Rockville Girl Speaks
September 23, 2011
This article was first published in Hermenaut #15 (Summer 1999). Hermenaut was published and edited from 1991-2000 by HiLobrow cofounder Joshua Glenn. Click here to read more from Hermenaut and Hermenaut.com.
HiLobrow friend and contributor Ingrid Schorr — who revealed to the world, some years ago, via the pages of Hermenaut that she (or, more precisely, her leaving) was the subject of REM’s “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” — spoke yesterday to WBUR’s “Here and Now” about the band.
We reprint Ingrid’s story, which was an installment of her celebrity biography review column “I’m Reading as Fast as I Can,” below.
In the recent biography Monica’s Story, Monica S. Lewinsky charges my friend Matt Spalding with calling her a mean name in second grade. Matt was one of her first crushes, she told biographer Andrew Morton. And the name he called her really, really hurt her feelings. Eager, as ever, to pursue a celebrity connection, I asked Matt how it felt to be named in the juiciest scandal of the decade. He was mostly disturbed that the editors at St. Martin’s Press didn’t bother to verify Monica’s account, or even his name, which they misspelled. Just wait, I told him — that story is going to be cut and pasted into every subsequent version of the affair, misspelling and all. “You really think so?” he asked incredulously.
That’s when I got all hushed and confidential. “Matt,” I whispered. “I should know. I’m a footnote to rock history.” I wasn’t just gossiping about myself: That’s so early ’90s. What’s interesting about the footnote is that when I started to examine it critically, it unfolded into an entire biography.
In the spring of 1980 I was at college in Athens, Georgia. My once-good grades had given way to behavior that my parents were starting to get wind of, and they instructed me to come back home to Maryland for the summer. I didn’t want to go. Everything in Athens was so… fresh and exciting. I had just started taking part in the innocent decadence that would sustain the scene for the next several years. And I was just beginning a romance with Mike Mills, the bass player in the weeks-old R.E.M. A few weeks before the end of spring quarter he said to me — we were at Tyrone’s, the local rock club, standing between the Rolling Stones pinball machine and the Space Invaders game, playing neither — “I finally meet a girl I like and she’s got to go back to Rockville.”
That’s the genesis of “(Don’t Go Back) to Rockville,” one of R.E.M.’s most-beloved songs. The lyrics, like their author, are endearingly straightforward. The song isn’t so much about me as about my taking off for some other place, leaving him behind: “I know it might sound strange but I believe you’ll be coming back before too long.”
I’d always thought that my connection to the canon was a private affair. But in 1990 I got a note from Mike saying that there was a book coming out about the band — it was Remarks: The Story of R.E.M., by Tony Fletcher (Bantam, 1990)— and I was in it. After that, I made it a habit to flip through each new R.E.M. book, looking for my name, trying not to lose myself (or “myself”) in the monotonous vortex of band history. I liked R.E.M. just fine. I wanted to know about me!
All the books mentioned me as the subject of the song. But after the Fletcher book, all the biographers simply cut and pasted the same basic information: that Ingrid Schorr was the girl that Mike Mills didn’t want to go back to Rockville. As a devoted reader of celebrity biographies and autobiographies, I started to get huffy that none of these writers had ever talked to me — except for Rodger Lyle Brown, whose cultural interpretation of life in Athens, Party out of Bounds (Plume, 1991), is far more complex and satisfying than any of the other R.E.M. books. The R.E.M. biographers seemed uniformly satisfied with attaching a name to the song. Weren’t they curious about who that person was? I was no Francie Schwartz, who slept with Paul McCartney for a week in 1969, then wrote a book (Body Count) about it even though no one cared. I was more like Dot, Paul’s early Liverpool girlfriend, who’s often mentioned in the Beatles books but never quoted.
Then I started to see that there were things about Rockville and about the “Ingrid Schorr” character in the R.E.M. story that even I didn’t know.
Ex-R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry apparently took the song’s lyrics literally (“you’ll wind up in some factory”) when he described Rockville as “a real factory town, not anywhere you would want to visit,” in R.E.M. Inside Out: The Stories Behind Every Song (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1997). I’d always regarded my Rockville, this Rockville (not even my hometown, just the place my family moved to from Georgia when I was sixteen) as a charmless mix of medium-swanky subdivisions, tract houses on streets named after World War II battles, and a really rednecky chain of doughnut shops (Montgomery Donuts), but factories it had none. But worse than that: Rockville is a real drag, according to someone who supposedly knew me who was interviewed for Talk About the Passion: R.E.M., an Oral History (DaCapo, 1998). And the song is more than an affectionate plea for me to stay in Athens. From It Crawled from the South: An R.E.M. Companion (DaCapo, 1997) I learned that in Rockville, my future was “questionable” at best.
So Rockville, the factory town, was starting to emerge as an important part of the historical framework. I wonder how the framework might have looked if we hadn’t moved to Maryland but stayed in Doraville, Georgia — but Doraville is already the subject and title of a song, this one by Atlanta Rhythm Section. It came out when I was twelve, and I don’t recall knowing anyone in the band, but obviously there could be things I don’t know. Or what if my parents had bought a house in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the next town over? Don’t go back to Gaithersburg?
