It was summer. The air was wet and sticky. The humidity that had oppressed the afternoon was beginning to lessen, but it was still high enough that the cigar smoke rolling from the ends of a dozen thumb-fat Swisher Sweets was kept together in thick, gray ribbons as the meeting of the Men’s Club was called to disorder.
The announcement for a meeting had gone out the day before: “Men’s Club at Bill and Mike’s.” Bill Berry and Mike Mills, best friends since high school in Macon, and now the double-punch power pack driving R.E.M., had recently moved in together to a house on Barber Street next door to Pylon Park. They figured it was their turn to host a party. They declared a Men’s Club meeting, and after six o’clock the members began showing up: Curtis Crowe and Michael Lachowski from Pylon; Nicky Giannaris from the defunct Tone Tones; the painter Neil MacArthur; Love Tractor manager Glen Chitlik; the party favorites, brothers Sam and John Seawright—and many more of the men of the scene trouped into Bill and Mike’s house, popped beers, lit up their cigars, and launched into an experience of male bonding that was only slightly belied by the layer of parody that glossed the proceedings.
As the crowd grew, the cloud of smoke thickened and the dirty jokes became raunchier. A topless waitress, someone’s willing girlfriend (and the only woman allowed), shook her small breasts and served beer from a tray. The sun wasn’t down before the shells from the boiled peanuts, the traditional Men’s Club snack, were ankle-deep on the floor. Five cases of beer had been emptied, and two packs of Polaroid film had been used up shooting guy-pics of mooning butts and beery mugging. Eying the pile of empty beer bottles, Bill Berry pulled out his golf clubs and he and Curtis Crowe took turns standing on the kitchen table, smashing the empty bottles with the clubs, one spotting for the other—“You do a case then ah’ll do one!”—while Mike Mills tugged his baseball cap down tighter and laughed hysterically against the rain of glass. The bottles shattered with an exquisite noise, and for a year after there was glass in the cupboards and shining slivers stuck to the walls. After it got dark Sandi Phipps, Kathleen O’Brien, and a couple of other girls tried to crash the party but the men wrestled them to the floor, threw them down the front porch steps, and hurled full cans of beer after them, barely missing their heads and putting still more dents in Kathleen’s already battered Plymouth Satellite.
It was a new summer, another fresh season in Athens, Gee-A. That past December, a writer in England’s New Musical Express had reviewed Pylon’s album Gyrate, calling it “one of the year’s most fundamental rock-and-roll celebrations.” Another writer raised the issue of geography that was on everyone’s mind: “Without trying to hype Athens, Georgia, into a new Akron, Ohio, it’s fair to say that the success of The B-52’s has had a great effect on the young natives of that quiet college town. . . . Pylon are southern kids, from small towns in Georgia and Florida. They have that slow drawl, that take-things-easy attitude. A ‘Gosh, are we really in the music business now?’ innocence that still registers on their faces and still rings true. . . .”
In January of 1981, Melody Maker also reviewed Pylon and noted that “buried deep in the land of rednecks, peanut farms and wave-yer-hat-and-shout-yeehaw boogie bands, there’s something stirring.”
And just on the newsstands as summer began was an issue of the New York Rocker with Pylon on the cover. Inside was a feature spread on Athens. It was validation: “New Sounds from the New South” the headline blared. Pylon was the lead, with a second feature on The Method Actors. A summary tribute written by Vic Varney was also included: “Athens Small Town Makes Good.” And as a wrap-up, photos of the three youngest bands: R.E.M., Love Tractor, and The Side Effects. Vic said about R.E.M.: “Except for the B’s, they could probably pack in more people on a given night than any band around.” With that as their reputation, R.E.M. began to think about cutting a single.
The residents of Barber Street—Pylon, Love Tractor, R.E.M.—felt themselves to be quite the items as 1981 fleshed itself out and enhanced the steadily growing reputation of Athens. Ronald Reagan had just been elected and a new wave of conservatism was cranked and rolling in America. With that shadow of Reaganism falling over the country, the artistes and fine young party things in Athens felt themselves to be even more precious because of their rejection of it. They were the privileged post-punk retainers of a classic Baudelairian decadence in the face of the new repression. They were late twentieth-century members of the cult of multiplied sensation.
