The story behind this song is so bizarre that you could be forgiven for thinking the inciting incident was a hoax. A lot of people did.
Dan Rather, anchorman on CBS News, was walking home one October night in 1986 when a man walked up to him and asked, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” When Rather informed the man that he was talking to the wrong person, the man immediately punched him in the jaw, knocking him to the ground. Rather scrambled to his feet and took off for his apartment building, pursued by his attacker and a second man, with the first man calling after him, “What’s the frequency?”
Rather reached the lobby of the building before being knocked to the floor by his assailants, who kicked him repeatedly as the first man kept demanding an answer to the same question:
Kenneth, what is the frequency? Kenneth, what is the frequency?
The building superintendent appeared and chased the men off. Rather collapsed on a nearby couch, but he’d escaped with only a few bruises. He shrugged off the event as an attempted mugging. Police assumed it was a case of mistaken identity (who the hell was “Kenneth?”) But with no leads to go on, the case remained a mystery for years.
The mystery is part of what fueled its place in popular culture. People would greet Rather on the street by asking him about the frequency, calling him Kenneth, and sometimes (quite unfairly) insisting that he made it all up.
Then, in 1994, a seemingly unconnected event began the process of closing the mystery. On August 31 of that year a man named William Tager tried to force his way onto the set of The Today Show in New York with an assault rifle. When a technician named Campbell Montgomery attempted to stop him, Tager shot and killed him.
It would be two and a half years before anyone figured out that Montgomery’s murderer was also Rather’s attacker, but the clue was there in Tager’s statement to police.
He said that the television networks were watching him, attempting to beam signals into his head. If he could figure out the frequency, he could stop the signal transmissions.
* * *
There’s a wonderful poem by Kenneth Koch called “One Train May Hide Another,” where Koch talks about the ease with which we see one story and miss an equal, or even larger one lurking just behind. The strange tale of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” obscures the forces that were coming together around its creation–forces that came close to ripping the band R.E.M. apart.
Monster, released at the peak of R.E.M.’s popularity, is a strange, occasionally funny, occasionally frightening album. It was a massive departure for a group that had spent a decade building a devoted following before breaking into the mainstream. It’s the kind of album the band probably had to make to deal with the sudden crush of attention and popularity thrust upon them by the success of their previous two albums. Maybe you can feel that tension in the group as you listen (I can’t). But it’s there, manifesting itself emotionally and physically.
R.E.M. had spent the 1980’s establishing themselves as an enormously versatile band, capable of moving between the serious (“The One I Love”), the surreal (“Radio Free Europe”), goofy fun (“Stand,”) and flat out stream of consciousness (“It’s the End of the World as We Know It”). More importantly, they could make hits out of all of this.
Then came Out of Time. The 1991 album won three Grammys, hit number one in the U.S. and the U.K., and established R.E.M. as bonafide rock stars. The band followed this with their most accomplished and beautiful album, Automatic for the People, the next year.
So how do you follow that?
The answer, it turns out, was with distortion. Everything about Monster is distorted. The guitars, the sound effects, the point of view. Written from multiple perspectives–many of them highly unsavory ones–it served as an opportunity for lead singer Michael Stipe to push back against the forces of fame by adopting the various strange and unhealthy masks it arrived in. There’s the vapid wannabe flame figuring out how to fake his way into love in “Crush With Eyeliner,” the paranoid accomplice in “Star 69,” and the rebellious artist of “King of Comedy” who intones “I’m not commodity” like a mantra to avoid forgetting who they are.
If that last one seems a little too on the nose, it’s important to remember that this was part of R.E.M.’s gift–the ability to move from cryptic, impenetrable lyrics to almost embarrassingly direct vulnerability and make both modes work.
(photo: Keith Carter)
Part of the reason it works so well on Monster is because everything around it is so shaky and distorted. These recordings are loud and scrambled, loaded with echoes, fuzzy guitar wails and strange electrical sounds darting through like phantoms. It’s a record that’s trying to break through the white noise into sanity.
And sanity was running thin. In ways that hadn’t happened to the band before, they were starting to tear. Call it outside pressure, but reports of the recording of Monster include high tensions, fights, and illness. Stipe had surgery, and struggled with the death of two very close friends: actor River Phoenix and singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain. Drummer Bill Berry got sick (more on this later). And bassist Mike Mills suffered an attack of appendicitis right in the middle of recording the track I’m writing about.
