One of R.E.M.’s subtle tricks was to musically capture the South’s rich, conflicting textures and deep, boggy history. Theirs is the weird South of kudzu and folk art, Faulkner instead of Skynyrd.
June 13, 2019 | by Andrew K. Lau
Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years
By Robert Dean Lurie
Verse Chorus Press
When taking on a band such as R.E.M. your dealing with a story that’s been documented in a handful of books but not to the point of over-explanation, so there’s still time left for biographers to peel back the layers of their onion. But that door is slowly closing. The band’s foggy years of 1980-1987 continue to fascinate, and writer Robert Dean Lurie decided to step into that mist and scrub around searching for answers.
The band themselves didn’t offer any solutions; according to their management, they take a hands-off approach and let writers say what they will, a typically fair-and-square philosophy for this fair-and-square quartet. (Ah, but don’t worry, even the most private of bands eventually lose their resolve and either reunite or get their story officially told, sometimes both. Just you wait.)
That all said, Begin the Begin is a joyous, though sometimes frustrating journey into the mostly uncharted waters of R.E.M.’s beginning years. Lurie makes this a personal story as well, breaking down the wall between writer and reader, talking as friends, and mixing personal experiences. By cutting off this book when they sign to a major label, he is able to fully explore, expand, and dissect this crucial period, where other biographers had to hold back in order to make room for the rest of their career. Another upshot being, of course, we’re also spared having to read about that moment when the band came up with “Shiny Happy People,” perhaps one of the most despicable acts against rock music in the history of the genre.
Lurie’s expertise shines through when he opens several, though not all, chapters by introducing us to someone from the band’s early circle of friends, a person who has the details to a specific part to the story unfolding before us. It’s a fantastic work of journalism, elaborating how various people help a band’s career while they themselves remain anonymous. In fact, Lurie goes out of his way to make sure Kathleen O’Brien gets her deserved credit for starting the whole thing off. On the other side, the 1980’s horror of Reaganomics, the rising conservative fear, and misunderstanding of AIDS darkens the waters, darkens the band’s worldview.
Then there’s the band’s southernness; whether contrived or honest, it gets a much-needed highlight here as we see their hometown of Athens, Georgia put under the spotlight once R.E.M.’s popularity grows. Speaking as a blue-blooded Yankee, the South’s part in rock ‘n’ roll history has been frustratingly undersold; Lurie doesn’t make it the book’s central theme but instead makes it a solid backdrop. One of R.E.M.’s subtle tricks was to musically capture the South’s rich, conflicting textures and deep, boggy history. Theirs is the weird South of kudzu and folk art, Faulkner instead of Skynyrd.
Much like the band’s career, problems begin once the story gains traction. For example, any band’s first European tour is always a career benchmark, but here R.E.M.’s maiden voyage overseas is only briefly mentioned; compare that to the amount of space dedicated to Mathew Sweet’s association with the band. For this reader, I’d rather hear about their experiences playing their unusual brand of rock ‘n’ roll so far away from home than to read about another opportunistic hanger-on looking for his shot at the big time. Lurie also treads a slippery slope by quoting bloggers and Facebook posts, something which only pushes his research into speculation and gives voice to unchecked sources. To cast a wide net for the sake of inclusion is one thing, this may be another — and it also may become more commonplace.
By the time the story reaches 1986 when the band releases Lifes Rich Pageant, the narrative gets bogged down as Lurie rabbit-holes into the cult of Michel Stipe’s personality and lyrics. Which, in a way, makes sense since that’s where a big shift happened for R.E.M. as well.
With their gain in popularity, they lost the mystique of a southern quartet from Athens, Georgia and became a band fronted by MICHAEL STIPE who seemed to relish his new role as a questionable sex symbol. The moment his singing became clear on record, and his lyrics became easy to decipher, many early fans stopped listening. Taking risks has its disadvantages, and this one was frustrating for some of us. Lurie goes headlong into trying to unravel Stipe’s lyrics with more guesswork when what we really want to know is what was happening behind the scenes. Too much Stipe, not enough band.
But those are mere quibbles. This is an engaging 270 pages and it ends with finesse by expertly dealing with R.E.M. leaving their independent label for a major, something which almost always involves animosity. While not the most convoluted of deals, their contract with Warner Brothers still needs explaining and Lurie points out its importance in regards to independent bands retaining artistic control. (Of course, one is curious as to whether or not R.E.M. were contractually obligated to write, record, and release something like “Shiny Happy People,” which, as the reader may already know, was the self-inflicted bullet in the temple of the band’s already thinning integrity. Hey now!)
The book’s very ending, the last paragraph, is by far one of the best wrap-ups I’ve read in some time. Lurie concludes the story with such a beautiful use of narrative and imagery that I just stared at the white space at the bottom of the page for a few moments after my eyes dragged off the final word.
Had R.E.M. decided to get involved, Begin the Begin may not’ve ended up this freewheeling and they should be thankful Lurie has given their legend a worthy chunk of research and heartfelt dedication.