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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.

To that end, this writer's descriptions of the machinations in and around R.E.M.'s studio recordings illuminate the group's personal and creative dynamics. For instance, the dissection of their collaboration with John Mellancamp producer Don Gehman on Life's Rich Pageant (I.R.S., 1986), is an especially fortuitous occurrence because it appears just as Begin The Begin falters somewhat, not surprisingly, just the timeline extends into and through the group's tours, further and further outside of Athens, GA. Intermittent references to substance usage and sexual dalliances happily do not lead to any detailed and lurid/or descriptions, but such intervals later on do sound a bit forced: it's as if Lurie's torn between making sure the band sounds cool or is simply trying to assure the reader this quartet is not really that different from mainstream rockers. Some carefully-placed generalities about how Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe managed their increasing financial resources serve a different purpose (and a more worthwhile point), in part because because the evidence is pragmatic and tangible: these inordinately grounded individuals invested in real estate within their adopted hometown as a means to preserve its essential nature as they perceived it.

Less pertinent and provocative is how often the writer references other such histories of R.E.M. over and above his prologue, where he strives to distinguish his own book from its predecessors. As he tenders repeated allusions to tomes such as Party Out of Bounds (University of Georgia Press; 1991), to name just one, Lurie makes a compelling case for readers to procure, ponder and absorb those as well, if only because one of the major distinctions of his own is stated in a cover blurb ...'it is the first biography of R.E.M. wholly researched and written since they disbanded in 2011....' In one conversation after another here, whether with friend, family, technical assistants or mere hangers-on, Robert Dean Lurie reaffirms the kernel of truth at the heart of the cliché about hindsight being twenty-twenty.

As these two-hundred eight-some pages come to a close, he does betray a growing compulsion to posit his work in relation to his peer authors.' It almost seems a means to connect the various perspectives on Athens into a unified vision and thus reaffirm Lurie's nearly imperceptible notion that all the members of R.E.M.—not to the exclusion of the willfully eccentric Stipe—remained too down-to-earth to elicit widespread idolatry from their fan base. As Lurie tracks the increasing importance of social consciousness to the lyricist/singer, he bestows more clarity upon his observations with asides about the quartet's practical execution of their environmental concerns (practically manifest through the recycling efforts in their business office) than excursions into politics of the time circa Ronald Reagan; This writer/musician would be doing full justice to his book and his subject to explicitly stipulate how R.E.M. reflected the evolution of their audience and vice-versa. This was, after all, a band whose early draw as live performers was based on its connection to a certain frat-boy mentality, one which lingered but diminished as their renown penetrated the mainstream.

Perhaps indicative of his own growing sense of the passage of time, Robert Dean Lurie exhibits a certain wan melancholy in the closing chapters of these thirteen: it's as if revisiting past times is somewhat more painful than he expected or is willing to admit outright—perhaps he's just sad the project is coming to a conclusion? But then, throughout Begin The Begin, the author's radiated mixed feelings about the arc of R.E.M.'s career path, particularly in comparison to favorite sons Pylon and Guadalcanal Diary (though hardly so much as the early flame-out of the B-52's); his distaste is all too obvious when he uses the phrase 'rock star' to refer to the group as he rightly contends the movement they helped engender was an alternative to that hierarchical caste system.

Regardless of the subliminal messages, the writer deserves some kudos for confronting the history of Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe (not to mention his own), despite the pain he encounters, on multiple fronts, in various forms. It might very well be that the product(s) of Robert Dean Lurie's ambition(s) are best summed up in the way he encapsulated those viewpoints of at least a couple charter members of the Athens GA scene: ...'his genuine affection for R.E.M. does not lead him to sugarcoat his experiences...'
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