Cover of the Week 34 Wendell Gee

I almost thought I would not be able to get to this week’s cover. Two Buffalo Tom shows, a rehearsal, and a night in the studio earlier in the week, a crazy day job week and, last time I checked, a family to spend a few minutes with. Thanks to all who came to cheer us on through our shows this weekend. We had a great time. My ears are shot, so I have no idea if this week’s recording sounds any good.

An inordinate amount of space here has been devoted to moving to Boston, an event that happened 27 years ago. A psychologist could have a field day with this, I suppose.

Nevertheless, one of the defining events of my life was heading into Boston University’s Walter Brown hockey arena in 1983, clad in a home-made English Beat t-shirt that one of my new friends had made for the group of us going to the show. The Beat were at the height of their powers, having just released Special Beat Service, headlining hockey arenas when they weren’t on such double bills as the one they played with Squeeze in Nassau Coliseum on Long Island that same year, after I had left for Massachusetts.

We were all pumped up and excited to see the Beat. On my way into the seats, I passed by a few guys that were in a band in a neighboring town I auditioned for who played everything I liked from John Mayall and all that classic Brit blues stuff to this ska that was making a resurgence. I guess I wasn’t good enough because they never called me back. Since I was not yet driving, I had wait for my mom to come pick me up as I sat in one of their parents’ basement while they ignored me and made plans for that night. It was merely an awkward speed bump.

We took our seats ready to get through the opening band on our way to skanking heaven. But before the uptempo and highly energetic Beat came on, there was this shadowy, murky, enigmatic jangly neo-Byrds-like band that took the stage and captivated me for the whole set. It was like some new interpretation of jangle-pop, ’60s garage pop, less angular Television/Talking Heads-meets-Paper Sun-era-psychedelic-Traffic. They reminded me of all these Left Banke and other 1960s melancholy 45s I had as a kid. But there was something fresh about these guys. The enigmatic lead singer in his baggy flannel shirt rarely moved from his haphazard leaning embrace of the mic stand and said nothing between songs. The guitarist slashed away at his black-and-white Rickenbacker, matching his ensemble of long-sleeved white shirt and black vest. The bass player sang all these interesting counter melodies to the lead singer’s main parts, which were rarely discernible lyrically. When words popped out, they were evocative but meaning was elusive.

I was taken away, mesmerized. Here I was ready to party and dance to the pastel-colored ska-pop/blue-eyed soul of the Beat and I was broadsided by the profoundly affecting and recondite opening band, R.E.M. I knew nothing about them. The night went on and I really did have a great time with the Beat, who were just amazing. But through all that good-time party music, I could not shake that sublime opening music and went right out to Newbury Comics to buy Murmur and Chronic Town (I believe they were both available by that time). I felt like I had discovered a new band that very few people knew about.

For the next six years I bought every R.E.M. record and went to every show of theirs that I could make. They were one of the main cornerstones of my musical development and ushered me into a whole new realm of new music, going on to discover their influences and peers like Mission of Burma and the Neats (both from Boston), Miracle Legion, Dream Syndicate, Wiretrain, etc. I grew out my hair into my face (long front, short sides and back) and started to write my own songs filled with inscrutable lyrics and vague lilting melodies, trying to find others to convert to the cause of this new “Paisley Underground.” I sold my Peavey tube amp and bought an ultra-clean Roland JC-120 jangle amp. Thank God that only lasted a couple of years.

R.E.M. was one of the bonding forces between my new buddy, Chris Colbourn and me. We enjoyed and shared a deep mutual love of everything from the Stones to these new acts like X, Gun Club, and Echo and the Bunnymen. We went to see a bunch of these shows together before Buff Tom even formed.

Needless to say, when Buffalo Tom finally did form and head out on the road in 1988 or so, that date marked “Athens, GA” was one of our red letter days on the first (second?) U.S. tour itinerary. We had seen the documentary Athens, GA Inside Out, which spotlighted the college town’s post-punk musical acts. We played the legendary 40 Watt Club. We knew darn well that Peter Buck’s wife owned part (or all) of the club. We had a great show. She invited us back to stay at their house. I am still jittery writing this now. We were greeted at the house by none other that Mr. Buck himself, in a bathrobe. He played us selections from his amazing record collection all night. I don’t even have to tell you how we felt; you know how we felt. All I have to do is relate the events. The record Out of Time had just been recorded but not yet released. Peter played us tracks from it. Her showed us a picture he had taken with Al and Tipper Gore. He said he had been all ramped up to let Tipper have a piece of his mind regarding her then-recent PMRC efforts. But he had been knocked out by the flu and she was so nice so all he could manage was a sort of weak, “I think what you are doing is wrong.”

