Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Musical Mysteries: What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?

R.E.M.: What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?

I know that my chosen song for this piece asks a question, but the answer to the question isn’t the mystery. In this case, it is the question itself, and the context in which it became famous, that is the mystery, albeit one that was solved years after the precipitating event, and the release of this song.

On October 4, 1986, newscaster Dan Rather was walking on Park Avenue in New York to his apartment after having dinner with a friend, when he was attacked and beaten by two “well-dressed” men, one of whom kept demanding, “Kenneth, what was the frequency?” Why Rather was attacked, why the assailant demanded to know the “frequency,” and kept calling Rather “Kenneth” were mysteries. Rather was quoted as saying, "I got mugged. Who understands these things? I didn't and I don't now. I didn't make a lot of it at the time and I don't now. I wish I knew who did it and why, but I have no idea." The New York Times article about the incident referred to the motive as a “mystery,” so I guess this officially validates my choice of subject.

The phrase, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth,” became part of popular culture afterwards, and in October, 1993, about 7 years after the event, R.E.M. recorded a song with that title, and included it on the 1994 album, Monster. According to Michael Stipe, the song isn’t directly about the Dan Rather incident, but is about the Generation X phenomenon in contemporary mass media, sung in character as an older critic whose information consists exclusively of media products:

I wrote that protagonist as a guy who's desperately trying to understand what motivates the younger generation, who has gone to great lengths to try and figure them out, and at the end of the song it's completely fucking bogus. He got nowhere.

Rather actually performed the song with R.E.M. on the Late Show With David Letterman. Based on that clip, it is no mystery why Rather did not pursue a singing career.

In 1997, the mystery was solved.

Just prior to the release of Monster in 1994, William Tager shot and killed an NBC technician, Campbell Montgomery, outside the sound studio of the Today Show. Tager had tried to enter the the studio with an assault rifle, and Montgomery died in an attempt to block him. Tager was arrested and reportedly told police that the television network had been monitoring him for years and beaming secret messages into his head. He apparently came to NBC looking for a way to block those transmissions.

Tager was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in Sing Sing prison, not far up the road from where I’m sitting right now, and later told a psychiatrist that he was a time traveler from a parallel world in the year 2265. A convicted felon in the future, Tager said he was a test-pilot volunteer in a dangerous time travel experiment. If he was successful on his mission, his sentence would be overturned and he would be set free. The authorities in the future kept tabs on him via an implanted chip in his brain. During the examinations, Trager also confessed that he had attacked Dan Rather because he mistook him for the Vice President of his future world, one Kenneth Burrows. When Rather saw a picture of Tager in the newspaper, he identified him as the man who attacked him.

Of course, Dan Rather’s career took off after his coverage of the assassination of JFK in 1963, an event which some believe has never been properly solved. They’re wrong.

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