River Styx Leads to Athens
by Nathaniel Williams
Two days before the van accident that killed him and his three bandmates, Russ Tasic realized they were going into debt on the tour. On their earlier cross-country trips, they’d expected to lose cash, to hemorrhage money drip by drip in college towns and trendier cities, playing for next to nothing to build a following. But they were on tour number three in this incarnation of the band, and they should’ve been breaking even at minimum. As Russ piloted the rattling Chevy G-10 sport van through Tennessee, he did some math in his head.
If things continued, they would go home owing more than they could possibly make from their remaining dates.
* * *
They called themselves “Luck of the Amish.” People chuckled when they saw it on marquees, but didn’t come to shows. Before that, they were “Slightly Smaller Star,” “Aerosmith UK,” and “Tom Crew’s Underwear Air Guitar.” The latter brought a cease-and-desist letter from Hollywood, California and ended the trend of referential names.
Russ and guitarist Mitch Panlowe had played on and off for years when Will “Dubya” Wallace answered their latest Craigslist “drummer needed” ad. It described their sound as “Roxy Music meets Pavement,” highlighting “original material” several times.
That same week, Mickey Dunham had posted a handwritten sign in the corridor of a nearby campus radio station:
Lead Singer Seeking Lackies. I will boss your ass around and screw your girlfriends, but I WILL MAKE YOUR BAND FAMOUS. Great pipes. Charisma to burn. Serious Applicants Only (and I mean it about the screwing those girlfriends!)
Mickey was ten years their junior. He didn’t mention his poster when he started practicing with them. Three months of looking for a band had tempered his arrogance. Joining the new group brought it right back.
In Mickey’s defense, by the night their tour ended with the green Chevy G-10 upturned and eviscerated, cords and speaker cables spilled out like intestines, one tire still spinning futilely on its bent axle in the moonlight, he had not, by any reports, seduced any of his bandmates’ non-existent girlfriends.
* * *
Calling “shotgun” before you left town meant a chance to sleep. You don’t snooze in the back of the van. One minute your eyes droop shut, the next you’re awakened by a phone camera’s flash, your bandmate’s limp genitalia inches from your face.
“Sorry, dude. Fell asleep with your mouth open. Had to be done.”
But that night, Russ had been too tired and too pleasantly drunk to care. So they shot down Highway 51 outside Normal, Illinois, with a sober-ish Mitch behind the wheel. Russ curled atop the moldy carpet squares between two amplifiers and slept, blissful as a toddler on Benadryl and doomed as a Hollywood marriage.
* * *
No one knew that Russ wanted to be an honest-to-God rock star. Especially not Russ. But all the signs were there. Wicked ambition. Fear that his talent didn’t match it. He cared too much about hair products and un-ironed, form-fitting clothing. When people recognized him in supermarkets or at parties, he hid his joy by eyeing the floor.
But he also loved music, and believed in stuff like integrity, songcraft, and his own vision.
He wanted success and independence. Shortly before he died, he had sensed that these two impulses were, like hedonism and virginity, completely irreconcilable.
* * *
Mitch fell asleep at the wheel shortly after they drove through the green smoke.
The police report states that the van accelerated for several hundred yards before hitting an embankment, landing on its front bumper in a ditch, and flipping lengthwise, killing everyone aboard.
A more popular theory relies on that green fog. Perhaps, its proponents hypothesize, they had already inhaled the noxious stench coming from the bio-medical facility near Hwy 51. Perhaps the nanites/bacteria/isotopes/Nth metal/whatever that they inhaled while passing through that emerald miasma had already done the job long before the van’s wheels left the ground.
* * *
Ten months later, Russ sat in the green room of Athens, Georgia’s legendary 40 Watt Club. Money wasn’t a problem anymore. Their contract stipulated a sizable guarantee plus a cut of the door.
They’d played about thirty shows of their new material, but Athens was the big one.
Pills lined the glass table—Coumadin and ATP-enhancers. A woman in black lace and eyeliner giggled on the couch, leaning against Mitch. They attracted that kind of girl now. She’d leave the pills alone, but would snuggle, sniff, and prod at Mitch with fascination all night.
Mickey stumbled into the room and cracked his neck. It’s his trademark—each vertebrae pops in sequence, the bamboo cane against the unruly Singapore graffiti artist’s backside, cards spinning against spokes of a bike tire the size of Wrigley Field.
It’s the kind of neck-crack only a man who’s been deceased for nearly a year can muster.
* * *
They were pronounced dead by the ambulance team at 3:20 a.m. on March 13th.
They were pronounced alive two hours later in a Bloomington hospital.
Several major cuts needed stitching, including the six-inch gash on Dubya’s neck that never fully healed. The physician was flustered. Of course, she’d sewn up many a cadaver in med school, but this particular cadaver was staring at her cleavage and repeating jokes from Family Guy.
