On any given evening in the summer of 1980, Chapel Hill's Schoolkids Records was a mecca for touring bands with downtime to look for albums, drop off self-produced flyers, and check on sales of their own one-off singles or EPs. Franklin Street hadn't yet been sold to the highest franchise bidder, and the "New Wave" attitude in the shop and on the street was not unlike the trusting openness of a dozen years before, during the counterculture's hippie reign. Rock 'n' roll shows were advertised in an agitprop style, each a cut-and-paste, copy-center masterpiece. Self-published zines, broadsides, and minijournals were distributed everywhere. Bartering goods was commonplace. (I made buttons for local bands on a handheld Badge-A-Minit machine, sold 'em at Schoolkids, and was "paid" in records, an album for every half-dozen buttons sold.)
Where the politics of protest drove the '60s, local music powered the early '80s. Working behind the counter at Schoolkids and palling around with the musicians passing through, Jefferson Holt saw the future of rock 'n' roll. In the summer of 1980, it was R.E.M. The Athens, Ga., to Chapel Hill, N.C., pipeline was a popular route for bands--one college town to another, each with a strong music underground and college radio support. When Pylon, along with Love Tractor, the hot new Athens band, couldn't make a scheduled weekend set of July 1980 gigs at Carrboro's The Station (now Trains restaurant,) Jefferson persuaded the club to book R.E.M., for their first out-of-state gig. A little more than a year later, having moved to Athens and become, among other things, a doorman at Tyrone's, Athens' equivalent to Cat's Cradle, Holt became R.E.M.'s manager. He left (or was fired, or he quit ... ) 15 years later.
There are hundreds of great R.E.M. stories told in these three biographies of the band. Many take place, in the early years, in North Carolina, in the Triangle. Craig Rosen charts the band's rise to superstardom by setting the scene for each song they recorded. Lots of photographs, interviews and dissections of lyrics highlight the text. Da Capo Press thinks so much of the band that they have revised and updated two books on R.E.M. from their musical backlist. The Marcus Gray title has more information about the band than all other books combined. Imagine a totally valuable index, 21 pages of song, people, place, film, video and literary cross-references. There's even a 35-page chapter on "guest appearances," who, what, where, when. But it's the straight-ahead spoken word storytelling format of Talk About the Passion that kept me up at night, and searching through dusty piles of CDs. Nearly 60 voices contribute insights into "their" band, from Kurt Cobain to Howard Finster, from Gina Arnold to Sarah Brown. Each aside is so human, often very intimate, covering the early Athens days to the present. Most of the main characters and venues are as familiar to RRQ readers as the traffic lights on U.S. 15-501. Mitch Easter and Don Dixon are liberally quoted.
In April 1981, R.E.M. entered Easter's Drive-In recording studio, in his parent's garage in Winston-Salem. Michael Stipe remembers, "We just sat around for a day and threw out all this stuff. Never having been in a studio before, it was pretty amazing." At the Drive-In, they recorded what's been called "the most important American indie-rock single of the 1980s," Radio Free Europe. Mitch Easter tells Craig Rosen, "They went over and did their stuff and I was just struck by how kind of traditional it was, and I mean it in a totally positive way." Referring to the single, Easter adds, "They didn't mess around, they got right to the point. And that's what I thought was great about that song." The band sold only 5,000 copies of the record, but it was named Single of the Year in the annual Village Voice "Pazz and Jop" poll.
The "oral history" method of rock writing (and editing) excels in Sullivan's Talk About the Passion. The reader immediately, and intimately, is caught up in the fast, unique pace of recording an album. R.E.M.'s first album was recorded at Charlotte's Reflection Studios in January 1983, with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter as producers. You can imagine Dixon smiling as he told Sullivan, "Mitch's and my goal was kind of to flip things in without the band realizing it. If they accepted it, great. We'd look at each other, give a little wink and continue."
About working with Michael Stipe on that first album, Dixon confides, "We protected Michael a lot in terms of allowing him to feel completely free in the studio. He could turn the lights on and off, he could lay down on the floor and sing if he wanted to. That probably gave him a certain freedom and a kind of confidence that a lot of producers don't understand."
Eleven months later, Murmur was named Rolling Stone's "Album of the Year." Dozens of similar awards, international tours and acclaim, millions of records sold (1992's Automatic For The People has sold 14 million copies worldwide) have followed. The local venues got bigger, too: from The Station, to Page Auditorium, to the Pier in Raleigh, to Cameron Indoor Stadium, to the Dean Dome (with an in-store appearance at the Northgate Record Bar somewhere in there).
My favorite stories in all three books were from the early years. Michael Stipe balking at selling R.E.M. tour T-shirts at gigs because he didn't want to rip off the band's fans, Peter Buck wanting to keep working part time in an Athens record store but having to quit because customers kept bringing in albums for him to autograph. Before they even knew each other, both Stipe and Buck bought Patti Smith's Horses album on its first day of release, a fact documented in nearly every R.E.M. bio.
The next written chapters in the R.E.M. saga? The band is notoriously private, speaking primarily through their music (and their videos). There's at least one trashy small press "novel" about Michael Stipe due out this summer and another eagerly anticipated biography of the group by Rolling Stone's (and Duke University Press') Anthony DeCurtis. R.E.M. loyalists maintain dozens of Web sites and fanzines honoring the band. Last month, a copy of their first single, the Hib-Tone Radio Free Europe, sold for $107 on E-bay. Not bad for a recording not even 20 years old. And everyone's chasing a bootleg of the Sept. 26, 1984, R.E.M. show at Duke's Page Auditorium. The band's label then, I.R.S., had wanted to release that show as the Live R.E.M. album, but the band vetoed the idea. This time of year, I find myself hitting the replay button for "Nightswimming," a brilliant, delicate song that evokes the carefree days, night-cricket evenings and the endless summers of youth in Georgia and North Carolina.