When the rock band R.E.M. announced they were breaking up a few weeks ago, I really didn’t pay much attention. To be honest R.E.M. dropped off my radar screen around 1994 when “Automatic for the People” was gradually losing steam and a new album called “Monster” had people scratching their heads. Not that I no longer considered R.E.M. an important American band, their new music was just missing the mark for me.
But the more I’ve thought about the band’s decision to “call it a day,” the more I’ve realized it was a pretty big deal. For many music fans in the early 1980s, myself included, R.E.M. served as a liaison between more familiar mainstream rock and the brashness of punk. With their atmospheric mystery and hypnotic rhythms, R.E.M. provided the musicality desired for those not attracted to punk’s minimalism, while at the same time being artsy and weird enough to give the status quo a healthy slap in the face.
But for folks in these parts, there’s a special reason for recognizing the legacy of R.E.M. Columbia served as one of the first and most supportive places for the band to play outside their hometown of Athens, Ga. Guitarist Peter Buck said as much while sitting backstage after a show in the Russell House Ballroom in 1984.
“A lot of people in town here go to Athens and Atlanta, so they’ve heard us and seen us,” Buck said. “And also, we’re one of the few bands from Georgia who play here fairly regularly. We’ve played here, counting the days of Von Henmon’s, probably seven times.”
Ah, Von Henmon’s. The legendary indie-rock club operated by Rick Henmon on Santee Street in Five Points hosted all sorts of punk and new-wave bands in the early 1980s.
“That was a really nice club,” Buck said. “We played there three or four times.”
In fact, it was a coterie of local indie-rock fans who provided the impetus for R.E.M. to venture over to Columbia for a gig at Von Henmon’s.
“One weekend, a group of us went over to Athens to see XTC play a club there,” the late Eddie Blakely said in 1997. “The band who opened for XTC that night was called R.E.M. People in Athens knew about them, but we were out-of-towners and had certainly never heard of them before.
“They were quite remarkable in the energy and presence they had. I don’t remember the material they did, but I remember some of it was cover songs. Needless to say, they definitely left an impression on us all.”
Blakely, who would later become a promoter on the Columbia rock scene, returned to Columbia and sang the praises of R.E.M. to Henmon. The club owner said, OK, I’ll give them a date, and R.E.M. was booked for one of their first shows outside of Athens.
“They all piled in their ratty old van and drove over and played for the door,” Blakely said. “At least two or three times (when they came to Columbia), they didn’t make enough money to get a motel room, but people who came to the show were gracious enough to say, ‘Hey, if you guys don’t want to drive back tonight, you’re welcome to have an empty spot on the floor at my house.’”
“The first time they played only about 20 people showed up,” Henmon said. “I gave them a case of Heineken and they thought that was so cool.”
From the very beginning, R.E.M. --- Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck --- found close and loyal friends in Columbia. Over the years, they would play here nine or ten times, including a 1982 show at Strider’s on Huger Street that turned me into a raving R.E.M. fan for the next five years.
So as R.E.M. exits the stage, I’d like to say thanks for the great music and wonderful memories. And Columbia should take pride in the role it played in kickstarting this remarkable American rock ’n’ roll band.
-- Michael Miller
(Mike Miller is an associate editor of Jasper Magazine. For more of Mike, go to www.jaspercolumbia.com.)