R.E.M. Celebrates 30 Years – And I Feel . . . Old

On April 5th, that little old rock band from Athens, GA, R.E.M. celebrates the 30th Anniversary of their first performance together. Much has been made over the years about that night. I won’t be so bold as to say I was there (I wasn’t). I was 14 at the time, and we lived in a small town about 20 miles north of Athens. However, the B-52’s had just appeared on Saturday Night Live and Athens was becoming a mecca of alternative music (college radio as it was called then). We went to Athens for everything, so we knew all about this little band and the growing music scene.

R.E.M. made their national television debut on Letterman in 83. I love how Dave introduces himself to the guys, and how Mike Mills tells him that Hershel Walker is also from Athens. Mike is a huge Braves and Dawgs fan and has on occasion been seen wearing team gear on the road. I also love how Michael sits down on the stage while Dave talks to Mike and Peter (he’s hiding behind Peter).

By the time I got to the University of Georgia in the fall of 1984, R.E.M. has just released their second album, Reckoning, and had either just come off of, or were just going on what I think was their first world tour. I had the great fortune to have a job in downtown Athens at Rosenthal’s Shoe Store, which was three or four doors down from the legendary Wuxtry Records, where Peter Buck worked – and where he hung out when the guys were in town.

(Side note: if you lived in Athens then, you probably pronounce “Wuxtry” like the guy in the local cable TV Commercials – “Wu-u-hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-xtr-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee”)

Downtown Athens in the mid-80’s was much different than it is today. There were just a very few clubs and bars and there was a definite hierarchy in who played where, who went to what kind of clubs, etc. John Berry was always at the Yacht Club (where The Globe is now) and Strawberry Flats almost always played weekends at either TK Harty’s, the Mad Hatter, or O’Malley’s. The drinking age in Georgia at that time was 19, so things were much more wide open. There was an uncanny form of communication among the students, such that if one of the bigger bands was going to play an unannounced set at one of the clubs (the 40-Watt, the Uptown Lounge, etc.), then everyone just KNEW.

To me, the guys from the band, especially Mike Mills and Bill Berry, always seemed like regular guys. I would see them walking around on Clayton Street and they would say hello or stop and chat. Peter Buck was always around somewhere, too. His ex-wife, owned the 40-Watt at one time (I think in one of its previous locations). Bill was such a “normal” guy, that after he left the band in 1998, he took up farming in Oglelthorpe County. I bumped into him one time not long after that at Kroger, and recall him buying a six-pack of PBR and some cheese and bologna.

Michael Stipe, I always thought, was very shy, but a very nice guy – and always very humble. My favorite encounter with him was in the 90’s, not long after Monster was released. We both were attending a charity event in Athens and I told him that I had just bought the new CD and had listened to it once and was looking forward to really digging in to it. He looked at me and said, in his very quiet voice, “What the hell are you waiting for?” and then smiled and thanked me for buying it. I think even then, he was flattered that people would buy their stuff.

Even though they became wildly famous, incredibly wealthy, and international superstars, the guys from R.E.M. never moved their home base from Athens. Their offices are still there. I’m glad to have been on their periphery for a little while (I had the exquisite pleasure of living in Athens from 84-98) and congratulate them on reaching this milestone. Rock on, guys.

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