When I was eighteen, I spent most evenings driving around Canton, Ohio, drinking cheap Weidemann’s beer, heading no where yet still driving as fast as I could away from where I was at. These drives were fueled by the thirty cassette tapes I managed to wedge into a plastic case designed to hold twenty-four: Echo and the Bunnymen, Killing Joke, The Smiths, Gang of Four, and Bauhaus. I liked my music like I liked my life, dark and brooding.
The exception was R.E.M. Compared to everything else in my cassette case, they were absolutely rosy. R.E.M. was probably my favorite band. Outside of college radio, they were still pretty obscure at the time, so I treated them like my own private secret.
I’d discovered them almost by accident while trying to find out the name of a Grandmaster Flash song I’d heard on the radio. A girl told me, “Oh yeah, that’s called ‘Radio Free Europe’” and loaned me her copy of R.E.M.’s debut album, Murmur (which I still have sitting in my garage almost three decades later…sorry, I’ll get it back to you real soon…though to this day I can’t figure out how you made a Grandmaster Flash/R.E.M. connection).
I kinda feel in love with its messy twanginess. Their songs were sweet and weird and completely indecipherable, which would also be a way to describe me at the time (except for the sweet part).
One afternoon in the early spring of 1985, I received a postcard from the R.E.M. fan club informing me of a string of tour dates that ran through the Midwest. I woke up one morning three days later and impulsively decided that I was going to attend as many as I could. I took all the cash I could lay my hands on and took off, with nothing other than some clothes, some leftover pot, and that postcard. I told no one what I was doing. I just got in the car and drove out of town.
A few days later, I’d hadn’t managed to make it into any shows and had less than thirty dollars left. I knew I needed to get creative, so I went to a local copy shop. Using some rub-on lettering and a logo taken out of a brochure I found in my backseat, created an amazing looking press pass for WKSC, the radio station at the commuter college I barely attended where I deejayed on Thursday mornings from 8 to 10 a.m.
WKSC seemed to be classified as a “radio station” solely because those involved wished it to be. I don’t think there was ever any broadcasting involved, as it had no transmitters. It was “broadcast” through the PA systems in the hallways and lobbies of the three campus buildings, was featured as the “on hold” music in the Theater and Art Department, and was the background music in the school’s grim early-seventies-era cafeteria. In this regard, it was caught somewhere between being Muzak and a bad club deejay system.
Of course, not being a real radio station, WKSC had no real press passes. Nor would anything involved in WKSC be considered, by any stretch, an activity undertaken by a member of the “press.” Regardless, it seems like a way in.
“I don’t understand,” I told the security dude at the next show at Wittenberg University. “I cleared this with the record company weeks ago.”
I was polite but firm, even though it was complete bullshit. I was the morning DJ at WKSC, I said. I had been promised a backstage pass and interview by R.E.M.’s label. If my name wasn’t on that list, I assured them, it was a big deal. The security guard called over a hippie-looking guy with round glasses who listened to my story while examining my fake press pass.
“Look, nobody told me anything,” he said, pausing for a moment while he looked over the press pass again. “I’m really sorry about the mess up; I’ll have Kim make you up a guest pass. We’re just about to eat lunch, want to join us?”
“That would be great,” I said, sighing with some faux relief. “If I didn’t come back with that interview, I would be in such trouble.”
We walked up to a few picnic tables out back of the school’s auditorium. The four band members were there along with about six roadies and crew. The hippie-looking dude invited me to have some catered barbecue. I did my best to act as nonchalant as I could, but could barely keep my limbs from shaking. I took a seat next to Bill Berry, the drummer, and struck up a conversation about his hometown, Massillon, Ohio, which was the primary football rival of my high school in Canton.
“Have you ever listened to your records, backwards?” I later asked Peter Buck, the guitarist. Peter was somewhere between a God and hero to me, who indicated that he had not listened to his records backwards. I explained that I had been trying to fix a malfunctioning turntable when I’d discovered that I could switch a few wires and make the turntable run backwards.
“It’s kinda fun,” I said. “The singing sounds exactly the same. The guitar stuff ends up sounding like a sitar. Well, a fucked up sitar, because the turntable speeds up and slows down—I’m not sure why. But it sounds like a sitar, and I think you are probably the best backwards sitar player out there. You should try putting it on the forward playing versions, too.”
