Monday, October 31, 2011

THIS IS NOT A BIO: An Alternative History of R.E.M. (1 of 3)

Of all of the online laments that spilled forth in the weeks following the breakup of R.E.M. in September, the Beast couldn’t help noticing how many of them included the sentiment “…and it’s about time!” People seemed happy that the boys had finally packed it in, indicative of a few recent editorials about rock stars (Sonic Youth, U2) who seem to be overstaying their welcome. We were among those who agreed with that sentiment. I mean, if you’ve got nothin’ left to say, well, then…do you really need the money?

However, we couldn’t help thinking about the second, mostly derided half of R.E.M.’s career, the Monster-Collapse Into Now years and how they might be judged differently if no one had heard of them until the release of the single “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” in September 1994. Even Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield admitted that the late-period R.E.M. and the early-period R.E.M. "don't even sound that much alike: you'd have no trouble telling them apart in a blindfold test."

The pervailing wiosdom seems to be that Bill Berry's quitting the band in 1997 was the cosmos screaming, "Time to pack it in, fellas." We thought: Would their music even be judged more leniently – or even more harshly – if one eliminated their beloved “jingle-jangle” period (1980-1984), baroque "middle” period (1985-1987) or arty "breakout" period (1988-1992)? Would it make any difference? (More importantly, how many of these ‘What If?’ topics will come to us while we remain umemployed?)

So to celebrate the lead-up to the release on November 15 of the new compilation Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011 is an alternative (and hopefully, more charitable) biography of the Band Everybody Loved Until They Didn't.

In the beginning, the little band from Athens, GA were primed to have no respect. Their first single was a massive radio hit but, like the song "Creep" from another fledgling group called Radiohead, it threatened to consign them to One Hit Forever status. Their average ages hovered around 34 years old when they recorded their first album—positively Jurassic in rock and roll years. Not only had they had risen to abrupt prominence after the Great Alternative Rock Explosion of 1991-92 but on the coattails of an established rock star who was as far from grunge or punk as you can get.

R.E.M.’s late-bloomer success came mainly thanks to Michael Stipe’s close friendship with Natalie Merchant, lead singer of New York-based popsters 10000 Maniacs. They had met at a house party back in 1983 when Merchant and her band had swung through Athens on one of its pre-famous tours. Stipe, then an art student at the University of Georgia, was so meek and nervous that when he was introduced to Merchant by a mutual friend he handed her a paper sack and then excused himself to go to the bathroom, where he subsequently escaped through an open window. Merchant was at first annoyed, and then intrigued, by the frizzy-haired mumbler, especially when she opened the bag and found a Maxell cassette with the scrawled message ‘To Natalie, with Love.’

Hometown heroes enjoying their favorite Athens BBQ (1984)

In one of those twists of fate that can't be quantified, Merchant decided not to throw away the tape but to listen to it. What she stumbled upon was one of indie rock's best-kept regional secrets. Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry had all met at a U of G dorm party in the Fall of 1979 and had begun bashing out sweaty sets for free beer at local house parties since their first official "gig" at a friend's birthday bash on April 5, 1980. The cassette given to Merchant was a demo of cover songs recorded by the foursome at St. Mary's, an abandoned Episcopalean church at 395 Oconee Street in Athens. Merchant was intrigued by the nameless band's esoteric choice of cover songs: The Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone,” Aerosmith’s “Toys in the Attic,” The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” The Outlaws’ “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” and Wire’s “Strange.” She reportedly was less impressed by the two original songs: “Action” and “Narrator (for a Jacques Cousteau show).”

Also impressive was the band's boozy, anarchic live shows at local clubs like Tyrone’s O.C. and the 40 Watt. They were (in)famous for changing their name every time they played and even had their fans scrawl suggestions on the walls of their church-squat: Twisted Kites, Can of Piss, Negro Wives, Sl*t Bank, Hornets Attack Victor Mature, Bingo Hand Job, It Crawled from the South, The Mystery Twins (a joke on the Jagger-Richards dynamic of the firey Buck and the withdrawn Stipe). The as-yet-nameless band was so beloved that they even popped up in a brief sequence in Tony Gayton's 1987 rockumentary Athens, GA-Inside/Out performing one of their more popular covers, The Everly Brothers “Dream (All I Have to Do)":

