R.E.M.'s Southern-Fried Art

The thinking fan's rock band just wants you to dance

REM,Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Bill Berry, Mike Mills backstage at the Palladium, New York City, June 22nd, 1984 Credit: Richard E. Aaron/Getty

For about twenty minutes in Ottawa last August, the four members of R.E.M. thought they were the most boring rock & roll band on the planet. Marching soberly into their first number, the harsh, funereal "Feeling Gravitys Pull," at a local club called Barrymore's, they trudged through half a dozen songs like studio zombies, hitting every note and plucking every string with numbing accuracy. Their performance was tight, absolutely correct — and utterly lifeless. The sell-out crowd greeted them like conquering heroes, the hip generals of America's New Music revolt. But R.E.M. knew this was third-rate entertainment, rock by numbers, and they hated themselves for it.

 So they hit the covers with a vengeance, starting with clumsy stomps through Brownsville Station's "Smokin' in the Boys' Room" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." Singer Michael Stipe recited the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" and blew half the lyrics to "Secret Agent Man." Guitarist Peter Buck challenged a heckler who yelled "Fuck you" during their a cappella reading of "Moon River" to come backstage after the show, presumably for a good beating. By the end of the set, songs by Marc Bolan, Jonathan Richman and the Monkees had been fried beyond recognition, in spite of Bill Berry's yeoman drumming, and Buck had ripped most of Stipe's clothing to shreds. This is how R.E.M. is changing the face of American rock & roll?

"The most crippling thing for a band like us," bassist Mike Mills explains over a few Buds about two weeks later in a Washington D.C. hotel room, "would be to feel that we have to do a really professional set. Once we decide that because people paid money that we have to give them the most perfect set we can, we're finished."

He recalls a similar free-for-all in Buffalo a couple of years ago. "We did maybe five of our own songs and the rest was all covers. A couple of guys came up after the show and wanted their money back because we didn't play enough R.E.M. songs. We told them they were completely missing the point. We were playing rock & roll, and we gave everything we had for it."

R.E.M. is now well paid for its sacrifice. Four years ago, they would return home to Athens, Georgia, from a six-week cross-country tour of slummy beer joints and creepy New Wave discos — sleeping five to a hotel room (including Jefferson Holt, their manager), doing up to five hundred miles a day in a green Dodge van — and split forty-five dollars in profit between them. This year, the band's third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, zipped straight into Billboard's Top Thirty, selling over 300,000 copies in only three months, while on tour R.E.M. is selling out the likes of Radio City Music Hall. Buck, whose previous job experience includes washing dishes and cleaning toilets, expects to make at least $24,000 this year, not including future Fables songwriting royalties.

That is humble money compared to the megawealth of Prince and Bruce Springsteen, but R.E.M.'s real achievements transcend record-company arithmetic. In 1980 and 1981, when many top New Wave acts mostly toured major cities, R.E.M. whipped through such forgotten markets as Greensboro, North Carolina, and Louisville, Kentucky, establishing a vital link between small, active but heretofore isolated New Music scenes. Later on, they showed good taste in opening acts, booking fellow rebels the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and Jason and the Scorchers, providing national exposure that in some cases led to major-label deals.

More important, R.E.M.'s success has proven to America's postpunk generation the power of underground virtues in the overground world. Fables producer Joe Boyd describes the group's attitude as an "absence of doubt without arrogance." Hardly standard-issue rock & roll bullies, R.E.M. instead practices a kind of homespun sorcery, with Michael Stipe's onomatopoeic bleating and the pretzel twists of such haunting folk-pop carols as "So. Central Rain" on last year's Reckoning and "Driver 8," a panoramic train song, on Fables. Then they package the music in playful abstract videos and cryptic cover art, like the spooky kudzu still life on 1983's Murmur. Onstage they conduct their hoodlum punk business — Stipe's mutant frugging, Buck's frantic scissors kicks — in near darkness, the dusky lighting (designed by Stipe) creating the illusion of Who-like shadow puppets.

In short, by most record-company standards, R.E.M. gets away with murder. When they selected Boyd, the American-born godfather of British folk-rock (the producer of Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention), to produce Fables, I.R.S. Records, the band's label, raised a few commercial objections. R.E.M. flew to London to record with Boyd anyway, under the flimsy pretext of cutting some demos.

"R.E.M. has a very firm vision of what they want to do and how they want to do it," says Jay Boberg, president of I.R.S., sighing. "If their album covers are not good marketing tools, hey, too bad for us. They're not willing to compromise that." Their only notable concession to I.R.S. was a series of seven stadium dates opening for the Police in 1983. Buck claims that if the tour had gone on even a week longer, the band would have broken up just to get out of it.

