In Athens, Georgia, R.E.M.’s hometown, memories are everywhere

There are band member sightings. And surviving band landmarks from 1980s. But will they perform again?

ATHENS — The last time R.E.M. performed in its hometown was on Sept. 12, 2006.

“We are R.E.M., and this is what we do,” lead singer Michael Stipe told the crowd that night at the 40 Watt Club in downtown Athens.

Last Thursday, during the iconic band’s surprise rendition of “Losing My Religion” at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York, Stipe said, “We are R.E.M., and this is what we did.”

Fans had waited more than 15 years for R.E.M.’s original lineup of Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry to perform on stage together again. But Stipe’s subtle change of phrase last week suggested it might really be over this time.

“That’s enough,” said Bertis Downs, the band’s longtime adviser. “The way they did it — kept it simple. I thought it was perfect.”

But there is no shortage of R.E.M. sightings around Athens, something that probably won’t end any time soon, whether it’s band members who occasionally resurface or physical landmarks that stick around.

The St. Mary's steeple still stands at the site where an abandoned St. Mary's Episcopal Church hosted R.E.M.'s first show in 1980 in Athens. The church was torn down for condo's in the 1990s but the steeple was renovated and preserved.

Credit: Nell Carroll for the Journal Constitution

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Credit: Nell Carroll for the Journal Constitution

The alternative rock group formed here in 1980 after each member enrolled at the University of Georgia. It went on to sell more than 90 million albums worldwide and amicably disbanded in 2011.

In February, all four members attended a show at the 40 Watt when actor Michael Shannon’s band covered R.E.M.’s debut album, “Murmur.” Berry, Mills and Buck each played at various points. Stipe joined on stage after the show. It fueled appetite for more.

“They’re not a band anymore, but they’re definitely a force,” said Downs, who still lives in Athens.

Anticipation of members of R.E.M. popping up for a show unannounced has captivated Athens for decades. Chats with locals here this week at The Globe downtown, Hendershot’s on Prince Avenue and Normal Bar in Normaltown led to stories about Stipe teaming with Patti Smith at the 40 Watt and Mills joining Jason Isbell at the Georgia Theatre, among other examples, of unexpected yet unforgettable moments.

“I’m grateful to live in a community with people whose work I’ve loved so much,” said Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz, “and it’s an interesting kind of fulfillment that I occasionally get to see them do art right in front of me.”

Downs said all of the band members still have ties to Athens, whether that’s owning a home in the area or a family or business connection.

And there are plenty of landmarks around the Classic City connected to the band.

Weaver D’s

The hours and menu items vary, but the experience at Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods remains familiar. R.E.M. used the soul food restaurant’s slogan — “Automatic for the People” — for its eighth studio album, released in 1992.

On a blazing hot afternoon earlier this month, Dexter Weaver hollered out what he had left for a group of five that showed up near closing time. “I’ve got pork chops, chicken tenders and steak and gravy,” he said.

“Yes, all of that,” a man said with a smile.

Weaver said he remembers meeting with Downs and Stipe, who often ate there with his family, about using the slogan. The day before, he said, somebody broke into his restaurant and stole all of his hams and turkeys.

“My countenance and everything wasn’t that great when we first sat down,” Weaver said, “but it went on from there.”

Dexter Weaver poses outside of his restaurant, Weaver D's. The slogan at the soul food restaurant Weaver was the inspiration for R.E.M.'s 1992 album "Automatic for the People". The restaurant opened in 1986 and has long been a favorite of local musicians and students.

Credit: Nell Carroll for the Journal Constitution

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Credit: Nell Carroll for the Journal Constitution

The album sold more than 18 million copies worldwide and was nominated for Album of the Year at the 1994 Grammys. Weaver attended the award show with the band at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

“It was life changing,” he said. “Forever in our hearts.”

It’s been a long time since Stipe has come by, Weaver said, but Mills and Buck occasionally stop in. Fans of the band still show up to eat and buy T-shirts, too. Weaver D’s celebrated its 38th anniversary in May.

The Grit, an Athens vegetarian restaurant famously frequented by Stipe, also opened in 1986. It closed in 2022.

Weaver said he hopes his place continues serving into a fourth decade of operation.

“The people,” he said of what keeps him going, “and the love for the food.”

