One night in June, Sam and John Seawright were at a party in Athens when a woman wearing a man’s suit came up to John and asked him if he wanted to go to Atlanta to hear some bands. John had taken his undergraduate degree at the university and had just returned from working on a masters at the University of Chicago. When the woman asked him if he wanted to go to Atlanta, he hesitated. He didn’t know the woman: had never seen her before. But then she said she’d buy a case of beer. John found his brother Sam and said let’s go.
They piled into the woman’s big car. She pointed it west toward Atlanta and they took off. On the way out of town she stopped and bought a case of beer and a carton of wine. When she got back into the car, she filled a plastic Bulldog to-go cup with the chablis, pulled a giant horse pill out of her purse, swallowed it, and headed for the show.
It was a three-act lineup at a downtown Atlanta warehouse. On the bill was R.E.M., playing their first out-of-town show. Playing before them were The Space Heaters, an Atlanta band that played standard and fashionable New Wave covers, and Red Meat and Sprouts, a comedy troupe. The members of Red Meat and Sprouts that night got too drunk to perform well, and their act went unnoticed by the equally drunk crowd. Ironically, Red Meat and Sprouts took so long to fumble drunkenly through their allotted time that Peter Buck got pissed waiting for them to finish.
“Fuck them! Fuck them!” he repeatedly snarled, pacing.
Peter was nervous. And when Peter gets nervous Peter drinks beer, and by the time R.E.M. went on, he too was thoroughly trashed, but that didn’t affect his ability to chop through the dark, chop through the night, and play out his debut in his old hometown. The show that night was, by all reports, promising, but unremarkable. The local fanzine, Useless Knowledge, reported thus on their performance: “R.E.M. (Rapid Eye Movement) is another Athens band once again with that great sixties sound. This band does lots of covers, but does them well. Great for dancing and fun.”
After the show at the warehouse ended, John and Sam looked for the woman who had driven them to Atlanta, but she was nowhere around. When they finally found her, she was passed out in a stairwell, drooling vomit on her man’s suit. They put her in the backseat, found the keys in her purse, and drove her car back to Athens. But just before they got into town, they ran out of gas.
John and Sam flipped a coin to see who would walk to get gas. Sam lost. He left. John fell asleep in the front seat and the unknown woman still slept in the back. Before long, John was awakened by a policeman’s nightstick tapping on the window.
“Looks like you been having you-self a party,” the cop said, shining the flashlight on the knocked-out, puke-stained woman in the backseat. “Whose car is this, anyway?”
“Uh, hers, offìcer,” John said.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“John Seawright, sir.”
“Seawright? You related to Sam Seawright?”
“Uh, yes sir, he’s my brother.”
“Well, John, you in luck. I went to high school with Sam. You’re okay for now, but you better be more careful in the future. We ran a check on this car, and it don’t come up registered nowhere!”
Kathleen O’Brien, who by that time was steadily dating Bill Berry, had her own bad luck that night. She had driven her Satellite Sebring to Atlanta, hauling the ragged amps the band used at the time. After the show, Bill disappeared somewhere and Kathleen was left to drive back to Athens alone, loaded down with amps and cymbals. Lucky for her. On the way out of Atlanta, a taxi broadsided her, and the impact was absorbed by the band’s equipment.
To round out the post-party misfortunes that night, Mike Mills and Mark Segura, a one-time member of the student senate at UGA and at that time a noted party dog and DJ at WUOG, fled from the warehouse after the show, went to the top of the Hyatt in Atlanta, drank ninety dollars worth of drinks, and played fast with the tab. Laughing, they ran out into the streets and stumbled through downtown. At one point they wandered near a police cordon on a blue-strobed avenue where a midnight sniper was holed up with hostages in a house. Mike and Mark blundered innocently close and the cops took one look at their red eyes and unsteady strides and threatened them with arrest just for being there: “Boys, you gettin’ in our way!” By four A.M. the two were in a laundromat where a deranged bum threatened nobody, eyes pinball-rolling, saying to a wall, “I’m gunna cut you muthafuckin’ haid off, bwa!”
