It's a warm, clear fall afternoon in New York City; R.E.M.'s guitarist, Peter Buck, is shopping in midtown Manhattan, trying to answer the young clerk who is ringing up his Jim Carroll and John Waters paperbacks and keeps asking, "Are you from Boston? Do you know any musicians in Boston?" Unfailingly polite, Buck hems and haws, says that he knows a few Boston musicians and adds that he is himself a musician. But while he might well clear things up by telling her that he's in R.E.M., Buck steadfastly refuses to do so. Of course, if the clerk glanced at the floor, she'd see a stack of local music magazines with Buck and his R.E.M. colleagues – Michael Stipe, Bill Berry and Mike Mills – on the cover.
"I will never tell anyone I'm in this band," says an uncomfortable Buck afterward. "That's not why I got into this. If people ask me, 'Do I know you?' I say, 'Maybe.' I try not to be an asshole about it, but I certainly don't want to be one of those people who goes, 'Yeah, you might have seen my face on the cover of the Dickville Daily Ball, one of the new music papers around today. . . .' I mean, who cares?"
Then he walks a couple of blocks toward Central Park and is soon recognized by two young ladies riding in a horse-drawn cab along the perimeter of the park. "Peter! Peter!" they yell across several lanes of New York City traffic, and Peter Buck grins. "Yeah," he says, "this is a pretty good job I've got."
And how does he see that job? "We're the acceptable edge," he says, shrugging, "of the unacceptable stuff."
And that, in a nutshell, is R.E.M., circa 1987: more popular than ever before, enjoying the spoils of success, having fun in territory that's new, yet not completely comfortable with the trappings of fame. It wouldn't do for the members of this one-time cult band to embrace mass acceptance too readily, but on the other hand their underground status has all but disappeared – so it would hardly make sense for them to turn their backs on the mainstream.
Besides, it's been a good week. The night before, R.E.M. played the second of two sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall. Moments before walking onstage, the band had learned that its new album, Document, was in the Top Twenty and the single "The One I Love" had jumped thirteen places to Number Thirty. Since 1982 each new R.E.M. record has outsold its predecessor, but this was an unexpected leap – an album nearing the platinum level and a bona fide hit single for a band whose singles never do well. And as he scrolled through New York City, Buck was carrying one of the rewards of success: that afternoon he'd plunked down about $500 for an oddly shaped Italian mandolin-cum-lyre ("a mandolin with pretensions," he says) that he'd liked because of its shape and figured he'd learn to play sooner or later.
Once upon a time it seemed that R.E.M. was the ultimate college band. R.E.M. was formed on a college campus, the University of Georgia in Athens, and its early support came from college radio. Its dense, sometimes obscure, folkish pop-rock songs, with enigmatic lyrics by the group's singer and resident eccentric, Michael Stipe, were perfect fodder for late-night dorm discussions. And its guitar-driven sound, take-it-to-the-clubs approach to touring and low-key image helped shatter the prevailing Anglophilia of the early 1980s and influenced regional bands in college towns across the United States.
But now, R.E.M. has finally and fully graduated. The band is out of the underground and into the real world, if you can call rock stardom a real world. And to an observer watching Peter Buck buy a new instrument or get recognized on the street, it's hard not to think of the chorus of R.E.M.'s next single. "It's the end of the world as we know it," sings Michael Stipe, and then he tosses out the punch line: "And I feel fine."
"Iwill never, ever, ever, ever play another general-admission show, ever. Ever. And I will never, ever, ever play a place that's bigger than the place we played tonight, ever." A pause. "Did I put enough evers in there?" It's one day later, and Peter Buck isn't feeling so fine. R.E.M. has just played to 12,000 fans in Williamsburg, Virginia, the only general-admission show of their 1987 tour – and while nobody was hurt, the crush down front was serious, and the band was upset.
