The news that R.E.M. broke up today really saddened me. They helped to mark my progression through adolescence and early adulthood, from trying to make sense of the Can’t Get there from Here video to reading about them in Rolling Stone to fumbling over the lyrics to It’s the End of the World as We Know it for the hundredth time. The band occupied a place in my life for many years. Many good years, at that.
But the funniest recollection I have of their music goes way back to 1987, early in my college days. I had a work-study job in the university library, and one of my co-workers, who was a film student, recruited me to be in a video she was filming for a class (and no, it wasn’t that kind of a video). I showed up in the place she had indicated–one of the lecture halls on campus–and was met by some of her other film student friends. Here I was, the dopey freshman guy surrounded by several cooler upperclassmen who all seemed to know each other. But, to my great relief, they welcomed me in and worked with me to help get the video made. It was their friend’s project, after all.
The video that we filmed that day was for R.E.M.’s song White Tornado, which was a b-side for one of their early singles and had just been released by I.R.S. Records on a compilation called Dead Letter Office. I.R.S. was, and still remains, one of the best record labels in history, with R.E.M., Fine Young Cannibals, Dread Zeppelin, The Alarm, and many other really good acts. But their smaller size worked against them, and R.E.M. was about to leave for Warner Brothers in 1988. They had much bigger commercial success there, which probably was the point of their departure, but I still prefer I.R.S. songs like Driver 8 or (Don’t Go Back to) Rockville over their later top 40 songs. But all of that success was still off in the future back then.
My library co-worker was directing the video, and she decided that I was going to play the drums. The problem was that I couldn’t drum at all and, if you watch the video above, the drummer is the key to the song. But she was less concerned about that than the fact that I was wearing a t-shirt with my dorm’s name splashed across the front. It was the reigning party dorm on campus at the time (and still might be, for all I know), and the older film student crowd made their displeasure known. The answer was to turn my shirt inside out, and project a rock drummer attitude when the camera was rolling. So I gave it my best.
After what seemed like 20 takes, the director had the footage that she needed. The whole thing took maybe three hours to complete, and in that time I gained an appreciation for R.E.M. that I didn’t have when I walked in. There were no garbled Michael Stipe lyrics in this song, only an interplay between the three instruments that I really enjoyed. I never thanked my co-worker for helping to get me into R.E.M., and all these years later I’m not even sure what her name is anymore. But I appreciate it, just the same.
Years after the video was made, and I had forgotten about it entirely, somebody sought me out to tell me that they had seen me in it. I’m sure it would embarrass me to no end if I saw it today, but in time it will probably surface on YouTube somewhere. In the meantime, I’ll just present the song here in recognition of my one-time director and the band she helped me to appreciate.