Category Archives: R.E.M. Bow Wow Wow Athens Fleshtones Biltmore 688

Jerry Ayers in Paradise

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Limbo District by Barbara McKenzie. Jerry in Hat

I have many fond memories of my 19th year, spent almost entirely in Athens, Ga. 1984. A particularly vivid one is visiting Jerry Ayers at Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden. I am stunned to realize this was 32 years ago, as the images retain piercing clarity. Now, with the sad news of dear Jerry’s passing, those days pulse even more.

I first met Jerry in ’83 when I was in Atlanta band Wee Wee Pole. We opened for his band, Limbo District – sexiest Athens band ever – at the 40 Watt. Later, when I moved to Cobb St to play bass in Go Van Go, Jerry and I crossed paths a lot. We often talked well into the night beneath a streetlight, or under an awning. I admired his sweet, lone wolf quality, sought to emulate it. In his presence, I felt recognized as I wanted to be recognized, accepted, appreciated – all of utmost importance to a kid alone in the world for the first time.

Jerry and I were avid bike riders, and frequently passed one another on the blacktop, sometimes at 2 or 3 in the morning. We both sported straw hats. Sometimes, in the dark of a backyard party, someone would think I was him, which was quite a compliment. He was kind and nurturing, radiating energy, both elder and innocent. It was easy to forget his incredible history, in part because he was so interested in what was happening at that moment, which, to him, was always pretty fucking amazing. He could make a case for any quotidian moment being pretty fucking amazing. This perspective was contagious. You always walked away from him with more vigor than before. Needless to say, I would not meet anyone like him again.

In Autumn of ’84, Jerry was living at Paradise Garden in Summerville, helping rehab the long-neglected grounds, and writing grant proposals for Howard Finster. Thanks to REM’s championing, Reverend Finster was increasingly popular, but his sprawling, kudzu-wreathed, mud spattered, dawg-infested property was, to put it mildly, a mess of Biblical (literally and figuratively) proportions. Jerry was working hard to accommodate the rising tide of visitors, i.e. potential customers. This entailed much back breaking labor: shoveling, weeding, toting heavy, unwieldy, often crazy shit to a dumpster. Jerry knew international fame for Finster was imminent, and he wrote our mutual friend Cynthia Williams, imploring her to come partake of the magick, before Paradise Garden’s funky character was smoothed, before there was a gift shop, and, of course, while the still-vital Reverend still roamed the acreage with a liter of half frozen Coke, playing banjo, singing, and preaching on request. Prescient Jerry knew these times were not to last, in part because of encroaching renown, but also because Finster, a diabetic, ate almost exclusively junk food and never slept. Jerry said: If you want to meet a true holy man in his natural element, an art prophet, do not hesitate, come now. And if you can, bring money and buy art. (Incredibly, Reverend Finster would live 17 more years.)

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Reverend Howard Finster

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Paradise Garden

Cynthia invited me to come along. I had no gigs, and was not scheduled at Kinko’s, so I said hell yes. We drove to Summerville on an Autumn day. Jerry met us in the rutted driveway, handsome in red clay-crusted waders and mud spattered, billowy clothes. Grinning like a hillbilly pirate. Cynthia and I were stunned at the place. Like most, I’d only seen Paradise Garden in the hazy, dreamy video for “Radio Free Europe,” which was, like most of what REM did at that time, tantalizingly obtuse. Arty. But now, in stark detail, Paradise Garden rose, a collection of ramshackle buildings, a couple trailers, art everywhere, a car carcass covered in Howard’s distinctive religious characters and Bible verses, bicycle parts, scrap metal, plywood, and the aforementioned dawgs. Perhaps the happiest dawgs I’d ever seen. Assorted family members came and went, all smiles, conferring with Jerry about various duties, chores. It never occurred to us to worry that perhaps Jerry – a former Warhol Superstar, a decidedly unhetero male – would be in trouble around these God-fearing rural folk. The divinity of the art, the devotional work, rendered all of that meaningless.

Jerry was very glad to see us, excited like a little kid to share. He squired us around, and we marveled at the twisted tower of bicycle parts, the paths beneath the stately oaks, the painted faces everywhere, all spreading good news about salvation, about a world unseen, a world of love and poetry. Angels. Elvis. George Washington. Jesus. Howard himself, as a grinning young man, touching the ineffable, brimming with hope, eyes fearless and joyful.

Jerry was particularly struck by Howard’s preternatural energy. He said: the man is tapped into something beyond, something unexplainable, because all he eats is garbage. Twinkies. Ho-Hos. Hostess Fruit Pies. And yet. Jerry told of waking in his room in the wee hours and looking out to the trailer where Howard basically lived, where the Reverend did most of his painting while the world slept. No matter the hour, the light was always on, an aura of creation radiating into the Summerville night.

Laughing, bespectacled Howard came out to meet us, resplendent in a polyester sport coat over a flannel shirt, ever-present bottle of Coke in hand. Cynthia asked if he would tell us a story, and he said yes. Like children, we sat on the floor before him in his trailer, and he told us of a woman he knew who put her son’s jacket on a hook when the boy went to Vietnam. She said she wouldn’t take it down ’til her son returned. And then Reverend Finster wept. He told us the jacket was still there, to this day. As he cried, we sat speechless. Then Jerry thanked him, placed his strong, lovely hand on the man’s shoulder, and ushered him back to us. Reverend Finster thanked us for coming, and Jerry led us into the late afternoon, shadows creeping.

