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A delightfully big fan

February 12, 2021

Many of you know I love music.

Some of you know that I actually attempt to play what might loosely be described as “music” (both 6-string and bass guitar).

A few of you know that I even played in a garage band during my high school and college years. We were a big hit in our minds and exactly nowhere else. But oh was that fun. That’s a delightful recollection, however, for another day.

Instead, this afternoon, while rummaging through my crawlspace looking for an old book, I came across a box labeled “JUNK.” In it, besides, well…junk…was a plain legal sized white envelope sandwiched between other bits of correspondence that I long ago felt compelled to save. The address was handwritten: “David Bert, Schneider 1528, Carbondale, IL 62901.”

That was me–my last name abbreviated for ease of spelling–and my first college address. Specifically, it was my dorm name and room number back so many years ago. The postmark was marked and dated “Athens, GA, February 12, 1987.” 34 years ago today. A freshman at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, I was eighteen years old.

I stood there for a moment just holding the envelope, examining it. Even though I hadn’t thought about it for years, I instantly remembered what was inside.

My freshman year of college was memorable in so many ways. I was away from home for the first time. I was studying coursework that I loved and eventually parlayed into a career. Even two of my “floormates” (same floor, different rooms) whom I met that year would become some of my closest friends. It was a vivid time.

Together, my new pals and I would gather in one of our dorm rooms and listen to music. Gary preferred Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Kinks. John was a big fan of the Smiths and the Cure. I fancied the Replacements, U2 and R.E.M. We would take turns commandeering each other’s stereo, playing entire sides of these artists and so many more, offering our own biased opinions on who’s drumming sounded the best, or who’s album was most cohesive or which song was most underappreciated. We’d usually split a cheap pizza and stay up way past our bedtimes. Being away at college, we could get away with that.

Our dorm room walls were decorated with posters of these bands. I think I actually had a couple of different R.E.M. posters hung on my wall over my desk. At the time they were my favorite. I had all their records.

And since I played bass in a band of my own, I would often play my bass along with their music–as much as I could. It was a hobby–I wasn’t much good. I couldn’t read sheet music, either–notwithstanding the fact that none of the groups I listened to actually had sheet music with which to reference. I would simply try to play by ear.

I came to appreciate the musicians that played my favorite songs. Mike Mills, the bass player for R.E.M., was at the top of my list. His bass sounded different. He was a multi-instrumentalist. He had some of the most creative basslines on record, which I greatly respected. He looked kinda nerdy/geeky but always looked like he was having fun while he played. Finally, he just seemed like a really down-to-earth kind of a guy from all the interviews I had read about the band. He was cool. I was a huge fan.

So I decided to write him a fan letter. I don’t know exactly what I wrote on that sheet of notebook paper, but suffice to say it was a couple of questions regarding the bass guitar he played, along with the strings and amplifiers he used. You know–musician stuff. I mentioned that I had nominated him as “Bass Player of the Year” in Guitar Player magazine. I then signed off as one of his biggest fans, promising to see him and the boys in R.E.M. play live at my next possible opportunity. I folded the paper, stuffed it into an envelope and addressed it to him “℅ R.E.M. H.Q.”, the address listed on the back of every one of their albums, Athens, Georgia.

I remember tossing it in the mail on the morning of Monday, February 9, 1987, on my way to class.

That Saturday, just five days later, I received that same letter I was holding in my hands this afternoon. From Mike Mills. To me. Handwritten.

In the letter, Mike appreciated my vote of support, answered each and every one of my questions, then cheerily signed off by writing, “Well, there are your answers! I’ve got to go buy some cookies. See you later.”

The postmarked date on the return envelope: Thursday, February 12, 1987. That means after I mailed it on a Monday, Mike Mills received my letter two days later (Wednesday), wrote a response and mailed it the next day (Thursday). It reached my dorm mailbox by Saturday.

Delighted really isn’t the best adjective I could use. Astonished. Flabbergasted. Thrilled. Blown away.

Mike proved to be not just a talented musician, but also a kind, respectful fellow human being who genuinely appreciated his fans–enough so to actually write back to them the day he gets their letter.

A delightful individual. I will always be a fan.

Mike Mills with his Rickenbacker bass
Mike Mills’ letter to me

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One Comment
  1. Peggy permalink

    Suppose Mills is his real name…Dave Bert? Nice….

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