Tag Archives: Suicide

Paul McCartney, Fantasy Dad

In honor of Paul McCartney’s 70th birthday, I’m reprinting of a piece I wrote for Paste last summer.

 Paul McCartney is 70 – the same age my divorced, troubled father would have been had he not drunk too much in a hotel bar in April 1972 and subsequently driven off I 85 and killed himself at the age of thirty-one. I had just turned seven. Not long after that, Paul became my fantasy dad. I’d forgotten all about it until I saw him at Yankee Stadium, where I realized this fancy still flickers in a very deep part of me. I can only imagine how a son would feel seeing his father captivate fifty-thousand people, but as I witnessed McCartney tear it up for almost three hours, I came pretty close to papa-pride.

McCartney’s voice and image filled my late-60s and 70s childhood via my mom’s Beatles LPs, and as of 1972, Wings was all over the radio, which I listened to incessantly. I remember  photos of the McCartney family touring with Wings – probably in my mom’s Time magazine, or later my own Creem; I was struck by his beautiful, grubby kids Mary, Stella and stepdaughter Heather (from Linda’s previous marriage, but adopted by Paul). This crew sported shaggy hair like their dad, and they were often either in his arms or at his heels, running through airports and the like. Fun. Here was a most unusual set-up: a vital, rockin’ superstar, proud of and present for his children, never hiding the fact that he was happily married, up to his knees in domesticity, apparently satisfied to be tied down in that respect. Paul was fulfilled, yet still somehow funky, raggedy, unconcerned with appearances. His first solo album McCartney was recorded at home (and sounds it, blessedly) and the cover features a photo by his wife Linda, who also sang background vocals. The pic of bearded, smiling Paul with their first baby, Mary, nestled in his shearling coat fascinated me as a child. His eyes are dark, mischievous, sad but… strong and full of what I imagine to be love for his mate, his kid, his family. As a fatherless boy, this was very exotic to me.

As I grew up among increasingly dysfunctional children of divorce, the McCartneys’ inseparability bucked rock and roll standards and seemed an odd yet attainable ideal. So they wouldn’t be apart, Paul had enfolded his wife into Wings, to much eye rolling and allegations of Linda’s dubious musical talents. Similarly, Lennon would claim Yoko as a musical collaborator and suffer intense criticism. They both were undeterred by the snipes. I always loved that and I still find myself sticking up for the Beatle Spouses. In retrospect, the wife-involvement stuff and, in particular, McCartney’s inclusion of domesticity in his public image seems, ironically, cutting edge for the era.

Macca’s life was the rock star fantasy I wanted. But I didn’t want to be him; I wanted to be his kid joining him on the road. The swaggering, lock-up-your-daughters stuff would not appeal to me until my hormones kicked in, and even then, I kept close my McCartney-as-dad dreams and longed most for stability-within-rock, a notion that seems contradictory unless you apply it to McCartney. In my mind I was Paul McCartney’s son, watching from the smoky wings with my crazy-haired sisters as he played Dad Rock, goofy songs that lodged in my brain and made me laugh: “Hands Across The Water,” “Magneto and Titanium Man” and “Listen What the Man Said.” I imagined myself grabbing a fistful of his rank bellbottoms as we posed together, sweaty-faced in Lagos or Jamaica, both of us sunburned and sleep-starved. No matter what opportunities he had to stray – and he would have plenty, I’m sure – my traveling gypsy troubadour millionaire dad with the funny accent would never abandon me.

Later on I would find that both Lennon and McCartney had lost their mothers as kids. Paul’s to cancer, John’s after being hit by a car. Needless to say, my devotion intensified; Paul had overcome a blow not unlike mine, yet stood tall, brazen and larger-than-life, whole. So could I. Thirty-plus years on, I’ve come to realize that damage on this scale can’t be quantified, and to assume that he weathered “better” than Lennon, whose life always seemed fraught by comparison, is ridiculous. And now I realize no one is whole, ever. But that is what I believed then.