The most spectacular event that spring was the Easter party at 169. Invitations went out and Leslie Michel wrote risky checks all over town to scrounge enough fruit and liquor to make a tub of punch. The lion-clawed bathtub was moved to the front porch and a 3-D Christ was hung above it. The yard filled with the folks in Easter finery who showed up, filled a cup, and had a hit of blotter laid on their tongues. The trigger to kick occurred when David Helmey drove up. He got his invitation to the party, but he thought it was a costume ball. He rode up on his Honda 750. He was wrapped in a sheet, his long red hair kept in place by a crown of woven kudzu. As he walked up the long flight of stairs, the bunch on the porch began to yell and clap. When he reached the top, Leslie laid a dose on his tongue and the party shifted gears.
As the stereo speakers in the window alternated Gershwin with The Gang of Four, John Seawright sat hunched on the porch swing, flanked by admiring babes. He smoked his Camels down to the thick orange callus on his fingers while he lulled the girls into a mystic torpor with his profound voice, telling them of the finer points of Gnostic Manichaeanism. Linda, Leslie, and the other girls twirled in the yard and sucked fruit from their cups. Paul Lombard ambled in and out of the foyer, mumbling, serving sips of punch to his little cat Trotsky. Jefferson laughed about a recurring dream involving Minnie and Mickey Mouse. And Gene-Gene the dancing machine, a short black mechanic from town, stumbled through the crowd, offering his assistance to the girls. Before the Easter party was over, Gene-Gene had fallen asleep in an old overstuffed chair that had been hauled onto the porch.
He missed it when Peter Buck washed Leslie’s feet in the dregs of the grain punch and then drank it.
To the rest of the town’s standard students, however, Barber Street and its residents had a different reputation than that of bohemian artists, the one imagined for themselves. Because of their difference—their costume, hair color and cut—they were seen as both dangerous and ridiculous. They were called “that Barber Street crowd”: offbeat costuming bohos, self-righteous New Wave trendies who fancied themselves somehow more blessed than average, asshole henna-heads who thought a ragged linen slip, oversized woolen pants, and a pack-a-day Camel habit made them better than anyone else. But while the other students might sneer, they were at the same time enthralled.
At 169, Leslie and Linda had the walls of one open and sunny room lined with their favorite black party dresses—black satin, black polyester, black cotton, black rayon bodice, and huge black polka dots on a full skirt—and at some party, who knows which, some frat kids wandered in, attracted by the smell and sounds of a party at night, and they saw the dancing and drinking, the girls lifting their dresses over their heads, the boys touching boys, the dismembered mannequins painted with lipstick. Confused and worried, they left to tell their friends.
What they said must not have been good. In the retelling, the party dresses that had been pulled from the piles in Potter’s House thrift-store ragroom, became satanic robes donned by both sexes during wild rockannalias. The dancing kids, refracted in a drunken frat boy’s mind, became lupine sex fiends, mad from drugs and punk. The stories that were passed around on campus about the rockers on Barber Street only enhanced the intrigue. Soon it became a standard frat dare to challenge a pledge to go to Barber, climb the long sets of stairs to the wide deep porch of 169, look in the windows, knock on the doors, and then run away.
Nobody ever took the dare, or else nobody ever noticed. But it would have been easy. The house was party central in a scene known for partying; people came and went at all hours. The crowd that lived along Barber Street was a very partying crowd. Time was marked by the passage of parties and time was also obliterated by the same, each episode adding a scar to someone’s body or reputation, to be retold by others over beers.