Mike forgot that R.E.M. was scheduled to play in Athens the next night. Forgetting that, he also forgot that they had an interview on WUOG that afternoon. By three P.M. that next afternoon Michael, Peter, and Bill were in the radio station studio on the top of Memorial Hall and were about to go on the air. Mike still wasn’t there. Finally he staggered in, bleary-eyed, wearing a brown and tan McDonald’s hat. He had just ridden the Greyhound bus back to Athens that morning. He had finally remembered the interview. But he forgot about the show. When the rest of the band told Mike they had to play that night, he just had one thing to say: “Ahg!”
At the end of the month the band finally moved out of the church. It had served its purpose. Throughout that school year it stood up to the repeated bombardment of beer bottles and rock and roll. It provided shelter and ambience for endless parties. And most important, it had provided the stage for the debut of R.E.M., the rising stars of the Athens scene. In that sense the band felt a token nostalgia about the place, but not enough to keep them there another year: The weather had turned hot, the lousy carpet smelled of sour beer puke, and the fleas were already nesting in everybody’s hair: They couldn’t wait to leave.
When they moved out of the church, Mike, Peter, and Michael sublet a house together from a couple of girls Michael knew from the art school. Bill moved in with Kathleen in a house just around the corner from the other three guys. It was very convenient; the four guys saw each other almost every day, practicing and writing songs. Their band was new and young and good. They thrilled at the thought of success to come. They knew it was going to be a hot summer. They just didn’t know how hot.
In June, Pylon had decided they wanted to book some shows to play along the road between New York and Athens. They could use the dates to help cover expenses and earn a little extra rent money. At the time, however, mainstream clubs along the eastern seaboard weren’t interested in booking the new bands. In the face of this resistance an underground circuit was beginning to shape up: local bars with righteous cheek that booked these righteous bands. Vic Varney, who was both playing in The Method Actors and booking Pylon, heard about Chapel Hill, a little North Carolina college town much like Athens, and how it too had a couple of clubs willing to take the risk with original rock. He talked to some folks: got a name to call: Jefferson Holt.
Jefferson worked at a record store along Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Franklin Street was the main drag in that college town where everybody went to buy records and so, like Pete Buck in Athens and Danny Beard in Atlanta, Jefferson met all the musicians and the club owners. Like musicians everywhere, they all hung out at the record stores talking about shit.
“Just like in Athens, there weren’t places for the new bands to play,” Holt recalled ten years later. “The clubs weren’t booking them. But for me, I knew the guys who were in bands and the guys who ran the clubs. So I made use of what I had and I talked the clubs into booking bands. But it was all in play. My roommate and I were into doing stuff, like, we made up a band that never played but got written up in some fanzines. The band was called WASP—White Anglo-Saxon Punks. Pretty stupid, I know. And also, since I was helping bands get booked, we made up a production company. We made signs and gave it a name and everything. We called it Dasht Hopes Productions.
“So one day I got a phone call from Vic, who was managing Pylon. I didn’t know Vic. I had never met any of Pylon. I hadn’t even really heard of them! But I imagined they were doing the same thing as up here. Nobody knew what a manager was, nobody knew what a promoter was, nobody knew what being in a band was, and everybody was just having a blast partying and wanted to make something happen so you could keep having fun and not have to get a real job.
“And Vic calls me and says, ‘I manage Pylon, we need a date going to New York.’”
Jefferson says sure, he’ll get them a date. Then Vic calls up later and says Pylon can’t make it, but The Method Actors will do it. Jefferson says okay again. Then, as the date got close, Vic canceled The Method Actors and Jefferson was stuck for a band. He asked Vic if there was anyone else who could play and Vic mentioned a few of the new bands in Athens and suggested, “Maybe try one of them.” A friend of Jefferson’s had recently visited Athens and he asked her who he should get. She uttered these fateful words to the man who would become their manager: “Get R.E.M. They’re better than anybody else.”
Vic gave Bill Berry a number and Bill called Jefferson, who that day was sick in bed with fever. Jefferson could barely hold the receiver but he wheezed a confirmation: the last weekend in July, two weekend nights in Chapel Hill and a Monday in Raleigh.
