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R.E.M. In the Real World - Rolling Stone's 1987 Cover Story

Rock's most influential college band graduates

December 3, 1987
REM michael stipe peter buck bill berry mike mills 1986
Rolling Stone Magazine Issue #514
Photo by Brian Smale for RollingStone.com

The following article appeared in the December 3, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone. It is reprinted here to mark the band's break-up.

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."

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