Begin The Begin: R.E.M's Early Years by Robert Dean Lurie
This is the third book I’ve read recently about Athens and its bands. First was Cool Town, (tinyurl.com/zubathens) by Elizabeth Grace Hale. Elizabeth, a professor at the University of Virginia, was an Athenian in the late 80s, where she owned a small club and played in a band. Her well-written book’s focus is on the development of the Athens scene; it’s thoroughly-researched and definitely scholarly. The second book was Party Out Of Bounds (tinyurl.com/zubbounds) by Rodger Lyle Brown, who was there, in Athens, almost from the very beginning. His book concentrates on the people and bands of the Athens scene, and I found it a gread read. Now I’ve finished Begin The Begin, an R.E.M.-centric book by Robert Dean Lurie. Robert lived in Athens and he knows the place and people, but he was not really there during the growth and explosion of R.E.M. Still, he has written a compelling book.
I never lived in Athens, a city about 90 minutes away, but our band mate in The Beef People, Ken, went to school at UGA in the early 80s and was up on what was going on with local bands. As far as R.E.M. is concerned I can honestly say I saw them dozens of times before and after the ‘Radio Free Europe’ single on Hib-Tone Records (see our podcast at tinyurl.com/radiofreezub for some great R.E.M. stories). I saw them so much because I was going to shows almost every weekend in Athens and Atlanta, and they were always the opening band. Early R.E.M. was a thing to behold, with the melodic bass, ringing guitar, and the whirling dervish antics of Michael Stipe. We could all tell they were going somewhere.
Lurie’s book is interesting in that he does not interview any band members. He is clever in using the reams of existing interviews, and this seems to work well. He does, however, talk to many, many folks that knew and helped them, including Kathleen O’Brien (who essentially got the band together), Velena Vego, soundman Pat theWiz, Stipe’s friends from the Midwest, lots of booking agents and promoters, and record label people.
R.E.M. was a band featuring a tortured artist/chameleon frontman, a 60’s loving record collector guitarist, and two Macon, GA boys on bass and drums that could really play. They worked very hard to get what they wanted, playing all over the Southeast in lots of terrible pizza places-cum clubs, and were careful along the way. They were very canny about their career in music, getting a lawyer and a manager early on, and working their growth album by album.
I have many friends who are big R.E.M. fans, but I’m always surprised at how they got into the band, usually via Green or Monster. This confuses me. I personally loved Chronic Town and Murmur, and I stopped buying their records after Fables (or maybe Document). As they got bigger (and supposedly better) I kind of lost the plot. But that’s me. What I’m getting at is that if you want to know how R.E.M. got to Green, you need to read Begin The Begin.
Lurie does a few things in this book that I really like. One is he actually tries to make sense of Stipe’s lyrics. He really tries to give us some explanations about the lyrics and comes up with some interesting conclusions. I applaud him for trying. Second, he brings himself into the book a little bit, as when talking with Athens legend/village cryer Ort, he mentions a girl coming up to the bar to get a picture with Ort, “because he looks like Santa.” There’s a good story about going to Velena Vego’s house, and the best one is when he interviews Jeff Walls (who passed recently) of Guadalcanal Diary, and conveys a story of bad weed etiquette. I like these personal anecdotes.
R.E.M. have always basically been good guys who wanted to have a band, they wanted that band to be successful, and they worked hard enough to make it happen. If you are a fan I would say this is a must-read. If you aren’t, this is a chronicle of the end of the traditional music-making machinery that’s as old as the Beatles: form a band, start small, work yourself up via playing live, get a record contract. In the Internet-wired world, this model doesn’t really exist anymore. Lurie breaks it all down and you can’t forget this was always, always a talented band that treated people right. I applaud Lurie, R.E.M., and Begin The Begin.
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