Looking back on it, Crawford Connelly was kind of a prick, but he did Grady one enormous favor: he introduced him to music.
“You’re from Georgia, right?” Crawford asked on their first ride to school together.
“Yeah,” Grady said, even though he hadn’t lived there in six years.
“You like R.E.M.?”
“Sure, man.” Grady wasn’t certain he had heard correctly, but he thought Crawford must have meant R.E.O. Speedwagon, which Grady did, in fact, like. He’d been listening to the Wheels Are Turnin’ album for most of the summer.
Crawford pulled an unlabeled, dark grey cassette from the car’s console and popped it into the player. From the custom-installed Bose speakers came a jingly-jangly guitar riff that sounded nothing like anything produced by R.E.O. Speedwagon.
Crawford lit a cigarette while waiting to turn onto Battlefield Road, which would take them to Church of Christ Presbyterian School, where Grady’s mom had recently enrolled him in the hopes of securing a quality, private school education.
“I dunno, man. I still like Murmur the best,” Crawford said between songs. “What’s your favorite?”
“What’s your favorite R.E.M. album?”
“Oh,” Grady said, staring at his book bag. “Probably Murmur, I guess.”
“Yeah,” Crawford said, taking a drag from his Camel. “It’s pretty awesome.”
It did not take long for Crawford Connelly to deduce that his passenger knew nothing about the emerging band scene coming out of Athens, Georgia, nor much else about music beyond whatever shit was on Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown. Crawford probably knew this from the moment Grady stepped into his car. The kid was wide-eyed, ruffled and hopelessly unstylish in his dress and speech. The recent switch from glasses to contact lenses had only slightly improved his appearance. Grady looked like what he was: a skinny, nerdy, terrified high school freshman, product of a single mom who lacked either the time or awareness to inform him that wearing a blue and white collared shirt with hexagonal patterns to the first day of class was decidedly uncool in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1985. Or any place in any year, for that matter.
Crawford took Grady under his wing, at least during the 15 minutes of drive time each morning from their neighborhood to the school parking lot. Once they were in the lot, Grady was on his own. Crawford would light up another cancer stick with one of his letter-jacketed buddies, and Grady would skulk into the classroom building. But the morning drives in Crawford’s Chevy Caprice were Alternative Rock 101: starting with the R.E.M. albums of the day—Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction (which Crawford thought was their weakest effort) and the debut EP Chronic Town. Pretty soon, they moved on to the B-52s and more obscure bands like Drivin’ & Cryin’, Guadalcanal Diary, Jason & the Nashville Scorchers and White Animals. By the time R.E.M. came out with its next release, Life’s Rich Pageant, Grady was primed and ready. Exercising his newly acquired learner’s permit, he drove to the Record Bar and bought the tape the first chance he got, and spent much of the following weekend holed up in his room, trying to jot down and decipher the mysterious lyrics (“Fall on Me,” as far as he could tell, had something to do with the environment).
A few weeks later, when his mother forbade him from driving down to Atlanta with his new friends and watching R.E.M. play the Fox Theater as part of its Work tour, he again retreated to his room, grabbed the first thing he could get his hands on (a Trivial Pursuit box) and hurled it against the wall. The surprisingly large sheetrock dent it left was a stark reminder throughout his teenaged years that, despite getting good grades and mostly staying out of trouble, he was still a prisoner in his own home. “Welcome to the Occupation,” indeed.
Junior year came around, and this time Grady would not be denied. He would travel to the Omni in Atlanta to see U2 on its Joshua Tree tour. He would never forget that show, the very first concert he ever attended: the opening organ strains of “Where the Streets Have No Name” filling the arena, then a spotlight shining on The Edge as he took the stage, then a familiar voice that was both current and already iconic at the same time, “I want to run, I want to hide…” Grady looked next to him at Emily Duncan, a sophomore whose parents had, inexplicably, allowed her to travel ten hours, round-trip, in a Honda Civic crammed full of beer and teenagers. They were in the Omni’s upper deck, but Emily’s face glowed as if Bono were a few feet away, singing just to her. Grady badly wanted to kiss Emily Duncan, and he would attempt that maneuver a few hours later in the parking lot of a Denny’s. It was too late at that point. The magic of the show had faded for her, and she just wanted to get back home to her boyfriend.
There would be many more shows, including R.E.M.’s Green Tour in 1989, which wasn’t as life-altering as Grady had expected. The band had already made it big at that point. They were no longer a secret discovery shared by him and the self-possessed, nicotine-breathing soccer star who carpooled him to school every day. That was okay. R.E.M. had been the first, the one that opened his eyes to a new world where music could be cutting, raw and angry, or even moody, sly and cerebral. It could be many things, and it could be about so much more than just liking some girl.