I never thought I’d get to see it happen but there he was, along with Kevin O’Neil, walking up the stairs in front of Memorial Hall, both carrying tons of vinyl. His hair was longer than I remembered it being in the show in ATL, but it was him alright. Mike Mills.
It was the moment all of us had waited and hoped for since we had first heard about WUOG moving back in January. My friends and I were crushed. Memorial Hall had been our home, our own little warped frat house of sorts. We wanted to find everyone that had some connection to the station, let them say goodbye. Call after call went unanswered to various alumni and bands, either too busy or too apathetic. Then the question arose…”What about R.E.M.?”
What about R.E.M.? The most successful and influential band to ever come out of Athens had strong ties to our little college station but there was no way they would ever consider it, right? They were about to release Accelerate and go on a tour. They had Grammys and MTV awards and were in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Besides, why would they care?
Well, in a really roundabout way, WUOG had a big hand in creating R.E.M. It was a WUOG DJ that introduced Bill Berry and Mike Mills to Peter Buck and Michael Stipe. Berry used to dj here and played in a band called the WUOGgerz. We played their cover of “Hippy Hippy Shake” on our airwaves, played their EP and albums, waited patiently for Peter Buck to come running up the five flights with a new cart in hand, watched them play the old ballroom. So the question was, “Why Not Ask?”
All this was running through my head as I watched Mills spin his records, each carefully chosen to inspire, entertain, and (in the case of KINKY BOOTS) annoy. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Here it was the man’s 50th birthday and he was spinning vinyl in a small dj booth for three plus hours. I leaned against the padded walls of the booth..
“Mike Mills is coming!” “No way, no way.” “Yeah! Dead serious!” “Holy cow!” “We need a parking pass! and, and things!” “Um, care to be more specific on the ‘things?'” The day after we had it confirmed, we gathered together to discuss some issues. Technically, the station would be off air on the 17th. We would be packing up all of our stuff, leaving almost nothing out. The fifth floor would be locked up tight and access granted only to people with keycards. But we made it work.
“Can you hand me that sleeve?” he asks, pointing to the corner where his large pile of vinyl rests. “Sure thing,” I reply. It’s about an hour and some change into his shift and Mills is just getting started. His eyes are focused on his playlist on the computer. As he types in the next selection, I take the time to look at his next song. Brain Eno. I smile as I put away his latest record. He hasn’t heard the new release from Byrne and Eno but he’ll check it out. He seemed the type to be a fan…
Mike Mills is a weatherman. For the moment anyway. “It’s 71 degrees outside and it feels like 71. Barometric pressure, visibility at 9 miles…AND AN ICE STORM’S COMING!” He shuts off the mic and laughs. The microphone button has been his tormentor tonight. He’s been working hard trying to make the perfect transition. If the mic is on when the record plays, you don’t hear the record. And he’s finally getting the hang of it. A satisfied grin appears on his face, still just ever so slightly worn from the tour. His eyes obscured by his glasses, he asks “How long do I have?” “We’re on break radio. You have as long as you want,” I reply. The eyes light up as he walks over to his pile of music…
4 AM, Wednesday morning, Facebook: “The webstream’s not working?” “Nope.” “Oh crap.” “We’ll just have to fix it when we get up there.” “Okay but we do have the ability to record it right?” “Yeah.” “But our stream may go down. We can only hold so many people.”
Mills turns around. “It what?” “We’ve gone WAY over our number of people we can have on the server. First time ever.” He grins. “Cool!” Somewhere in Atlanta, R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs pulls up the station website to listen in and sees the news: Mike Mills at WUOG: Internet Explodes.
Three hours have passed by. Mills carefully selects his last disc before he must leave. There’s an evil laugh and a wink. I am, I am Superman…. They’re trying to get away from covers in the live show he says. He turns on the mic one more time, filling the room with light. It has long since turned dark. I put my ipod on, providing us with music filled time to stand back and ponder what has transpired. Then there was cake…
“Thanks so much for coming.” We load the records into the back of Mr. O’Neil’s car and shake hands. I look into the face I’ve seen plastered all over t-shirts and posters, on albums and videos. The same face that I often got confused with Peter Buck, back when I was just learning the names. It’s just now hitting me that I spent three hours with a guy who is not your typical rockstar. His grip is surprisingly gentle. Mike Mills seems happy. And that’s all I needed to see.