They were released just after dawn, walked out wearing the clothes they’d died in, smeared in blood and motor oil, bleary-eyed, their pale faces staring up into the newly-risen orange sun.
* * *
In some ways, without the need for sleep, sex, or stability, they became the perfect rock band. They caught the attention of a graying mop-topped manager from Dayton, Ohio with a carefully cultivated Liverpudlian accent.
“They’re good lads. They’re always hungry for raw meat, but can eat cardboard, Kleenex, anything. Don’t drink neither. Wouldn’t do ‘em any good.”
While the Mayo Clinic bigwigs debated exactly what to call their circumstances, in case it spread or in case naming rights became a big factor in grant proposals, their manager was pointing out that there was perfectly good English word for what they were, and they’d be foolish not to exploit it.
“It required some PR skills,” Russ told one interviewer. “For a long time, we were really afraid that people would just run up to us in the street and shoot us in the head. One night, we got out of the van in Houston and two guys charged us. One of them had a crowbar and all I could think of was ‘The Walking Dead.’ Turned out they just wanted our wallets.”
Mickey put a different twist on the same story:
“Scary rednecks with crowbars used to attack me even before I was a zombie. Ever play an all-ages punk show in Arkansas?”
* * *
Almost immediately, naysayers began chirping that the boys weren’t technically zombies. Real (i.e., movie) zombies ate flesh and didn’t talk. For all but the most finicky, however, they were close enough. They didn’t breathe. They lurched. They had blotched skin and receding gums.
The real problem was the old songs consistently bombed onstage. They had, as the manager put it, “more exposure than the material merited.”
* * *
The makings of a good tribute cover band:
1) Pick a now-defunct (or merely superannuated) group that everyone knows and likes.
2) Learn all their most famous songs, plus some deep cuts for the hardcore fans.
3) Play only one show in each area, but promote the shit out of it. Don’t stick around long enough to let your gag run thin.
Russ resisted it the most. He didn’t want to play songs they hadn’t written.
But one night, Mitch began picking an old R.E.M. tune called “Seven Chinese Brothers” on his Stratocaster.
Russ explained: “That song has this tinny little progression. Mickey hears it and immediately starts singing the words to ‘Voice of Harold,’ this obscure, alternate version of the song off Dead Letter Office. We were like, ‘How do you even know that, dude?’ Turns out he knew every R.E.M. song.”
That’s how they became “Undead Letter Office: The World’s Only All-Zombie R.E.M. Tribute Band.” U.L.O. to their fans.
* * *
They start with “Harborcoat.” An early track like that would be a risky opener in most college towns, where fans remember a later variant of the band from late-90s MTV Unplugged reruns. Michael Stipe balding. Bill Berry soon to be a faded, unibrowed memory.
But they’re in Athens, and the hometown crowd knows their R.E.M.
Mickey nails mid-80’s Stipe—the gangly hip-wiggle, the frenetic rubber arms—and somehow pulls off that to which all tribute bands aspire by transcending imitation. Being dead helps. Stipe could swing his neck like a cat in a bag, but Mickey contorts himself into positions no living man can reach.
Mitch stands in one spot like Peter Buck, the king of 12-string jangle. In some ways, each night builds around his performance. He begins slouched and cadaverous and grows more Buck-like each song until “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” where he’s barrel-chested and upright, flinging windmill strums across his Rickenbacker’s neck, then back again into the perpetual decay of his reality, like he’s celebrating Halloween and Easter all in one holiday.
Which is pretty much what the good R.E.M. records sound like.
Of course, they knew the 40 Watt on Washington Street wasn’t the same club where R.E.M. got their start. Different building, same name. It felt like Mecca anyway.
The next day, they shambled down streets lined with head shops and used record shops, damp Southern air against their corroded, bleached skin. Kids shouted “Hey, Undead R.E.M.!” from passing car windows. They got free raw hamburger at a farmer’s market stand from a tattooed woman who told them her favorite album was Fables of the Reconstruction. The owner of Bizarro-Wuxtry let Russ peruse longboxes of too-rare-for-public-display comics.
A guy could get used to that.
* * *
Needles used to scare Russ.
Now he gets injections straight into the joints right before they go onstage, to make him limber enough to ride the sixteenth-notes on “Can’t Get There from Here.” That’s not so bad. Any professional football player over age twenty-five has more chemicals coursing through him than Russ does.
Singing’s a different matter. Zombies breathe out of habit rather than necessity. Hitting those nasal, nigh-castrato Mike Mills harmonies takes a shot straight into his vocal cords, four times every day.
* * *
They returned home from the first U.L.O. tour—all two months and six days of it—able to pay back loans they’d owed for years. They’d been treated like royalty, not lab rats or B-movie monsters.
