Music History #20: "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"

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“What's The Frequency, Kenneth?”
Written by Bill Berry, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe (1993)
Performed by R.E.M.

The Music

It makes sense that R.E.M., a band whose lyrics were often cryptic and indecipherable, would find inspiration for a song in the mysterious circumstances surrounding a physical attack on newsman Dan Rather. “It was the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century,” said singer Michael Stipe. “It's a misunderstanding that was scarily random, media-hyped and just plain bizarre.”

Though the title was lifted directly from a phrase uttered by one of Rather's assailants, the song itself tackled a much broader subject. Stipe said, “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 bogus. He got nowhere.”

As the first single from the band's 1993 Monster album, “What's The Frequency, Kenneth?” went to #21 on the charts (but only after the phrase “Don't f*** with me” was edited out for the radio version). Two years later (in a surreal moment that fits with this story), Dan Rather joined the band on stage in New York to warble along on a performance of the song.

Here's the official video:

And here's R.E.M. with guest vocalist Dan Rather:

The History

At about 11 pm on the night of October 4, 1986, CBS anchorman Dan Rather was walking along Park Avenue in New York, on the way back to his apartment. Just as he neared the building's entrance, he was accosted by two well-dressed men. One asked, “What is the frequency, Kenneth?” Rather replied, “You must be mistaking me for someone else . . .” With that, the man knocked Rather to the ground, and as he kicked and punched him, he repeatedly asked his strange question. Rather called out for help, and a moment later, as the doorman and the building's super arrived on the scene, the assailants fled.

The police took a statement, but no one was ever arrested or charged.

So was it just a random, unprovoked attack? A case of mistaken identity? Were the attackers some kind of secret agents delivering a message to Rather to back off a particular news story (at the time, he was researching the Iran Contra affair and was set to expose new information)?

Rather himself had no answers. “I got mugged,” he said shortly after. “Who understands these things? I didn't and I don't now. I didn't make a lot of it at the time and don't now. I wish I knew who did it and why, but I have no idea.”

Future Shock

The incident was strange, but it got even stranger. In 1994, a North Carolina man named 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.

His story took a sci-fi twist when he 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 photograph of Tager, he identified him as his assailant.

And there's yet another strand of intrigue to the tale. In 2001, Paul Limbert Allman wrote a speculative piece about the incident for Harper's Magazine. In exploring the work of post-modern fiction writer Donald Barthelme, Allman had discovered in his stories a recurring character named Kenneth and the phrase “What's the frequency?” Both Rather and Barthelme were the same age, hailed from Houston, Texas and as young men, worked as journalists. Allman thought it was reasonable to assume that their paths might've crossed. Furthermore, in one of Barthelme's books, there's a character named Lather, a conceited editor who bears a resemblance to Rather. The unspoken question was: Did Barthelme somehow inspire Tager's attack on Rather?

Barthelme died in 1989, and his brother Frederick, also a writer, has refused to comment on any connection.

There was also a theory that maybe Rather misheard his assailant's words, or even invented them. After all, this was a newscaster known for his colorful off-the-cuff analogies and descriptions that came to be called “Ratherisms.” Examples: “This thing is as tight as the rusted lug nuts on a '55 Ford” and “You would sooner find a tall talking broccoli stick to offer to mow your lawn for free.”

In 2010, William Tager was released from prison on good behavior. He currently lives in New York City, where he is closely monitored by parole officers and mental health counselors.

Rather retired from CBS in 2005. At 81, he continues to be active as a writer and occasional correspondent. He lives part time in New York City.

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March 12, 2013 - 5:00pm
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