Not that most people could tell. For about ninety-five minutes, the swarthy, genial drummer, Bill Berry, sat in back in an undershirt and white shorts, pounding with real authority; Mike Mills, whose clean-cut Poindexterish looks contrast with the shaggier, grungier look of the rest of the band, played melodic bass lines and sang backup; Peter Buck stood on the side of the stage, cutting a Keith Richards-esque figure with his black jeans and vest, his white shirt and his low-slung guitar; and in the center Michael Stipe staggered about the stage spasmodically, peeling off layer after layer of coats, jackets and T-shirts and charismatically howling out his mostly dark, sardonic lyrics and introducing songs with deadpan, disjointed comments. It wasn't a great R.E.M. show by any means, but it was tough and forceful – and its problems weren't apparent until the final encore, "The One I Love," when Buck, nailed twice by wet sweat socks thrown from the audience, threw down his guitar and stormed offstage.
After the show, Buck grabs a six-pack from the tour bus and heads toward his room. Like the other members of the band, he isn't sure that when it comes to venues, bigger is better. He for one isn't interested in having R.E.M. become an arena band. "People have been trying to convince me for a long time that we could play bigger places and enjoy it," says the lanky, fidgety, garrulous Buck. "And tonight proved, if nothing else, that there's no fucking way I can. If we ever did a stadium tour, I would imagine it would be about the last thing we'd ever do together."
Some long time fans have already accused R.E.M. of selling out, of courting mainstream success. The band doesn't agree. "If you look at the album charts, the only thing up there on the charts that's weirder than we are is Prince," says Buck. "I mean, this record seems to me to be pretty uncommercial."
But one of the songs from that uncommercial record put R.E.M. over the top, hitting the upper reaches of the singles charts when no previous single – from "Radio Free Europe" to "So. Central Rain" to "Can't Get There from Here" to "Fall on Me" – had even made the Top Seventy-five. And typically enough for this band, "The One I Love" succeeded at least partly because a lot of the audience doesn't know what it's about. Listeners hear the opening lines – "This one goes out to the one I love/This one goes out to the one I left behind" – and miss it when what begins as a rueful love song turns hard: "A simple prop to occupy my time" and, in the last verse, "Another prop has occupied my time."
"It's a brutal kind of song, and I don't know if a lot of people pick up on that," says Michael Stipe. "But I've always left myself pretty open to interpretation. It's probably better that they just think it's a love song at this point." A shrug. "I don't know. That song just came up from somewhere, and I recognized it as being real violent and awful. But it wasn't directed at any one person. I would never, ever write a song like that. Even if there was one person in the world thinking, 'This song is about me,' I could never sing it or put it out."
Now, though, R.E.M. has got to figure out what kind of follow-up record to make, what kind of tour to do, what size halls to play, what kind of lyrics to write. "There's a little bit more weight on my shoulders as far as what I say," says Stipe, who long ago won a reputation for singing his lyrics in an often indecipherable mumble. (The band thinks it's a bad rap: "One lives in a world where things are not what they seem, and I see no reason not to reflect that," says Buck.)
Stipe says that his new visibility means he ought to write clearer lyrics. "I guess I've figured out that I can't just blabber anything I want to anymore, which I've done before, though not a great deal. On some of the earlier songs, whatever I happened to be singing, we recorded it. Some had very distinct ideas: '9-9' has a very distinct idea, but, you know, it was purposely recorded so you could never be able to decipher any of the words except the very last phrase, which was 'conversation fear,' which is what the song was about."
Certainly it's easier to listen to the last two records and hear Stipe's personal distaste for much of modern living, or to hear the concerns of a band some of whose members belong to Greenpeace and quietly donate to selected causes. And while Document is a quirky, thorny record, there's enough clarity on it to help put R.E.M. in unaccustomed company.
"We're Top Twenty now, which is unbelievable," says Stipe. "I can't believe that we're up there with Springsteen or whatever. It doesn't really mean that much, but it does to the industry, and I guess to kids that read.
"And my mom got kinda weepy," he says, grinning, then stops himself. "No, she didn't. But she couldn't believe it, either."
It started with a Macon, Georgia, high-school band that by all rights should never have existed. Bill Berry played drums, Mike Mills played bass, and the combination was unlikely – because Mills and Berry openly and unequivocally hated each other's guts.
At the time, Berry was a budding hoodlum who'd just moved to Macon from the Midwest (he was born in Bob Dylan's home town of Hibbing, Minnesota); Mills was a Georgia native and a self-described "goody-goody." "I hated him from the first time I saw him," Berry says with a laugh, "'cause he had that same kind of nerd appeal that he has now, and I was just starting to experiment with drugs and stuff. He was everything I despised: great student, got along with teachers, didn't smoke cigarettes or smoke pot. . . ."