R.E.M. Steeple

The St. Mary's steeple still stands at the site where St. Mary's episcopal church hosted R.E.M.'s first show in 1980 in Athens, Ga. The church was torn down in the 1990s but the steeple remains preserved.

Credit: Nell Carroll for the Journal Constitution

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Credit: Nell Carroll for the Journal Constitution

Bob Sleppy, the executive director of Athens nonprofit Nuci’s Space, jokes that R.E.M.’s first show in April of 1980 has morphed into a mythical, Woodstockesque event over the years. Seemingly thousands of people claim they were at the abandoned St. Mary’s Episcopal Church when the then-nameless band played a mix of covers and originals for a small crowd.

The church was eventually torn down to make way for condos, leaving only the badly damaged steeple remaining. In 2013, Nuci’s Space, whose mission is to prevent suicide with an emphasis on the mental health of musicians, acquired the steeple and raised $250,000 for reconstruction funds. The steeple now has accommodations for musicians to record music and displays local artwork.

Sleppy, who said he moved to Athens in 1991 because of R.E.M., maintains there’s no way the band will get back together, and that’s OK.

“Who knows, maybe the four of them play together when no one is listening,” he said. “I would hope that they do that.”

Wuxtry Records

Wuxtry Records, an independently owned record store since 1976 is just off College Square in downtown Athens, GA. This is where Michael Stipe met Peter Buck and they would go on to form R.E.M.

Credit: Nell Carroll for the Journal Constitution

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Credit: Nell Carroll for the Journal Constitution

Wuxtry Records manager Nate Mitchell says at least once a week somebody enters the store to take pictures related to R.E.M. interest.

Buck worked at Wuxtry when Stipe came by in January of 1980. That’s how they met, and the band took off from there.

“People come here from other countries making their pilgrimage,” Mitchell said. “This place is still here, it really hasn’t changed too much and you can still see the smaller space (where Buck and Stipe met).”

The Murmur Trestle

The railroad trestle, featured on the back of the R.E.M. Murmur album, was saved from demolition and is now part of the the Firefly Trail, a paved exercise trail that used to be former railway lines in Athens, Ga.

Credit: Nell Carroll for the Journal Constitution

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Credit: Nell Carroll for the Journal Constitution

Songs from R.E.M.’s 1983 debut album “Murmur” played over loudspeakers as Girtz and local officials cut a ribbon to mark the opening of a 500-foot bridge along the Firefly Trail in April of 2023.

The bridge, spanning Poplar Street and Trail Creek in Dudley Park, replaced the railroad trestle made famous by a photograph on the back cover of the album.

Though the architecture is no longer the same as in ‘83, Girtz says the renovation tracks with the essence of the structure originally built in the 1880s.

“When the trestle was active, it would get slowly rebuilt timber by timber over time,” Girtz said. “It was always the same visually but every piece of it had been replaced.”

The picture from Murmur’s front cover depicts a space overgrown with kudzu. That area, located near Normaltown, looks similar now as it did on the cover.

“Kudzu will outlive us all,” Girtz said.

40 Watt and Georgia Theatre

The Forty Watt Club moved to its fifth location on Washington St in Athens, GA in 1991 where it still operates today.

Credit: Nell Carroll for the Journal Constitution

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Credit: Nell Carroll for the Journal Constitution

R.E.M. played a concert at one iteration of the 40 Watt roughly six weeks after its first show at St. Mary’s Church in 1980. The band and the club were both instrumental in Athens as the home base for the rise of new wave and alternative rock.

It’s fairly common these days to see a member of R.E.M. at 40 Watt’s current location downtown on Washington Street since 1991. Mills, who attended a Drive-By Truckers show there in February, credits owner Barrie Buck (ex-wife of Peter Buck) and booker Velena Vego for maintaining the club’s status as a premier venue.

“It is a labor of love for them,” Mills said. “They realize it as an important connection to the history of this town and all of Georgia.”

R.E.M. recorded the music video for the 1991 song “Shiny Happy People” at the Georgia Theatre on Lumpkin Street. The song and video features Kate Pierson of the B-52′s. Each member of R.E.M. has played at the venue, and they played together there in 2006 during a show by the band Minus 5, a side project for Buck.