All the same, the band seemed not at all bent on "making it." Slackers at heart, they seemed perfectly happy inviting their fans to watch them rehearse in St. Mary's Church, toiling around town in anonymous day-jobs and being brief rock and roll heroes at night for some beer money and fleeting

Merchant was immediately drawn to Stipe's unique vocal stylings – sort of a murmur mixed with a plaintive keen – and how his low-register voice mixed effortlessly in with Mills' high-lonesome tenor. Merchant rightly thought Stipe would make an interesting vocal foil. When she encountered him again working at Athens' now-shuttered Ruthless Records, she invited the 27-year-old clerk out to Los Angeles, where 10000 Maniacs were recording what would become their double-platinum album In My Tribe. Stipe made his first professional recording singing backup on “A Campfire Song." (A rare bootleg from May 1987 captures Stipe's live debut with Merchant singing "Campfire" and harmonizing on Gang of Four's "Damaged Goods" and John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in L.A.)

Stipe also was invited to accompany Merchant on a duet on “Little April Shower” from the motion picture Bambi for Hal Willner's 1988 Disney tribute Stay Awake, further exposing him to college-rock audiences. In April 1990, she invited Stipe onstage at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland for an Earth Day show with 10,000 Maniacs and Billy Bragg. Stipe reportedly so wowed the crowd with his harmonizing on “Campfire Song” and John Prine’s “Hello In There” that he was added to a second show in Washington D.C., where he accompanied the Indigo Girls on “Kid Fears," George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” The Youngblood’s “Get Together” and Butch Hancock’s “Dallas.” These appearances went over so well that Stipe was summoned to Glagow, Scotland for a guest slot at the Big Day Festival:

Meanwhile, back in America, Stipe's bandmates decided to play their first official live show under their new name: R.E.M. debuted at the 40 Watt Club on July 13, 1990 as a threesome -- without Mike Stipe.

Buck, Mills and Berry would later joke that their live debut sans their lead singer was meant to put Stipe on notice that despite his new famous friends and higher profile he still had his responsibilites back home. This was the only public admittance that they felt threatened by their bandmate’s sudden success – especially when Stipe and Merchant became romantically linked in the rock press. (Both denied it, but Merchant later confirmed their brief fling in a interview.) The three musicians without a lead singer had decided on a permanent name: 'R.E.M.' (a medical acronym for 'Rapid Eye Movement') chosen at random from a dictionary. They continued in their vein of crowd-pleasing covers by launching what would become to be know as their annual “Christmas Club," a tongue-in-cheek ode to the record fan clubs of their youth. Handing out 7-inch singles to fans at live shows, R.E.M. became one of the first indie bands to embrace this practice unironically; it was later taken up by Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins.

But with their new (and memorable) name, the three other members decided it was time to up the ante with more original songs. The early originals of R.E.M. are interesting in light of what would eventually develop as the band's "pre-fame sound": obscurist lyrics half-mumbled over jangly folk rock in a tense struggle with harder-edged punk and new wave elements, all evident in heavily bootlegged songs like “All the Right Friends,” “Burning Down,” "White Tornado,” “Windout,” “Ages of You,” and “Walter’s Theme” (the latter a bouncy, drunken attempt at writing a jingle for the band's favorite local BBQ joint). Even more fascinating is the very rare EP recorded in one afternoon in St. Mary’s Church when the band had called themselves “Chronic Town” for a hot minute. The song titles were never written down and have appeared in bootlegs under a variety of names (“Boxcars,” “One-Million,” “Nightgardening,” “Suspicion Yourself”). R.E.M. has since renounced these early songs, but the remaining evidence hints at an amazingly fertile and creative period -- a moss-dripped, Southern Gothic mutation of The Byrds and Roky Erickson -- that is all the more tragic for being so poorly documented.

But R.E.M., with Stipe returned from his European jaunt with 10000 Maniacs, was already moving on to its next pre-fame phase. Merchant’s influence had gotten the band some prime studio time with producer John Keane in Athens for five days in mid-July 1990. Did lightning strike this time? Oh hell no.

