When I wrote last week about my seminal album, I should have mentioned that Murmur is a very close second to Sgt. Pepper’s.
I’ve been aware of R.E.M. since around 1981, when I worked at WRAS, Georgia State University’s radio station. R.E.M. opened up for a lot of acts we saw at 688 and the Agora Ballroom. And I was familiar with the “Radio Free Europe”/”Sitting Still” Hibtone single since it was a playlist staple. I thought they were a pretty good local band, but I wasn’t yet in love with them. Not even Chronic Town hooked me at the time; I was still into British New Wave — Squeeze, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and Nick Lowe, in particular.
And then Murmur was released in April 1983, starting a love affair that hasn’t wavered or disappointed in 23 years. That album connected with me like no other album had in years or has since. Listening to it still fills me with complete joy. I can’t describe what it does for me. There isn’t a song on the album I don’t like. Michael’s voice, Peter’s guitar, Mike’s musical brilliance, Bill’s beat. It’s such a Southern album. It was something new. I’m sounding like a pretentious college newspaper record reviewer, aren’t I? Damn, I wish I could come up with the words to describe what I feel when I listen to Murmur. I just want to jump up and dance that Athens dance and spin and forget about everything else but the happiness and youthfulness I feel.
But maybe it was the timing. The summer of 1983 was one of the best summers of my life, my last summer as a kid. OK, I was 24, but it was my last summer of complete freedom and no responsibilities. Renae and I had started hanging out again, after I freaked out about Holly and Randy getting married that summer. Renae was living in a cool apartment at The Belvedere, in Pershing Point. For a brief moment, that triangle at Peachtree and West Peachtree was our city’s Village, with funky neighbors and little galleries everywhere. I went over there nearly every night after work and spent most of my weekends there. We’d put on a record, sit on her balcony, drink lots of jug wine, sing and dance, spy on a particularly weird neighbor, and enjoy the summer. Or we were at Fellini’s for a slice and a flirt with Clay and Nelson. And Murmur was usually playing.
It was at Renae’s where I met Simeon, who was such a large part of my life for so many years (and is still one of my very favorite people I’ve ever known). Simeon was a music nut like me — probably more than me — and we were obsessed with R.E.M. We listened to Murmur and Chronic Town all the time. We started hanging out with Shawn, a guy who went to high school with Renae and me (and whose heart I had to stomp when he was a freshman) and worked with Simeon at Sam Flax (which was around the corner from Renae’s at the time). The four of us went dancing, saw movies, looked at art books, hung out. Every time I listen to Murmur, I’m transported back to that summer and that neighborhood.
Simeon and I went to see R.E.M. together that August at, of all places, the parking lot at Six Flags. My boys performed on a stage that looked like a flatbed trailer; I seem to remember their parents were seated on the stage. Simeon and I danced the entire show; most people just stood around. Simeon correctly predicted that those idiots wouldn’t move until they heard “Radio Free Europe.” He was right — everyone jumped up and danced as soon as it started — so Sim refused to dance to show his disgust. He stood completely still in the middle of the crowd … although his foot was a-tapping. I loved him for that. It was a waste, too, because I adored the way Simeon slammed his legs when he danced to “Radio Free Europe.” I danced, of course; I have no scruples when it comes to dancing along with Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe.
We next saw R.E.M. in October, when they performed a free concert on UGA's Legion Field (now a parking deck between the freshman dorms). The band played “So. Central Rain” for the first time; the Letterman appearance was three days later. I loved the Legion Field shows — crisp fall weather, the freedom of dancing in the field, getting in trouble for flirting with cute young boys. Damn, it was fun.
I have this great memory of driving in Athens with Renae the following spring. The sunroof was open, “Sitting Still” was playing, and we were singing at the top of our lungs — completely different words. It was such a silly, happy moment. I love mumbling Michael; the beauty of singing along with him was nobody could say you were singing the wrong words.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, I still love R.E.M. as much as I did that summer. I’ve seen them perform more than 20 times. I’ve bought every album the day it came out, or (beginning with “Automatic for the People”) at midnight the night before in Athens at the band’s release party. I’ve been a proud fan club member for years. I’ve read most of their interviews, watched every video, defended them to those who were dismissive of their brilliance. Michael eye-flirted with me in the mid-1980s and flirted with my beau in the mid-1990s. Peter’s given me the “hi” eye numerous times, and uttered many a "how's it going?" as he walked by. I once told Mike Mills how much his music means to me, and pissed off his girlfriend another time because he kept checking me out. And Bill Berry ... well, he had the best damn arms in Athens.
So, this isn’t a record review; it's ramblings of the memories that Murmur brings me. But isn’t that what a great album is supposed to do?