I do not recall what or where we ate. But I do recall where we slept. Jerry was eager to show us the innards of a tower Howard had built with no architectural knowledge at all. Reportedly structurally sound. How did the Reverend do it? God told him how, that’s how. In the tower was a small shrine to the actress Lisa Whelchel, aka Blair on the Facts of Life; mostly clippings of her face from magazines, pasted to a kind of altar with a cross. It decorated a wall just outside the bedroom in which Cynthia and I would sleep on a terribly uncomfortable fold-out bed. I remember the dark of that room, the hum of a heater, the warmth of Cynthia beside me, a confusion of all that I’d seen and barely grasped. Yet also, a feeling of being lucky.

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The Tower

The next day, Howard was busy working, not to be disturbed. Cynthia purchased for me one of his two-foot-by-one-foot angels, a beautiful smiling creature covered in Biblical verse and exhortations. It pains me to write this, but somehow, in my months of couch surfing in Manhattan in 1985, I would lose it. It is the dearest thing I have ever lost. As I’ve come to know grief – the tax on a long life – I have learned not to grieve objects. Except for that.

I returned to Athens in 1987, while on tour with the Fleshtones, but I never saw Jerry again. With the advent of social media, however, we connected several times. Still, I never thanked him for his kindness on the streets of Athens, when I was a kid, struggling, for the first time, to be independent. Running from trauma. And I never thanked him for providing me with the experience of walking the holy land of art, where he fit in perfectly, where he made me feel welcome. But I think Jerry knew what he’d done for me. When I did not realize it, he knew I would carry that time with me for the rest of my life.

Thank you, Jerry.

RBW, Phoenicia, NY, October 25th, 2016

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Playing Alongside Your Echo – For BTB

R.E.M., Todd & Me

Todd and me, summer, 2004

I understand the impulse to maintain a dam-like wall against swelling emotion for fear it’ll flood the meticulously kept terrain of persona. At best, that turbid stuff can make a mess, at worst, it can cause permanent damage. But I think you would’ve advised, as was your wont, to go ahead and chip away, let the untamed, hard-to-manage stuff spill out. That’s the truth, anyway, you would’ve said. The rest is boring. And boredom is the enemy. And, crucially, the kids are watching. Do we want them to be ashamed of what they really feel? No. So spill it.

You would’ve been 50 today. Five months older than me, you and I celebrated milestones five months apart since we were seven years old: you were the first to reach the double digit of ten, to get your driver’s license, to see an X-rated movie (Cafe Flesh, I think, or maybe Pink Flamingos), to legally enter clubs to see bands.

That's me, far left, in fireman hat. Todd Butler in center. My brother in fangs. Not quite drag, but we're getting there.

RBW, far left, in fireman hat. Todd in center. EBW in fangs.

Ten years ago I superseded you, when you died by your own hand and left me to pass these markers without you to compare notes with. I turned 40 in the wake of your death. We had a party at which floodwaters rose in the basement of my Catskill mountain home as I tried unsuccessfully to fix a sump pump. Interesting. That was the first of several floods.

In a way, you’ve been spared, as some of our note-comparing would’ve been complaints of increasing infirmity – the tax on a long life – but I like to think you would’ve also helped shape my perspective, as was your wont, to direct my focus, gently, usually with humor, to the good stuff: the food, the beauty, the endless halls of art and story to savor, the kids, the woman on the beach, the hilarious cat, the coffee mixed with Swiss Miss in the cool of a summer dawn while our families slept.

You were and remain many things to me, but I keep going back to you being the first to pick up a guitar and teach yourself to play. You encouraged me to do the same, and you taught me, in the front rooms of that bungalow that was my second home, with a depth of patience I took for granted. Most people know me as a musician, and that is because of you. I recently told my son, who you last saw when he was six, how I still feel guilty for intentionally getting on your nerves until you struck me with a badminton racket. I was saying the same infuriating nonsense phrase over and over like a mantra, and I still don’t really blame you for coming at me in such a fury. (I wish I could recall what I was chanting, but I can’t.)  Regardless, you showed me how to play Led Zeppelin songs, a currency that actually led me away from you for a time and bought me “coolness,” but again, you forgave me that, and we eventually rocked stages from Atlanta to New York City, having teenage adventures that shaped us, and gave us a shared history that would grow more precious with time.

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Gina, Todd, RuPaul, 1983. Photo by Clare Butler.

But our story was more than that, much more than the music. The music and the teen years were never our “good old days,” never the only common ground. For years, in fact, we shared faith that good days were ahead, always ahead, and for a time, they were, especially when we became dads. We stayed close friends, even as I moved north and you stayed put to paint and make a life in our hometown. You wrote me beautiful, funny letters and sent me mixtapes that I listened to on a Walkman as I walked the mid-80s Manhattan streets, finding out who I was, how much I could take, and what I could do with what I goaded life into throwing at me, always with your encouragement. (The one thing you didn’t encourage was holding a grudge.) We visited and talked often, sharing successes and failures, effortlessly picking up the thread, hanging out with our wives in my grandmother’s den, brewing another pot of coffee, telling stories, laughing ’till we cried, completely present, no thoughts of past or future.

I recently told  a friend who’s about to turn 40 that I learned more in the past decade than any other since my first. That is the truth, or at least it feels like the truth. It’s truthy. Pain is the greatest teacher, and losing you – and another friend, in ’06 – kicked off my 40s. Pain has taught me, but also, much of this steep-curve learning has come from doing what I am doing now: writing. I have begun to fashion my stories, many of which feature you in some way, or which I write with you in mind, as my reader. As our fellow Georgian Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” For me, that has been so, and I’ve learned a lot, traversed paths, brightened corners, found strength, and done a little forgiving, including forgiving you for enacting what you first told me you wanted to do when we were in my Plymouth Duster in the Denny’s parking lot, post-Rocky Horror, 1982. We were 17.

