REM: Radio Free Europe (Live Letterman ’83)

October 6th, 1983. The national television of a no-name band out of Athens, GA. And then they followed it up with the gorgeous CCR-inflected “South Central Rain,” a song they hadn’t even recorded yet. Who even does that? You know, I’ve had to take a fair amount of shit over the years for unabashedly loving REM, still do. I just want you to know that it was all worth it. Every sling and arrow, every derisive sneer, every snarky aside, every thrown elbow from black-hearted moshpit bruisers — it was an honor and a privilege. And it still is. I remain Miles Standish proud.

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Twenty years ago–let’s just pause and think about that for a sec, 20 years ago–R.E.M. released Reckoning. It was the much-anticipated sophomore release by the underground’s then-favorite sons of the South. The album made good on the kudzu-crusted promise of the band’s bewitching and ultimately confounding 1983 debut Murmur, radiating a murky but hopeful aura to an alt-world grown weary of punk’s safety-pinned doom and goth’s spider web of gloom.

“I’m the sun and you can read,” they sang, or at least that’s what it sounded like–you never knew for sure back then, and that proved to be an awful lot of their charm. And in the r-e-m-reckoningjingle-jangle morning of Reagan’s America, we came following them. Reckoning was full of secret maps and sepia-tinted legends, the autumnal ring of Rickenbacker guitars and the mesmerizing moon-river moan of Michael Stipe, delivering the promised fables of classic rock’s stylistic reconstruction to a post-punk world of shattered expectations, asymmetrical haircuts and skinny black pants.

Reckoning contained multitudes, alluding to the Byrds and the Velvet Underground, mining the backwoods mysticism of Southern folk art and wedding it to love-beaded mid-’60s folk rock to create a new atlas of blue-highway Americana. All across the nation, red-eyed sophomores clustered Indian-style around the dim glow of dorm-room lava lamps, separating seeds from stems, trying to decipher Stipe’s cryptic utterances. MORE