Issue # 29
October 13, 2000
Life On The
Murmur Trestle
(Part 1óThe 1980s)
By Rich Wilhelm

There is a monochromatic photo of an old railroad trestle on the back of R.E.M.ís classic 1983 album, Murmur. This trestle, which is located in the bandís hometown of Athens, Georgia, was recently in danger of being demolished, but R.E.M. fans from around the world sent Athens Mayor Doc Eldridge email protesting the demolition (for more information on this story, see http://www.murmurs.com).

It did not surprise me at all that R.E.M. fans campaigned to save the trestle, which is a part of both R.E.M. and Georgia railroad history. R.E.M. seems to be the kind of band that forges a unique bond with its fans. In fact, the whole trestle business led me to thinking about my longtime love of R.E.M. and what the band means to me. I arrived at the conclusion that no other musical act has had quite the impact on me for as long a time, as R.E.M. has. I have been a fan from the bandís first days on the national scene and in some ways, the development and maturity of the band has paralleled the changes in my own life.

I donít want this to come across as some kind of fawning "fanboy" tribute. Thatís what my days writing stories about R.E.M. for my college newspaper were for. But I do think our joint history is interesting and, more importantly, I donít think my "relationship" with the band is unique. Talk to any longtime fan of R.E.M. and I think you might begin to hear the kind of stories Iím about to tell.

1980óBill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe formed R.E.M. in Athens, Georgia. I was 15 years old and knew nothing about R.E.M.

1981óR.E.M. released their first single, "Radio Free Europe," on Hib-Tone Records. I still knew nothing about R.E.M.

1982óOn August 24, R.E.M. released their five-song EP, Chronic Town, on I.R.S. Records, an independent label. And I still had not heard of them.

1983óMurmur, R.E.M.ís first full-length album, was released on April 13, just two days before my high school senior prom. Nothing from Murmur was played at the prom, although I did hear a whole lot of Journey songs that night.

Murmur earned great reviews, to the point where I did actually hear of R.E.M. When I found out that R.E.M. was the opening act at a Police concert I was attending at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, I decide to pick Murmur up and give it a listen. I immediately loved the leadoff track, a re-recorded version of "Radio Free Europe," but I couldnít quite figure out what was going on with the rest of the album. It was moody, atmospheric and unlike anything I had ever heard before. However, the more I listened, the more Murmur crept into my consciousness, one song at a time. It was, in a word, beguiling.

Not too long out of high school, my friend John and I headed up to JFK one summer morning to see R.E.M., Madness, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and the Police. Our friend Joe, a raving Police fan, was supposed to go also, but on the morning of the show, his parents told him he couldnít go, despite the fact that he had a ticket. Joe was pissed, to say the least.

John and I got to JFK in plenty of time and found decent seats for what would be a very hot afternoon concert. When R.E.M. hit the stage around noon, Michael Stipe said something about being "the breakfast act." R.E.M. played for about 30 minutes, doing 3 or 4 songs from Murmur and a couple from Chronic Town. Despite the intense heat (During the Policeís set, Sting would say, "Itís 98 degrees out. Thatís the temperature of blood." What a Sting-like thing to say!), Iím found myself intrigued by R.E.M.ís performance and vowed to listen to Murmur more closely, and to pick up Chronic Town. Not long after the concert I entered Temple University and spent much of my study time on the ninth floor of Hardwick Hall listening to R.E.M.

1984óR.E.M. released their second album, Reckoning, on April 14. The album was more straightforward and not as mysterious as Murmur, but I liked it anyway. I didnít see R.E.M. when they toured in 1984, but Iím certain that I spent a decent amount of time listening to the bandís recorded output as my freshman year of college wound down.

1985óJust as my sophomore year ended, R.E.M. released Fables of the Reconstruction. The album hit the record stores June 10, the same day that Talking Heads, another favorite band of mine, released their Little Creatures LP. I bought them both (on vinyl!) at Sounds of Market in downtown Philadelphia and rushed home to record them back-to-back on one tape. I then spent the rest of the summer listening to that tape over and over again on my train ride back and forth to Temple, where I was working. Fables was actually darker and moodier than Murmur (except for the "hit" single, "Canít Get There From Here") but I was completely entranced by the entire album. I recently read an article by another music writer in which he noted that in the summer of í85 there were probably thousands of college guys running around with a homemade tape of Fables of the Reconstruction/Little Creatures in their Walkmans. I was one of those guys.

When R.E.M. played at the Tower Theater on August 31, I was there, again with John. This time Joe was able to join us. If I simply really liked R.E.M. when I entered the Tower that night, I loved them when I left. The show was dark, melancholy and occasionally chaotic, although Michael Stipe still seemed to be rather bashful onstage. On the way home, I tried to convince John and Joe of the general brilliance of the show weíd just seen, but I donít remember them being particularly impressed.