These were some of my thoughts as I marveled at near-septuagenarian Sir Paul tear it up at Yankee Stadium on July 15th, 2011. From the opening of “Hello Goodbye” to the encore of “The End,” I was a riot of sensation and notion; chill bumps, laughter, singing with strangers – all messy, uncool spillage from an open heart. When the thoughts of my father crossed the threshold and then departed, I realized McCartney possesses the power to do what meditation, drugs, food, sex, travel, athletics, yoga and art are designed to do: place a listener in an ineffable, timeless moment, then bring them back and take them elsewhere.

My wife, Holly, and I had arrived a little early, as the sky was just beginning to darken. Weather-wise, it was a perfect summer evening. The Biblical-style crush (“And lo, the people went down to the Bronx to be counted”) was intense until we made it to our seats about fifty yards from the stage. The scent of hot, processed meat and salty starch was everywhere and indicated vegan Macca’s lack of influence over the vendors. (Dads must compromise!) We settled in, giddy at our proximity to the stage, and the experience began with the massive PA pumping out instrumental versions of Beatle tunes by Booker T. & the MGs (an oddly upbeat “A Day In the Life”). As dusk descended, the two screens flanking the stage began to spool moving images and designs, lots of Linda McCartney’s classic 60s rock and roll photos interspersed with cartoonish psychedelia, black and white clips from Beatle movies, Super 8 footage of the Family McCartney. Whoever designed the presentation knew it would evoke everything from nostalgia to wonder to amusement, even a little annoyance. As with the entire show, the visual aspect was almost as genius as the music itself. The Cute Beatle has surrounded himself with an impressive retinue of showfolk – performers, designers, and engineers. The sound was mind-blowing.

Obviously, I am a superfan. I will allow that Paul has released some steaming crap (I think he’d allow it too), some unlistenable tunes and unwatchable videos. But, as he is my surrogate dad, and considering the level of stellar stuff, I have unusually low standards for acceptance of his work. Sometimes to the chagrin of loved ones, I will sing along to “Silly Love Songs” (one of the best basslines ever, I don’t care what anyone says) “My Love,” and even “Coming Up.” Interestingly, a couple of these largely loathed tunes were part of a looped McCartney Megamix that took over for Booker T as the stage lights slowly lit the waiting microphones and drum set. Even with my charitable taste, it was a little obnoxious.

Paul and his fantastic band came out around 8:30 or so, in the gloaming. Rusty Anderson on guitar, Brian Ray on guitar and bass, Paul “Wix” Wickerson on keyboards and the stunning Abe Laboriel, Jr. on drums, forty and fifty-somethings who still look great in understated rock and roll clothes – if there can be such a thing. Paul cut a striking figure in a tapered Edwardian three button blue jacket, black Beatle boots, snug black stovepipe trousers, a plain white dress shirt and suspenders/braces. He is ridiculously fit, with the ass of a twenty-something man. There, I said it.

All of the band members sing, and Laboriel in particular is a powerful vocalist, sometimes covering for Paul on the really high stuff while propelling the whole outfit forward like a machine with a soul. He is perhaps the finest drummer I have ever seen. They are a lean, rocking, passionate band with longtime road chops, charisma and that greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts quality every worthwhile band possesses. Simply put, they are the best band he’s had since the Beatles (check YouTube for various Wings lineups and Paul’s very good but unremarkable backup musicians from the 90s and you will agree). I think this current foursome may be one of the reasons he’s toured quite a bit in the last decade, after Linda’s death from cancer in 1998.

That’s right, I remember thinking as his astonishingly well-preserved voice cracked slightly on “Maybe I’m Amazed,” one of many songs written for Linda, the same affliction that took out his mother robbed him of his wife. Yet he got past it.

In one of the most moving visual displays of the evening, a sepia-toned home movie of the photo session for the McCartney album cover – with Mary snuggled in Paul’s coat – played on the screen behind Paul. It was that same image that resonated in my childhood come to life, with Paul posing and laughing, cradling Mary, his face glowing with love, seen as Linda saw him. The audience looked through Linda’s long-departed eyes. It was ghostly, dreamlike.

