R.E.M. in the 1980’s had an aura of mystery. The impenetrable lyrics, the jangly guitar-based sound, which harkened back to the days of The Byrds and beyond. The album cover art – kudzu covered railway bridges, gargoyles, folk art collages. The famous fact that each band member wanted their playing/singing mixed lower than the rest in the songs. It was a stance we, as college students, championed and admired because it was against the status quo and the dominant mainstream music of the time.
Thier albums were well-constructed, layered puzzles my friends and I would try to decipher. If you were an R.E.M. fan, you were “clued-in” and cool. They were still a cult band and it wouldn’t be till the end of the 80’s that they would become adopted by the masses (and so lose much of their counterculture credibility).
As students at the University of Florida, in deep south, spanish-mossed Gainesville we felt (or at least imagined we felt) a special kinship with R.E.M. since they were from Athens, Georgia – a similar southern college town. I remember regular trips to Hyde & Zeke’s Records and the other couple of nearby cd/record stores on University Ave. (all conveniently located a short walking distance from home through the “student ghetto” – towering oak tree-lined streets and old wooden houses – images which fit R.E.M.’s music well). We would see the strange R.E.M. posters on the walls – always very arty, a million miles from the posters for bands like Poison & Def Leppard (which wouldn’t have been appropriate to sell in these stores anyway). We would leaf through the bootleg records of live shows recorded throughout the south. It was rare we actually bought one, though, as we couldn’t afford them.
In retrospect, bands like Wilco owe a lot to R.E.M.’s “marketing strategy” (even though their image was so uncommercial, I’m sure they or at least their record company, had one). It was a strategy based more on art – shirts, posters, etc. with images that didn’t always have any apparant connect with the music. Images that were “art” in themselves. Drawing on a long tradition of graphic art, there were wild typefaces, collage art, animals, wheels, etc.
On those magnolia-scented days, even the track listing on an R.E.M. album could seem like more than it was. A friend once noticed a piece of paper I had lying around that had the song names from Chronic Town, R.E.M.’s first E.P., written on it. She asked me if it was a poem I had written. And, you know, it sort of sounds like one…maybe some kind of extended haiku:
Gardening at night
Carnival of sorts (box cars)