On the other hand, Stipe is unquestionably a rather serious lad. Asked about R.E.M.'s impact, he says, "It's very hard for me to look at rock & roll and think of it as important in the world, because I just don't think that way. It's important in my life, because it's the arena I've chosen to move in.
"How serious can you be about a pop band?" he asks. "And then on the other hand, I see how music completely and totally affects people and affects their lives. It's nothing. On the other hand, God, look what it did for me, how much music has changed my life."
Buck comes at the issue of R.E.M.'s impact more frontally. "The influence that I'd like to think we have is that people saw that there's a way to go about doing this on your own terms," he says. "The thing is, you have to not worry about success. You can't do it and say, 'I want to make a million dollars tomorrow,' or 'I want to be as big as Madonna.' There's different ways to chase that. One of the things that's overlooked in music is that it's totally honorable to be a musician who does what he wants and doesn't make a lot of money.
"People tend to think, If you don't sell a million records, you're a failure.' Well, we didn't sell a million records until last year, and we were really successful. We didn't have a gold record until Lifes Rich Pageant, and that was five years down the line. We'd been touring, lots of people were coming to see us, and we were making a living. So I've never judged success in those kinds of terms, and hopefully we're an example that you don't have to be judged that way."
Buck lives about a mile outside of town in a large white Southern-style house, filled with books, magazines, guitars and records, including a definitive collection of R.E.M. bootlegs. Against his better judgment, he recently purchased a "bottom of the line" CD player – his first – so that he'd be able to listen to the Mission of Burma CD compilation he just picked up. In his driveway sits a fancy Dodge jeep, a '57 Chevy and a hearse.
Through the heyday of the Athens scene, when the B-52's, Pylon, R.E.M. and a seemingly endless stream of other bands managed to turn a sleepy Southern college town into a nonstop dance party, Buck lived in a single room that looked like a hip record store after an explosion. His house now, for all its beauty and tasteful appointments, is simply that room writ large. And while R.E.M. has achieved a prominence that none of the other Athens bands could attain, in their home town, Buck, Berry and Mills are rarely bothered. Before he went onstage at the Pro-Choice benefit, the extent to which the patrons of the 40 Watt club permitted Buck to stand undisturbed at the bar seemed almost willful.
"The mayor says hello now" is how Berry describes how R.E.M.'s life in Athens has changed over the years. "It is real normal, except in the fall when the first batch of freshmen come in. They'll see us in the bars, and that gets a little weird, as far as people groping at us. That lasts for about two weeks, because then everybody realizes that we're out in the bars every single night!"
Stipe's life in Athens tends to be a bit more problematic, though even he can move around undisturbed much of the time. For all that the town's music scene has made Athens seem like a swinging place in the popular media, it's essentially still a small Southern backwater dominated by a conservative, football-crazed university. To the school's more Neanderthal frat boys, Stipe is not a mystical poet or a political progressive – or even a cool rock singer – but a geek to be abused. A recent column in a town paper that criticized Stipe prompted the following personal reply from him to the author: "Please cut the shit out. No matter what you think, I have to live in this town too. This is a reflection on me, not my 'image.' It's hard enough as it is."
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Stipe's enigmatic lyrics and romantic persona often inspire slightly unhinged types to read their own emotional difficulties into his songs. Such people are generally very interested in discussing the connections between his work and their lives when they run into him – to chilling effect. For the record, Stipe refuses to discuss his life in Athens and is said to maintain a residence out of state.
On the brighter side, tending a fire in his fireplace, sipping a beer late on Saturday night, Peter Buck seems very much the contented lord of Buck Manor, the affectionate name a fellow musician gave the guitarist's digs. The impending tour recalls for Buck the days in the early Eighties when R.E.M. first hit the road – the four members of the band in a small van with Holt as their driver – for endless tours that have now become the stuff of legend. The pilgrimage was gaining momentum, and for a considerable number of people across the country – in Nowheresville towns and New Wave hotbeds – it was sometimes possible to believe that there was nothing more important in the world than R.E.M.
Earlier in the evening, Stipe had described those days as "harrowing – but a blast." "If there's an extension of On the Road and that whole Kerouacian" – he began laughing – "Can I possibly use that term, Kero-whack-ian? If there's an extension of that, probably forming a rock band and touring clubs is the closest you could get. Peter and I certainly had romantic ideas along those lines, and damned if we didn't do it. And damned if it didn't pay off."
For his part, Buck says, "We really soon got the reputation of 'Well, they'll do anything.' I mean, we're not going to do commercials, and we wouldn't go on television and lip-sync, but as far as playing real places – we had to. We were broke and we had to sell some fucking records, so 'Yeah, sure, we'll play the pizza parlor.' In the South there's a big thing where every Tuesday gay bars would have New Wave Night, so we played more gay bars than you could shake a stick at.
"If you ever saw Spinal Tap, we lived all of that, except for we're not quite as ignorant," he says. "We played that same place where they were second bill to the puppet show. It's Magic Mountain, I recognized it. And we had the exact same crowd – people who would sit in front of us only to give us the finger through our entire set."
The sort of experiences that would have broken up many bands – and that did break up most of R.E.M.'s contemporaries – have managed to bind R.E.M. together. The four band members and Holt and Downs still show a remarkable ability to close ranks, shut out the rest of the world and make decisions based solely on their personally determined criteria. And they take nothing about their relationship and their good fortune for granted.
"I most of the time feel like I'm not going to have a job next week," Holt says. "I always thought, 'They're going to get fed up, break up, and I won't have a job.' And I am amazed that it's however many years later and here we are. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think how incredibly lucky and thankful I am that things have worked out the way they are. And it wouldn't surprise me if they broke up tomorrow."
And yet there's a dizzying sense of a new beginning with R.E.M. "For me, Green had so many connections to Murmur," Stipe says. "It was very much in the back of my head the whole time we were working on it. From the album cover to the topics of the songs and the way the songs were carried out, to me, there's a great connection there. Signing to another label was a new start for us. It did offer us an opportunity to sit back, scratch our temples and wonder, 'Where are we and where do we want to go?'"
With those questions answered for the moment, the pilgrimage is under way again. The members of R.E.M. are standing on the cusp of a brave new world they don't yet know. And they feel fine.
This story is from the April 20, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.
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