Now that I was better informed about the town, I turned my inquiry to myself. I read that as a new girl on the scene that spring I was having “quite an effect on all the boys in town.” That’s fantastic! As well as news to me. Where were all those boys back then? Anyone still feeling the effect? Do let me know, care of Hermenaut. Another informant, in Talk About the Passion, says that I was “fast friends with everyone in the band.” That’s true. And nicely put, considering the source — another former R.E.M. girlfriend (hi, Kathleen!) whose boyfriend, Bill Berry, I dated briefly (hi, Bill!) and who could have been a lot cattier. So that’s a relief to me, that the historical Ingrid Schorr is not the Francie Schwartz of the ’80s.
The most informative biographical account of “Ingrid Schorr” by far is the full page in R.E.M. Inside Out. She is introduced first as the subject of the song, then defined by what she nearly was:
“(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” is another song about a girlfriend… The girl in question in the song is Ingrid Schorr, who was nearly a member of Oh-OK, a band featuring Stipe’s younger sister Lynda and future Magnapop singer Linda Hopper. The trio rehearsed together, but Schorr was ultimately replaced by Lynda Stipe’s boyfriend, David Pierce.
I’d always thought I’d simply dropped out of the band I’d started with Linda — not Oh-OK, actually, but Mars Needs Women — because I was bored with rehearsing and not sure I really wanted to sound like the Shaggs. That was the musical direction in which my talent as a drummer seemed to be leading. But now I see: I could have been a contender! I could have been in Oh-OK, even Magnapop! Who knows, even Hole!! They replaced me — with Lynda’s boyfriend! I’m right up there with Pete Best — Ingrid 4-Ever, David Never!!
By the time the band was famous enough to have books written about them, I had lived with the association for so long that seeing my name in print only amused me. Yet I had fixed my own image of who I was back then: a tall girl with long, violently hennaed hair, wearing old-lady cocktail dresses, squinting into a 16-millimeter movie camera or packing snuff into her nostrils; in short, a self-invented boho. When I heard there was a photo of “Ingrid Schorr” in R.E.M. Inside Out, I went to the bookstore to check her out. And there she was. I hadn’t quite pictured her with such dark, lank hair, or wearing such an ugly dress, with cat-eye sunglasses hanging from her neckline. What was she doing in such a queeb, nuevo-wavo getup? Who was she looking at so goggly-eyed, her Coca-Cola can held so loosely in her left hand?
Then I remembered: “Ingrid Schorr” dressed up that way only once, for a party that publicly launched a neighborhood-wide game we’d been playing in Athens all summer (after I returned from my six-week exile in Rockville — see, I did come back before too long!). The game was called “The Loud Family,” partly after the PBS documentary we all remembered only for the fabulously campy figure of Lance Loud, the son who came out of the closet during the series. Mostly it was called The Loud Family because we pretended to be New Yorkers who all lived within shouting distance of each other’s tenement apartment windows (a setting based on the opening credits of Welcome Back Kotter). In reality we all lived in airy, unheated Victorian houses with gigantic porches and for the most part had not a clue about New York or New Yorkers. I played a “neighbor” of the Louds called “Minnie Minnola,” an aspiring fashion model. Michael Stipe was called Shep; he might have been a plumber or something. That was the Loud Family: We just had these fake names and fake jobs and yelled at each other in fake New York accents. As Rodger Brown (who lived next door and had to put up with the yelling) puts it so well in Party out of Bounds, Athens in the early ’80s was “like a rock-opera version of Lord of the Flies meets Gilligan’s Island, where the twenty-one-year-olds can’t believe they’re no longer twelve.”
So on a boiling hot September afternoon in 1981 we had The Loud Family Reunion. And Ingrid Schorr, as Minnie Minnola, doused her hair with vegetable oil (’cause that’s what New Yorkers do!), borrowed a loud ugly ’60s print dress and hung those sunglasses from its neckline (’cause that’s what New Yorkers wear!), ate several slabs of chocolate cake with hash baked into it, and went nuts. The photo in R.E.M. Inside Out of Ingrid/Minnie was evidently taken sometime before she took off the dress, squirted herself with canned frosting, and danced naked around the party to the B-52’s second album.
R.E.M. was on tour and didn’t attend the reunion. Except for Shep, they didn’t play those games, anyway.
So Matt, you’ve already mutated into “Matt Spaulding,” the boy who called Monica Lewinsky “Big Mac,” never knowing that she had a crush on you, never dreaming that her hurt feelings would turn into a shame spiral that nearly brought down the Presidency. Keep up with the literature, Matt. Through the biographical reiterations of Monica’s story, you can find out who you really are. You could even jump genres. Perhaps Chelsea Clinton’s anger at her father will inspire her to drop out of Stanford and become R.E.M.’s new drummer, and you too will show up in a biography named after an R.E.M. song. Or maybe we’ll just appear in the same “Where are they now” issue of People: the boy who first rejected “that woman, Ms. Lewinsky” and the don’t-go-back-to-Rockville girl.
Until then, I’ll be reading as fast as I can.