At this time, all the members of R.E.M. were living on Barber Street and practicing in a room at 169. They were writing two new songs each week: rock-thrash-verse-chorus-bridge. It was what Michael would later consider their “songwriting apprenticeship,” during which time they practiced five days a week. Everything was perfect: They were writing plenty of songs, packing the clubs, getting press, and they had even just recently added a fifth member to their organization: their new manager, Jefferson Holt:
Until they added Jefferson, Bill Berry had done all of the booking for R.E.M., with some help from his girlfriend Kathleen. At the same time Bill also had taken on double duty as drummer for Love Tractor as well, after Kit Swartz decided to devote all his time to school and The Side Effects. Bill was ambitious, energetic, and willing to do anything, but the load of playing with two bands and managing one began to wear on him. Every day after practicing with R.E.M. he went over to Kathleen’s and spent the evening complaining that nobody else in the band wanted to help deal with the business. Everybody wanted to make money playing music—they’d all committed themselves to that—but they bitched when the phone calls and bank deposits had to be made. Finally he came to a breaking point. Bill couldn’t handle the pressure alone, so the four members of R.E.M. decided they needed a fifth.
The time was right. Bill had put together a string of dates for April 1981, where the band traveled steadily from Georgia to Tennessee to North Carolina and around again in twelve days. It was to be their first extended tour longer than a weekend. Jefferson Holt had proven himself to be a loyal fan and a stout partier since he’d moved into 169 Barber Street, plus he had some experience dealing with club owners. When R.E.M. decided to recruit a road hand, they thought of him.
Jefferson was visiting his old friends in Chapel Hill when Bill gave him a call. It was nothing firm, Bill explained, but he wanted to know if Jefferson could go on tour with them to help load equipment, take money at the door. Jefferson jumped at the chance, said, “Hell yeah!” He got in his car and drove to Athens.
“I drove down and got to the studio on Jackson Street just as they were finishing loading,” Jefferson remembers. “All the girls were there and everybody was waiting for me. I had been visiting a friend of mine who’s a painter and I had shaved my head to pose for a series of paintings he was doing. Plus, I’d planned on going to an Easter party as an egg. So I get out of the car with my head shaved and wearing a smoking jacket and everybody just stared at me. They were horrified. But Bill said, ‘Get in. Let’s go!’ and I crawled into the back of their old green van and I’ve never left.”
A few days later, at a party after the show in Chapel Hill, Jefferson and the members of the band were standing around outside. “That was when Bill came up to me and asked if I wanted to manage the band,” Jefferson says. “See, with them, everybody was broke and the band’s money belonged to everybody, so whoever had control of the money eventually pissed off everybody else. But I could say no to somebody and have it not disrupt the band itself. I could be the whipping boy and Mr. Moneybags at the same time. So when Bill asked me, I said yes.”
The relationship between Jefferson and the band got off to a slippery start. Before he had been asked to help manage the band, Jefferson made up some posters that said, “Rapid Eye Movement, Spring Tour ’81.” The band hated that, and Michael Stipe especially was furious. “By that time Michael had gone on his hate-rapid-eye-movement kick, but I didn’t know,” Jefferson says. “I was just trying to help out.”
Michael Stipe was more than the band’s singer/songwriter. He was its image consultant and creative director. He had always been aware of style and image, but his sense of it became even stronger once he got deeper into his study of art and his band began to get popular. The first step he took was to carefully bury any living memory of his playing in the band Gangster under the name Michael Valentine. In nearly every interview R.E.M. became his first band, although he sometimes vaguely acknowledged his high school experience.
He also carefully amended his taste in music and art. For example: One time, Michael and Linda Hopper went to Potter’s House to shop. Linda found a large wax candle there, hand-carved with the names of bands: Boston, Aerosmith, ELO. She thought it was cute. She showed it to Michael but he didn’t say anything. A few days later she came home to Barber Street and found Michael scraping the candle with a knife, obliterating the band names. “What are you doing?” Linda asked him. “Linda, this candle used to be mine. I made it when I was in high school. My mother must have given it away!”
The second step was to make clear that the name R.E.M., as used by them, did not stand for that stage during sleep when dreaming is its most intense, although that meaning was crucial to the early rocking neo-beat surrealist image of the band. By declaring that the meaning of the name was open for interpretation Michael gracefully evaded the “rapid eye movement” stigma and equated the experience of R.E.M. with dreaming itself.