You’d be amazed at the world, at your daughter, my son, our wives and friends. I can barely begin to tell you. My son is a beautiful young man, making his way into the world with kids who remind me so much of the Rocky Horror crew of our teens. He’s sharp and brave and spreading his wings with such style it makes his mom and me gape-mouthed, it makes us weep. Your gorgeous daughter, who I keep up with on her mom’s Facebook page (don’t ask), is playing guitar and singing in a band and she’s funny and original and you’d be so proud, I know you’d bust. She would’ve kicked your ass a bit, no doubt, and you would’ve said “bring it,” and when the dust settled, you would’ve looked around, like me, and said, “these are the good ole days, even as they sometimes suck.” And then we would’ve complained a bit, but leavened it with something funny or something that provoked our awe and/or indignation. That stuff remains easy to find.

You would’ve been 50 years old on this rainy autumn afternoon, and I send this to the ether, to the past, to that point several million miles into the cosmos where it’s still 2003, and you’re sending me encouraging emails about some demos, or even further out, where it’s 1985, and you’re saying yes, go to New York, see what’s in store for you, or further to 1983, where we’re smiling across the smoky light of a stage, melding our musical gestures into a song that sounds brand new but has, in fact, been playing since we first met, further out, in 1972. That song continues, here and now, as I keep playing alongside your echo.

Happy Birthday, Todd. Sent with undying love and gratitude.

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Todd, late 80s, Polaroid by James Bond.

Rock On for The Weeklings

 

RBW in Rocky Horror. Pic by Dennis Oclair

RBW in Rocky Horror. Pic by Dennis Oclair

I’m happy to report on my new gig as music editor for The Weeklings. I’ve written for this fine publication before, weighing in on post-apocalyptic novels, rock and roll movies, and the Syria Crisis (see here) but now I will be writing and editing regularly on music and music-oriented  topics. My first post is a getting-to-know you essay entitled  Rock On, in which I condense highlights of my life in music, including, but not limited to, RuPaul, the Fleshtones, Buddy Holly, Electric Lady Studio, The Roots, the Big Apple Circus, and kindie rock.

Please click HERE and enjoy. And thanks.

RBW

R.E.M., Todd & Me

 

I’ve been wondering if R.E.M purposefully scheduled their break-up announcement for autumn. I would not put it past them. Their deft use of symbolism always was one of their strong suits. They’d been discussing it for some time, but they made it official as the natural world was dying gracefully around us. Leaves curl, darken and spiral down, the balmy air and long days of warm sunshine dissipate, shadows lengthen ever earlier, and R.E.M., a band most fans would place in the summer of their lives, is dead, going out as they came in thirty-one years ago: at one with the gods.

 

The news hit me hard, and the ache continues to play out with the unpredictability of a middle-aged man’s malady; it’s gone, then it’s back with a vengeance, radiating, referring itself to other places. Then it’s gone again. (I’m sure the guys in R.E.M. could relate.)

 

Not only was R.E.M. the first band I remember claiming as “one of my own,” they were the first band I discovered and shared with someone – my dearest friend Todd. I always think about Todd this time of year because of his Scorpio birthday and the fact that he killed himself in September, 2004, just shy of his fortieth birthday. We’d been friends since 1972 – my oldest and deepest friendship. I’m sure I am conflating my sadness at his loss, barely numbed after seven years, with the loss of “our” band. Whatever the case, I find myself playing the shimmery VHS tapes in my mind, my recollections of Todd, R.E.M. and me.

 

Todd and I were gawky, spotty teen misfits, and we’d shared a love of music since we’d met as seven-year-olds. Beatles, Wings, Elton John, Queen, Kiss, Led Zeppelin – these were our totems. But with puberty came punk and Todd, a fat kid with bright red hair, glommed on to all things edgy, even cutting the word FEAR into his forearm to freak out his tormentors at school (it worked). He lost a lot of weight and literally rebranded himself a punk, sporting a Mohawk, painting the words Killing Joke across the back of his leather biker jacket. I listened to The Cure, U2 and Flying Lizards LPs with him, but I wouldn’t find true, shared sacred ground with my friend until R.E.M.

 

Even though Todd had cast his lot with the punks and the Rocky Horror kids, he and I both were somewhat lost. He was more troubled than ever, actually. (Hormones giveth and hormones taketh away.) After one evening of Rocky Horror, in which he played Riff Raff in the “floor show” (as he would do hundreds of times) we went to Denny’s and hung out with the alpha queer kids, eating pancakes and drinking vats of coffee well into the wee small hours. Later, in the parking lot, Todd opened up, crying as he told me he was thinking about killing himself. He was 17, I was 16. He felt lost, deeply alone, a stranger even among his friends. I don’t recall what I said other than I loved him and really, really, really wanted him to stick around for the second act of our lives, which he would do. 

 

We needed a tribe. Prior to discovering R.E.M., neither of us had enjoyed that particularly enveloping warmth that comes in the light of recognition of a band as one of your own. One of a handful of lifetime epiphanies. In time, this very discovery would give Todd strength. That communal intensity, particular to youth, can be quite the (temporary) panacea. 

 

We loved our bands, sure, listened to them relentlessly. I learned to play my bass along to their records as Todd strummed a Univox guitar and frequently corrected me. That was devotion, right? Yes, but we felt no real kinship with Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury. We’d bought into the paradigm of fandom as being akin to “Lord and Subject.” In typical youthful arrogance, we figured the Beatlemaniacs, Deadheads, and all those who felt a sense of family fandom were just, well, loopy. We didn’t know what we were was missing.   