I think they were amused by my mixture of weirdness and absolute joy at being in their presence. Most of my attempts to impress them made no sense, but after lunch they asked if I wanted to play Nerf football with a few of the band and crew. Right before show time, the singer, Michael Stipe, asked me to help paint his pants with a stencil.
No one ever questioned why I was there. No interview was proposed or ever took place. I was just blissfully happy to spend the afternoon with my favorite band.
I can tell you absolutely nothing about the concert itself, except that I loved the opening band (a group from Boston called The Neats) and beamed with pride when Michael Stipe walked out on stage wearing the painted pants.
Back home, my world was imploding even further, mostly because I had told anyone where I was. I hadn’t made any arrangements to be gone from work. I really didn’t attend classes any more, so that wasn’t much of a concern. Being a perenially depressed and increasingly disconnected weirdo constantly in some flavor of trouble, when no one knew where I was for days, everyone feared the worse.
I really didn’t care. I was having the time of my life. I knew what I was doing, but that just caused my sense of failure and doom to feed upon itself. I was a fuck-up who was in the midst of fucking up, plain and simple. It felt as natural as breathing.
After returning from my road trip, things continued to spiral out of control in my life. A few weeks later I finally landed in a psych ward at the local hospital.
Shortly before I went in, I’d written a letter to Peter Buck. I didn’t expect him to remember me, but that didn’t stop me from pouring my heart out to him.
I told him that I felt lost in the world. I said that I felt stuck in a life I didn’t want--and didn’t want me back. I felt that I’d never see a world beyond the crumbling decay of Canton. I still have no idea what I expected to accomplish or why I wanted to tell all this to him, but I did.
Over the following few weeks, I managed to get my act together enough to come back home. For no reason I deserved, my family, my job, and school were all willing to give me another chance. I don’t think anyone--including me--expected that it would work.
About a week after returning home, I got a letter in the mail. Scribbled on the envelope I saw my name and address, and a return address from Athens, Georgia.
Peter Buck had written me back.
He started off by saying that he was sorry that I felt so bad. He told me not to lose faith and to follow my calling.
“Just remember,” he wrote at the end. “What you think is important, not what anyone else thinks. I know that doesn’t help much, but do what your heart says.”
That letter literally changed my life. It was a single sheet from a steno pad and probably written in about four minutes. Yet it made me feel that if someone as important as Peter Buck believed in me, then perhaps I wasn’t that worthless after all.
While it wasn’t the only thing that saved me, it is probably the single most important gesture that anyone has ever done for me, especially someone I didn’t even really know.
Flash forward to this past November. I’m in New York to record a club show we’re producing into a radio program (since WKSC I have found employment with more legit radio enterprises). The show’s house band consists of a number of noted musicians coming together for that evening. The guitarist? Peter Buck.
Throughout the evening I kept arguing with myself whether or not I should say anything. On one hand, I didn’t want to come off as a crazy idiot fan. On the other, I’d probably never have another chance to do this. I was even introduced to him and made some small talk on a few occasions, but I couldn’t work up the nerve. Then I decided to do exactly as he had advised me many years ago.
I did what my heart said.
“Hey Peter,” I said during a quiet moment when there wasn’t a lot going on. “If you have a minute, I’m pretty sure I can blow your mind.”
I think I did. At first, he treated it and me very matter-of-factly. He wanted to tell me why he answered letters like mine. It was something he was happy to do, he said, because he was once a troubled teen without much idea how to survive his life. Then he thanked me for telling him.
As the evening went on, I think it all sunk in deeper, because he brought it back up, asking me about certain details like what show I’d gone to and if I still had the letter. Before he left he introduced me to his girlfriend and asked me tell her the story.
The whole thing could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn’t. I’m thankful and somewhat surprised that it worked out so well. I mean, it’s hard enough to go up to a virtual stranger and thank them for your life. Could you imagine hearing that?
The thing about this story that's most important to me isn’t that I once got to spend an afternoon with my favorite band. Nor is it that Peter wrote me that letter. The thing that I’m most grateful for is the chance to run into him again and say thank you. Rarely do you get a chance to go back to the people who, sometimes unintentionally, have deeply influenced your life. Of those who were essential in making me who I am, I've lost a number of them, claimed by drugs, accidents, or the distance that time and changing lives impart on us. As a result, I've missed so many opportunities to simply acknowledge what they've meant to my life, even if they had no idea what their gestures had meant.
Even this once was pretty sweet.