Michael’s personal image was equally vague. As he discovered artistic movements, he tried them on, felt their fit: Dada, surrealism, expressionism; Rimbaud, Verlaine, Burroughs. During the early days he tried it all. Resisting the discipline of school, Michael and his friends skipped their classes at the university to drink gin-and-tonic in the overgrown yards along Barber Street and make messes on their bedroom floors with watercolors and cigarette ash. In Linda Hopper’s bedroom at 169 Barber Michael set up a Farfisa which he’d bought from the wife of a local musician, cleaned it of the roaches he found nesting there, got the wiring repaired, and attempted to learn the instrument. This was his practice: Turn on the tape recorder, stick popsicle sticks between a couple of randomly chosen keys, and command Linda and Leslie, “Okay, everyone say all the words you can think of that start with the letter, ummm, ‘P’!”
Despite Michael’s busy schedule with R.E.M., he also found time to compete in the open-mike nights at The Last Resort. At one, Michael sang the Yardbirds’ “Tired of Waiting,” but he lost to Joe Kuhl, his upstairs neighbor at 169, who sang Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” At another open-mike night at Abbott’s, a local pizza joint, Michael tied rags around his wrists and recited his lyrics while his sister Cyndi translated into sign language.
Michael Stipe did many things—poetry, painting, photography—but it was his singing with R.E.M. that got him a hit. He did moves on stage that blew everyone away and made them think twice about the quiet, pouting prettyboy. On stage, as the music sank and soared, Michael hip-jerked and whiplashed his own body, shook and sang and begged and pleaded until at the end of a night both he and the crowd were sure that he was a star and he was sure that he had done something no one else in town was doing. And at the end of the night he went home after thrashing for hours on stage at Tyrone’s or the 40 Watt, groaning with a sore back, and Linda and Leslie would lay him out on a hard flat door and watch over him while he recovered, rubbing tiger balm onto his still-spasming and twitching and lick-needing back.
Bill and Mike were enjoying the rising success of their band, but they didn’t feel the need to practice styles as Michael did: They were naturals. Instinctively they could play together and lay down a rhythm section far superior to any in town. But they did need to practice styles of dressing, Michael believed. Bill sat behind the drums, so he could get away with shorts and a tank top. But Mike, little-boy-looking and eyeglass-wearing, was a different story. Michael trusted the style decisions of Peter, whose costume of loose, French-cuffed shirt, black vest, black jeans, and Beatle boots was cutting-edge retro. But Michael, whose early favorite performance dress was T-shirt and tennis shoes, made Mike show him the clothes he planned to wear before each date. Mike wasn’t too offended; he figured being criticized by Michael was the price of success.
And it was a cheap price to pay, considering the degree of success R.E.M. was achieving. By the spring of 1981 R.E.M. was the best band in town. Pylon was still highly respected; they were the band of choice for critics. Pylon’s fans were fiercely loyal and they always filled the clubs when Pylon played. But it was R.E.M. that packed the dance floors and served as a crossover band between the art school–derived scene and the rest of campus. R.E.M. was the first band to make the scene a money-making proposition by bringing the mainstream students into the clubs.
R.E.M.’s music wasn’t intellectual or esoteric. It was physical, passionate. They played rock and roll with the erotic, raw energy that has defined the genre for years. Mike Mills paced and hopped, matching his lyrical bass to Bill Berry’s pounding. The beat was compulsive, danceable, strong. Peter Buck strutted with his guitar and leapt like Pete Townshend, grinding out primal chords and picking his top strings to sound like a music box. But Michael Stipe was the main attraction. As front man, he did a demon take that drove a crowd wild: He spun and thrashed, sweated and wailed, hanging onto the microphone as his legs gave out. His distinctive move came during the crescendos that were present in nearly all of their most popular songs like “Radio Free Europe,” “Gardening at Night,” “Sitting Still”: He lifted and jerked his shoulder like a hooked fish above water. His body became a bullwhip, his chest a drum, as he pounded himself while he sang, pinched his nose, and slurred his neo-beat poetry in a desperate husky choke like a man expelling demons by lashing himself until his clothes hung torn from his wet frothy body.
R.E.M. had quickly convinced everyone in Athens and Atlanta that they were the best in town. Now they set out to prove it to the rest of the country. With Jefferson handling the door receipts and everyone sharing driving duty (except Michael), R.E.M. embarked on a tour of American pizza parlors and gay discos-with-New-Wave-Nights to show the country what was vital in rock in the 1980s.