 


Queen, My Best Friend, 1975

 

On December 13th, 1981, all of that changed. Todd and I went to see a band to which we’d sworn fealty: Bow Wow Wow. Todd liked their punkiness and the fact that Malcolm McLaren, former Sex Pistols svengali, managed them. I was still a little snobby about chops and liked that they knew their way around their instruments, a rarity in those days. And we both lusted after sixteen-year-old singer and former London laundromat worker Annabella Lwin. We’d pored over their singles, cassette EP, and one album. These were our Talmudic texts.  

 


Bow Wow Wow, Top Of The Pops, 1982

 

Due to Annabella’s age, the gig could not take place around alcohol, so it was an all-ages affair in the basement of the Biltmore Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. Opening act: R.E.M. (This has been erroneously reported as an R.E.M. headline date.) I was sixteen, Todd and I were high school seniors.

 

We loved R.E.M. The fact that we didn’t plan to see them – in fact, knew nothing about them – lent a touch of the fateful to our discovery and subsequent adoration. Most of the crowd consisted of frat guys and their dates mixed with arty kids, both groups from the University of Georgia in Athens. Despite historic disharmony between these two cliques, something about being in the basement of the Biltmore, digging the pop-punky R.E.M., equalized them all. (I maintain this rare synthesizing factor borne perhaps from Peter Buck’s status as former frat boy and Michael Stipe’s erstwhile art major cred as being the cornerstone to the band’s eventual worldwide success.)

Although R.E.M. had been together a little over a year, they’d risen fast. The audience screamed requests between songs and danced until the floor was slick with sweat. I saw the band live at least ten times after this – even saw them inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 – and they often kicked ass, but R.E.M. was never better than in that hotel basement in 1981.


REM, The Pier, Raleigh, NC, 1982

 

As I mentioned, prior to that night, we’d lusted after Annabella. But the chiming, leaping, bass rumbling, Cousin It-style Stipe-swirling and Rickenbacker strut of those four still-pimply garage rock stars gave rise to Todd’s and my first man crushes, our first rock and roll bromances. We would each buy R.E.M.’s much-ballyhooed debut single “Radio Free Europe b/w Sitting Still”  – for a buck, I think, at the Biltmore – and go home with ringing ears, touched soul-deep by the evening’s events.

 

Bow Wow Wow, incidentally, was great, very exotic, with piratey conceits, a couple Mohawks, and impressive instrumental facility; plus Annabella, swirling to the Burundi beat, was just as teenage gorgeous and come-hither charismatic as we’d hoped. But the four skinny dudes tearing shit up like nothing we’d ever seen had already stolen our hearts and provided us with that first blast of these are my rock and roll people.

 

Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe seemed like family; they easily could have been our big brothers or neighbors. (Eventually, they would be the latter for me.) As with older siblings, we were fascinated by their clothes; the wrinkly, Rimbaud-esque, Patti Smith Group-inspired threads, Buck’s Beatle boots, Townshend leaps and flopping French cuffs, Stipe’s layers of threadbare sweaters and thick tangle of bangs shrouding his pock marked cheeks, willowy Mills’ gray coveralls and high tops. They looked cool yet seemed not to have invested much time in doing so. “Oh this ole thang? I just got it at AmVets for, like, fifty cents.”

 

About their fashion: Make no mistake, while R.E.M. made early claims (finally abandoned sometime in the nineties) that it was all about the music and only the music, these guys had contrived (and I don’t say that pejoratively) a look, a style, and they worked it. And, picking up our cues from them, we noticed, but claimed not to notice. All wide legged trousers and knit shirts went into the garbage with the running shoes. The thrift store shabby chic, with the Future Farmers of America jackets, occasional bolo tie and cavalierly unpressed dress shirts, made the fashion bell clang loudly for the first time in our teen brains: time to get schooled in this new look, which, by design, required not money but knowledge of the right shops (Potter’s House in Athens was deservedly legendary) and much imagination if you wanted to make an impression without looking like you were trying to make an impression. Todd was better at it than me. Almost every post-R.E.M. Athens band – and many elsewhere – subscribed to this look until everyone’s houses smelled like thrift stores.

 

And yes, like everyone else, we had no idea what mushmouthed Stipe was singing, not a fucking word, but like legions of fans, that genius stroke – not wholly original (see “Louie, Louie” and almost all the great Rolling Stones songs) – seduced us, eventually prompting repeated listens, conversations, bemused irritation and hilarious imitations. The hilarious part was not always intentional.

 

Todd got really good at aping Michael Stipe’s look, with hair in the face, dervish dancing and baggy, secondhand clothes, which he had a knack for digging out of piles of fabric in dusty, dried out thrift store backrooms. He even had Stipe’s body language down – an effete, hip swaying mix of hauteur and coiled shyness. (Stipe himself would later coin the term “loud shy” to describe this.) In the early 80s, drinking age was 18 in Atlanta, so Todd made it into the clubs – mostly 688, Atlanta’s premiere “new wave club” – for a few months until I got my fake ID sorted. Todd’s future wife Clare Parker – a former flame of Stipe’s – later confessed to Todd that she and her crew made fun of him mercilessly, calling him “The Michael Imitator.” He charmed them anyway.

 

In the early days R.E.M. was still accessible. Todd came home from seeing R.E.M. play The Strand in Marietta, Georgia with news that he’d struck up a conversation with Stipe, who was sitting alone on the curb being arty cool, probably smoking unfiltered Camels. Todd labored to maintain his composure as he related Stipe telling him, “Nothing’s really changed except we can pay our rent now.” Yeah. Right.