He lost her. Yet my New Dad threw himself into work and, with some guys only a little older than me, took to the stage after the passing of his soul mate. Didn’t go off the rails drunk, blaming crazed behavior on inconsolable grief, didn’t lash out, make a mess of things, but worked through it with song, with performing, giving of himself to the Fans.

I recalled my own losses, disappointments and betrayals, levies on the gift of a long life. Where had I searched for a road map, for clues, examples? My actual family of mostly women is pretty impressive, but when I needed to see how a man deals with rage and bereavement, I realized I’d kept my fantasy dad in my peripheral vision all along.

McCartney and Co. soared through “Jet,” “Drive My Car,” and, for the first time ever before an audience, the raucous Hard Day’s Night nugget “The Night Before.” The big screens pulsed with images of jets, cars, et cetera and the crowd got progressively more ecstatic. Before long I realized I’d never been in a group of that many people who felt that good, ever. It was palpable, a crackling connection coursing through an audience ranging from small children to folks with walkers.

At one point McCartney acknowledged the signs held aloft, fake-scolding the fans for throwing him off. One sign read “Kiss My Butt” and he chuckled and said “Well, let’s see it then!” then hastily backpedaled.  Another said, “My name is Jude” to which he gamely said, “Hey, Jude!” The patter was goofy and, according to his DVD from a couple years back, not totally spontaneous. Except the Derek Jeter crack: “Who’s this guy Derek Jeter? I hear he’s got more hits than me!” Rim shot.

As the band rocked on, I was hoping for “Here Today” and I got it. It’s a heartbreaking song, an imaginary conversation between Lennon and McCartney written after John’s murder. Even before I lost my best, oldest friend to suicide in 2004, I loved this song, which delves into unresolved issues between friends; the heart brings you into contact with difficult people and insists you remain, even when it’s a challenge. Then, sometimes, before you get a chance to mend fences, you lose someone and the pain just echoes on. The band left and Paul, armed with only an acoustic guitar, introduced the song. He made special mention of New York City being John’s home, which brought a deafening roar in honor of The Smart Beatle. Then the crowd listened respectfully as a simple image of a full moon glowed on the empty stage and Paul’s falsetto arched into the purple sky above the Bronx. I caught this moment – or at least a pixilated rendition of it – on my iPhone. When I play it back, McCartney’s voice is both crystalline and grosgrain, but the lo-fi image is a shimmery, saturated white burst of light on a screen surrounded by bobbing heads, like the very essence of dignity in the face of loss. Which, to me, is beyond rock and roll and simply art.

Linda, George, John, all gone. And so many of his friends from the 60s, too. I imagined I could hear it all in his voice, which ached but also raged and, at the same time, saluted the enduring beauty of those lost loved ones, reveled in the strength they gave him.

As “Here Today” ended a roadie handed Paul a mandolin – one of five instruments he would effortlessly play – and the band launched into the jaunty, damn-the-torpedoes “Dance Tonight,” from 2007’s Memory Almost Full. I recall publicists falling all over each other to proclaim the CD a “return to form.” It was his “break-up” record, supposedly touching on his divorce from the mercurial Heather Mills, and people with a lot of time on their hands figured out that the witty title is an anagram (likely accidental) of For My Soul Mate LLM (Linda Louise McCartney). In any case, it’s a good tune about enjoying life regardless of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, a concept on which fantasy dad needs no schooling.

On “A Day in the Life,” Paul sang John’s distinctive verses and tacked a repeated chorus of “Give Peace A Chance” to the end, like a coda. This was the only awkward moment of the evening. The audience, like a lot of Americans, isn’t really sold on the ideal of “Give Peace A Chance.” Not anymore. It was enjoyable but toothless. My cantankerous Uncle John was better with punky irony, and I’m sure Papa Paul knows it and doesn’t care. Like “Here Today” and the lovely ukulele arrangement of “Something,” it was a tribute, not a manifesto. The sad resignation of “Let It Be,” which followed “Give Peace A Chance,” went over much better.