It was to be R.E.M.’s first night out of Georgia. When they got the date, they decided that since they had never been on the road before, they were going to go for it. All four of the guys had, since their early teen dreaming days, embedded the roadtrip schema in their collective unconscious from repeated reading of paperback rock-and-roll biographies: What do you do when you’re in a band on the road? Stay drunk, bed women, never sleep, never eat. And like a subliminal program keyed to the sound of wheels on asphalt, when R.E.M. hit the road that first time and for the many times through the next many years, the legend rose up to consume them, and true to their badly longed-for rock-and-roll vision, R.E.M. that weekend in North Carolina stayed drunk, never ate, and never slept, unless it was next to someone stray-fetched and bar-met:
R.E.M. drove to Chapel Hill and pulled into Franklin Street, found Jefferson, and got directions to the club. That night they played at The Station. Michael ate a Quaalude, which was like speed to him, and that and a few beers and Pete’s Rickenbacker kick and Mike and Bill’s rhythms turned him into his special and amazing wind-curled liquid smoke. This band was from Athens, and they might have that fun sixties sound, but they were nothing like the loopy B-52’s, nothing like the machine-tight Pylon. Playing their songs about girls and cars, R.E.M. was fast, sloppy, dude rock. Stipe whipped himself loose-jointed and throat-choking across the stage, off it, into the audience, on top of the bar. Stipe and the beer and dope together rent his shirt and stained it with sweat, knotted his wet curling bangs and glazed his eyes and sent a convincing signal note through the countryside that from then on out R. fucking E. fucking M. was going to blast hell out of the 1980s rock-and-roll scene.
While the band played, tearing out their set, the audience watched, curious, eyes a-bug, mouths agape, tongues a-hanging. There was definitely something about these guys. And while they played and the audience stared, a big car with a crushed driver’s door and Georgia plates pulled up outside. Inside the car were Kathleen O’Brien, Linda Hopper, and Leslie Michel: R.E.M.’s first self-declared groupies, ready to rock.
“We went up there innocently enough,” Leslie Michel says. Leslie was also an Effectette, a go-go dancer with The Side Effects. “The band didn’t know we were coming, and me and Hopper and Kathleen drove up in Kathleen’s Satellite, which still had its bashed-in side from the Atlanta show, and we had to get in and out on the passenger’s side. We rented this real cheesy room and had all this liquor and the only reason we could go was ’cause I put all the gas on my credit card. We rented this hotel room and it was like a real rock-and-roll sick thing. Nobody knew who we were and we had this huge party, tearing down the motel.
“Anyway, Jefferson and David Healy were doing the door and they weren’t going to let us in because they didn’t know us, but we just walked past them and started dancing. We jumped up on the bar and we flipped everyone out because when the band saw us they all screamed and jumped, missed notes and everything, and all of us were dancing and got the whole place all whipped up.
“That was where David Healy and Jefferson came into our lives.”
“The next day we went to an A-frame on a lake where Jefferson was running around in his underwear,” remembers Linda Hopper. “Michael and I were looking at this book of pornography through the ages that Jefferson had, just watching him, saying, ‘God, who is this guy in the black underwear?’ We were there for a couple days and slept at David Healy’s girlfriend’s apartment, and we went swimming and we would go in the pool and all of us were in T-shirts sticking to us. It was Jefferson’s birthday party. We went to all of their out-of-town shows.”
“The fallout after the show,” Jefferson remembers, “was that everybody who was in a band hated them because Peter only knew three chords. But a lot of people liked them because of their energy. The band stayed up all night and ended up in the pool at Healy’s. We had a birthday party for me on Sunday. And on Monday they went to Raleigh and there was nobody there. Nobody was up front where the band was. They were back in the dark, watching. As soon as they started playing, Healy and I went out and grabbed chairs and were dancing with chairs. By the end of the show the band was completely off-stage and the audience was onstage.”
After the shows, Jefferson said to the band, “You guys are great. You’re the best band I’ve ever seen. You’re like The Who or something.”
The next month, Jefferson and Healy got directions to R.E.M.’s studio in Athens and came down for a visit. It was summertime and the streets were empty. They didn’t know how to get to the band’s Jackson Street studio but they heard the sound of music and followed it to the source. They met up with the band. By the end of their first day in town they found themselves at a party at a house where Pylon’s Michael Lachowski lived called Pylon Park. Yet another new Athens band was debuting. This one was called Love Tractor.