 

Stipe also told Todd about the impending release of their EP Chronic Town, the booster rocket that would carry them to a height where the blast of their debut LP Murmur would send them into the ether. Todd and I began playing our own instruments with more inspiration, heading down the trail of “what would R.E.M. do?” Within months, our own Converse-clad feet were treading the same beer-soaked boards on which Our Heroes had rocked, and we enjoyed a sustained feeling of fraternity as we watched our surrogate older brothers ascend to bigger and bigger stages like the Agora Ballroom, The Fox Theater, and, amazingly, Late Night with David Letterman, where, to our astonishment, they acted bratty. (Stipe virtually ignores Letterman.) Their passionate stance on videos – they railed against them, made them under obvious, snotty protest – also struck us as singularly, perversely contrary. Didn’t they want to be stars? It took us awhile to catch on, me longer than Todd. (Eventually, they would make some groundbreaking videos, largely Stipe’s vision, accomplishing this turnabout with integrity intact. They would also make the execrable, unwatchable “Shiny Happy People.”)

 


REM. Letterman, 1983

 

Above all else, though, R.E.M.seemed like a gang, a confraternity greater than the sum of its parts, an amalgam of nerds, hipsters, rock scholars and artists whose combined power could sell out the venue and rob you of your girlfriend. (They’ve acknowledged this.) And this tight-knit quality was part of their template: “We’re friends, first and foremost. This is the source of our power. Letterman can kiss our cracker asses.” The balls! Todd and I were inspired by this and tried to adhere to it, but the fact is, being in a band together strained our friendship. Our band lasted only one year, but luckily our friendship endured.

Our band Wee Wee Pole, featuring RuPaul & the U-Hauls, 1983
(Todd’s the bespectacled guy in the “Music 101” T-shirt. You can read more about that particular episode HERE.)

 

Friendships are work under any circumstances, but alliances that remain within longterm groups are rare indeed. Who else? U2? The Stones? One is hard pressed. It almost seems Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe  – all songs credited to the group, regardless of who wrote what – stumbled onto a formula as unlikely and as potent as the recipe for Coca Cola, also an accident, also from Georgia.

 

 

I moved from Atlanta to Athens in 1984, ostensibly to go to school, but mostly to partake of the scene. I crossed paths with The Guys several times. They were all gracious, especially Bill. Mike Mills was a little prickly. I was playing in Athens band Go Van Go, helmed by the “granddaddy” of the Athens scene Vic Varney, whose first band The Method Actors (cited by Buck as a “huge influence on R.E.M.”) had been part of the First Wave of Athens bands which included the B-52s and Pylon. Vic goes down in history as offering R.E.M. their first out-of-town gig, and his cachet opened a lot of doors for me; I have memories of falling asleep on couches as everyone puffed on unfiltered Camels and partook of Art Discussions way beyond my ken, erudite Tennessee Williams-esque southern voices echoing in the tin ceilinged rooms of antebellum houses.

 

In interviews around this time, Mills was quoted as saying R.E.M.’s ambitions extended thus: “We’ll be happy if we’re considered as good or popular as The Method Actors, The English Beat and The Fleshtones.” Yeah. Right.

 

When I settled into a room in Vic’s house, a stone’s throw from a couple R.E.M. houses, the band were still intent on staying in the cheap little town that birthed them, despite being able to afford to live anywhere, even then. Bill allowed himself a cool vintage car and they all bought houses, but mostly R.E.M. was absent the year I was there; the boys were in an Econoline, on the road, flogging sophomore LP Reckoning to their metastasizing fanbase. Go Van Go happened to be in New York, playing at Danceteria around the same time R.E.M. was playing the Beacon Theater, and they put us on the guest list with Kate Pierson of the B-52’s, who had a place in NYC. Kate looked around at the sold out crowd and laughed, “Sea o’ white boys!”

 

The rare occasions R.E.M. was around during my twelve months in Athens, they endured the palpable adulation choking the air when they entered a party or bar, and the increasing sniping of jealous fellow Athens bands who clucked about their drug use, salivated over their money, murmured about their sex lives, and variously called them Raving Ego Maniacs and Rear End Men. Sometime in the 80s I read felt tip pen graffiti on a bathroom stall that proclaimed: “I gave R.E.M. herpes.”

 

Some Athens friends of mine were a kind of “inner circle,” who shared a “secret history” of the band. Lots of “You didn’t hear this from me.” (In the newfound lack of privacy that is the Internet age, this all seems oddly quaint.) For instance: Michael’s tenure as lead singer in Athens New Wave cover band Gangster, in which he wore a skinny leather tie, was not to be discussed, nor the fact that, as a teen, he’d scraped the names of bands like Boston, Kansas and Lynyrd Skynyrd onto some candles in his bedroom, one wall of which sported a poster of a shirtless, lion-maned Roger Daltrey. When I was shown a photo of a pre-R.E.M. band featuring teenaged Mills and Berry sporting bellbottoms and stoner hair, I was sworn never to reveal that photo’s existence, an oath I have only just now broken.

 

After I moved to Manhattan in ’85 and joined the Fleshtones soon thereafter, Todd became a respected musician in Atlanta. Our separate paths would continue to intersect with R.E.M.; to our delight, we both would work with members. Although, in my case, “working” meant sharing the stage of the Uptown club with Buck as The Fleshtones tore through several three chord songs on a tour stop in Athens. Onstage, Pete was brazenly sloppy, cocky and magnetic, his face a manic mess, his body blundering into mine by accident and by design as he screamed into my microphone. I mostly retain images of repairing to Pete’s impressive, refurbished old house and drinking more beer than I ever had before and later paying the price on the tiles of a pretty young woman’s bathroom.

