R.E.M.'s Brave New World

Just after the release of 'Green,' the Athens lads are on the brink of superstardom – and they feel fine

April 20, 1989
Timothy White

'Okay, Listen! We need everybody here to act like professionals. We don't want to step on anybody's toes." 

One of the few adults on the scene, Randy Terrell is trying to preserve order at the Basement, the Atlanta teen club that, to everyone's amazement, is about to be visited by R.E.M. Some sixty high-school photographers are standing in a roped-off area, cameras poised and hormones pumping, awaiting the band's arrival with barely suppressed hysteria. Crews from CNN, MTV and local television stations are also at the ready. 

Located behind the Lindbergh Plaza shopping center on Piedmont Road – the site, ironically enough, of the Great Southeast Music Hall, where the Sex Pistols had begun their volcanic American tour over a decade earlier – the Basement was opened last fall by Atlanta parents so their kids could have a place to go to hear music and hang out without the temptations of drink and drugs. Somewhat predictably, those high-minded origins have hardly made the Basement the hippest spot in town for older teens. 

Terrell, the Basement's youth director, and the rest of the club's staff hope that today's event will change that. "We needed something that would attract the senior high-school kids, something that would make this place cool," says Miriam Lockshin, the Basement's promotion director. "Obviously, in Atlanta, R.E.M. is king, especially right now, because their album has just come out." 

A call from one of the Basement's board members to Jefferson Holt, R.E.M.'s manager, elicited a quick agreement. Since R.E.M. was regularly coming to Atlanta to rehearse for its upcoming world tour, the group would stop by the Basement for fifteen minutes on the afternoon of January 19th to autograph a mural dedicated to the band. Pictures of R.E.M. at the Basement in school newspapers and other publications around the city would increase the club's cachet, and the members of of the band, who live sixty-five miles away, in Athens, Georgia, would have done a bit of community service.

Suddenly, the R.E.M. boys – singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry – appear. They saunter in, their casualness and mild bewilderment a funny contrast to the jolt of energy that surges through the kids, who are crackling as if they'd been plugged into a live socket. After Terrell provides a brief tour of the club's facilities and explains the day's purpose – "We still haven't gotten to the kids who drink," he tells a politely nodding Buck – the band members seat themselves at a card table to sign autographs, pose for pictures and chat with the students.

Then it's time for what Berry calls the Wall Scrawl. Berry and Buck hoist Stipe high into the air, and the singer begins writing with a black Magic Marker near the top of the mural, which is a light-green square inscribed with the orange letters R.E.M. When Stipe, who is still being held aloft by his band mates, turns around, raises his fist in the air, flashes a huge grin and reveals his message – STIPE SAYS STRENGTH + PEACE – the room explodes with flashes. After a couple of short interviews – "I think it's a great idea, and I'm really glad we were able to do this," Mills says to a television reporter, while Buck laments that "there's too many tragedies that happen with drinking and driving" – the group heads for its van.

And what do the students think of their illustrious visitors? Fourteen-year-old Travis Peck of Pace Academy is only too eager to provide the answer: "R.E.M. is awesome!"

Photos: R.E.M. Through the Years

It's been a long, strange trip for R.E.M., since the release of "Radio Free Europe" on a minuscule independent label in 1981 first brought the group to national attention. Once the darlings of the underground, they are now solicited by parents' groups to improve the social habits of the young. College-radio perennials, they have now graduated – into high schools. Having signed a five-record deal with Warner Bros, last year for a reported $10 million, the members of R.E.M. are approaching the status of – can it be? – superstars.

Meanwhile, on the far less complicated trip across town to an industrial section of northwest Atlanta – where the band is renting the largest room at a studio complex called Rehearse Too Much– the mood is a bit charged. It's Thursday evening, and early Monday morning the band is flying to Japan to begin a yearlong world tour – R.E.M.'s first live shows in sixteen months – and nerves are somewhat frayed. The band members hadn't been told that the Wall Scrawl would include big-time media like CNN, and they are still bemused by the horde of younger fans they picked up after "The One I Love," from their 1987 album Document, became their first Top Ten hit.

During the ride, Stipe, whose political outspokenness tends to elicit the most painfully serious questions, laughingly recounts how one student asked him, "We just had a big argument in class about whether we should worship Karl Marx. What do you think, sir?" Munching on nuts, the singer, who is unshaven and characteristically decked out like a Beckett hobo, with the Eighties touch of a long, thin braid down his back, wonders, "Do I really merit the sir?"

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