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Robert Dean Lurie
The start of R.E.M and the rise of the Athens, GA music scene has been the subject of countless books, but few crackle with the ring of truth of Robert Dean Lurie’s fascinating new volume Begin the Begin. Lurie, author of the great look at The Church No Certainly Attached from a few years ago goes back in time to look at the influences that shaped Michael Stipe, Pete Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry. I recognized elements of the bands upbringing that Lurie describes. Like Stipe, I was born in Decatur, Georgia (although he and his family moved frequently in his youth), and I worked in the same record stores in Atlanta as Pete Buck. Small world.
It was this “small world” – Athens, Georgia – that Lurie brings to life. Prior to the early ‘80s, if anyone outside of the south knew about Athens it was because of the university’s beloved football team, “The Dawgs”. 60 miles northeast of Atlanta, it was the town at the end of Atlanta Highway. When I was in high school in the late ‘70s, the notion that a musical revolution would spring up from this sleepy, humid college town was absurd. Until it did.
Begin the Begin vividly shows the artistic environment that spawned the “Athens Sound” (many of the early bands, including R.E.M., had dropouts from the college’s art school in their ranks). The drive to create and explore drove bands such as Pylon, The Method Actors, Love Tractor and of course, R.E.M. R.E.M.s early performances at university parties – consisting of covers from The Monkees, among others, got them pegged as a dance band for frat parties, but that soon changed as Stipe developed as a lyricist, and Buck improved on guitar. After that came history.
Frequently, reading biographies of musical heroes can be hazardous. Notions cultivated from ignorance can loom large and mysterious, only to be dashed by cruel reality when confronted by the truth. Somehow Lurie avoids this, such as when you learn that “Gardening at Night”, from the bands 1982 EP Chronic Town could refer to a late night pee break on side of the road. It was Stipe’s and R.E.M.’s genius that made the mundane magical, in the same way that an abandoned railroad trestle, used on the cover of the band’s debut LP Murmur still beckons the faithful to explore for it in Athens.
For those of us who experienced the early days of R.E.M., Lurie’s book brings it all back. I can clearly recall the amazement when the band – unsigned at this point – opened for The Police at Atlanta’s grand Fox Theater. To see people we knew, barely older than ourselves on that stage was incredible. Lurie captures this, and shows that behind the mystery, R.E.M. worked incredibly hard, answering only to themselves and their devoted fans. Our area – and the world – have never seen the likes of them again. They were, in some fashion, “our band”. And we loved them. If this sounds like you, you’ll treasure Begin the Begin: R.E.M.s Early Years, and Robert Dean Lurie is to be commended for a welcome addition to the lore.