Reflections On Mike: Charles Cote

Making a Monster Part 3: Mike Mills Needs a Doctor!

“We have the best job in the world. We are so lucky to be able to do this…”, said Bill Berry from behind his drum kit. R.E.M. had just finished warming up by playing the first 2 tracks from Monster. The other members of R.E.M. smiled and nodded in agreement. This statement really left an impression on me. Even after all the years of playing together, it was obvious to anyone watching them that R.E.M. still enjoyed the creative process of writing and recording. This wasn’t the only time that I heard Bill Berry say this… I heard him say it at least 3 or 4 more times over the month or so of recording in Atlanta.

I can totally relate to what he is talking about. For a musician, the most intense moments often come during the writing process. The spark of a song coming to life can be a natural high. And it is the pursuit of this creative bliss that keeps bands together, always reaching higher, always looking for that next great song.

The band took a break. I had just gotten back from another shopping run, buying items that each member wanted (the list of which, as promised, will be coming up in a future post.) Each member visited the various coolers that we had set up, and helped themselves to refreshments. All seemed to be going well, I thought… it had been smooth sailing since that coffee filter incident a couple of days ago.

“Where did Mike go?”, asked Bill, referring of course to his band mate and bassist Mike Mills. “I don’t think he has been feeling well this morning.”

“I’ll check on him.”, said a concerned Michael Stipe. A few minutes later, Michael returned. “I think something is wrong with Mike. He is in the bathroom throwing up.” A few minutes later, Mike emerged, looking a bit green around the edges. Everyone gathered around him, looking concerned. Mike Mills looked a bit annoyed at the attention. “I’m fine… I’m fine… just a little stomach ache, nothing to be concerned about.”

His reaction to everyone’s concern seemed to tell a story in itself. These guys were the focus of attention much of the time, and no doubt all the fussing over must get annoying. He looked as if he wanted to say, “can’t a guy barf without it becoming a national news story,” or something like that. It was clear that he wanted to be left alone in his nausea.

After a while, he appeared to be feeling better, strapped his Fender P bass, and R.E.M. resumed their session. I met with Microwave to go over the day’s activities. We talked out in the hall way, and had to raise our voices just a bit to be able hear over the music. Suddenly, the music stopped. We went inside to see if the band was taking another break (I was always ready to man my coolers and take refreshment requests.) They had stopped playing because Mike Mills had gotten sick again. It appeared that today’s session was going to be cut short. Perhaps I would get off early, go home, and do some bass playing of my own.

Then, suddenly, my duties changed for the day. As a precaution, R.E.M. decided to have Mike see a doctor. Microwave filled me in. “It’s probably nothing, but we don’t want to take any chances. A doctor is waiting back at the band’s hotel. You need to get Mike there quickly, but without incident. Do you have your truck with you?”

My truck was a blue ’88 Mitsubishi Mighty Max pickup. Hardly the kind of vehicle that you would expect to see a rock star riding around in. There was also a slight problem. Recently, my wife and I had taken a trip to Tampa to visit our parents. Tampa was about an 8 hour drive away, and we had our cat with us. Why we decided to take our cat is a mystery to me now… but back then, we treated our cat like a child, therefore, we took him on the trip. The cat rode in the back (in a cat carrier of course) for about 7.5 hours, until my wife finally convinced me that he should ride in the front for the last half hour or so into Tampa.

We put the cat in the truck, and the first thing he did was squat on the passenger side floor and pee. And boy, did he pee… way more than you might imagine for a cat. We did our best to clean it up, but over the next several days, that truck started to stink really bad. Combine that with the fact that I had spilled a big gulp in the exact same place a couple of months before, and you had the recipe for a truly bad smelling vehicle.

“Yeah… I have my truck with me… but…” I started thinking about how horrible the thing smelled. The last thing I wanted was to be remembered by Mike Mills of R.E.M. as the guy with the smelliest truck in the whole world. “My truck really stinks. My cat peed in it recently, and I can’t get the smell out. Wouldn’t you rather take a cab or something?…” Everyone looked at Mike. It was his call. Mike really wanted to get back to the hotel, get the Doctor thing over with and call it a day. “No problem. We can take your truck. Let’s go.”

We got into the truck. Mike was looking kind of green still. We bounced down the Atlanta’s interstate, toward R.E.M.’s hotel. The shocks in my truck were in bad shape, which just added insult to injury. It was like being on Noah’s Ark… lots of rocking, and bad animal smells. There was an awkward silence. Finally, he said, “Wow, this truck really smells bad doesn’t it!”. I said, “Yeah, I tried to warn you.” I was really nervous and embarrassed, so I didn’t say much. I would have liked to talk about bass or something musical, but nothing really came out. Mike didn’t appear to want to talk much, because he was so nauseous. We talked a little, but really, all he wanted to do was get out of the truck as soon as possible.

When we reached the hotel, he got out. “Thanks for the ride.”, he said.

“Should I call someone and tell them that you made if safe?”, I said. Mike looked visibly annoyed… not at me, but the idea that he was famous enough that people were tracking his every move. “Don’t be silly… they don’t need to know everything.”

After dropping off Mike Mills, I went home for the day. A few hours later, I got a call from Microwave telling me that Mike had appendicitis, and was going to be in the hospital for a couple of days. The session would be delayed for a few days, and resume after he got back.

To this day, I wonder if Mike Mills remembers his stinky ride to the doctor. I had always been a fan of his. I love Mike’s bass playing on “Texarkana”. Overall, he lends a really cool vibe to R.E.M.’s music… tasteful note choices and warm bass tones that always seem perfect for the occasion. So, as a bass player, I always look back on Mike’s trip to the doctor as a missed opportunity to ask him a cool music question, or discover something interesting about playing bass in a huge arena, or which gear he likes to use when playing live. Instead, he probably remembers the ride the same way you remember a food or smell that made you sick… to this day, I hate ginger bread because when I was a kid, I got really sick a couple of days before christmas from eating a stale ginger bread man. I wonder if Mike sees small blue pickup trucks and thinks “I’m not getting anywhere near that thing…”

Originally published on 14 December 2004 by The Reverse Engineers Blog
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