 


Fleshtones (me on bass) France, 1986

 

While R.E.M. was reaching its early 90s apex, Todd was helping eccentric Atlanta scenester Benjamin form The Opal Foxx Quartet. This band often consisted of at least twelve members and mostly played covers in a distinctively shambolic-yet-mesmerizing style; Benjamin dressed in drag, performing as Opal, barking and braying like Nick Cave and/or Tom Waits. On a good night, the band would bring the house down. (Benjamin Smoke, a documentary on Benjamin, who died from Hepatitis C in 1999, is available and worth watching, and there are some entertaining Opal Foxx videos on YouTube.) Benjamin knew everybody, including Michael Stipe, and Stipe, an Opal Foxx fan, asked to produce the band.

 

Everyone was understandably excited, and the sessions went fine, but despite Stipe’s imprimatur, no record company would touch The Opal Foxx Quartet. (The recordings are available online as The Love That Won’t Shut Up, also well worth your time.) The Stipe connection did offer them a bit of juice and got them to Manhattan for a gig or two, a trip the sweaty horde made packed into an illegally converted U-Haul, which I will never forget seeing and smelling on a summer day in the West Village. During this time, Todd stayed with my wife, Holly, and I. Holly loved Todd, and he and I always effortlessly picked up the thread of the ongoing conversation that was our friendship. Regarding working with the guy who, a decade earlier, had been so inspirational to us, Todd was surprisingly circumspect, even nonplussed by Stipe’s stardom. (That would have been harder for me.) He had nothing bad to report about Michael, no real diva gossip, although he did say Michael once pulled rank on the raggedy band, half-jokingly saying his opinion on a certain vocal track should be appreciated because he was “one of the pre-eminent rock stylists of the twentieth century.”

 


Opal Foxx Quartet (Todd on lap steel) Avondale Town Cinema, Atlanta, early 90s

 

It was not long after this that R.E.M. lost me. 1996’s New Adventures In Hi Fi was the last album I listened to all the way through, and when Bill Berry quit in ‘98, they just weren’t the same band anymore. A really good band, but just not as good, for my money. Bill was the secret heart, an accomplished songwriter. (“Everybody Hurts,” “Perfect Circle,” and “Driver 8,” I’m told, are his and “Fall On Me” is mostly his.) He also was a great backing singer, an invaluable multi-instrumentalist and, I know from a good source, a sublime whistler. (Still is.) Lots of folks thought the band lost its mojo when he quit, but R.E.M., true to form, gave the impression they could not have cared less what people sniped about. They made some wonderful singles, Michael became a successful film producer, Pete played on and produced lots of CDs, and the band took on the stadiums of Europe with bona fide rock star gusto, laughing, as ever, in the face of age, health problems, divorces and rumors of Michael having AIDS. Who cares? We’re playing Rock In Rio!

 


REM, Rock In Rio, 2001

 

I always was happy for The Guys and glad to have crossed paths with them on their way to that hallowed ground of “dream come true.” Todd and I – and many of our peers – had striven for what R.E.M. accomplished. Simply put, we failed. Yet for me, the connection Todd and I made to the band in those early years has remained strong, visceral, emotional, the soundtrack to the teenage chapter of our friendship. Many R.E.M. tunes from the 80s and early 90s have attached a memory of my friend, in times not always happy, but always charged with life. As often happens with a band one discovers during the crucial crucible of teen-dom, the music retains a singular power to reconnect to a priceless time of discovery, a promise of long days and summer pleasures that seem, for the duration of the music, not so far away, still visible in the rearview as we hurtle ever faster on a one-way road into the future, into the autumn of our lives.

 

By the late 90s, my moment with R.E.M. had passed. I was in the thick of a new phase. I turned off the rock and roll road and took a stab at stability, finding joy as a stay-at-home dad. Sometimes, in that rare eye-of-a-hurricane stillness when my son slept, I noticed the ever-fading ringing in my ears left over from the old days, and I smiled. My son grew and childhood memories rose in me, refreshing images of Todd and me, enjoying music, taking on life together, as friends. Much like our heroes in R.E.M. had done. My son moves into the world now, finding his traveling companions, connecting to bands that will be the soundtrack to his own adventures.

 

Todd became a dad too. But the new millennium brought a resurgence of psychic demons that had first entered his life in our teens, and, with the complicating factors of physical illness, financial woes, poorly maintained medication and other mitigating circumstances, Todd killed himself in September of 2004, leaving behind a wife and two-year-old daughter.

 

I’ve read that one of the difficulties of divorce is that one loses the repository of information provided by a spouse, which includes shared memories made more real in the sharing. Anyone who has endured any kind of loss, be it broken marriage, crumbled friendship, death, or relocation, knows all about this. Sometimes it’s a good thing, of course; some relationships share mostly painful memories and are better left severed. Either way, the connections to the past grow more threadbare, details crumble like the edges of a leaf and, for better or worse, the unknowable future looms ever larger.

 

I’m glad the guys in R.E.M. stayed close. I know they lost friends along the way, through death, distance and acrimony, but apparently, their four-way friendship survived, against incredible odds. The landscape of memories they share is incomprehensibly vast to me.

