R.E.M. Gets Here From There

A leisurely drive in Northeast Georgia, less than two hours from the clamor of Atlanta, makes for a singular journey. Discoveries await. Cruising the Lexington Highway from Athens to Oglethorpe County, Michael Stipe found inspiration, particularly in the area known as Philomath. Soon after, in early ’85, when flying to London with the other members of R.E.M. to record their third album, Fables of the Reconstruction,* Stipe clung to that inspiration. “I even wrote a song about it,” Stipe said, noting the community’s “amazing people.” They had lost their post office, but maintained a visionary approach to life. For them, each day was a blessing and an opportunity, with much to celebrate. The unencumbered spirit of Philomath gave rise to R.E.M.’s “Can’t Get There From Here.”

The London recording sessions held promise for R.E.M. They would be working with Joe Boyd, whose production credits included Fairport Convention, Richard and Linda Thompson, Nick Drake, and Maria Muldaur. R.E.M. had a new approach and a new sound in the works. They brought with them a collection of adventurous and striking new songs to flesh out with Boyd, who was greatly impressed with R.E.M.’s talent, attitude and intelligence. Boyd knew they’d work hard at creating a solid album, one with staying power. His assumptions were right. Fables of the Reconstruction would prove a high water mark for the band, but first the four guys from Athens had to overcome the gloom of a cold and rainy London.

The grey, dank weather was a given; it was London in February and March, after all. Of greater concern was that going in, R.E.M. felt dubious about the sessions. Guitarist Peter Buck, in the liner notes for the remastered and expanded Fables of the Reconstruction  (2010), wrote that he felt “dangerously unprepared when we flew to London.” According to Buck, it hardly seemed the ideal moment to embark on creative endeavors.

“All four of us were completely out of our minds at the time. We had just spent four straight years on the road; we were tense, impoverished, certifiable, and prime candidates for rehab. And it was cold. My main memory of that period was making the tube commute to Wood Green and then walking for 20 minutes through invariably inclement weather, usually sleet…”

Yet despite any trepidations and the wintry mix, R.E.M. created what many still consider the band’s best album. Peter Buck is among those who regard it as a unique achievement.

Over the years a certain misapprehension about Fables of The Reconstruction has built up. For some reason, people have the impression that the members of R.E.M. don’t like the record. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a doomy, psycho record, dense and atmospheric. It creates its own strange little world, illogical but compelling. It’s a personal favorite, and I’m really proud of how strange it is. Nobody but R.E.M. could have made that record. It took our four twisted personalities and the legendary Joe Boyd to make an album that character-filled and vibey.”

“Can’t Get There From Here” kicks off the second half of Fables of the Reconstruction, doing so with great vitality. It’s a gentle, but energetic rocker that builds on its own momentum. Michael Stipe sings in a sympathetic tone about one seeking refuge when “the world is a monster, bad to swallow you whole.” And where is that refuge? Philomath? Well, yes. Stipe sings with confidence that in Philomath “they know the lowdown.” After all, he went there and saw for himself.

If you’re needing inspiration
Philomath is where I go, I go

Stipe and the band certainly sound inspired. Not only does Stipe name-check another Georgia source of inspiration, that being Ray Charles, he takes off, with his mates charging along with him, in a soulful romp that recalls Otis Redding working his way through “Satisfaction.” The song becomes a celebration as Stipe moves from offering canny observations to issuing jubilant decrees.

Go on ahead Mr. Citywide
Hypnotized, suit and tied
Gentlemen testify

Ort Carlton / Photo by Danielle Moore

Testifying in his own way to R.E.M. and most anyone else he’s encountered over the last seven decades throughout Athens and environs has been the legendary William Orten Carlton, known to his thousands of friends as “Ort.” Blessed with a vast memory and encyclopedic knowledge of things trivial and highly important, Ort has also felt imbued when visiting Philomath. In fact, he claims some credit for inspiring “Can’t Get There From Here.” Feeling uplifted by what he sensed in Philomath, he told friends (including R.E.M. members) it served as a sanctuary to reflect and write. (Ort has written about beer, regional foods, music, small towns and various recondite matters for the Athens newspaper, Flagpole.). Whenever he sought revelation and insight, Ort said, “Philomath is where I went.”

