Telling an already long-lauded-as-groundbreaking album that it has officially reached iconic anniversary status can have an unintended taxidermic effect. Sometimes the dandelion spice of a record is contingent on nobody, including the record itself, really knowing what it is, what it means, or what it was all about. Records that reach this status then require a multiplicity of untold voices to tell the jigsaw pieces of their vagary to the next generation, to uphold the mysticism with the correct level of professorial uncertainty. Forty years ago, Chronic Town by R.E.M. became such a record, though it did not know it then and will refuse to admit it even now. However, on Thursday, December 15th, the city of Atlanta and a Coca-Cola Roxy full of ardent, dreaming rememberers were called upon to revisit and new-salute this unavoidable fact in commemoration of four decades-worth of the oldest, most primeval parts of that five-song mini-epic, as R.E.M.’s Bill Berry, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills were joined alongside by a cadre of native necromancers that included show-sponsors Chris and Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes, John Cameron Mitchell, Chronic Town producer Mitch Easter, Elf Power, Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate, Pylon Reenactment Society, Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees, Puddles Pity Party, David Ryan Harris, Darius Rucker of Hootie & The Blowfish, and a select smattering of undying legends the likes of Lenny Kaye, Fred Armisen and David Cross.
Chronic Town was a tightly controlled, thoroughgoing ring shout in a revelatory form: myth-clad, figurative, wearing a filmic queering. It was recorded on a 16-track in Mitch Easter’s garage and startled many with its parabolic facility for braiding warm acoustic folk to found poetry to theatrical explosion. It is a record holding fire like andirons and talking in psalms about so many spiritually insoluble things, one of them being what Linqua Franqa recently referred to in another context as the “durable poverty” of the rural south. These songs were not the rip-roaring yarns of established south-associative bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd or The Allman Brothers, but a kind of artful, insightful attrition against a male/social/southern/human mnemonic that Michael Stipe, Bill Berry, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills, even at such early ages back then, understood was twenty years past played-out at a minimum. Chronic Town had every bit of the southern solicitude and delta vision of the aforementioned string-sliding bands or any others from this area that came to represent the south on the global stage, but it exuded none of the jejune braggadocio. In place of that, what was visible beneath the skin of every song was a whole new interpretation of modern male morality and nuanced, inceptive masculine intuition.
The American south is a story shabbily told, oft times. When Michael Stipe turned his gimlet eye on the spectral figures and bugbears of this storied, stigmatized space, his gaze was like a form of velvet ultraviolence and some of what the south is really like, the facets in its gorgeousness and gore, started to sketch themselves visible for the first time to the widest possible audience outside and inside the south. Radically open where it mattered most and obdurately resistant to every aspect of what people not living it call ‘stardom,’ Stipe was like one of Alan Dean Foster’s “spellsingers” or what the blazing brain of Sylvia Plath would be like if her intellectual isolation and beauty had been poured into an immeasurably brilliant gay boy from Decatur, Georgia coming of age in the latter 1970s. There is so much of place and personae in what he produces, under any band banner or none, and though he never articulates it directly, it is always archly clear what he will and will not countenance as he writes from those places inside all of us where we are not fully answerable to ourselves. As a performer of both his interior and exterior worlds, and also as a lyricist, Stipe tends to drink in the sky overhead and unblinkingly spit it back at you, but in a way that takes a scything sensual alertness to fully feel, the overall effect being something like pulling a Pol Roger champagne bottle from the Excalibur stone. Chronic Town was the first of many such fabled fountains.
August in Georgia is the most stultifyingly humid month of the entire calendar year, always, for those who do not live in this heat-renowned home and thus could not know. There’s a swampish air fever that hangs in visible colors over the city of Atlanta during that time and you can step outside your door clean as a whistle, turn to lock it as you leave, and be coated in a full-body sweat by the time you drop your keys in your purse or pocket. This is relevant because Chronic Town came out in August of 1982 and the weather inside it continues to sound like it. It is five songs pressing in and down on your mind precisely like the exterior climate of its environmental origins. In much the way that selvedge denim ages and shapes itself in tandem with the movement of the body that wears it, the subject matter, the torturous themes, the allusions and allegories that comprise Chronic Town – and that effectively announce R.E.M. as being what they would shortly rightfully become known as all over the world – are of a piece with the place that made them because the men who imbibed that place were of it in a way reserved only for them.
