Can’t Get There From Here: Arizona Author Robert Dean Lurie Explores R.E.M.’s Early Days

An early picture of R.E.M.
An early picture of R.E.M. Joanna Schwartz
"Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.”

That lyric from R.E.M.’s song “Talk About the Passion,” which appears on their debut album Murmur, is undoubtedly true. The band’s music, however, did help alleviate some of life’s burdens for college-age music fans looking for something deeper than the cheesy metal being served up on mainstream radio.

Writer Robert Dean Lurie — based in Arizona for more than a decade now — tackles R.E.M.’s roots in his book Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years, released in May.

click to enlarge Robert Dean Lurie - DALE TOWNSEND
Robert Dean Lurie
Dale Townsend
Was Lurie one of those fans back in the 1980s hanging onto singer Michael Stipe’s every word, feeling like they’d found their prophet via his poetic words delivered with a little mumble and twang? No. Not yet, anyhow.

In the later ’80s, Lurie did have an obsession. Australian psych-influenced alt-rockers The Church were his holy grail. That “obsession” led to more profound things in the next decade.

Lurie, who is also a singer-songwriter, got himself on the bill as an opener for the band’s frontman, Steve Kilbey. The two didn’t hit it off then. Years later, when Lurie decided to write about the band for his master’s thesis, he tracked him down. “I more or less ended up on his doorstep in Australia,” he recalls. That adventurous jaunt led him to do a book on The Church, No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church: A Biography, published by Verse Chorus Press.

His publisher at Verse Chorus, Steve Connell, is someone Lurie cites as a key figure in his development as a writer. “He really showed me the ropes,” Lurie says. “I learned as much or more from him as I did from the MFA process.” The two knew they wanted to continue working together, and in 2009, when Connell proposed the idea of a R.E.M. book, it made sense to Lurie.

“I went to school in Athens, Georgia, in the ’90s, where the band formed, and I felt peripherally connected to that scene,” says Lurie. “One of the things that influenced me to go to college in Athens was the music documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out.

That movie came out in 1987 and is chock full of interviews and live footage from that scene and its major players of the time, including bands like R.E.M., The B-52s, Pylon, Love Tractor, and Flat Duo Jets. It also spotlights the fascinating folks around town, like folk artist Howard Finster. If you saw it and you weren’t there, you fucking ached to be.

“I think the movie is a romanticized version of the scene, but what holds true is that it’s a relatively small community and with really interesting things going on and I liked that,” Lurie says. “I felt like if I went to a big city, I might get swallowed up.”

He banked on his experience as a former resident of Athens and a participant in its culture to form a solid foundation for penning a R.E.M. book. He and Connell got that contract signed in 2012, not too long after the band split and a number of books about the group were already on the shelves.

His time as a resident of Athens was part of Lurie’s angle in approaching his writing of the book, but he knew that, of course, he needed more.

“One thing I learned from living here is how many colorful characters there are in the area,” he says. “I thought it would be fun to fill a book with some of those people, which would also give a different perspective on R.E.M. and how the members of the band navigated growing and building as a band while being a part of that community and going to parties with these people and stuff like that.”

The result of Lurie connecting and reconnecting with the Athens scene provides distinct perspectives from the intriguing people Lurie chose to get down with to make this lush piece of writing. The book is so thoughtful it hurts. Getting lost in Lurie’s flow, well, he makes it easy. His blend of music journalism for this offering comes marinated in a poetic sensibility. It’s a glorious history of an era with music at the core.

We get to see these influential musicians as boys, as friends, and as humans just trying to journey through life. Whether its turns take you into conversations about music, politics, or culture, the respect and sincerity this book was crafted with is obvious.

Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years - JOANNA SCHWARTZ
Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years
Joanna Schwartz
Phoenix New Times asked Lurie if R.E.M. was involved with the project, and if that was initially something he even wanted to be a component.

“I did reach out to their manager Bertis Downs,” he tells us. “He still runs the R.E.M. operations, legacy releases and things like that. He did write me back and was really friendly.”

So, what happened?

Downs explained that the band rarely participates in biographies, save for a few rare exceptions, but they’re not at all opposed to it. There was an open line of communication with their office, and he says he was able to fact-check as needed. They did request a couple of copies of the book, which he sent.

Does he know if any band members read those copies, and does he care?

“No, and no news is good news. I have heard things from our mutual friends that have been very positive.”
We asked Lurie if it was a relief that he didn’t talk to the band might that have somehow clouded the book’s tone or progress.

He says that for him, writing the book made him more of a fan. He likes that he got to spend time with the music while writing it without having to have an in-person relationship with the group.

One thing we did explore a bit, which is a lingering question for many old-school fans, is why, despite their existence as a groundbreaking band who grew to achieve enormous popularity, we don’t hear them reflected about as much as an act like Nirvana.

Speculating, Lurie offers an opinion: “Maybe it’s because they were so overexposed and then came to a natural end,” examining the idea of how we can be more fascinated by things that are unfinished or incomplete. “Maybe,” he adds, “it’s time for them to come back around.”

Though Lurie says he’s not as much of a diehard R.E.M. fan as some of the folks who refuse to listen to anything but their ’80s releases, he does, of course, have a favorite record.

“It’s Murmur,” he answers. Lurie acknowledges the strength and development of Michael Stipe’s voice on the later release Life’s Rich Pageant, but Murmur holds the number one slot for him. “It’s just so gray and atmospheric. They were so young when they made it; it’s just incredible.”

Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years is an exceptional cup of music tea to steep yourself in and find out who these seminal, talented members of R.E.M. were and how they helped settle and shape the college rock landscape.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Young is an arts and culture writer who also spends time curating arts-related exhibits and events, and playing drums in local bands French Girls and Sturdy Ladies.
Contact: Amy Young