It’s hard to believe that next year will mark ten years since the Athens, Georgia alternative rock titans, R.E.M., called it quits after 30 years. The quartet met in the sleepy little college town and propelled to the top of the charts, becoming unlikely MTV darlings. I became a fan in 1987 with their album Document and the single/video “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” For the next 20 years, regardless of whether I was listening to headbanger music or punk rock, R.E.M. remained a constant. I still have every album from Chronic Town to New Adventures in Hi-Fi, every home video and tour film (all on VHS), and I caught them on the Monster Tour in 1995. Unfortunately, I could not follow them after drummer Bill Berry left. None of the post-New Adventures albums moved me.
By the time R.E.M. announced their break up, I hate to say, I barely gave the group a thought. Reading Robert Dean Lurie’s new book, Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years (Verse Chorus Press) rekindled my love for this band and got me listening to all the early albums again.
Begin the Begin is the most extensive and exhaustive look at R.E.M.’s early life. Lurie went after interviews other books had missed or not pursued/ He takes time to cut through the myths and legends (and sometimes bullshit) to really tease out the truth of who Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Pete Buck, and Bill Berry really were. At the same time, he paints a clear picture of the birth of the Athen’s music scene, which beget the B-52’s and Pylon, among others. Lurie takes us from the mid-70s to 1988 when the band could no longer be an indie darling, as major label success laid claim.
As an avid R.E.M. fan, I’ve read a couple of books on the band (Remarks was my favorite) and as many interviews as I could. I thought I knew the band pretty well, but Lurie shows there are still many layers to peel away and new angles to approach old stories. Lurie writes in a very southernly conversational style. Never pretentious, very approachable, and makes for an easy, relaxed read. Will this hold the attention of the casual fan? I have no idea, but I can’t imagine any REM fan not wanting Begin the Begin as part of their library.