By all accounts, the sessions were a disaster. After playing in a converted church and in tiny rock clubs for close to a decade, R.E.M. were not yet prepared for the rigors of a full-blown studio and the sessions yielded only half-ideas, wisps of songs, and maybe a few rough gems that only hinted at a growing maturity: “Fretless” (an instrumental), “Mandolin Strum," “It's A Free World, Baby,” “Low,” “I Walked With A Zombie,” “Country Feedback” (a song that would resurface later in their careers), “Speed Metal,” “Organ Song,” “Kerouac #4." Although these demos have been bootlegged in countless forms, only three songs were salvaged from these sessions: “Ghost Reindeer in the Sky” and “Summertime” would be re-recorded and released as the 1990 Xmas club single, and a version of the melancholic “Fretless” with added lyrics would be chosen for a plumb spot on the soundtrack to Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World.

But did R.E.M. rose to the challenge of these disappointing sessions? Yes, by doing nothing. For two years.

While grunge blew up around them and major record labels scampered to the Pacific Northwest to sign anything in a lumberjack shirt, long-johns and white-guy dreads, the aging foursome now poised to break out into pop stardom retreated to their local Athens cocoon and played only a handful of mostly private shows (including a "birthday party" for a friend's pet ferret) while the indie press who had followed their strange but fascinating rise were left to wonder: “Does R.E.M. -- if that is indeed their real name this week --have the stones to go all the way? Does R.E..M. even exist? Are they just Natalie Merchant's hobby project?” A few vicious parodies appeared in the alternative music press, the most famous being from the Milwaukee zine Drool Pail, where a cartoon depicted Merchant as Cruella de Vil leading Stipes on a short leash:

It was a bold move that many would think would not pay off. In the end, however, it wound up strengthening R.E.M.'s indie cred at a time when bands were selling out left and right and “Modern Rock Radio” was defanging the indie revolution at a worrying pace. Like many other established bands caught on the wrong side of that revolution, Natalie Merchant and 10000 Maniacs was seen by many as part of the pallid Adult Contemporary market. But for the moment, the boys of R.E.M (now in their early thirties) stayed firmly tethered to her star. A turning point for the band was when Stipe was invited to perform “Candy Everybody Wants” and a cover of Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love” with 10000 Maniacs for MTV’s Rock and Roll Inaugural Ball on January 29, 1993:

Watching the rehearsals, U2 bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. were so impressed by Stipe’s vocals that they invited the singer and a tagging-along Mike Mills to back them as the one-off supergroup “Automatic Baby” for a version of “One.” The performance was seen by millions, many of whom were now asking after the sad-eyed singer in the old fedora:

Reinvigorated by the new attention, R.E.M. entered the studio with new producer Scott Litt in August 1993 for another attempt at some new material. The sessions started tentatively, with songs like "You," "I Took Your Name," "Yes, I Am Fucking With You" (later retitled "The King of Comedy") emerging with almost adverse caution. On the basis of these demos (fleshed out by an inspired cover of Iggy Pop’s “Funtime”) and the band's Next Big Thing status amongst music-industry insiders, R.E.M. was able to secure a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records, and everybody held their breaths as to how a major label would mess up and destroy yet another beloved and idiosyncratic grassroots rock act.

By October 1993, the same month the latest Merchant/R.E.M. collaboration “Photograph” (a song with remnants of the group's under-recorded "jangly" period) appeared on the Born to Choose compilation, R.E.M. were at Kingsway Studios in New Orleans, where the trickle had now reached a torrent: Here the band would compose "Tongue," "Crush With Eyeliner" and "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" and put twenty tracks in the can over ten days. But despite this promising start, storm clouds were already gathering on the horizon for the New/Old Band That Might Finally Make It.

By March 1994, R.E.M. took a break from recording to begin a series of high-profile Industry showcases and one-off promotional "secret" concerts designed by their new label to capitalize the MTV/Merchant/U2 buzz -- a move that would cost the band's reputation dearly later on. Also, April 1994 turned into the cruelest month for Indie Rock with the suicide of Kurt Cobain, whom Stipe had met and befriended backstage when Nirvana had come through Athens to promote its first full-length album Bleach. That month, R.E.M. debuted the song "Let Me In" live at a special concert in Seattle as a tribute to the young guitarist, whose sudden, massive fame had dovetailed lethally with lifelong depression and heroin addiction.

Although R.E.M. was drug-free and (mostly) depression-free, in less than a year they would be dealing with many of the same instant pressures that had brought down Cobain. And it would have equally dire consequences for entirely opposite reasons.

STAYED TUNED FOR PART II: "Monster Success, Monster Money, Monster Problems"

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