Though not a one of them would be at all comfortable with me saying this aloud in their presence because the only thing that outstrips their perceptive acumen is their intractable humility, but nevertheless it simply must be stated that R.E.M. was and remains one of the most unilaterally intelligent bands that ever took the stage in any era of music. When they wrote about things like the deracinated feralia of outsider lives, the inherited lethargy of a land lost in its own legacy, the dysania of modern society’s views on equality, or illustrated anything else whatsoever via their lyrics and sounds, they brought to bear a cultural component still seldom seen in any form of recorded music today, but almost never seen again in rock after Radiohead a few years later: a sprawling knowledge of film, music, books, world politics, and pop culture that glinted off every flat surface of anything Stipe, Berry, Buck, and Mills chose to artistically comment on. Lawrence Durrell said “you can’t put a soul into splints,” but R.E.M. did, and the collective spirit of their avid listeners, all the way to Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke themselves, grew back all the stronger for it.
All of this tuned-in timbre was distilled one more time again within the synthesized variations each of the four rare men comprising R.E.M. personally filtered those articulated reflections through, and the band’s emblematic affiliation with The University of Georgia ran far deeper than matriculation. R.E.M. was school. R.E.M. was rampant curiosity, essayistic rumination, higher-level learning, and unabridged experimentation. Even the gargoyle on the cover of Chronic Town is contemplative, sitting like an aberrant version of “The Thinker,” tongue a-loll at any hard-drawn conclusions being made inside or outside its sculpted doominess. This band was the reason a large number of us first learned to speak about affairs as wide-ranging and deep-scalded as AIDS, the importance of public libraries, voting, ethnic awareness, the dangers of bureaucratized institutions, and how to conduct civilized discourse on unruly topics. The R.E.M. boys themselves were emancipatory civil saints and social radicals back when the mainstream market only slapped you hard across the face for sincerity of any stripe, and Chronic Town was like a detailed woodcarving depicting what thinking men like this were preoccupied with. It was the first any such voice had been heard, and they invited you to become partners in the self-possession it took to stand apart like they did.
The Chronic Town 40th Anniversary show in Atlanta was defined nearly exclusively by the unreserved excellence of the performers on point duty and the fervor of the every-age R.E.M. revelers it drew from everywhere. It was an Athenstravaganza of bands and ATL benchmark characters that, in their own diversified trunk show of talents and tenets, formed a secondary tribute and unignorable flare signaling the expansive girth of R.E.M.’s reach as artists of influence. Indigo Girls singing “Orange Crush” the night before at this party’s Part One predecessor that took place in Athens, where all the R.E.M. murmurs began, should give an indication of the caliber of creative force at hand to herald a band and a record that set forth so many more of each.
Atlanta’s Part Two take was MCed by the stylized defiance of the divine David Cross, wearing a covetable t-shirt that had re-liveried the Atlanta Braves logo to read “Fuck Cobb County,” the very tony little county in which this concert happened to be taking place. That was an appropriate and well-appointed dig at the disgusting politics that led to the movement of Braves Stadium from its older, more of-the-people downtown locale, to one of fresh, suburban-vanilla money – a very R.E.M. kind of cause for concern. Cross kept everyone in stitches with Mr. Show-worthy irreverence between songs, and it was a special treat to watch folks unfamiliar with his fuck-you brand of socially scathing humor try to wriggle-giggle away from his most deliberately malapropic gags.
Speaking of sticking it to the squares, who more flawless than John Cameron Mitchell, booted to the knee and punk-kilted, could ever have commenced this ceremonial soiree? Mitchell is full moon regalia drawn as an exquisite man, and he served as the perfect twirling, teeth-baring votary of the absent Stipe, performing “Wolves, Lower” and later “Stumble”, both of which he executed to Hedwigian heights, as if his life depended on it – because you could tell that at one point in his becoming himself, it absolutely had. Elf Power set the highest possible bar with their renderings of “Little America” and “Begin The Begin”, while members of the pioneering Pylon, now in the form of Pylon Reenactment Society, brought the riot grrrl crushes with eyeliner to the forefront in the form of the verve-vixen that is Vanessa Briscoe Hay and UGA’s most admirably subterranean Assistant Director of Operations ever, bassist Kay Stanton.
