Editor's note: On the comedy podcast "R U Talkin' R.E.M. RE: ME?", hosts Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott dive deep into the legendary Athens band's discography. Local superfan Tim Kelly is reviewing the podcast for Flagpole.
“I’ve said things on this show that I feel terrible about the next day” — Adam
“You guys are arm-chair quarterbacking this album in a way I never would” — Todd Barry
It is May 2005. Carrie and I are sitting in a 1,000-year-old Moorish fortress overlooking the city of Granada, Spain. Later that night, R.E.M. will be playing the city’s soccer stadium on their Around the Sun tour. We are eating lunch with Bertis Downs and an internationally famous chef when Bertis’ phone rings. “I think Michael will be joining us,” Bertis says. We play it cool. “No problem,” we say with wide eyes through gritted teeth, while my brain is melting. “How the hell did we get here?!” I think to myself. Pretty sure I didn’t say it out loud… I think.
Adam and Scott welcome R.E.M. fan and beloved comic Todd Barry to the podcast to talk about Around the Sun, an album met with lukewarm responses when it was released in October 2004. I had just begun law school at the University of Georgia and was going through the panic attack many 1Ls go through in their first semester. “How the hell did I get here?” I often said out loud. As I was awash in a sea of torts, case briefs and memos, the album had a hard time competing for my attention when released, but once I settled into its rhythms, I found it a perfect companion to long days with casebooks in the library.
As I’ve noted previously, somewhere in the '90s I lost all objectivity in regard to R.E.M. That being said, I can forgive Adam and Scott for their tepid responses as they revisited Around the Sun. It’s an album I loved and defended through the mid to late aughts, going so far as to buy and gift it to some friends and acquaintances, believing it was only their stubbornness holding them back. “Everyone complaining about it just hasn’t listened to it! Like REALLY listened,” I posited.
Somewhere along the way, I relented and—forgive me—came to agree with many of those who had met my bright-eyed enthusiasm with a shoulder shrug and a “meh.” This is an album that, truth be told, I do not revisit all that often—and, hey, that’s fine! There are some great tracks on there, but start to finish I’ve had a hard time finding a place for it, other than on those long, quiet days in a cold law library.
So, it is fitting, for the band I love more than some of my family members—face it, you know who you are—on the release of an album that I merely love instead of LOVE, to give me another gift: a dream of a day in Spain, a lifelong memory.
My first year in law school was wrapping up, and with it a UGA law tradition: the Equal Justice Foundation charity auction. EJF provides a stipend to summer law students working or interning pro bono at nonprofits. EJF solicited and auctioned networking experience from UGA law professors (pizza and beer with your contracts professor, etc.) and was a great chance for students to connect with the faculty (read: future letters of recommendation!)
In spring 2005, Downs, R.E.M.'s attorney and manager and a UGA Entertainment Law professor, was on tour with the band, and his contribution to the auction was two tickets to any R.E.M. show in Europe that summer. By this time, I was no impulsive 21-year-old just out of undergrad. I was a wise, responsible 27-year-old, having taken time in between school to season myself, to mature. My wife was finishing medical school and about to start a pediatric residency. We were adults!
So, we did what any practical, sensible adults would do: We took out a new credit card, ran up a bunch of charges on airfare, trains and European hotels and WON THAT DAMN AUCTION.
We were instructed to contact Bertis to pick our tour date. He suggested Granada. We’d never left the country before; who were we to argue? He asked if we would like to join him for lunch the day of the show. Armed with our nearly maxed credit card, we headed to his hotel. He was already in the lobby when we arrived, and he introduced us to his friend, Sergi Arola, one of Europe’s most renowned chefs.
A minute in, and I knew we were out of our depth. Sergi recommended a restaurant within the Alhambra, the UNESCO World Heritage landmark that lords above the entire city. When we arrived, we found the restaurant closed. A knock on the door from Sergi changed that quickly. On sight of one of the most famous chefs in Spain, staff flung the doors open, made tables ready and double-timed the kitchen.
We sat on a balcony looking out over the city and the Sierra Nevada mountains feasting on dishes recommended and ordered by a Michelin chef. We were mid-20-something, Ghostbusters T-shirt wearing idiots—we were not meant to be in such a place. But we were playing it cool. Then Bertis got his phone call, and now we knew Michael Stipe was coming, and I was having trouble playing it so cool.
Stipe arrives. This was the first date of the second leg of the Around the Sun tour, so they’ve had a few weeks to relax. He’s let his hair and beard grow out. There’s no clean shaved head. No blue eye mask. He's a normal human about to sit down for lunch. Bertis may have warned him on that call—“Please join us, Michael, but be forewarned, I have two wide-eyed weirdos with me”—or maybe he didn’t. Either way, Michael was guarded at first, getting an idea of what kind of lunch mates we would be.
But… we played it cool! And within a few minutes, we were chatting like recently met acquaintances. We talked about Athens (“I met you at The Globe a few years ago”), and he gave us tips on travel in Europe. (Us: “From Marseilles, we take a train to Paris." Stipe: “Do you know the song ‘High Speed Train’?” Us: “Absolutely.” Stipe: “I wrote the lyrics to that song on that train.” Us: Dead due to happiness.)
The lunch wears on for hours. (Is this how awesome people lunch? For HOURS?! I want to be awesome!) Noon gives way to 4 p.m., and Bertis is anxious, as people need to be in their places for the show that’s set to start shortly. Bertis makes calls, and taxis are coming. The waiter comes, presumably to settle the bill, and then… Michael orders a dessert cheese plate.
Bertis is frustrated, but copes with ease—he’s been doing this awhile. Then, the entire wait staff comes out and circles the table, nervous, like they’re about to meet an idol. I look to Michael, who shrugs—he’s been doing this awhile. And then its Sergi who stands, and the staff rips into applause. They are here for him. Pictures are taken, and Sergi tells them all that “you might want him [Michael] in the picture, too,” but they are too enamored with their culinary hero before them. Michael laughs and loves it.
And just like that, it’s over. Bertis has taxis waiting for Michael and Sergi, and poof, they’re gone.
The last taxi comes to take the three of us down the mountain and to the show. It is in the car that Bertis says something that I will never forget. To paraphrase a friend of mine, it was like “a line that was genetically created in a lab just to delight Tim Kelly.” Bertis, exasperated, says, "I had it all lined up. We were going to be on the bus and on time for the show, and then Michael orders the damn cheese plate.”
To be part of the traveling R.E.M. road show like that for just a few hours—to be on the inside, if just for a moment—was priceless, and I would have gladly paid off four maxed-out credit cards for the experience.
There it is: R.E.M. just can’t help but deliver for me, no matter what. So, I can arm-chair quarterback some of the tracks on Around the Sun, and maybe I’m not as quick to recommend it as I was in 2005, but when I hear it now, I’m instantly brought back to that sunny day in late May sitting in Spain in an impossibly old fortress eating dessert cheese with Michael Stipe.
Stone Cold Classics:
"Leaving New York"