Friday, October 21, 2011

Flannery, Michael and Me

After 31 years, R.E.M. announced last month that they were calling it quits. As a small tribute to them, here’s the story of my own piece of their history.
R.E.M. circa 1983: Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Bill Berry, Mike Mills

In April 1983, I was a junior at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. We had an independent radio station that was only available through cable connections in the dorms, so it was called ACRN for All Campus Radio Network. This confused a lot of people, since the call letters didn’t start with a W like every other radio station east of the Mississippi. Nevertheless, ACRN was College Radio just as College Radio was becoming a category, and I was the co-music director that year. Among my duties was contacting record companies about upcoming artists.

One of my contacts was a real hip girl, Karen Glauber, the college rep for I.R.S. Records. In 1983, the label had a lot of cred because they handled super-cool early MTV artists like Wall of Voodoo, the English Beat and the Go-Gos. They had recently signed this obscure group of guys from Athens, Georgia, called R.E.M. The band had just released their first LP, Murmur, and they were touring to promote it, opening for the English Beat. Karen was very hyped on them.

“There’s this new band,” she told me on the phone, “and they’re going to be huge. They’re playing at Bogart’s.” (The coolest club at the University of Cincinnati.) “Do you want to do an interview?”

I had never heard of them but I said yes anyway. Are you kidding? A chance to see the English Beat live? I dug up a copy of R.E.M.'s EP, Chronic Town, and had a listen. Their sound was like nothing I’d ever heard, jangly and full of echo, the lead vocals hypnotic but completely unintelligible. My boyfriend Mark, a budding guitarist, agreed to tag along and we made the three hour drive to my hometown of Cincinnati.

Karen was waiting for me outside the club. A petite brunette from Oberlin College (“where all the free thinkers go,” my mother had told me), she possessed great enthusiasm and a laserlike focus on her future career in the record industry. We went backstage to meet the band, passing Ranking Roger, one of the Beat’s frontmen, in the hallway. Ranking Roger! I just about fell over.

So the guys were sitting around and I was introduced to Michael Stipe, who would be doing the interview. I had a crummy cassette recorder and we moved to a stairway to talk, as the English Beat were doing their sound check behind us. Really loud.

I was totally winging it. I asked some stock questions, how did you meet, what’s it like touring with the Beat, and so on. We had a laugh about both of us being in college towns called Athens. And as we talked, I became more and more fascinated with Stipe: his drawly voice, his droopy sky-blue eyes, his pillowy lips. His face was marred with pock-marks, but the golden curls that framed his face made up for that. To me, he looked like a sullen angel. I was smitten.

More stock questions. I imagined that he had already been interviewed by every goofball college radio music director in the east, and answered every boring question a hundred times, but I kept going.

“So, what are some of your musical influences?” I asked. Genius.

In his deep monotone he replied, “Ummm, I dunno. Furniture?”

Right. Furniture. Not going well here. I wanted to ask what kind of furniture? because I was so enchanted and yet utterly flummoxed, but mercifully he continued. He listed a couple of musicians (I don’t remember) and then he threw in the name “Flannery O’Connor.”

This is out of control. I've gotta bail. I don’t know who Flannery O’Connor is. A country musician? A relative of Sinead O’Connor? I nodded and thanked him and wrapped up the interview.

Of course I had read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” in high school, but that was so long ago, who could remember that? We went backstage (oh my god, that’s Dave Wakeling!) where Peter Buck talked about guitars with my boyfriend and we chatted until it was time to start the show.

Mark and I stood up front and I watched, mesmerized, as my new crush sang his garbled lyrics and the band played raucous and determined behind him. It was, for lack of an adequate superlative, an incredible show. And then I got to see the English Beat. But to be honest, I don’t remember a thing about their show. R.E.M. had won me over.

Later, on the phone with Karen, I raved about the band and told her that, unfortunately, my interview was going to be a challenge to edit because of the thudding sound check in the background. “But wow, that Michael Stipe… he’s gorgeous,” I said.

My lovely Stipe
And that’s when she told me gently that I, as a female, didn’t stand a chance with him.

The following year R.E.M. headlined their own tour, as Murmur had taken off in college radio land. I had managed to put together a decent story to broadcast on ACRN, so I allowed myself a granule of credit for their success. Thanks to Karen, I went backstage again and hung out, no interviews, no pressure. I was a huge fan by then and felt more comfortable, not to mention lucky, being there. Mike Mills, the bass player, was especially friendly. When they went onstage I knew all the words.

Since the interview, I had read everything I could get my hands on by the esteemed Southern writer Flannery O’Connor. But sadly, I never got another chance to talk literature with Michael Stipe.