 


REM, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction, 2007

 

And I’m glad they told us all about their breakup in autumn. Perhaps it is easier to accept loss as Nature is reclaiming the warmth, the green, and the light, all the while offering up bounties of that which grew in the summer sun.
For me, that bounty includes standing next to Todd in the basement of the Biltmore Hotel as four scruffy guys opened up our hearts and minds to a whole new way of playing in a band; sitting on Todd’s bed in his teenager room, marveling at the lush sounds of Murmur, hearing our fluttering, inchoate desires and attitudes given melody and form, if not distinct words, our friendship galvanized by the music; sitting on a porch at a beach house in 2004, reminiscing deep into the night as our families slept, just weeks before he took himself out. We talked about art, music and women, the expansive past we shared and the possibilities of the future, all while the waves rolled in, and out.

Todd & me, Kure Beach, NC, 2004


Me & RuPaul

RuPaul and me, ca. 1983

By Robert Burke Warren

Before I met RuPaul Andre Charles, I saw him do a stand-up routine on amateur night at an Atlanta comedy club in 1982. I was seventeen. A twenty-two-year-old RuPaul came out in pasted-on tassels and glitter. In front of an unsuspecting congregation of white frat guys and their feather-haired dates, he gestured to his get-up and squealed, “You like my outfit? Well… this is the front…” then, after a dainty spin, he added, “and this is the back!” It didn’t go over well. I recall feeling pity and fear that he’d soon be gay-bashed in the parking lot.

Almost two decades later I would see him do this same bit on his own national TV show, and it would kill.

A year or so after that night, I was forming a band with my best friend, guitarist Todd Butler. Todd had come into his own at the local art house theater portraying Riff Raff in the live floorshow of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I’d been playing bass in a punky pop band.

Through Rocky Horror, Todd had gained access to the new wave queer underworld of Atlanta, and had fallen in love with trash-funk band the Now Explosion and their back-up singers/go-go dancers RuPaul and the U-hauls.

Chrissy, RuPaul, Gina

Chrissy, RuPaul, Gina

One day Ru took the bus to Todd’s house, but unlike the cringe-worthy “comic” I’d seen, this RuPaul was charming and magnetic. The three of us fired up an ancient drum machine from the 60s and christened ourselves Wee Wee Pole – “like something a little kid would say.” In short order we appeared on public access and booked our first gig – opening for the Now Explosion at a seedy downtown club. We tore the roof off the place.

Within months we added percussionist David Klimchak – the only “functioning adult” in the band – made a three-song demo, and began gigging regularly. One memorable night we played at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, and RuPaul dared to voice what everyone was thinking, screaming from the stage, “Where’s MICHAEL STIPE? He’s so CUTE! I just love him!” Sadly, or perhaps not, Stipe was on the road.

Inevitably, we fell out with Todd’s mother, Betty Butler. Initially, she’d tolerated our rehearsing in the front room of their house; we’d spend after-school afternoons concocting a Prince-and-Blowfly-inspired new-wave-y funk repertoire, our sweaty sessions often overlapping with her coming in the door around 6, exhausted from working all day at the Shriner’s Temple. Despite – or perhaps because of – Mrs. Butler’s devout Christian beliefs, she accepted Ru’s screamingly obvious gayness, never even addressing the non-issue. As an added delight, the Butler family had a bursting, starch-sugar-carbonated-deep-fried-Twinkie-fied dream of a kitchen, which we were allowed to raid, no questions asked. One day, however, she overheard the lyrics (that I wrote) to a song called “Get Sexy” (“Perfume on yo’ cleavage, perfume on yo’ toes/Perfume on yo’ privacy, where everybody wants to go!”) and Mrs. Butler evicted us. We had officially tried the patience of a saint.

Regardless of minor setbacks, RuPaul went into promo overdrive. He Xeroxed fanzines about himself and wheat-pasted Wee Wee Pole gig posters all over Atlanta. One featuring a photo of him clad only in a loincloth was stuck on my grandmother Gammie’s street in a conservative Atlanta neighborhood. She was not pleased. (It would be years before I would convince her I was not being “recruited by the gays.”) It all paid off; soon our local hit “Tarzan” was getting airplay on Georgia State’s WRAS, we were opening for national acts, and headlining clubs.

RuPaul didn’t do much full drag in the early 80s. It’s expensive, for one thing, and he was dirt poor. He was an impressively inventive thrift store cross-dresser. I recall a feather boa wired into his short Mohawk, an oversize diaper, football shoulder pads affixed to his shirtless torso, and a pair of size 13 fisherman’s waders worn with hot pants.

On the downside, RuPaul could get pretty drunk and cavort sloppily onstage with drag queens while Todd, David and I vamped interminably on “Love Hangover.” I had no patience for that and I made sure everyone knew it. How I wish I had tapes of our band meetings from that time, just to hear things like: “Ru, you cannot invite Ty-D-Bowl on the stage with you, he ruins everything.”

The tech department at my alma mater Northside School of the Performing Arts had brand new video equipment and they were eager to do a live shoot with an audience of students. I volunteered Wee Wee Pole, worried yet thrilled at the risk. Ru did not hold back one iota – parading amongst the teens and dumbstruck teachers in one of his trash-glam ensembles, cutting loose with some over-the-top moves and cries of faux ecstasy, exhorting the spellbound kids with “EVERYBODY SAY LOVE!” I retain hope of this performance giving courage to some secret misfit kids.

I sent our demo tape to New York City, and from my grandmother’s kitchen I booked a Thursday night at the Pyramid Club and a Friday at Danceteria opening for Gene Loves Jezebel. Our fellow Atlanta scenesters took it upon themselves to warn us about “New York audiences,” clucking that the folks up there wouldn’t clap and perhaps might even boo, and not to take it personally.

