In Athens With Michael Shannon, the Night He (Sort of) Reunited R.E.M.

Not unlike Stipe in his current visual-artist era, Shannon is more than aware of the pitfalls of doing one thing while being famous for another. “I can’t think of a single actor who’s made a record and I’ve been like ‘Oh boy, I can’t wait to get that actor’s record, I bet it’s amazing,’” he tells me. “I don’t want to listen to actors make music! But yeah, it’s frustrating. Because I do like music. And I frankly am more passionate about music than I am about movies.”

There are still six dates left on the tour’s calendar, but there’s no question that this is the big one. This is Shannon’s first time in Athens, and he, too, seems cowed by the gravity of the situation. “I’m a nervous wreck all day. I can’t think about it. Tonight is too much to wrap my head around,” he says. “It’s one thing to go to San Francisco or Minneapolis or whatever, but to actually be here…” Singing Murmur on R.E.M.’s home turf, at the legendary 40 Watt Club, is an ultimate test for any fan. (Flying in from LA to hear what is essentially a cover band is, I submit, a close second.) Shannon is also battling a cold, and has a green scarf wrapped around his neck at all times, afraid his voice could go at any minute.

We order our food—a pork plate for him, fried chicken for me, a side of collard greens for both. The suave, bearded owner-operator, Dexter Weaver, is still there, working the register. It’s weird to meet the man whose name I somehow knew as a teen living thousands of miles away; I am admittedly more star-struck by him than by Shannon. A James Beard award certificate (2007, America’s Classics category) leans casually against the wall. A plea for $50,000 to “save this historic landmark” hangs opposite. We donate. “Where do you come from?” asks Weaver without recognizing Shannon. “New York? Been there once.” In 1994, when they were nominated for Automatic for the People, the band flew him to the Grammys.

Our next destination is marked on Google Maps as the R.E.M. First Show Church. All four band members used to bunk together in a deconsecrated Episcopal church; it’s also where, as a still-nameless band, they played their first set on April 5, 1980. (Yes, I am typing this from memory, glad you asked.) The city demolished the 1869 building itself, but a local suicide-prevention nonprofit, Nuci’s, kept and reconstructed the steeple.

We make our little pilgrimage, take our photos. It’s hard to place my exact feelings. Once more, it strikes me how we—all of us fans, not just Shannon and me—act as if we’re dealing with ancient history, as opposed to four guys who just don’t feel like recording new stuff. “It’s weird how available they are,” Shannon notes. “I mean, we thought when we announced this tour, they’d put out a cease-and-desist order. Instead, they embraced it.” In Chicago, Mike Mills, who knows Narducy, popped up to sing backup; who knows what will happen tonight. I try not to ask any questions so as not to jinx it. “I kinda met all four of them at this point,” Shannon continues, “and they’re all just sweet people.”

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