R.E.M. Look Back

From art school to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in their own words

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"We're so bad about looking backward," says R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe. "We're too excited about what we're going to do." But on the eve of their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction (with original drummer Bill Berry), Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills look back in fondness at these images from their first quarter-century as one of America's greatest modern rock bands.

1 Athens, Georgia 1980
[ Photographs by Sandra-Lee Phipps ]

Buck: This is our first show, in the church in Athens, Georgia, where Michael and I lived. The church had been falling apart for years and had been a party spot since time immemorial. I used to get letters for a guy named Purple Haze. We were supposed to do one set that night, but everybody was bombed and wanted to dance, so we did a second one. I remember Michael crawling on his hands and knees through the crowd. We played the first ten or twelve songs we'd written – "Just a Touch" [on Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986] was the only one we recorded. The thing with most new bands is, they can't think of anything to say lyrically. Our first twenty songs were like that. But as time went on, our songs reflected more of who Michael was.

Mills: I don't remember much about that show. But I remember one of our first practices. Peter's guitar style had so much melody, and I immediately knew Michael's voice was worth hearing. I thought, "Whatever else happens with this band, this is going to be fun."

Stipe: We never intended to put out records. But to get into clubs, we had to have a record. That's how "Radio Free Europe" [R.E.M.'s 1981 debut single] happened. But at first, Peter said, "Let's not make records. Let's just play."

2 Athens, Georgia 1983
[ Photograph by Laura Levine ]

Stipe: That was my house on Barber Street – 248B. And that's my accordion. That was my first instrument, in third grade. The house was a mess. There was a hole in the kitchen floor that went right down to dirt. It didn't have very good heat, either. Before we went to London to record Fables of the Reconstruction [1985], I had three weeks to write lyrics. I remember sitting in this house, huddled in front of a space heater, peeling lead paint off the fireplace and writing the lyrics. And I got them all done. Three weeks – that's a record for me.

3 London 1984
[ Photograph by Tom Sheehan ]

Stipe: Obviously London. I look great [laughs]. I had these incredibly tight jeans. And those were my dad's boots. He bought those in Vietnam. I had conjunctivitis for a while and wore dark glasses all the time because I couldn't afford to buy a real pair of glasses. Everyone thought I was a real asshole.

Mills: I remember Bill's white boots. He had some interesting fashion ideas throughout the Eighties. He vacillated between a Duran Duran thing and a riverboat gambler. But he was a good balance, a counterweight to Peter and I. He was more grounded, a little more serious about things.

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4 Nashville 1987
[ Photograph by Sandra-Lee Phipps ]

Buck: That was while we made Document. Michael was reading that book about [Joseph] McCarthy. My mom had campaigned against McCarthy in the Fifties, and Michael and I were talking about historical tides – McCarthy and Richard Nixon – and how that was coming back under Reagan. Suddenly it popped up in "Exhuming McCarthy."

Stipe: He was such a bitter, confused man. I couldn't imagine that anyone could be that evil. But I saw it happening again under Reagan and the first George Bush. The song is also a reference to a portion of our audience. They were Reaganites, and I couldn't do the math – how these people could be my age and still be so blind. But I feel like performers get this kind of pass, where you can say these things on a record or stage. And Document was a very political record. "Disturbance at the Heron House" was my take on Animal Farm – this revolution that grinds to a halt under a hard-line regime.

5 Athens, Georgia 1985
[ Photograph by Tom Sheehan ]

Mills: That's from the video shoot for "Can't Get There From Here" [from Fables of the Reconstruction]. It was just a chance for Bill and I to show off our new "old" cars. Bill had a 1962 Ford, and I had a fantastic '65 Thunderbird that was turquoise inside and out.

Buck: We also wore these bird heads that reminded me of that Egyptian god Thoth, with a bird head and human body. Who wants to be in videos, anyway? Better to get some bird-headed guys to do it.

6 Washington, D.C. 1983
[ Photograph by Laura Levine ]

Buck: This was exceptional hotel-room squalor. We canceled a show because our van broke down. We stayed at the Harrington Hotel in Washington, D.C., for three days with no money. We waited for someone to come up and bring some cash. We had the newspaper we got for free and that was it.

Mills: We were living high on the hog when this was taken. We had separate rooms – one for me and Peter, one for Michael and Bill. That was a step up from when we were all in the same room. But I loved every minute of it.

Stipe: Touring was an adventure. We were out looking for the world, and we put up with just anything. We usually made enough at a show to get us to the next town. I remember staying at the Iroquois Hotel in Times Square. We were all in one room – Peter slept in the closet – and I had five dollars a day to eat. I'd get the biggest potato knish I could find for $1.30 to get me through the day. The rest was beer money.

7 Sydney 1995
[ Photograph by Tom Sheehan ]

Buck: That was the Monster tour. The playing part was good. But Bill almost died. [Berry suffered a double brain aneurysm in Switzerland and underwent emergency surgery. He recovered, and the tour resumed.] I think it made him rethink a lot about his life. He never toured again. By the end, everyone was burned out. In a way, that picture says, "I'll be glad to get this over with."

Mills: We'd been going for fifteen years. Then life caught up with us. If you brush death like that, it plants a seed in your mind – you can't be twenty-two forever.

Stipe: There was a period when it was hit-and-miss – nine days when Bill could have died. He came through it intact. But something was lost and changed when he left [in 1997]. There was a chemistry we had as a four-piece; we've come to another chemistry, but it took us so long to do it.

8 Miami 1992
[ Photograph by Anton Corbijn ]

Stipe: That was in Miami. It's on the inside sleeve of Automatic for the People [1992]. I was being swept out to sea and drowning [laughs]. Anton is much taller than me, and I was in deeper water than he was. There was a strong undertow. I had just been engulfed by a wave, and was gasping for air when he got the shot. But Anton has taken some of the best and most generous images of me. I will do anything he asks me to. His eye reigns supreme. I was thrilled the first time he came to Georgia in 1988 to photograph our little band. I knew who he had worked with – U2, Joy Division – and that was a big deal to me.

9 Los Angeles 1994
[ Photograph by Anton Corbijn ]

Stipe: I'm dropping my pants in Los Angeles. It was after Madonna's Sex book came out, with the picture of her hitchhiking [nude]. That's Sunset Boulevard in the background. Nobody stopped. But I got some good looks.

10 New York 1998
[ Photograph by Anton Corbijn ]

Buck: It's right after Up [1998]. I think Mike and Michael had a hard time figuring out who we were going to be without Bill. But if anyone asks me, to this day I still say Bill Berry is a member of R.E.M. He's just the one who doesn't do anything or get paid [laughs]. Who we are is a result of having been with Bill. He influenced my songwriting. Bill was the guy who always wanted to get to the chorus faster.

Mills: I look at R.E.M. with Bill and after as two different bands. They just have the same name and mostly the same people. There were crises of confidence, times when I was prepared to accept that it was over. But I was also going to do everything I could to make sure that didn't happen.

11 London 2005
[ Photograph by Anton Corbijn ]

Stipe: That is backstage on our last tour. When people go to a show, they don't want someone to look like they just walked off the street. This is a little nod to theatricality and the absurdity of the moment. We've been through hell as a three-piece, and some of it is evident in the music. But we've also written some of our most beautiful songs on those records, and I'm happy and excited about our new material and the direction we're headed in. We want to write and record one of the great albums of all time – and in our minds, it hasn't happened yet.

This story is from the March 22nd, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1022: March 22, 2007
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