Greatness has often sprung from the fertile soil of Athens, Ga. The Georgia Bulldogs have provided quality football, tennis, gymnastics and tailgating for generations — Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton even grew up there and went to his hometown college. It’s been a surprise hotbed of mixed martial arts, with former UFC champion Forrest Griffin honing his skills and quips out on one of the country roads that wind their way out of town.
But more importantly, there are the bands. College radio made cult heroes of Pylon, Love Tractor, Guadalcanal Diary, Flat Duo Jets and Dreams So Real. The scene had enough staying power for Todd Snider to reference it in Talkin’ Seattle Grunge-Rock Blues, where the protagonist finally gives up on the grunge scene, shaves off the goatees, packs the van and goes back to Athens. (In later performances, he changed the destination to places like Nashville. Boring.)
And a couple of bands hit the big time — a quirky dance band called the B-52s and some artsy dudes in flannel who called themselves R.E.M.
The early R.E.M. albums reflected the Northeast Georgia landscape, full of mystery and strife, leavened with a bit of humor and an innocent sense of wonder. Through most of my days at Duke, my drive home to Athens would take me off the interstate about 40 minutes from my parents’ house, just enough time to pop Reckoning into the cassette player and listen as the jangling guitar, melodic bass and abstract lyrics colored the winding, hilly farmscapes and one-stoplight towns.
As much as those tunes belonged to the Georgia clay and hay, they also belonged to college kids in their dorms trying to decipher Michael Stipe’s words.
Let’s all listen together to their breakthrough, Radio Free Europe:
Dasani selfish radius a mistake
Reason it could polish up the brake
Put them put them put them up you all
That which is a country at all
Braaaaay meeeee staaaaation ….
It’s onnnn yourself ….
Indie addled country in the world
Dene … OK, I have no idea.
In these pre-Internet days, that was part of the fun. Stipe could be singing just about anything you wanted. And if you somehow figured the actual words, you were left wondering what it all meant.
For the most part, the lyrics weren’t messages. They were portraits. Stipe was a folk artist at heart. If you found a hidden meaning in a song like Driver 8, you’ll probably surprise Stipe himself, who said he didn’t even know where one of the lyrics came from but “it was so southern, and so of a time.”
But R.E.M. couldn’t simply record Murmur or Fables of the Reconstruction over and over. Like most artists getting a taste of fame, the Athens boys saw more of the world and felt they had more to say about it. Stipe’s delivery grew clearer. The lyrics grew more concrete.
And the changes led to some powerful work. Document exhorted a generation to activism with Finest Worksong and delivered a devastating commentary on romantic selfishness with The One I Love. The more erratic Green got inside a soldier’s head with Orange Crush.
Out of Time, leading off with the memorable video for Losing My Religion, showed R.E.M. successfully mixing its Southernisms (who the hell really knew what the phrase “losing my religion” meant?) with more accessible imagery. The follow-up, Automatic for the People, was arguably the band’s masterpiece, reflecting on approaching middle age and lost innocence, both personal and political. If you ever find an album-closing song as perfect as Find the River, a melancholy but inspiring meditation on how best to spend the short time we have on this rock, please let me know.
Monster changed everything. Peter Buck found the volume knob on his amplifier. Stipe finally started to look like a rock star instead of an art student who happened to be the frontman of a genre-busting and genre-defining band.
From that album, they released a loud (but still melodic, as pretty much anything with Mike Mills contributing will be) rock song called What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
And … the lyrics simply don’t work. They fall apart from the first line, where Stipe tries to wedge a reference to a bizarre news story about a bizarre assault on news anchor Dan Rather into a commentary on the news.
From Songfacts: “Lead singer Michael Stipe says this is an attack on the media, who overanalyze things they don’t understand.” From a Stipe quote at Genius, where they try to explain things line by line: “I wrote that protagonist as a guy who’s desperately trying to understand what motivates the younger generation, who has gone to great lengths to try and figure them out, and at the end of the song it’s completely fucking bogus. He got nowhere.”
At times, he comes close to following through on that message. “You said that irony was the shackles of youth” is a believable comment suggesting journalists are too swift to write off Gen X as hopeless cynics. It’s a point I’m willing to entertain, but maybe we could get some examples or something?
And why is the unusual phrase uttered by Rather’s assailant “your Benzedrine”? A phrase spit out by a rather confused person is mistakenly used to stereotype a generation, with some sort of old-school amphetamine randomly tossed in?
Wait, I get it now. The song itself is impossible to understand, just as it’s impossible for older media to understand younger people. Is that it?
As a rock song, it’s not bad. The Buck-Mills duo always worked brilliantly because Buck intentionally kept things simple, and Mills had a knack for bouncing bass hooks off Buck’s chords. Stipe’s delivery is convincing, even if the lyrics aren’t.
As media commentary, it’s unconvincing and incoherent.
Here’s the sad part — Don Henley did a far better media takedown, Dirty Laundry, for far less noble reasons. Or did we all forget that Henley wrote it as revenge for the media daring to find it newsworthy that a rock star with some artistic/sociopolitical pretensions would end up pleading his way to a slap on the wrist after a nude 16-year-old girl got into some things she shouldn’t have in quantities she really shouldn’t have?
(Yes, I wrote that paragraph very carefully to spare Jefito and the Popdose crew a word from Henley’s battalion of lawyers.)
R.E.M. would go on to have some peaks and valleys, with Stipe’s willingness to push boundaries paying off more often than not. Some critics may think it awkward to use “proud” as a noun in “leaving was never my proud,” from Leaving New York, but the unusual construction is a small price to pay for such a gorgeous chorus.
And at the end, R.E.M. made a dignified departure from the stage. Henley will be on stage croaking with The Eagles and occasionally tossing in Dirty Laundry until the end of time.
Pass the Benzedrine.