that’s what it was. I despised school, and what was going on was so exciting that it was hard to get up for first-period class.
“It’s funny; I came to school to grow up and do something right, but I just said fuck it and I threw myself into the band.
“As soon as the university asked me to discontinue my affiliation with them, I got a job at the Holiday Inn as morning busboy. That really sucked. Here I was staying at the church and I had to get up at four A.M. to get the breakfast buffet set up. There would be parties still going on at the church and I would be dressed up in these brown polyester pants and Peter and Michael would be sitting there, wasted, drinking beer and laughing at me, saying:
“See ya, Bill. Heh heh heh.”