We made the trip from Atlanta to New York City in one twenty-hour shot of continuous driving, done mostly by Ru, who once had earned money as a drive-away car guy and loved the open road, especially after he’d smoked a joint. It was late fall of ’83, I was eighteen, and the gigs we would play would be my last with the band. Athens, Georgia was calling like a siren.

Since R.E.M. had started their precipitous climb, the stock of the sleepy little college town had risen, and I was enthralled from 65 miles away in Atlanta, where I’d spent my whole life. Invited by well-established musician Vic Varney to start a new Athens band, I was drawn to the presumed depth and artiness of the scene.

(more about this episode HERE)

In spite of Wee Wee Pole’s success, I’d grown frustrated; I told myself we were destined only to do songs about sex, partying and fun, as if that was a terrible fate. I decided this was a bash I wanted to leave early, and a New York tour was a perfect swan song. But I told no one.

Wee Wee Pole arrived in Manhattan on a cold autumn evening. We crashed on the Chelsea apartment floor of Dan, an old buddy of my girlfriend’s mother. A former male-model-turned-professional-waiter, Dan was prone to walking around his apartment completely naked, which seemed fine at the time and caused no incident. In fact, his shower was in his kitchen, so there was no way around it. None of us took showers.

The next night we played the Pyramid Club on Avenue A in the East Village. Within moments of our first song, it was clear that the sizable Thursday night crowd loved us. With applause still ringing in our ears, we stumbled into the post-midnight chill deliriously happy, relieved, and nowhere near tired. Ru had begun some celebratory drinking and although Todd, David and I didn’t drink, take drugs or smoke pot, we all got caught up in his elation. Our good friend Margie Thorpe suggested the Staten Island Ferry as a cheap, touristy adventure. Excellent idea! The early morning hours found us heading towards the water, the band and Margie all packed into the van, laughing, giddy, afraid of nothing.

We parked on the ferry and found seats upstairs. The fluorescent lights and sad, dingy colors of the boat could not suppress RuPaul’s drunken gaiety. He ran full-tilt from bow to stern, getting right in the faces of the taciturn late-night commuters, crowing “JESUS LOVES YOU! YOU ARE SO GORGEOUS! WHO WANTS GUM? I DO, I DO!” Todd, David and I were still buzzing from the gig, and Margie was beaming so proud, we took no notice of some sneering Mean Streets-looking toughs who growled, “You gotta wake up to reality, man… wake up to reality!” FUCK THAT.

It wasn’t until we landed on Staten Island and went to retrieve the van that we noticed our tires had been slashed. We drove our crippled vehicle onto the Island, temporarily marooned. Ru’s high came crashing down and he moped and dozed in the front seat while we cuddled in the back. (Thank God for Klimchak’s credit card and for his wisdom to pay a little extra for insurance. He is the hero of our little tour.) As we awaited delivery of a new rental, the sun rose, our adrenaline dipped, and silence set in. In my memory, this was all part of the fun, an element of the adventure, but at the time I’m pretty sure it was a bummer. Except for the cuddling.

We slept at Dan’s most of the day and awoke in time to go play our Danceteria gig. I have no memories of eating. We kicked ass, and once again RuPaul had the crowd by the balls – in a good way. It was another triumphant night and I daresay we blew Gene Loves Jezebel off the stage. The next day we would retrieve our hapless new van – which had been towed – from a carbon-monoxide drenched garage and hit the road for home, satisfied and eager to relay news of our conquest.

Within weeks I quit. No one was surprised – my dissatisfaction with the band was no secret and there had been friction, complete with morning-after recriminations and apologies for missed cues and drunken lewdness. But if RuPaul ever bore me any ill will, I certainly never felt it.

The three songs Wee Wee Pole recorded ended up as side B of Ru’s first album Sex Freak, which you can find online for 50 bucks at Discogs. And/or you can enjoy these video versions from YouTube:

In My Neighborhood

Tarzan

and a live version of Body Heat, which was banned from Atlanta radio due to faux orgasms.

Ru and I would cross paths several times over the next couple of decades. After spending most of 1984 playing in Athens band Go Van Go, wanderlust overtook me again. I pulled up stakes and moved to Manhattan at the age of nineteen. In the 17 years I lived there, Ru would be a sometime-New Yorker and I was called in to play guitar and bass on his LP RuPaul Is Starbooty. We had a ball. The album is crazy expensive on collectors’ sites, but you can enjoy the track “The Mack,” featuring my fuzzed-out guitar, in this video:

After getting sober and hooking up with ace management in the early 90s, Ru’s star really began to rise. At that time, I ran into him on lower Broadway and he had a whole agenda laid out – hit single, TV show, book, movies. Within a few years, it all happened. And when my elderly Gammie called to tell me she’d seen his career-ma king spot on Arsenio – “I saw that RuPaul on the TV!” – it seemed a part of the natural order of things. RuPaul was a “Superstar In Exile” no more.

The last time I saw RuPaul in the flesh was during my late-90s years as a Manhattanite stay-at-home dad. I was carrying my toddler son Jack through the East Village in a backpack and there was Ru, dressed in a sharp suit, passing unrecognized through my neighborhood. He had all the time in the world for us. He’d had his hit single “Supermodel,” his talk show, and various roles in Hollywood movies, and at that time he was a popular morning DJ on WKTU FM New York, splitting his time between Manhattan and L.A. His freckled face beamed goodwill and happiness for me, and he expressed empathic joy for my new life as a parent, and even hope that one day he might be able to take on that particular challenge.

It would not surprise me in the least if he did.

More about Todd’s and my musical adventures HERE