But an unknowing mutual friend invited Berry to sit in with a band that included Mills. Berry wanted to storm out but couldn't because his drums were too heavy for effective storming; instead, he decided to endure Mills, and before long the two were best friends. Together, they moved to Athens to attend the university, where Berry wanted to study law and become a music-industry lawyer and manager. They'd all but given up music by then – but heartened by the first wave of Seventies punk bands, they took instruments with them to Athens.
Before long they met Peter Buck and another Georgia student, Michael Stipe, who had met each other in the record store Buck managed. Both had spent their childhoods traveling extensively; army brat Stipe, the youngest R.E.M. member (now twenty-seven), developed a keen interest in painting, photography and medieval manuscripts, while Buck, the oldest at thirty, grew up spending all his free money on records (the Velvet Underground, the Move, the Raspberries, the Kinks) and books (Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe).
"My parents were pleased that I was well read," Buck says. "But the fact that I was well read and also listened to Iggy and the Stooges was kinda ... well, they ended up being supportive. Much later."
Athens was full of new rock & roll bands, from the B-52s to Pylon to the Method Actors. R.E.M. wasn't looking to be the next big thing; the four formed a band to have fun and play a few first parties. They also moved in together, taking up residence in an abandoned church that, says Buck, "has been romanticized beyond belief. It was just a rotten, dumpy little shit hole where college kids, only college kids, could be convinced to live."
Their early shows were mostly covers: "Needles and Pins," "God Save the Queen," "Secret Agent Man," "California Sun." "We just tended to play everything loud and fast," says Mills. They made $343 at one of their first shows; Berry still remembers standing under the stage counting the money, which seemed like a fortune.
They began writing their own songs: "Gardening at Night" came very quickly, and "Radio Free Europe" followed shortly thereafter. And when they did their first out-of-town show in North Carolina, pan-time booker Jefferson Holt was impressed. "They'll hate me for this," he says, "but to me the first time I saw them was like what I would have imagined of seeing the Who when they first started. They blitzkrieged through some incredibly pop covers, then they had some of their own songs that were real pop but also some stuff that wasn't pop."
Jefferson Holt soon became their manager. Another friend from Athens, a young lawyer named Bertis Downs IV, helped them handle the legal side of things: he persuaded them to incorporate, even though their only asset was a $1250 van, to form their own publishing company and to trademark the band's name – a precaution Downs says he took because two other R.E.M.'s, one REM and one Rapid Eye Movement had already come and gone. (Downs is still the band's lawyer.)
It wasn't long before gigs got in the way of classes, and Berry was asked to leave the university; the rest of the band decided to drop out, made an independent single ("Radio Free Europe"/"Sitting Still"), toured incessantly and began to pick up college airplay, critical raves and major-label interest. "The thing is," says Holt, laughing, "the great reviews and the Top Ten lists didn't change the fact that we were in a '75 Dodge Tradesman lugging all our gear ourselves and still showing up and playing to eight or nine people."
I.R.S. signed the band and agreed to release the already-recorded EP Chronic Town, provided the band re-record "Radio Free Europe" and "Sitting Still" for their first full-fledged album. Chronic Town got some attention; the album, Murmur, was an instant college radio and underground rock classic.
Reckoning, in 1984, was more of the same – and suddenly it seemed as if the regional American rock scene was full of jangling, guitar-based bands that sounded like R.E.M. and toured like R.E.M. "I think maybe what we did," says Mills, "was give people a touchstone. As an alternative to the synthesizer-dominated electronic music that was being made, we were the most visible sign that something else was going on. It doesn't mean that we were the best, and we certainly weren't the first. But perhaps we were the most accessible and the most visible."
Visible and accessible and influential as they were, the members of the band went through one of their periodic dark spells when they went to London to record their third album, 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction." A lot of things were catching up to us," says Milk "We didn't realize we were going to be asked to do certain commercial kinds of things, and we thought, 'Is this what we really want to do?' It was, maybe, a crisis period, just an overall feeling of unease."
"Fables sucked," says Berry bluntly – though others in the band are somewhat happier with the moody, atmospheric record.
