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Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years

Doug Collette By

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Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years
Robert Dean Lurie
288 pages
ISBN: #978-1891241680
Verse Chorus Press
2019

Coming from the unusual angle of a repatriated Southerner by the name of Robert Dean Lurie, Begin The Begin is a fast and fascinating read devoted to the formative period, including the first flush(es) of success that occurred during R.E.M.'s Early Years. As is the case with the best book covers, this one featuring Joanna Schwartz' black and white photographs at once piques the curiosity and reaffirms the fundamental concept of what's inside: on the front, in keeping with his imposing physical stature and prominent instrumental role in the group, guitarist Peter Buck is eager to riff as he towers over the carefully-studied posing of vocalist/frontman Michael Stipe. Meanwhile, on the back, another stage shot notably excludes the singer (who often kept himself at a cool remove from his bandmates), Buck wielding his Rickenbacker with sweaty purpose, clearly (and joyfully) bonded with bassist Mike Mills, whose mid-air antics are grounded through the deep concentration of drummer Bill Berry (the profound significance of whose departure from the band the author barely alludes early on).

The design is probably not meant to overshadow Stipe, who became something of a spokesman for the group as their reputation grew throughout and beyond the alternative scene of Athens GA where they met, then into the national spotlight and finally a major label setting fraught with compromise (a deal Lurie delineates near the end of the book). But the intent is nevertheless clear: to highlight the inner mechanics of the band, for both better and worse, even if the author can't (or won't) fully come to grips with the inevitability of its evolution: for all R.E.M.'s iconoclastic tendencies, the quartet succumbed to at least some of the temptations besetting modern rock and roll bands, even as in terms of both creative and business compromise and sense of direction, they held some of their worst instincts at bay.

Therein lies the suspense, both in terms of events and how Robert Dean Lurie recounts them. Like a quiet song proffered as a concert encore, the muted denouement of this book posits just one more reason for a sequel. The strength of the story is how vividly the author recounts what was happening in this deceptively idiosyncratic Georgia college town and how it gave birth to R.E.M. For anyone familiar with a local music scene, that which grew around this group in the late Seventies and early Eighties will surely see themselves, their friends and their bands, not to mention those who learned what was going on but remained outside the nucleus, preferring to confine themselves to the more conventional and acceptable pursuits of sports and academics (in that order).

Lurie is right to emphasize his theme of how deeply the South affected the gestation and maturation of REM. The quartet wold not have evolved as they did without Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, and Robert E Lee, not to mention any number of the more anonymous denizens of the art world that so fascinated Michael Stipe in the course of formulating album art and music videos. But as the author interviews those more or less eccentric personages inside and out of the nascent band's inner circle, such as the enigmatic Ort and advocate extraordinare Jefferson Holt, his implicit point becomes more obvious as the book progresses (and rightly so): every scene is peculiar to its environs and will invariably be informed accordingly, those distinguishing factors constituting a DNA of sorts that imbue each respective community with its own personality.

That increasingly overt theme is, in part, why Begin the Begin is no exercise in nostalgia. Robert Dean Lurie spent time in the Athens area before he experienced the epiphany that moved him to write this book, so there's more than a little proprietary interest on his part. But to his credit, he maintains the same flash of inspiration for the greater part of R.E.M.'s Early Years, even as he moves slowly and inexorably to set the stage for the union of the members of R.E.M.: intentionally or not, the pace he sets mirrors the ascent of the group from local heroes to international stars. This even as the confluence of personality and circumstance that gave birth to the group seems to pass in the blink of an eye.

As with the cover graphics, the inner design of the book part furthers Lurie's narrative, at least for the most part. Rather than devote exclusive sections to photos and other art, such graphics as replications of concert bills and backstage passes are inserted as they are mentioned in the text, cementing the impression and the point(s) the author is making. Footnotes are no doubt intended for the same purpose, but there are more than a few stretches within which they appear so repeatedly, the asterisked insertions only serve to interrupt the readers' attention; such content might well have been relegated in the 'Notes' included as one of the appendices.

To Robert Dean Lurie's great credit, he doesn't indulge in many extended critiques to further derail the momentum his deceptively informal writing style generates. But then, such an overtly scholarly approach does not come naturally to him: in passages devoted to the interpretation of lyrics, Lurie's thoughts often become muddied, in stark contrast to their lucidity elsewhere; to be fair, he may actually be averse to assigning down specific meanings to the words of songs like "Perfect Circle," from Murmur (I.R.S., 1983), which would account for some of his abrupt braking on some of those trains of thought. Nevertheless, he could compose a creditable publication of nothing but such analysis, were he to focus his mind to it.
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