In less than a week, they all missed the road, the shows, the attention. Which was fine. The manager was already lining up gigs.
First, they headed North. The Ranch Bowl in Omaha. First Avenue in Minneapolis. The Abbey Pub in Chicago.
They zigzagged across the states, their itinerary like some new constellation dotted across a stained Rand McNally map.
All the places start to sound the same. (Is this the Empty Bottle in Chicago or the Bottleneck in Lawrence, Kansas? Beerland in Austin or Beer Camp in Chico, CA?)
By the next fall, lines for their shows extended around venues like a drunken ouroboros of skinny jeans and flannel.
* * *
Q: But how long could it go on?
A: Three times.
Tour 1) “Saw ‘em last night. They’re actual zombies. In a band. That plays only R.E.M. It’s a trip.”
Tour 2) “U.L.O.’s coming back! What? You’ve never heard of them? We’re going. You gotta see that shit!”
Tour 3) “You’re going to U.L.O.? Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em like a hundred times. And I’m kinda strapped for cash.”
* * *
The new tour bus feels like a Hyatt Regency suite. It comes with two bunk beds—useless for U.L.O.—on either side of the center aisle. They tear them out and put up a NERF basketball hoop in the space. Their matches are low-scoring. Shooting baskets at seventy miles an hour in sixteen tons of shuddering metal would be difficult for someone not fighting rigor mortis. The activity keeps them limber, however, and they have an ongoing tournament that Russ regularly loses.
The bus has plush, encompassing chairs that rock and spin 360 degrees. It has doors, splitting the cabin—where a corpulent, commercially licensed driver sits silent as a ceramic dog—from the NERF court, and that from a back area holding a fold-out couch and (again, useless) wet bar. Suddenly, they have privacy.
They used to debate set lists. They’d argue over who had to drive or who had dibs on the lukewarm beer floating in the cooler. Now they can go for hours, even days, without speaking to each other.
Russ swivels slowly in his chair, head drooping, and recalls the smell of carpet glue, stale beer, and mold.
God help him, he kind of misses the Chevy G-10.
* * *
By their fourth Midwest tour, they were playing larger-sized venues to smaller crowds. They had to make a decision.
They did what any undead band would do.
They fired their manager and ate his brain.
Or so the legend goes. Everyone knows the truth. The manager’s out there somewhere, still drawing his cut from the band’s coffers and adding to their myth. “Wouldn’t they be in jail if it were true?” fans ask. Of course. But the brain-eating story is so much better.
By spring, they weren’t all-zombie anymore. Dubya left, fed up with the grueling tour schedule. His replacement wore zombie makeup. None of the fans seemed to mind. Hell, R.E.M. had replaced Bill Berry.
The new manager told them to move beyond the tribute band shtick. Within a week, they were covering “Blister in the Sun,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” and wedding reception fodder such as “What I Like about You” by the Romantics. (“Everybody likes that song,” the manager said.)
Later, Mitch arranged the medley of “Just Like Heaven” by the Cure and “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain that got them over two million views on YouTube. Their first and only mass success was completely unrelated to their undead-ness, an irony that didn’t go unnoticed on the tour bus.
* * *
U.L.O. staggers on. The band will be coming to a town near you.
But they won’t be playing much R.E.M.
And they won’t be playing with Russ Tasic.
He took a job with the Building Services Department for the University of Georgia. Now, a lone zombie lurks the halls of Hargrett Library at night, cleaning carrels and vacuuming carpets, leaning on the buffing machine as it hums across off-white linoleum. At dawn, Russ sits by the Tate Center’s service entrance, munching on raw ground chuck and swapping stories with the rest of the off-duty night crew.
Most of them are ex-musicians too.
* * *
When Russ looks back on his death, he regrets one thing:
“I wish we’d figured out the tribute band reality sooner. The money’s awful nice, but songs you used to love become your job. To do it right, you’re listening to stuff over and over, not just learning notes, but dynamics and subtleties.”
By the end of the fourth tour, they weren’t even playing songs Russ liked.
“I didn’t want to put that much work into ‘Personal Jesus’ or Blondie’s ‘The Tide is High.’ I did learn more about [R.E.M.’s] songs—how they’re constructed, how they’re played—than I ever thought possible. That was cool. But I lost something too.”
He doesn’t mean the innumerable hours balancing an iPhone on his knee while plucking bass notes to the song it’s playing. Or hours staring out windows at passing kudzu, regardless of how many wheels the vehicle has. He’s talking about the songs, and the toll taken by repeating them until they become ritual, habit, afterthought, rote behavior, and finally, irritant.
“It may take a while, but someday,” Russ says, “I’m going to put on Document and love hearing it again. It’ll be like new.”