"It wasn't the best time in my life, either." says Fables producer Joe Boyd, who adds that despite R.E.M.'s inner turmoil at the time, "they seemed to get along better than most groups I've worked with." He also found mixing the record to be a singular experience. "When you mix a record, traditionally the singer wants, his voice louder, and the guitar player says, 'Turn up the guitar,' and the bass player says, 'Can't you make the bass parts punchier?' With R.E.M., everyone wanted themselves turned down."
But the next time around, the band turned it up: Lifes Rich Pageant was clearly designed as a hard-edged response to Fables. By then, though, another complaint sometimes crept into R.E.M.'s once unanimously positive reviews: the idea that the band mapped out their musical territory on the early albums and wasn't changing it or challenging its audience.
"We're not so versatile that there's not going to be something in common in all our records," says Berry. "I think we've developed a little more now, to where we can get away with doing a 'King of Birds' on a record, and break it up a little bit. But that's still not going to stop 'Heron House' from sounding a little bit like 'Gardening at Night' slowed down. We try to diversify as much as possible, but a lot of our stuff does tend to sound the same. That's one of our weak points, I'll admit it."
And their strong points?
"I think we've kept our integrity intact pretty much," Berry says. "I'm not doing anything today that I'll be ashamed of in ten years. And we've all aged pretty well. I think we all weigh the same as we did. And we get along, which is pretty rare. I'm not saying we haven't had our flare-ups, but I've had more fights with my wife in the last two years than I have with any of these guys in the last seven years." He shrugs. "Amazingly, our chemistry hasn't broken down yet."
"Hi, my name is Michelle, and I'll be your waitress today."
Michael Stipe looks up at the perky Ramada Inn waitress standing above him and grins shyly. "I'm Michael, and I'll be your . . ." His soft, deep voice trails off. "Um . . . your customer, I guess."
Stipe, certainly, is R.E.M.'s resident oddball, a shambling, simultaneously intense and spacey conversationalist who's apt to interrupt the talk by pulling a couple of pressed leaves out of his pocket or by pointing at an interviewer's hand and saying, "You've got hair on the side of your hand, too." Some of the behavior is clearly due to what Peter Buck calls Stipe's "very weird sense of humor, which is actually two senses of humor. One is very Laurel and Hardy – we can watch Animal House, and he'll laugh at the stuff where I'll think, 'He can't possibly like that.' And then there's the other pan of him, where I can barely tell that he's saving something funny, and people around him can't tell at all."
Some of the eccentricities may be inherited: Stipe says his father has been hoarding bottles in his basement for years. "Now he's decided to build this extension onto my parents' house, made out of bottles," says Stipe. "And he's a math wizard. He and I had this discussion about Vietnam, and he went on for two and a half hours explaining a lot of his ideas about it, and about the draft, and about America and American foreign policy, and somehow it wound up working into rock & roll and how I fit into it."
During the discussion Stipe's father covered a sheet of paper with words and mathematical equations. The result, Stipe says, looked like it belonged in the Swiss museum that collects outsiders' art – the work of mental patients, convicts and others on the fringes of society. "It's really beautiful," says Stipe affectionately.
And some of the eccentricities seem to be the purposeful designs of a shy person who wants to keep the world at arm's length. "Michael is normal as hell, and as different as anybody you'd want to meet," says Jefferson Holt, who lived with Stipe briefly. "It's an act of will by which he creates his life and the space in which he lives."
But if Stipe is the band's shyest, most private member, he's also the one most often besieged by R.E.M. fanatics. "I think a lot of people get presumptuous, think they're soul mates, think Michael is speaking directly to them," says Mike Mills. "I mean, that's the point of some of his lyrics: to get to someone's insides. But that doesn't mean he wants them to come over to his house, you know?"
When the subject is broached, Stipe grows visibly uncomfortable. "Athens is full of people looking for R.E.M.," he says, shaking his head. "Not all the time, but . . ." He trails off. "I don't really want to talk about that because I'm still a little bitter about it."
Still, Stipe says he's learning out how to deal with the attention. "Not to be Cartesian," he says, "but, you know, I feel fairly well protected now from people coming up to me and wanting a piece of me. I'm able to dole out what I want, you know. Whereas before I was a lot more accessible for people to reach in and pull out vital organs."
