Inverviews: Cover Story

By Bo Emerson

Entering an uncharted dream state and leaving the rock underground

LINCOLN, Neb. – Pete Buck and Bill Berry are lounging on sofas in the dressing room of a concert hall three hours before showtime when the December issue of Rolling Stone magazine reaches the newstands. The cover line reads: “R.E.M., America’s Best Rock & Roll Band.”

The sound we hear in this cement block room is the death knell for R.E.M.’s classification as an “underground” band. Like it or not, the University of Georgia dropouts and their dream-logic songs are now part of the mainstream.

Guitar “roadie” Mark Mytrowitz – a. k. a. Microwave – brings them the portentous news that the magazine is out, along with a bag full of meat-filled pastries called runza, a local delicacy. “Now you’ll have to act like Rolling Stone cover boys,” says Microwave. “We can start by getting management scum out of the dressing room,” says Berry.

How do they feel about the accolade? “It’s really embarrassing,” says Berry, the drummer and backing vocalist, who has seen advance proofs of the magazine. “I like the picture, I like the way I look in it, I just don’t like what it said. There is no best band.” But, with a grin, he admits, “I’ll take it. I’ve had worse things said about me.”

Not much worse. Though commercial radio took its time finding out about the band, the group has enjoyed almost unanimous critical acclaim since the 1981 release of its first single, “Radio Free Europe/Sitting Still” on independent HibTone Records.

The Village Voice praised the single as a dividing point in the history of rock music. Rolling Stone chose 1983′s Murmur, R.E.M.’s first LP, as album of the year. These plaudits were accompanied by a gentle crescendo of sales, as each album outsold the one before.

Now that Document, the band’s fifth and latest, is inching toward platinum status (sales of a million) and the first single off that album, “The One I Love,” is in Billboard’s pop Top 20, the group has crossed out of college radio and into the hit-oriented airwaves.

“All these stations that for years would never play our records now sort of have to play them,” says guitarist Buck, strumming an unamplified Robin guitar backstage as the Lincoln audience congregate in this shoebox-shaped hall of about 7,500 seats. “I’ve had people tell me to my face, ‘We’re never going to play your records. You don’t fit our format.’ And I ask them what their format is, and they say, ‘I’m talking real New Wave – Blondie, Oingo Boingo.’

“After five albums, whether you like us or not, you can’t say that these guys are horrible,” Buck adds. “We’re good. One good record could be a flash in the pan, but five good records aren’t.”

So how are the guys celebrating their star status? Raucous partying? Wild spending? Actually, out here on the “Work” tour, they’re reading. Bassist-backup vocalist Mike Mills is flipping through “Strangers” by Dean R. Koontz (“Trash,” he says). Buck has just devoured the “Joe Orton Diaries” and a Raymond Chandler story collection, and in the next day will read James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and Lester Bang´s posthumous rock criticism screed, “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.” Berry is reading Interview magazine, and vocalist Michael Stipe has gone out to dinner with friends. Aside from the “New Leave It to Beaver” flickering on the background TV, this could be study hall back at UGA.

In fact, disregarding Stipe´s Salvation Army clothing style, this group has an overwhelming sense of normalcy about them. Between tours, they all live in Athens, where they met as college students, forming a band in 1980. They show up in local clubs (Mills and Berry are in a ’60s “copy” band called the Corncob Webs) and play music just for the hell of it. Now and then Buck works behind the counter at Wuxtry records in Athens, keeping his eye out for old Shaggs discs.

All this tends to endear the group to its followers, and on a chilly Monday night in Lincoln, the fans are out in force to see the newly acclaimed Kings of Rock.

Lincoln is like Athens in some ways, a college town in a mostly rural state, big on sports and short on pretensions. But there is something amiss tonight. The trouble is foreshadowed by widespread grumbling over the fact that the virtual sell-out show has assigned seating rather than general admission tickets.

Seats are usually up for grabs in Pershing Municipal Auditorium – the burly Cornhuskers apparently enjoy physical conflict in the concert hall as much as on the football field. But at last year’s general-admission R.E.M. concert here the crush was so heavy near the stage that, according to Berry, several kids were brought over the footlights to avoid being pounded flat. The band has requested assigned seating for this show.

The dB’s, a power-pop ensemble from Winston-Salem fronted by Peter Holsapple, are pleased with the reaction to their energetic opening set. But after 14 songs, including “The One I Love,” (which is usually reserved as an encore), R.E.M. clearly has become frustrated. Many ticket holders in the first rows are taking the show sitting down.