Peter Buck described their early touring to Melody Maker:
“We’d pull into some town and if we were lucky we’d open for the local hotshit band and blow the fuckers off the stage.
“In our own naive way, we were kinda arrogant. We were like head-hunters. Sometimes we’d open for some cool bands, but usually we opened, you know, for just some nobodies who weren’t very good and we’d go in and say, ‘Man, let’s blow them off stage.’ The whole idea was to walk on and do like a fifty-minute set that was like a hurricane blowing off the stage.
“We wanted to present those people with something that was just undeniable. By the time we were finished we wanted them to think that everything else was irrelevant. I just loved that challenge. And we did it every night, man, in all those bars. Man, we musta played, like, two hundred bars, all over the south. We’d go in and there’d be maybe thirty people if we were headlining on maybe a Cheap Drink Night—’cause we always tried to play Cheap Drink Nights, ’cause that would draw ’em in—and by the end of the set, we’d always be able to kinda go, ‘See? Now tell your damned friends about this.’”
Their diet on the road was beer and speed; they added lunch meat to the menu if they were lucky enough to get a deli tray. Sometimes they’d get a pizza. In college towns the hosts of a show would invite the band to parties, and by the end of the night the guys would be gone, leaving the unfortunate host saying, “Hey, these guys just cleaned out my refrigerator. And stole my girlfriend, too!” While on the road Peter wouldn’t take a shower, just put more store-bought grease in his hair. Back in Athens between road trips, they ate potatoes and rice. They went to Wendy’s and loaded up on free crackers. They shoplifted cheese. Bill mixed rice and Cream of Mushroom soup and made it last for three days, reviving the leftovers with hot sauce and pepper vinegar swiped from restaurants. They drank free at Tyrone’s, where they ruled weekends, and promised repayment once they got their first gold record.
The reason R.E.M. was so successful in town was the same reason they were despised by the local art scene: They played down-and-dirty rock and roll.
If anybody from the art scene went to see R.E.M. they said it was just to see Michael dance. At that time he was also playing with another band called Tanzplagen with Neil MacArthur and Lee Self. Lee Self blames pressure from the art kids for breaking up that band: “Michael [Lachowski] and Randy [Bewley] made Neil feel ashamed for playing rock and roll. It wasn’t art. They hated R.E.M. too.”
When the art-rock folk went to see R.E.M. they saw a room full of “normal” students dancing to a Monkees cover, and they were horrified. A favorite band of the art crowd was Jerry Ayers’ Limbo District, whose sound was a discordant, percussive din. Limbo District was considered far better than R.E.M.: Whereas R.E.M. packed the club, Limbo District could clear the room in no time flat. The reaction to R.E.M.’s popularity was sometimes extreme. Mike Green, formerly of The Fans, saw a frat boy in the 40 Watt Club at an R.E.M. show and he swore never to return to the club again. Tom Smith, who had played around with Michael Stipe in Boat Of, an art-noise band with Carol Levy, first thought Stipe was cool, a little unfocused, but with earnest intensity. Then he saw R.E.M. and he turned against him with a vengeance. He made up T-shirts complete with illustrative caricature. It read: “A collective fist up M. Stipe’s ass.”
A division within the town was clear. The music scene in Athens had been founded on artistic innovation and naive experiment: The B-52’s were a sui generis wacky spasm of postmodern cultural rubble-sifting. Pylon was British-flavored dance drone accented with Vanessa’s idiosyncratic ranting naive vocals. The Method Actors were a dynamic two-man scream. Love Tractor was instrumental.
But R.E.M., with their ragged, vital rock, surpassed them all.
And they were going to prove it.
They decided to do a single.
They had a meeting at Peter’s house and planned to make another tape. Jefferson suggested calling his friend Peter Holsapple and asking him, and Peter supported him because he had heard of Holsapple and Stamey and Mitch Easter and the North Carolina crowd. Holsapple suggested recording with Mitch Easter at his place, and they did. In April they recorded “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still.” They had a tape. Now they needed a label.