So Stipe stays in more-protected situations: a large, muscular personal aide stands beside him at backstage gatherings, and he rides from show to show in his own bus (accompanied, on the first leg of the tour, by 10,000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant, whom he joined onstage every night during the Maniacs' opening set), separate from the rest of the band. The separate buses, says the band, weren't planned – but Stipe, who eats health foods and can't stand to be anywhere where the windows won't open, couldn't tolerate the sealed windows in the band bus.
"I used to really hate touring," says Stipe. "But it's gotten easier for me. It's not that I've relaxed more, it's just that the rest of the world has relaxed a little bit, so it's easier for me to walk the streets and stuff. To find food and find water. And find windows that open occasionally."
But the separate buses also reinforce Stipe's separation from the rest of the band, a separation that already existed to some degree. "There is a difference, and it's always been there," says Bill Berry. "There's no doubt that he's an eccentric individual, that that's the way it should be. He is who he is, and R.E.M. is who they are because of who's in it."
Stipe concedes that there are differences between himself and the musicians in the band: for one thing, he prepares for a show by getting quiet and withdrawn, which means the hyperactive Buck has standing orders to say away for a couple of hours before each concert. Still, Stipe says, "we share so much more in common than most people would ever give us credit for. We're very much a group."
Stipe glances across the room, then shakes his head. "I'm watching TV in a mirror," he says. "I just realized that. I've been focusing in on this thing, and it's a television set in a mirror." He grimaces. "Nothing really upsets me more, on a really regular basis, than television. And the whole culture that's built up around it is horrifying. The fact that I can sit here and talk to you, and there's a TV in the corner, and I'm attracted to it . . . The best comparison I can make is moths to a light."
Television culture provided part of the inspiration for "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)," a song, Stipe says, about "bombastic, vomiting sensory overload." But the first line of that song deals with another calamity – "That's great, it starts with an earthquake" – and when he finds out the reporter's from Los Angeles, Stipe's thoughts turn to the recent 6.1 tremor that he's been mentioning when introducing "End of the World."
"Wow, were you there when the earthquake and everything happened?"
"Are you gonna move?"
"A lot of my friends from the West Coast called me immediately, because they wanted to know when the next one was coming. I usually get headaches when an earthquake happens – when Mexico City went down, I was on my back for three days, really bad. But last week was the first time since I became aware of it that there's been an earthquake anywhere in the continent and I didn't know about it ahead of time."
He rambles on about earthquakes for a while, mentions the Superman movie in which Lex Luthor buys up soon-to-be beach-front property in Nevada, then admits that even if California were to fall into the ocean – if it does, he's not saying that it definitely will – the rest of the country would be in big trouble, too.
"My parents' farm is right on a fault line, in Georgia," Stipe says absently. "But it's not like the San Andreas."
He looks up and laughs and does his best to change the topic, albeit in his own disjointed fashion.
"Anyway, earthquake talk," he says with a shrug. "It's the end of the world."
With that, Michael Stipe raises his coffee cup. "Cheers."
"We've already agreed that we will not make Michael go to the West Coast in 1988," says Jefferson Holt, chuckling, as he sits backstage in Fairfax, Virginia, the Washington, D.C., suburb where the band is playing a welcome reserved-seating show. But then, calming Stipe's earthquake phobia isn't going to mean R.E.M. will cancel any shows or reroute any tours next year – because for now the band plans to follow up its biggest success to date with a year, in Bill Berry's words, "to clean out the closer and rearrange the shoes.
"We've been locked in this thing for the last six years," he adds, "We go in the studio, put out a record, tour, rehearse. It's getting to be a really predictable thing. And I'm not saying it's stifling us, but this record bought us the opportunity to take a year off." He laughs. "We were gonna do it anyway, so thank God the record's doing what it is."
After the tour, Berry plans to go fishing, play some golf, spend time on his boat, do some reading and simply hang out in Athens with his wife of a year and a half, Mari. Mills will likely hit the golf course himself, perhaps join a softball or basketball league and definitely spend some time working in his yard. Buck will go back to the big new house he recently bought, which is cluttered with the flotsam and jetsam of the road; he'll probably work with a few new bands or with friends like Fleshtones guitarist Keith Streng. Stipe – who's directed some of the band's videos in the past – has some video projects in the works. Once in a while, Mills and Berry will get together in the Corncob Webs, their Sixties-cover band. Many nights the whole band will wind up together, in one of Athens's three clubs. And next fall they'll go into the studio to make their sixth album, one they hope will be weird rather than commercial.