“How many of you feel that 80 percent of your senses are functioning right now?” asks Stipe. There are whoops and hollers. “How many of you think that this has been a pretty poor performance?” A few joking hands shoot up and Stipe suggests that any malcontents allow others to take their places. There are deafening cheers, but no one leaves. The band plays four more songs and two sets of encores.

After the show, the members of the band come out to meet those fans carrying backstage passes. R.E.M. does this after every show. Tonight they are unstintingly polite, they pose for pictures with fans. But the rockers seem ill at ease. Stipe looks at the floor.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – “How do you feel?” asks the pretty blond receptionist at the Majestic Hotel.

“About like I look.” says Buck, wild-haired and hungover.

Back in the dressing room, Mills daintily eats a double order of take-out sushi while Buck contemplates the encroaching years. “I’m 30 years old, and for some reason I’m finally growing hair on my chest,” he says. “Why can’t it grow on my head, where it can do some good? Any hair that grows underneath your shirt is wasted.”

Buck, who has never had a cup of coffee in his life, drinks a few beers before each show to slow down his warp-speed metabolism. Then he gets on a rowing machine and works out. He won’t eat for several hours beforehand, but he will steal tastes of the hot green wasabe off of Mills’ plate. “AAAH!” says Buck, clenching his outstretched fists as this legendary Japanese horseradish burns brightly. “GOOD.”

Tonight’s reception, by a dancing, singing crowd of 4,800 puts the spirits of the band back in the pink. Stipe whirls and capers across the stage. Buck, his French cuffs down to his knuckles, whips his low-slung Rickenbacker around like a square-dance partner. Everything goes better. A Greenpeace representative, who is manning a table at every show, signs up twice as many members as he did the night before.

There is a feeling of ebullience after the show, and a sense of tolerance for the Missouri teenagers who follow the players back to the hotel in a motley caravan. As Chris Edwards points out, this is an exceedingly polite group of fans. They don’t trespass inside the lobby but offer records to be autographed as Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe pass by. The musicians oblige.

In the hotel lounge, by happy coincidence, are members of another Georgia band, Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’. The two groups toast each other and the lousy bars they’ve played, and the conversation lasts into the wee hours of the morning.

Chris Edwards, junior head knocker and assistant tour coordinator, remembers those early bar gigs. He was part owner of Tyrone’s, the tiny Athens club where the band had its start in 1980, and he saw its potential then. Edwards remembers telling Mills, “You guys are going to go as far as you want, you can do anything you want,” and Mills responded, “Don’t worry, whatever happens, we’ll always play Tyrone’s for a dollar a head.”

With a wry grin he notes, “Lucky for them Tyrone’s burned down.”

The success of Murmur and the groups second album, Reckoning, R.E.M. went from venues like Tyrone’s to concert halls like the Fox. Document has brought a change of even greater magnitude, though where and when the ripples from this album will subside no one knows.

“I don’t know if it’s a turning point,” says Mills. “It’s kind of a culmination of things so far – our first radio hit, our first album with any chance to go platinum, the last year of our contract with I.R.S. We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do then. Next year should be interesting.”

“The One I Love” sounded the first notes of change. Radio stations that previously ignored the band’s music now want interviews. One happy-talking drive-time jock addressed Berry as “Phil” throughout a recent telephone conversation, broadcast live, and asked if the band was from the northeast. “I’d rather dig ditches than do those,” says Buck.

There is also the changing relationship between R.E.M. and its listeners to consider. Before this 40-city fall tour began, the band members gathered enough gingko leaves from a particular tree in Athens to include one in every packet sent out to fan-club members. Such quirky touches perpetuate the air of conspiracy between the band and its audience. But there probably aren’t enough gingko leaves in Clarke County for the expanded circle of customers.

Mills knows the band’s rising popularity will alienate some of the oldest followers, and is matter-of-fact about their probable disaffection. “They’ll go and find some other fledgling band to support,” he says. “It’s a cyclical thing.”

But Mills and his compatriots will not lose any fans because they compromised their art. Though the lyrics have become more intelligible through the last two albums, the band still constructs its asymmetrical songs through a democratic process of “everybody making noise at one time,” says Mills.

And somehow these songs , with their disjointed syntax and arching, antiphonal choruses, continue to touch the collective unconscious of the listeners.

R.E.M. winds up its “Work” tour with four shows at the Atlanta Fox. Tickets for those shows were virtually sold out in one day. That this band has stayed so true to its original inspiration, and is bringing its music back home for the traditional Thanksgiving week concerts is reason for thanks-giving.

Originally published on 21 November 1987 by The Atlanta Journal Weekend

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