When I went back to school to start my junior year, I met up with Rick and Greg, who lived on the same floor as me. If I remember correctly, our main obsessions at the time were playing backgammon and talking about music. R.E.M., of course, played a big role in our new friendships.

1986óLifes Rich Pageant, the bandís fourth album, was released July 28. It was their most rocking and politically oriented album to date. Around the time Lifes Rich Pageant was released, I met my friend Matt, who is notable in this story as the person with whom I have spent the most time talking about R.E.M, although we didnít actually go to an R.E.M. concert together until 1995.

The bandís audience had been increasing from album to album, so it wasnít all that surprising that the band played at the Spectrum Theater that November 9. Joe and I took the subway down from Temple to the show. I distinctly remember an entire train full of R.E.M fans, one of whom was entertaining the rest of us by singing his own very special rendition of the Ohio Playersí "Love Rollercoaster."

As for the show itself, it was becoming obvious that Michael Stipe was getting over his onstage introversion. He was much more physically animated than he had been at the first two shows Iíd seen, particularly when he and the band were stumbling their way through an off-the-cuff version of Bruce Springsteenís "Born to Run."

The Feelies opened the show, which brings up an important aspect of R.E.M.ís influence that I need to mention: in the wake of R.E.M., it seemed as though there was an endless supply of cool bands to discover. Husker Du. The Replacements. The Minutemen. The Feelies. 10,000 Maniacs. The list goes on. While some of these bands were formed at the same time as R.E.M., I really think that it was the ever-growing acceptance of R.E.M. that led guys like me to begin to look deeper into what truly was "alternative" music back in the Ď80s.

1987óDead Letter Office, a collection of B-sides and rarities that proved that R.E.M. did indeed have a sense of humor, was released April 27. However, the bandís big release that year was their fifth proper album, Document. Released on August 31, Document actually spawned a hit single with "The One I Love."

When R.E.M. rolled into town for an October 16 show at the Spectrum, Rick and Greg and I were there. Matt was there too, and we all seem to remember the concert that night as a wildly chaotic and maybe even cathartic for the band as well as the audience. Even today, we remember details about how songs were played and stories that Stipe told. The story of a man who ran outside his house with a pet parrot on his shoulder during an earthquake particularly stands out. It was during this story that Stipe uttered the classic line, "Iím going to die listening to Bon Jovi." Thanks to an email pal of mine named Gary, I now have a tape of that show, including an immortal cover of Lou Grammís "Midnight Blue," and itís amazing how much the tape corroborates our collective memories of the show. I suppose you had to be there, but boy, am I glad I was.

1988óDuring spring break, Joe and I took a long train trip to Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans and Atlanta. From Atlanta, we borrowed my aunt and uncleís car and drove down to Athens for an overnight trip. This was to be my pilgrimage to R.E.M.ís hometown, but it was sort of anti-climatic. I didnít know where any of the great R.E.M. landmarks, like the trestle, were and Joe and I were a little too wasted from some wild nights in Memphis and New Orleans to do much investigating, although we did stop briefly at the 40 Watt Club, a small club where all the great Athensí bands played.

I graduated from Temple in May. R.E.M. graduated in 1988 also, from independent label I.R.S. to major label Warner Brothers. Eponymous, an I.R.S. greatest hits compilation, was released October 3. A sticker on the albumís shrink wrap said, "The Band You Grew Up With," which I thought was silly then, though now Iím not so sure. Green, the bandís Warner Brothers debut, was released November 8th, the day George Bush was elected president. I was working in a record store with another R.E.M. fanatic at the time, so I heard quite a bit of Green, which saw R.E.M. performing a careful balancing act between creating big hit songs like "Stand" and more introspective acoustic-based pieces, like "You Are The Everything." I thought they got the balance just right, becoming bigtime rock stars with their dignity and sense of humor intact.

1989óMy first full year out of college was also the first year since I started college that R.E.M. did not release a new album. They spent much of the year touring behind Green, and I spent the year in limbo, working at the store and at a local college, not thinking a whole lot about the future. I saw R.E.M. play the Spectrum in the spring, this time with Joe and Greg. I had high hopes for this show, but left the Spectrum that night feeling a bit uninspired by the performance. Musically it was quite a decent performance and the new songs sounded great, but the edgy, "who knows whatís going to happen next?" quality of the earlier shows seemed to be missing.

As the 1980s drew to a close, R.E.M. decided to take some time to regroup. Big changes were on the way for the band, although Iím not even sure that the guys in the band knew how big.

Life would be seriously changing for me too. Next week, Iíll tell you the story of R.E.M. and me in the Ď90s.

(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print a hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2000 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)

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