"We get away with a lot of shit," grins Buck, 28, who's obviously hit the bottom of his road laundry in his grimy Iron Maiden sweat shirt. A day-glo-orange toy monkey dangles from his belt loop. "But it's reasonable shit. It's not like we're asking for the brown M&M's to be taken out of the dish. We want the power of our lives in our own hands. We made a contract with the world that says, 'We're going to be the best band in the world; you're going to be proud of us. But we have to do it our way.' "

Formed in Athens in April 1980, the embryonic R.E.M. was an unlikely alliance. Easygoing Bill Berry (a native of Hibbing, Minnesota, Bob Dylan's hometown) and chipper, bookish-looking Mike Mills had already played together in sock-hop bands in nearby Macon. Buck, who worked at a used-record store, was a motormouth from Atlanta, well versed in rock culture but "a little too cynical for his own good," according to Berry. The youngest of the four, Stipe was also the strangest. "Michael said he liked my eyebrows," Berry says, chuckling. "He claims to this day that's the reason he wanted us to get together."

Happy in the lazy groove of student life at the University of Georgia, R.E.M. lived only from weekend to weekend, playing student parties where they drew both punky hipsters and woolly frat animals. They released an indie single, "Radio Free Europe"/"Sitting Still," essentially to help get club gigs. To their utter amazement, it topped many critics' best-of lists for 1981. At the time, says Berry, 27, R.E.M. was basically "three chords and a six-pack of beer."

Even three chords is stretching it: self-taught guitarist Buck says that the first ten songs R.E.M. ever wrote all started with an A chord. "It was the only chord I really liked."

As singer and lyricist, Michael Stipe, 25, took the band on its first turns into deep left field. A well-traveled army brat born in Decatur, Georgia, he studied painting and photography at U. of G., developing a special taste for surrealism and medieval manuscript illumination. His songwriting soon mirrored those interests. On pivotal early originals, like "Gardening at Night" and "Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)," both included on the 1982 EP Chronic Town, Stipe combined vivid imagery with pithy telegraphic phrasing, sacrificing grammar for impact. "He leaves out essential parts of speech," Berry warns. "People try to guess the next word before he says it. Then when it's not there, they completely lose it." "He can see the way things fall apart," adds Mills, 26, "rather than the way things fall together."

"A lot of my critics say the words are complete chaos," admits Stipe. With his severely cut hair, now dyed golden blond, and hushed, almost religious demeanor, he suggests nothing so much as a Hasidic surfer. "In some cases, they really are. But more likely than not, they are extremely linear." Indeed, many of the songs on Fables are narrative, pastoral travelogues rooted in a wistful, almost nineteenth-century yearning for decency and honesty. Yet Stipe finds that even sincere fans mistake his probing eccentricity for mere weirdness. Among the gifts he's received on tour recently are a ball-peen hammer, bouquets of human hair ("I don't even want the hair of people that I know") and a turtle.

"But let people think what they want to," Stipe shrugs. "That's probably entertaining to them, considering me some kind of weird jigsaw puzzle where they can't quite find out where the missing pieces are." It's just too bad, he adds, that "a lot of people don't see the humor in what we do."

Until recently, R.E.M. road life was one laugh after another. On their first tour above the Mason-Dixon line, the band got as far north as Princeton University, where they played a dance. "The theme for this party," Buck remembers, "was 'Lust in Space.' There were these Princeton guys, the young hearts and minds of America, walking around with big aluminum-foil penises." The band, of course, went "totally insane. We were leaping into the audience and attacking people. We got five encores, and people were throwing their metal dildos on stage."

Bill Berry's favorite story is about the night the band pulled into a Howard Johnson's during an all-night haul to Ohio. Berry, who was at the wheel, claims they drove sixty miles before they realized they'd left their manager back in the HoJo men's room. It was another forty before they could turn around on the turnpike. "I figured we eventually drove an extra two hundred miles to go back for him.

"Compared to what used to be a really ripe situation for weird things to happen, this is kind of predictable." Berry gestures, a little sadly, around the band's roomy tour bus (the sign on front says, NOBODY YOU KNOW). "The funny little things don't happen anymore."

They are content with their modest prosperity. Buck recently bought a house; otherwise, his chief indulgences are records and beer. Mills and Berry both own hot new wheels, a turquoise '66 Thunderbird and a lavender '60 Ford Galaxie, respectively. Stipe buys art, and he recently purchased two mud paintings by Juanita Rogers. Otherwise, he says, "I have a bicycle to get around, and in the winter my mom lets me borrow her car."

But R.E.M.'s growing popularity has brought with it responsibility for a movement they inspired — the current American guitar-based rediscovery of Sixties song values and Seventies punk spirit — but never asked to lead. New groups are already copying the jump-and-jangle of R.E.M.'s sound without understanding the message of their conviction. Upstate-New York band 10,000 Maniacs, close friends of R.E.M., told Buck that of the local bands opening for them on a recent East Coast swing, half did "Radio Free Europe."

Those bands would do better to heed these words from Mike Mills: "We do it because around the corner is another thrill. Not another thousand bucks."