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Pop Pilgrims 2012: The sacred sites of R.E.M.'s Athens, Georgia

The A.V. Club
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June 13, 2012 AT 8:00 PM
It should come as no surprise that lots of A.V. Club writers are huge R.E.M. fans. Along with U2, the band hit the sweet spot for our generation, creating a body of work that even detractors can agree is impressive. Just the fact that we're still debating the relative greatness of each record is testament to the fact that R.E.M. was incredibly important to us, whichever records we like the most. (And hopefully you've read some of Steven Hyden's personal history of his fandom; the fact that we just finished running a massive six-part history should indicate again the band's importance to us and hopefully the world at large.)So when it came time to reignite the Pop Pilgrims engine, R.E.M.'s birthplace came immediately to mind. Neither Steven nor I had been to Athens, Georgia, the college town where R.E.M. formed, played its first shows, and permanently planted its business roots. The film crew—three guys roughly our ages—were similarly excited to make the journey.There's not one particular spot that's appropriate for a pop pilgrimage to Athens—there are lots, so we planned to visit them all. (Conveniently, the R.E.M. iPhone app lists various sites around town, including maps.) The one that seemed most significant was the steeple at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, where R.E.M. played its first show on April 5, 1980—before the band even had a name. (They landed on R.E.M. about two weeks later, in time to play a show at what was then called the Koffee Klub.) The church itself is long gone, and the red steeple sits in the parking lot of some cookie-cutter condos called "Steeplechase Condominiums." There was faint graffiti spelling out "R.E.M." on one of its crumbling walls. The condo association, which owns the steeple, has apparently been told to either tear it down or fix it up—there's no clear indication which way things will go.In the shadow of the steeple sits a community center called Nuci's Space, named after a young musician whose battle with depression ended in suicide. The center seeks to prevent similar tragedies, partly through the use of music, so it's no surprise that the members of R.E.M. have been supportive. Nuci's Executive Director Bob Sleppy spoke with us about his history with Athens (he moved there to start a band) and about the tourists who show up once a month or so. (They're frequently German.)The steeple itself is an impressive site, though strange since it looks like it essentially grew out of the ground into a parking lot. It's about 12 feet square and 40 feet high, and most definitely red. It's certainly not in great shape, but it's surely worth seeing for dedicated fans.We all had more visceral reactions to the sites that grace the front and back covers of R.E.M.'s debut album, Murmur. We first visited the railroad trestle from the album's back-cover photo, taken by a local photographer named Sandra-Lee Phipps. The trestle, too, has seen much better days, and was scheduled to be destroyed in 2000, until a vocal contingent of R.E.M. fans convinced the local government to purchase it. But it's not in great shape—some might say it's dangerous—and it seems unlikely to be there much longer. The Wall Street Journal had been to Athens to write about the trestle not long before us, resulting in this piece.If you're wondering where R.E.M. themselves stand on all of this, they issued a statement about it, which reads in full:The trestle was a very important part of the imagery of the first R.E.M. album Murmur back in 1983. We have always loved that image and it represented something essential about our band and our town at the time. Over time, people have attached significance to the trestle, partly due to the association of it with our first record and partly because it is a damned fine piece of design and execution, reminiscent of a bygone time we all think we remember. We have never been on the Save The Trestle bandwagon, so to speak, figuring it might be a bit unseemly to advocate for a monument to ourselves and preferring to spend our charitable impulses in smaller chunks spread around a lot of places. Many have held out hope that the Murmur Trestle would become a part of a rail/trail greenway and we have certainly supported that on grounds of preservation and good alternative transportation planning. But if it is not to be, due to logistical, budgetary and safety concerns, okay, so be it. Hope that clarifies our considered position. The people in charge of our town's main historical protector, the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, say it most clearly in their opinion piece last Sunday in the local paper: Meanwhile, a massive Big Box strip mall on a parking deck downtown . . .? HELL NO! http://ProtectDowntownAthens.com"That last bit refers to a proposed Wal-Mart right on the edge of downtown—and right across the street from the steeple.The trestle evoked an emotional response both because it looks so out of place—and cool!—and because, hey! There's that thing in real life that you gazed at on the back cover of an album when you were a kid. Trestles not unlike it probably exist all over the place, but it's nonetheless striking, a reminder of a time that we never knew (nor, of course, did the members of R.E.M., who just liked the way it looked).The front-cover photo of Murmur, though, was actually taken by R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, who would've just turned 20 at the time. It depicts a mysterious-looking field covered with kudzu vines. Kudzu, which earned the nickname "the vine that ate the South," is all over the place in Georgia, and we actually had a hell of a time locating this particular field. The R.E.M. iPhone app was slightly off on the location, but a YouTube video posted by a fellow pop pilgrim—specifically a comment below it—helped us locate it. (If you go, park near the corner of Chattooga and Hiawassee, take a left and walk along the train tracks for 100 yards or so. It's on the left.)When Stipe took the photo, it was winter in Athens, so the vines were bare; they look like tangled knots of sticks. When we visited in April, they were blooming, which wouldn't have made for quite as austere or mysterious an album cover. But the two concrete structures covered by the vines were a dead giveaway that we were in the right place. To the non-fan, it would just look like another pretty patch of green, but to us—once our minds filled in the blanks—it was made into something bigger.We also walked around downtown Athens, which is home to the beautiful University Of Georgia and many more R.E.M.-related sites, including Wuxtry Records (where Peter Buck and Michael Stipe would chat about records) and the Koffee Klub, where the first actual R.E.M. gig was. (It's now the Kaledonian, and appears from the outside to still be very dive-y.) Athens itself was quaint, slow-paced, and incredibly welcoming.Speaking of welcoming (I'm burying the lede here, people): R.E.M.'s advisor and unofficial "fifth member" Bertis Downs agreed to be our guest for this episode of Pop Pilgrims, and he graciously hosted us at R.E.M. HQ. The band's office recently moved into smaller digs—makes sense, considering R.E.M. officially disbanded last year—and it was a treat for us fans to see 30 years of photographs and memorabilia. We probably could've poked around there all day. Downs, who's been with the band pretty much since the beginning, was full of terrific stories and insights about the band and the town that they all love. Want to know about how Michael Stipe met Thom Yorke? He's the guy who can tell you.It was a grand, geeky time. And yes, I've gotten this far in an article about making a pilgrimage to see R.E.M.'s hometown without mentioning the R.E.M. song "Pilgrimage." Let's leave it there.