The inevitable over-the-top fireworks and flashpots of “Live and Let Die” cast a veil of smoke over the congregation and scented the air with sulfur. Paul walked around in faux dismay at the extravagant pyro, actually imitating an old man as if he is not one. It was funny but also bizarre.

The night concluded with “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End,” the perfect concert-ending suite if ever there was one, topped off with red, white and blue confetti seeming to fall from heaven, as there was no ceiling. The communal satisfaction hummed through the air like feedback as the assembled separated into streams pouring through gates, doorways, concrete halls, back into our lives. I was struck by the amount of families, some of whom carried sleeping children out of the still-charged stadium. This had been a family event. Of course.


I had a lot to think about and plenty of time to do it as we sat in traffic, trying to get home. The usual two-hour trip would take four hours, but we didn’t care.

Clearly my boyhood desire for a rock and roll dad was never actually realized, and I made it to manhood under far less spectacular circumstances; I had help from a loving single mother who never remarried, a very present maternal grandmother, a United Way Big Brother, my friends and a couple of teachers. They did the actual work, and I don’t begrudge them their lack of rock star accoutrements. In fact, I was lucky in a lot of ways.

Paul’s actual kids – my fantasy sisters Heather, a potter, Stella, a fashion designer, and Mary, a photographer, plus fantasy brother James, a musician – have all done fine. Heather has said the hectic decade of traveling with Wings was not all fun. She told the press she had a hard time making friends once it all ended. Although I love traveling with my family, I also have tasted a little of the rock and roll lifestyle myself, and that is a very different, very particular animal. I actually cannot imagine having a kid in tow while going through the rigmarole of the road, much less three. Granted, the McCartneys had tutors and likely a phalanx of nannies, but for the kids I imagine it must’ve been hard at times. I can also imagine trying to explain these realities to my childhood self and making no impact whatsoever.

Finally, being a dad myself, I have long since moved on from searching for father figures and look to Paul McCartney now as a fellow dad. In true rock and roll style, his daughter Beatrice – by ex-wife Heather Mills – is five years younger than my son and younger than a couple of his grandkids. When I try to imagine an offspring of mine having a child who is older than one of my own kids I need to lie down. Leave that to überbeings like my fantasy dad Macca.

Beatrice McCartney

I have always known that music and images, when expertly wielded, can have a time-shifting power for both listener and performer.  The promise of that power is one of the things that led me to be a musician. Yet, when Holly surprised me with tickets to see Paul McCartney at Yankee Stadium, I did not expect to revisit any childhood longings for a rock and roll dad. I’d heard he still brought an impressive show, even from some very prickly, hard-to-please cynics, so I was banking on a great experience. What I was not prepared for was the welling up of a dormant desire for an adventurous, raggle-taggle, brilliant musician to spirit me away from a fatherless childhood to concert halls, tarmacs, hotel rooms, people bestowing love and accolades in foreign tongues, the feel of a jet’s carpeting beneath my bare feet as we fly over the Pacific. But even the most far-fetched of fantasies still exist in my mind, somehow, just waiting for the right sequence of notes combined with the proper visuals to unearth it.

Paul sings to departed Linda as he looks up at the Jumbotron, seeing his younger self gazing into his soul mate’s eyes while he cradles their firstborn against his chest. Time and space ebb for a few liberating moments and I see me, a grieving kid, caught up in a melody, singing in spite of it all, looking at a magazine photo of a musical family on the run who appear, for the time being, far away from loss, tragedy, death. Then and now, my fantasy dad has brought me to a timeless place. When the song fades and the cheering subsides, I am a man again, and Paul is not my dad. But he has allowed me to touch the part of myself that remains connected to the man I lost, and the dreaming child still inside me. As these feelings recede, I am happy to leave that longing. I’m glad to say I possess the skill to come back to being a real, actual father, blessed with health, a gorgeous, shaggy-haired child and a beautiful, supportive, fascinating wife. I am pretty sure I learned how to do that from Paul.

RBW & Jack, 1998, by Dan Howell

RBW & Jack, 1998, by Dan Howell

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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