Peter and his wife were extremely gracious to us, and from what I gather, to many other bands who came through town — one of the good guys of rock. I have met him a few other times over the years but have not met the other guys.

I have read that Buck is not a fan of this week’s choice for a cover, so perhaps I should have chosen better. But Fables of the Reconstruction is just one of those records for me.  I remember seeing the band on this tour out at the Worcester Centrum and them opening with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” It was highly dramatic. “Wendell Gee” is a song that has a beautiful melody and haunting, mythical lyric that compelled me to play it repeatedly.

10 thoughts on “Cover of the Week 34 Wendell Gee”

  1. Paul Daddario

    This is a great acoustic choice for an REM cover- and a great job, with the nice electric guitar behind- thats gives it a real Buffalo Tom/ Janovitz feel. I guess one of the great things about hearing you play these covers, is you still produce them in a BT fashion- with your hallmark style of walk-down acoustic with an electric guitar nicely in the back ground; I guess we shouldn't expect anything less.

    My first REM show was Life's rich pageant, 1985, New Haven Coliseum; My brother bought some tickets outside the venue, front row dead center, $55 each; The feelies opened Up- (I had a similar experience and went out and bought their albums and saw feelies shows for years after) but after Begin the Begin to start the show I was pushed right against the stage by 400 screaming girls. Great show. Funny thing was my dad, who is an artist, drove us to the concert, and went to some art galleries near Yale before the show; after the show my dad said, "I met that singer you guys went to see- the guy with eyeliner, we talked about a few paintings, really nice guy…"

    As always, a fantastic and enviable story. The Peter Buck tale reminds me of a scene from "Athens Georgia inside out" The great movie highlighting all the good Athen's bands, B52's, The Flat Duo Jet's- Dreams so Real and of Course, Guadalcanal Diary.

    Good to hear the day job is busy.

  2. Thanks for reminding me about this song. I made both shows this weekend (just to prove my energy wasn't waning as I hit my mid-50s). Ears are still ringing from Chris' bass lines last night. I survived.

    These weekly posts are quite a treat – Thanks from Stewart

  3. Thanks all. Paul, thanks for the correction on the film title. Lousy research and reliance on my faulty memory. But there is no electric on this track — acoustic, piano, organ, and harmonica.

  4. Not trying to correct. And man, my bad on thinking I heard electrics. my ears must be shot…

  5. Hey Bill,

    Longtime reader, first time writer.

    I was at the University of Rochester in NY when that tour came through. I was a college DJ at the time so I knew about Chronic Town, but I went to that show for the Beat. Luckily I got there early and was front and center for REM. I was blown away. That remains one of my top 5shows of all time for the music and the performances (always loved the jittery dancing of the Beat's two guitarists), but most of all for the discovery that night of REM and what music like that could make me feel like.

    Thanks for prodding my memory Bill.


    PS Please bring BT down to Raleigh, NC one of these days. I can guarantee at least one very enthusiastic fan at the show.

  6. Beutifully done Bill, as always. Your cover songs highlight my week each and every week.

    But as any child who came of age in the '80's and suffered the music on the radio searching for the alternative I have to say you raised my hopes with the chance of a 'Beat cover at the start of your post but then to dash them so harshly (if not sweetly) with REM, well… let's just say i could already hear Doors of Your Heart ringing in that pure Rock and Roll voice of yours.

    Nonetheless, a fantastic version of a seminal band.

  7. Bill-thanks for this. I too saw R.E.M. during the Murmur era-opening for The Police in an arena outside of DC in August 1983. Now how about a Wire Train cover, I can mail you a totally unreleased studio record of theirs if you are interested.

  8. Thanks again for the trip down memory lane. Boy it felt good in the early 80's to have REM as a little secret. I remember in 83 traveling to Hartford more excited to see REM, the backup band, than the headliner, the Police. In the mid 80's I was fortunate enough to see them play at BU.

    There are certain lyrics for no apparent reason I simply adore. Wilco has one of these lines in the song Shot in the Arm: "The ashtray says you were up all night." REM has another with the underrated Belong: "Her world collapsed early Sunday morning
    She got up from the kitchen table
    Folded the newspaper and silenced the radio"

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