By The Time We Got To Philomath . . . Until the years just following the Civil War, Philomath was known as Woodstock. Naturally, people there wanted a post office, as the closest one was four miles away at a stagecoach stop. They got their post office, but with a condition: the town would have to change its name. There was another Woodstock, Georgia (less than 40 miles north of Atlanta), already with a post office since 1833. Amazingly, it was a politician, Alexander H. Stephens, who’d provide some needed inspiration. Stephens, who served as Vice President of the Confederate States of America, was a frequent visitor to the Woodstock of Oglethorpe County, often giving speeches at the John W. Reed Academy, a renowned boarding school for boys. Stephens suggested the town change its name to Philomath (from the Greek word, Philos.), which means “lover of learning.” The new name was appropriate, given the Reed Academy’s importance to the town, and characteristic of Stephens, widely respected, even by political adversaries, for his intelligence.

Stephens enjoyed a successful political career, serving in the Georgia State Legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives and as Georgia’s Governor, in addition to being the Vice President of the Confederacy. He was also respected in Georgia courtrooms as a skillful attorney. During his 32 years of practice, he often defended clients charged with capital crimes, with none ever being executed.

When a slave woman was accused of attempted murder, Stephens volunteered to defend her.  Even with the circumstantial evidence against her, Stephens won the case, saving the woman’s life. Given some of his beliefs and such actions as defending a black woman before a Georgia jury, Stephens was considered a moderate for his time. He opposed the anti-Catholic and nativist activities of the Know-Nothing movement of the 1840s and 1850s, and most notably, despite his support of states rights and slavery, was against secession. Yet there he was in Montgomery, Alabama in February of 1861, helping to draft the Constitution that would establish the Confederate States of America.

In many ways, Stephens was not as much of a hardliner as C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis. Stephens differed with Davis over conscription, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus  and martial law. But on the issue of slavery, which still so many Civil War buffs will deny as the reason for all the unpleasantness, Stephens spewed forth with a cold heart, seeming unlike an attorney who volunteered to represent a slave falsely accused of attempted murder.

In a March 1861 speech, Stephens explained his vision for the Confederacy and those “subordinated” to a gathering in Savannah, Georgia.

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution of African slavery as it exists amongst us, and the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split. He was right. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him…. were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically…. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its corner-stone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth…. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system…. I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some of us that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we must triumph.

When Your Hands Are Feeling Empty . . . They did not triumph. Barely four years after the Vice President’s rant, the C.S.A. was in defeat.  Stephens and President Davis, holding power no longer, were now wanted for traitorous acts against the Union. By then Stephens, having lost confidence in “our new government,” was settled at his home in Crawfordville, Georgia, less than 20 miles south of Philomath. Stephens had spent most of his time there since 1863, unhappy with the way Davis had managed the war and the nation, calling the president “timid, peevish, obstinate and neither a statesman nor a genius.” Stephens knew the victors were in pursuit of him and Davis but unlike Davis, he saw no purpose in avoiding the inevitable. On May 11, 1865, Stephens learned the Federal cavalry was waiting outside his home. He invited the Union commander inside; they chatted, and then he grabbed his already-packed bag and surrendered. On the day before, Davis was captured, just one week after he and members of his cabinet fled the Confederate capital in Richmond. For seven days, Davis and members of his party made their way deep into the Confederacy, only to meet up with federal troops in Irwinville, a small town in South Central Georgia. Along the way, Davis authorized the final breaking up of the Confederate government east of the Mississippi. At long last, he and his generals decided any further expenditure of blood was needless. After this last meeting of top Confederate leaders at The Globe, one of the large cotton plantations in Georgia’s Oglethorpe County, addresses were made to the soldiers gathered around the front porch. Then, with their last small paychecks in hand, the soldiers headed home, getting there from Philomath.

*Fables of the Reconstruction was originally released in June ’85.

The writer thanks his cousin, Ellen Evatt,  for the Philomath pictures and for suggesting the subject matter for this story. Also deserving thanks is longtime friend Ort Carlton, a great fount of information. Recommended reading on the subjects in this article include “Reveal, The Story Of R.E.M.” by Johnny Black, ” R.E.M.: Talk About The Passion” by Denise Sullivan, An Honorable Defeat by William C. Davis, “Bloody Crimes” by James Swanson and “The Long Surrender” by Burke Davis