In the two years since The B-52’s had showed the kids in Athens that it could be done, the music community had become savvy to the ways of cutting a record: Spend a couple of thousand dollars of somebody else’s money on studio time, pressing and printing, and you’ve got a carton-full of plastic disks with sleeves that you can mail to critics and radio stations.
To a band like The Side Effects it seemed natural to record an EP with Danny Beard, who had in the past year teamed up with Peter Dyer, an Englishman whose Armageddon label distributed DB Recs in Britain. And in 1981 everyone recorded with Danny and Peter. That’s just what you did: The B’s did, Pylon, Method Actors, Kevin Dunn. So The Side Effects made an EP with Danny, as Love Tractor would. Everyone went to Danny Beard, eager to get a record out. Recording with Beard linked them genetically to The B-52’s and Pylon, and, glowing from their reflections, got them a bit of press, a gig at CBGB’s or Danceteria. But that was about it.
R.E.M. however, unique among the scene bands, went their own way, partly because they wanted to be different, and partly because Danny Beard didn’t like them. They were anathema to the cool art crowd.
R.E.M. talked with Jonny Hibbert from Atlanta, who wanted to do a record label. Hibbert said he would put out their single and he offered them a contract. At that point Jefferson didn’t feel like he had the right to express an opinion, so he didn’t interfere with their signing with Hibbert. Bert Downs, by this time their biggest fan, told them he thought it was a bad contract. He told them it was a mistake to give away the publishing rights to their songs. And Peter Buck himself, skeptic and radical, had his own reservations. But despite that they all agreed to sign. As Peter concluded, “Fuck it. I want to get a record out!”
As they went to have the record pressed the other members of the band debated about scratching “Fuck Peter” into the master, but they decided against it.
The single came out in July 1981.
Finally, R.E.M. had a record; they had vinyl. They complained about the mastering, but they decided to release it anyway. As a celebration Peter smashed one and taped it to the wall. It was a new phase. It was real.
The single got rave reviews.
Quoting some of the critics, “Best unsigned band in the country!” Bill Berry called up his old friend Ian Copeland, who had left Paragon and gone on to start his own booking agency called FBI. As a favor to Bill FBI added R.E.M. to their list, the only band they booked that didn’t have a label. Copeland knew it was only a matter of time.
Also at the beginning of 1981, the 40 Watt Club moved from the downtown corner of Broad and College to a space on Clayton Street where Rick the Printer had had the 11:11 Koffee Klub the year before, where R.E.M. had played and been shut down by the cops.
It was time for the club to move. The space downtown was getting dangerous, it was only quasi-legal anyway, and it was becoming a nuisance to the guy running the sandwich shop. Curtis Crowe had spotted a new place with a bar, stage, and dressing room, but Paul Scales was reluctant to take on the new club as a full-scale business. Curtis didn’t have time to keep looking because he was out touring with Pylon. While Curtis was gone, Scales decided to move the club to the place where Rick’s Koffee Klub had been on Clayton Street.
Scales had gotten some money from a silent partner and had blown it on “just stuff.” When the money-man called and said he was coming to check out the club he was allegedly funding, Scales said to Curtis, “Man, you’ve got to help me out!”
Foreign Legion, the record store Jefferson had been managing, had just closed. Jefferson loaned them the money for the first month’s rent on their new space and gave them a counter and a cash register.
“Then we got some lumber and saw blades and sheetrock and a few days later had a nightclub,” Curtis remembers. “It wasn’t beautiful, but it was a club. We stole the toilets, got the wood from Tyrone’s—they were tearing out their old stage and we paid some old black guy five bucks to haul it for us. Pylon opened the new Watt. I put in fifteen hours that day. Pylon was doing sound-check for the show and we were still hammering and painting. I would run up and play drums for a bit and go back to hammering some more nails. We didn’t get one toilet working that night; that was the biggest problem.
“At the last minute we thought, ‘Oh shit, there’s no stage lights.’ People were already showing up and it was the last minute so we took a light bulb and put it into a piece of stove pipe, painted it black, and hung it up there with a coat hanger. It stayed there for years.”