On October 4, 1986, Dan Rather (the then-longtime CBS News anchor) was accosted on his way home from a friend's house in New York City. The attacker was well-dressed in a suit, and he greeted Rather by asking "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" When Rather answered "you've got the wrong guy," the attacker punched him in the face and asked again. Hearing no answer, he then punched Rather a second time, knocked him to the ground, and kicked him several times in the back, all the while insistently repeating "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" The attack by that point had spilled from the street to the lobby of an apartment building. Though Rather had money on him, he was not robbed: the attacker took off when the superintendent of the building came around to help.
Two days after the incident, the New York Times reported on the story, calling it "bizarre" and noting that the police were "mystified." The article speculated that it might have been a case of mistaken identity, as Mr. Rather was named "Dan" rather than "Kenneth." It also reported that Rather's on-air return was uncertain; he was scheduled to fly to Iceland to cover talks between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, but CBS wasn't sure that he'd be ready. (Google teaches us that he ultimately made the trip, and that the talks ended in "great disappointment."
Following the attack, the bad guy was never caught, no motivation was ever determined, and the incident slowly faded into obscurity. But (as most of you have long figured out by now), the persistent question "Kenneth, what's the frequency" inspired the band R.E.M. to write and record the song "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", which was the lead track and first single from its 20-years-old-last-month album Monster. The song was a hit for R.E.M.: it peaked at 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was the first ever song to debut at number 1 on the Modern Rock chart.
For his part, Dan Rather was pretty chill about his attacker's refrain becoming the basis of a pop song: he even joined R.E.M. on stage at Madison Square Garden during a soundcheck performance of the song. The event, which was predictably awkward but charming, was broadcast on David Letterman's show the next night.
BONUS FACT 1: More than 10 years after the incident, the identity of Rather's attacker was determined to be a man named William Tager. The mystery was solved after Tager was convicted of murdering a technician for NBC News outside of the set of the Today show in 1994. Tager admitted to the attack on Rather and said that he had carried out both that attack and the murder because he was convinced that television stations were monitoring him and sending signals to his brain. In that context, his desperate demand to know the frequency is a pretty sad detail.
BONUS FACT 2: In addition to the song's namesake inspiration, there is another famous pop culture reference in "What's the Frequency Kenneth?". In the second verse, Michael Stipe sings "Richard said 'withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.'" The "Richard" that Stipe is referring to is Richard Linklater, the famous movie director who made the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, and most recently Boyhood. In a scene from Linklater's cult movie Slacker, one of the characters offers an "Oblique Strategies" card to a passerby. The card reads "withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy."
BONUS FACT 3: As it turns out, the "Oblique Strategies" cards in Bonus Fact 2 have a fascinating backstory: the cards were invented by Brian Eno and the artist Peter Schmidt as a way to "help artists...break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking." Each card contained a different phrase, and they were printed in a very limited, hand-numbered-and-signed production. Original sets are now highly-prized collectables. According to the linked source, Eno used Oblique Strategies cards to help both Coldplay and David Bowie record albums.
BONUS FACT 4: In the song, Stipe imagines that the phrase "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" is the attacker's "Benzedrine." Benzedrine is an amphetamine that was sold starting in the 1930s, and its efficacy as a stimulant made it one of the first recreational drugs in the US. It has a long history in pop culture and arts; having appeared in Kerouac's On the Road, in Ginsberg's Howl, in Burroughs' novel Junky, and in several different James Bond novels including Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and Moonraker.
BONUS FACT 5: Speaking of Allen Ginsberg and Howl, the first lines of that poem make up the opening lyrics of TMFW-favorite They Might Be Giants' song "I Should Be Allowed to Think," from the sincerely-underrated album John Henry.
BONUS FACT 6: The brightly decorated suit that Mike Mills wears in the "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" video (linked above, but here it is again) was first owned by Gram Parsons.
BONUS FACT 7: The guitar that Peter Buck is playing in the first part of the "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" video (linked above and above, but here it is again) was owned by Kurt Cobain. It is a Fender "Jag-Stang" guitar, which was designed by Cobain to be a hybrid of the existing Fender models the Jaguar and the Mustang. The Jag-Stang in the video was one of the prototypes that Fender made specifically at Cobain's request. It was a gift from Courtney Love to Buck after Cobain's death. At 0:30 of the video, Buck is seen playing it upside down, which was necessary because Cobain was left-handed.