R.E.M. is also at another crossroads: with Document, the band's deal with I.R.S. Records has expired. Plenty of other labels have already expressed interest in signing away I.R.S.'s biggest band. "We may or may not sign with I.R.S.," says Berry. "That's undetermined."
The band's long-term plans are nebulous: the only constant is that they all assume that one day they'll stop working together. It's not that the band seems to be in the midst of any major personality conflicts – by all accounts they get on better now than they ever have – but that they simply don't plan on doing this indefinitely.
Stipe says he's not sure he'll even be in the music business in another decade; if he is, he says, he can see himself being like Tom Waits, with an offbeat, theatrical ensemble. Berry says he simply hopes that until record making gets to be tiring – which he assumes will happen long after they've stopped touring – they'll still work together in some form, even if not as R.E.M. But before they drift apart, Peter Buck has a goal.
"I think it's within us to make one of those Top Twenty all-time rock & roll great records," he says. "We haven't done that yet, and I don't know how you pull that out of you. Sometime, somewhere, the inspiration hits. And you hope it hits when you're awake and you have a guitar in your hands.
"All I want to do," he adds, "is make great records, and be a great band, and play great live. But I'm not sure that I want to keep going the way that we're going. I have no doubts that we can do it; it's just I don't know if I want to do it. For me, personally, I'd rather turn out a record that's really brilliant and then try to find some other way to present ourselves onstage, something that short-circuits the rock & roll rah-rah thing.
"I don't know how to do that, but I think there's some way to do this at an interesting level. Who knows? Maybe it means putting out a record that's really great and doesn't sell at all. That would be really cool."
In the meantime, R.E.M. has a hit album, a hit single, a new, bigger audience and a tour that'll run until the end of November. And when they take the stage in Fairfax, they've found exactly the right way to respond to their new situation, at least for a night: the show is a rock-hard, well-paced, furious blast of intelligent and provocative rock & roll. For more than two hours, Stipe reels around the stage, and his band mates play with surprising fury; with the repertoire drawn mostly from the last two albums, you can hear the hardening of this band's sound and clearly catch the vehemence and humor in Stipe's assaults on an environment he finds nearly unlivable.
For the encores, they pull out all the stops: first, there's a three-song set of covers, from Lou Gramm's "Midnight Blue" (the crowd laughs uneasily, then responds to the anthemic chords, while Stipe strikes exaggerated arena-rock poses and the rest of the band plays hard on a song they really do like) to Television's "See No Evil." They do the hit, with a gorgeous, hushed introduction; they do Chronic Town's "Wolves, Lower" after Stipe says, "Moving way back to the Pleistocene era . . ." And at the end, Stipe and Buck stand side by side at center stage for an exquisite slow version of "So. Central Rain," which ends with Stipe tossing in a few revealing lines from Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain": "I come to you, defenses down, with the trust of a child."
Three hours, a few six-packs and a couple of bottles of champagne later, the members of R.E.M. straggle into the lobby of their hotel. It's 2:30 in the morning, and the only other guests in the lobby are a group of Continental Airlines pilots and stewardesses, who pile into one elevator and then yell out, "Don't any of you want to ride with us?"
With that, Michael Stipe – his flyaway hair tied back in a ponytail and tucked under a beret, his tattered clothes more disheveled than usual and his eyes still caked with heavy black eye makeup – strolls into the elevator. As the doors start to close, his voice can just be heard: "So, are you all with an airline?"
And when the other members of the band take another elevator to their floor, Stipe is waiting on the landing, a huge grin on his face. "They asked if I was in a band," he says enthusiastically, "and when I said I was in R.E.M., they got all excited and said, 'Is the whole band staying in this hotel?' "
In the hotel hallway the guy who's supposed to be R.E.M.'s shyest member breaks up laughing, and exclaims, "It was great!" And suddenly it looks as if this arty college band might have the temperament for the real world after all.
This story is from the December 3rd, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.