You can actually hear this happen ( though my ears aren’t trained well enough to catch it). Towards the end of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” the band slows down, almost imperceptibly. That’s the band attempting to match time with Mills, who is in the middle of an appendicitis attack. Midway through the song, guitarist Peter Buck looked up to see Mills struggling in obvious pain. They played through the song, then rushed Mills to the hospital for an appendectomy. They didn’t record the song again. The one where Mills nearly collapsed is the take you’re listening to.
It gets worse.
Mills would have to have surgery while on tour the following year due to complications from his appendectomy. But the most terrifying event of all came when drummer Bill Berry collapsed on stage in Switzerland. After being assured by a doctor it was merely a migraine, Berry’s wife insisted he go to the hospital for an x-ray. It turned out to be an aneurysm, and emergency surgery saved his life.
Strangely enough, these nearly tragic events helped to reform the band. According to Mike Mills, realizing how close they’d come to the deepest kinds of loss reminded them how much they cared for each other. They’d pull together following the tour to record another lovely album (New Adventures in Hi-Fi), before Bill Berry retired from music to live quietly on a farm. The remaining band members would continue to play until 2011.
When you know the backstory, and the aftermath, Monster plays out like the breaking point of a marriage. After 14 years together, the band is either going to make it or they aren’t, and the ferocity of the record becomes a primal scream. But it isn’t a fearful album, or a desperate one. Instead, there’s a kind of reclamation in it. Beset on all sides by people wanting something from them, watching their every move, they announced their intentions like a doomed charge.
This is who we are, and if we don’t make it, then we’re going out howling.
But they do make it, and I have to believe the blunt exposure of this album is part of the reason why.
* * *
Which brings me back to “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”
Despite the fame of the inciting incident, the song has its own story, and it’s kind of R.E.M.’s story at the time. The narrator keeps trying to find his way into the culture of the youth that are coming up and finds that he’s locked out. He can’t seem to understand, and eventually gives up and buries his head in the sand.
You wore a shirt of violent green, uh-huh
I never understood the frequency, uh-huh
You wore our expectations like an armored suit, uh-huh
I couldn’t understand
The ending of the song, when the narrator finally retreats into his own fears of what’s coming and tells the audience “Don’t fuck with me” is a kind of final slamming of the door. My generation doesn’t get your generation, and therefore I’m going to fight your generation from behind a nice safe fence. It’s the same kind of “I’m not selling out, I’m buying in” mentality you can hear in the casual fascism of the older middle class in the Clash’s “Safe European Home.”
What’s interesting about R.E.M. releasing a single like this when they did is that they were starting to become the old guard they are talking about. They’re right on the precipice between aggressive, independent young bucks and established wheels of the music industry. This song feels like they’re planting a flag in the first camp, even as they are ageing out of it. Indeed, Stipe would become a go-to mentor for a lot of people in the music business struggling with the impossible forces of fame.
This song represents that tipping point. Everything is crashing. The band could fall apart. The reinvention could fail. The album could flop under the weight of impossible expectation.
But out comes this signal, and it rocks, and it brings up an old story. And R.E.M. stays at the front of the cultural conversation. And even though they don’t know it yet, they’re going to make it.
Meanwhile, there’s the matter of a murder, and the afterthought of a mystery.
* * *
“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” was released just five days after William Tager committed the aforementioned murder. Tager was sentenced to 12 1/2 to 25 years for manslaughter in 1996 (he was paroled in 2010), and it was around this time that his original psychiatric report, in which he confessed to attacking Dan Rather ten years earlier, came to light.
It was the New York Daily News that discovered this, and took some photographs to Rather to see if there was a match. Rather stated, “There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the person.”
That ended the mystery, though part of me wonders if it would have been solved without R.E.M.’s song, which brought it back into the public consciousness. Maybe nobody goes looking for the answer without it. I don’t know.
But it’s a strange story, and because of this, it hides the bigger story of a band’s survival. The song works on its own, without the mystery–a great song off a great album by a great band. And still, the mystery draws focus in the conversation.
Maybe that was by design, but probably not. It’s more likely that R.E.M. just found, as they always had, a new way of communicating their sound, and the message just happened to center around one of those floating pieces of collective memory that great artists know how to grab and wrestle into their work. The result was a song, and an album, that gave a great band greater life, and somehow built on a mystery to the point where it became part of a national folklore.
It’s a song you can keep coming back to because it concentrates so many forces. You hear it, and if you know the stories you smile, turn to the person next to you and say, “Do you know about this song?”
And then you tell them.