The Black Crowes energy loomed large and lambent in the room as well, with Chris Robinson delivering “The One I Love” like he was the flower being sung to in the window rather than the admiring narrator memorializing it, and Rich Robinson, with Sven Pipien, his bass-mate in The Magpie Salute, as well as his son, Quinn Robinson, providing spider flights of soul and a gnashing genetic memory to the full band ensemble. Adding superstar indie icon clout was Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, Screaming Trees’ best-loved ethnomusicologist percussionist, Barrett Martin, on drums, Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate (and so much else!) sprinkling rain-starred guitar throughout, Fred Armisen singing his heart out on “Gardening At Night” and turning that song into tumbling nasturtiums as he did, and ‘sulking serenader’ of all time Puddles Pity Party reminding us all it was time to celebrate the holidays too via his horror vacui hallucination-rendition of “What Child Is This?”. David Ryan Harris gave the most unforgettably standout vocal performances of “Radio Free Europe” and “Everybody Hurts”, both so breathtakingly good they left everyone wishing he would just stay up there and read a recipe if there was nothing left to sing–just to hear that voice a bit longer. Darius Rucker, another man who simply will not be out-sung, lent his shower-of-emerald-arrows vox to “World Leader Pretend” and “I Believe”, and the sound of him might just as well have been an organ pipe holding a microphone for the sheer volubility of unadulterated vocal ability.
R.E.M. was and is, forevermore, alternative music’s most original example of power writ on papyrus. The combined brain batteries and mordant individuality of these particular four men was and continues to be off the scale, and the tidal balance found in their immediate and obvious differences led Chronic Town and every album thereafter to bring a fugitive kind of relief, sunlight-etched, into the rhyme scheme of the southern story. Even amidst the advent of their many additional projects of later years – The Bad Ends (Berry), The No Ones (Buck), The Baseball Project (Mills) – Berry, Mills, Stipe, and Buck were and stay elemental in their relationship to the music they made together and to one another. Much can be accomplished with just water, only fire, merely air, or simply earth – but when you do have all four…a different story with every discernible beginning, middle, and end emerges, and all become simultaneously possible inside that kind of potential. R.E.M. was that different story, and though one version of their sentence has a definitive period at the end of it now, what this anniversary show spotlit in greater score-settling finality was that the storylines of these songs, the symbolic scaffolding of Chronic Town as a record and R.E.M. as a band, the intergenerational lives these sounds and men have shaped and continue to guide, know absolutely no ending or horizon, and will encounter none for as long as music is played or unrestrained young minds go looking for a haphazard meander through a danceable, jagged chord that sounds like what they cannot yet say.
- Wolves, Lower – John Cameron Mitchell
- Gardening At Night – Fred Armisen
- Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars) – with Quinn Robinson
- 1,00,000 – Mitch Easter
- Stumble – John Cameron Mitchell
Mixed R.E.M. & Influences
- Little America – Elf Power
- Begin The Begin – Elf Power
- There She Goes Again (The Velvet Underground Cover) – Elf Power
- Crazy (Pylon Cover) – Pylon Reenactment Society
- Crush With Eyeliner – Pylon Reenactment Society
- Academy Fight Song (Mission of Burma Cover) – Pylon Reenactment Society
- Catapult – Mitch Easter
- Low – John Cameron Mitchell
- Fall On Me – Kevin Kinney
- King Of Birds – Kevin Kinney
- Maps And Legends – The Baseball Project
- Me In Honey – The Baseball Project
- Central Rain – The Baseball Project
- Circus Envy – The Baseball Project
- Radio Free Europe – David Ryan Harris
- Everybody Hurts – David Ryan Harris
- Superman – Mike Mills
- What Child Is This? (William Chatterton Dix Cover) – Puddles Pity Party
- World Leader Pretend – Darius Rucker
- I Believe – Darius Rucker
- Pale Blue Eyes (The Velvet Underground Cover) – Chris Robinson
- The One I Love – Chris Robinson & Kevin Kinney
- September Gurls (Big Star Cover) – Full Ensemble