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R.E.M. Are Starstruck... By Me!

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Back in the late 1980s, me and Susan, my girlfriend, yes, the one I married 25 years ago, got very lucky. A friend of hers, really more of a business acquaintance, called her out of the blue one day...

I remember you telling me how much you wish you had a weekend place in the country to escape to. Well, I'm moving out of MY weekend place in the country next month and thought I'd offer it to you. Actually, it was not quite in the country... it's the western edge of the town of Woodstock, on a little quiet side street with a big private garden. The landlady is a dear old English woman who had already approved anyone I recommend sight-unseen, so, it's just flat-out yours if you want it.

And that's how, for three blissful years, we wound up paying $300 a month for a tiny but adorable two-bedroom cottage sitting on a quarter acre less than a five-minute walk to the center of the New Age/Hippie/Lefty Arts Capital of the Known Universe. The house was slate gray with bright green shutters, with a screened-in a porch, a big stone-built functional fireplace, an actual breakfast nook, and came complete with old and funky Art Deco furniture and eerie, almost morbid, but strangely beautiful canvases of dreamy fallen angels and glamorous androgynous waifs painted by our sweetheart of a land lady.

We went up almost every weekend from April through November and once or twice a month during the winter. This was years before the very rich Uma Thurman glamour-pusses discovered Woodstock and turned it into a bastion of leftie wealth and prestige. While we had that little cottage, the town of Woodstock, New York, was still an enclave for semi-indigent artists and freaks of all varieties. It was a cranky little place that knew big changes were coming, changes the town was powerless to stop. "Weekenders" like me were becoming commonplace and not a good sign. There was actually a bumpersticker sold in Woodstock shops that said, "Welcome To Woodstock... Just Kidding!"

About a straight line mile and a half west of our cozy cottage was The Little Bear... a restaurant in Bearsville (yes, the hamlet Todd Rundgren's old record label was named after) that Bob Dylan's original manager, Albert Grossman, owned, along with the record company. It was and is located about half a mile from the world famous recording studio Mr. Grossman also owned. The Little Bear was a very expensive joint, maybe the most pricey restaurant in the whole Woodstock region. But, it had really nice rustic décor, actually good food, and a pleasant hippie-ish staff. Susan and I would splurge there every now and then.

The Summer of 1988, R.E.M. was up in the Bearsville/Woodstock area for a few months recording Green at Albert Grossman's aforementioned world-famous recording studio in Bearsville, New York.

Sorry to say, I just never got R.E.M. Their chord changes and arrangements were way too bland. Mostly, it was Michael Stipe's fragile vocals and his absurd "word-salad" lyrics that drove me away.

But, as a band, R.E.M. were all really music-freak scholars of rock, especially the original Glam/Punk/New Wave scenes of the mid-to-late 1970s, something that's directly related to this little story...

Anyway, my soon-to-be-wifey and I decided one night that summer that it was time to drive west for three minutes and have an over-priced meal at The Little Bear. We parked the car, and walked into the please-wait-to-be-seated maitre d' area. From where we stood, you could see the entire stretch of the bar that took up about a third of the floor-space before you got to the actual restaurant area.

As we waited for someone to show us to a table, I suddenly realized that the two guys standing closest to me at the bar were R.E.M.'s rhythm section, Mike Mills and Bill Berry. Hey, now! Shiny Happy Famous People!

Just as I was about to turn to Susan and say, in a low voice, "Hey, check it out, half of R.E.M. are standing right in front of us at the bar," my eyes met Mike Mills'. I saw his eyebrows shoot up. He then turned to Bill Berry and said, in a low voice...

"Whoa, Binky Philips just walked in."

Astounded, I watched as Bill turned and looked at me, his eyes widening. Bill looked back to Mike with a quick little confirming nod.

W T F ?!?

Needless to say, it was a very, very surreal moment... And so weird, one I wasn't even sure had happened. But, as I walked by them, the way they both looked at me... that sort of stiff la-dee-da way we all affect when trying to ignore a celebrity... confirmed that I hadn't hallucinated this wild and totally unexpected role reversal.

Naturally, the love of my life didn't catch it and thought I was being idiotic.

A few weeks later, I was talking to my dear pal, Bob Merlis, then a senior vice president at Warner Bros. Records, and regaled him with this story about his label's big-ass band.

Bob informed me, "Binky, the guys in R.E.M. are walking encyclopedias when it comes to the original punk scene in New York City. Trust me, they probably even have bootleg tapes of your band, The Planets."

And y'know, I kinda liked R.E.M. a bit more from that point on...