R.E.M.'s Brave New World - Rolling Stone
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R.E.M.’s Brave New World

The recent superstars deliver their politically-minded album ‘Green’ as an antidote to election-year cynicism

The band REM poses onstage in Ames, Iowa on March 10, 1989.

The band REM poses onstage in Ames, Iowa on March 10, 1989.

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

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!”

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.

REM - RS550

Timothy White for Rolling Stone

At Rehearse Too Much, a stage is set up at the far end of a bleak, unadorned warehouse-style space with cinder-block walls. “About twenty-eight bands rehearse here, most of them thrash and metal,” Stipe explains as he smokes one of his hand-rolled cigarettes and strolls through the corridors of the complex. That may account for the question one musician, whose band was rehearsing down the hall, asked R.E.M.’s crew while listening to the group run through its set one night. “Who is this fucking R.E.M. cover band?” he asked, his voice dripping contempt. “They play one R.E.M. song after another!”

“What! Who said that?” Stipe asks in mock horror when told of the comment. The singer was sufficiently concerned about rigidities in R.E.M.’s sound that, according to Mills, he told the other members of the band “not to write anymore R.E.M.-type songs when the began working on Green, the now-platinum album they released in early November. Consequently the remark has just enough of a point to sting Stipe a tad. He shakes his head as he walks away and says, “It’s a perfect circle.”

On the cramped stage, equipment is being readied for R.E.M.’s last rehearsal before the tour. Buck is huddling with Peter Holsapple, the former main man of the now-defunct dB’s, who has been drafted to play guitar and keyboards for R.E.M. on this tour. They are sorting out an arrangement for “Academy Fight Song,” a Mission of Burma tune that R.E.M. is covering in its shows. The other band members are cracking open cans of beer and soda and pulling slices from the eight pizzas that were ordered for dinner.

Bertis Downs IV, the band’s lawyer and longtime friend, has torn himself away from last-minute tour preparations and driven over from Athens to catch the final rehearsal. R.E.M.’s set includes a healthy dose of songs from Green, and Downs, whose fresh-faced enthusiasm belies his profession, says, “I just had to come by to hear how the new songs sound.” “After you hear ‘Get Up,”‘ Holt assures him, “you’re going to want us to make a live album.”

Indeed, hearing R.E.M.’s power through some twenty-five songs in a space smaller than most clubs is undeniably, as Travis Peck might put it, awesome. Undistracted by an audience, gripped by the challenge of the impending tour, the band is totally concentrated in its musical force.

Dressed simply in black workout pants, a green shirt and a black cloth cap, Stipe stands virtually still, but his voice is strong and resonant. The band crunches the staccato rhythms of “Academy Fight Song” and then leans into muscular versions of “Pop Song 89” and “Stand,” from Green. Buck’s body rocks in emphatic time with his playing, and Berry and Mills build a solid bottom that gives the songs a tougher sound and a greater propulsion than they have on record.

After “Stand” closes, the band confers onstage, and Holt, ever protective of his charges, says to the four or five people sitting near him, “It must be pretty weird, playing these songs with everyone sitting around talking. We should all stand up and scream after they finish the next one.” So when the group ends “Maps and Legends,” an enrie tune from Fables of the Reconstruction that is much enriched by Holsapple’s keyboards, it is greeted by a burst of shouts and raucous clapping from the dozen or so people hanging around the room.

The band members stare uncomprehendingly and then break into smiles. Buck waves, and Stipe says, “My first applause of the new year. Thank you!” Then he recalls that this night is the eve of George Bush’s inauguration and adds, “My last applause of the Reagan era.” Another volley of applause follows. “You’ve got to fuck with them every now and then,” Holt says, satisfied.

The rehearsal resumes as R.E.M. fires up fierce versions of “Finest Worksong” and “These Days.” The proceedings come to a brief halt when Buck pops a string during a particularly ferocious rendition of “Turn You Inside-Out”; and then “Sitting Still” and “Driver 8” follow, with Buck and Holsapple ringing out the signature guitar jangle of R.E.M.’s early sound.

The evening ends with “I Remember California,” “You Are the Everything,” another pass at “Academy Fight Song,” the pleasing, untitled song that closes Green and “Time After Time,” the evocative ballad from Reckoning. As the equipment is being loaded, Mills elects to stay in Atlanta, where his mother is about to undergo surgery. Stipe, Buck and Berry climb into the van for the late-night drive back to Athens.

After they arrive, Buck drops in at the 40 Watt Club, which he describes as “purposely kind of a rock & roll dump,” to catch the end of a set by an Athens band he produced called the Primates. “Their favorite bands are George Thorogood, Hank Williams and the Minutemen,” he says, “and they kind of sound like a combination of all three.” Buck’s wife, Barrie, a tall, dark-haired beauty who coowns the 40 Watt, is behind the bar, and the guitarist orders a beer.

After the nightcap, Buck’s mind drifts back to the rehearsal. “That’s the way to see a band,” he tells a visitor, “the way you saw us tonight.”

Back in Athens for their last weekend before flying off, the band members and Holt are desperately trying to dispatch all the details that need to be dealt with before departure. Due to a bureaucratic snafu, a crew member’s visa may not be ready in time, and Holt and Downs are pulling strings to make sure he is able to leave on schedule. At this point, R.E.M. is a sufficiently important Georgia industry — as he tries to check a friend into an Athens hotel, Buck unselfconsciously refers to the group as “our corporation” while negotiating with the desk clerk — that a U.S. senator intervenes in the band’s behalf.

Stipe, who handles most of the band’s visual imagery, needs to approve tour T-shirts. Mills is motoring back and forth to Atlanta to visit his mother and say goodbye to his family. Buck and Barrie are trying to find time to run off to the mall to buy luggage.

Finally, Holsapple and his girlfriend, Ilene, have agreed to headline a benefit at the 40 Watt for the Athens Pro-Choice Action League on Friday night. Buck rehearses with Holsapple earlier in the day and joins the duo onstage for ragged but right versions of such numbers as Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” Dion’s “Drip Drop” and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Do Right Woman.” A cheerful-looking Stipe drops in to catch the action, with a group of bohemian pals, known to more cynical locals as “diStipels,” in tow.

With all the hubbub, it hardly seems only sixteen months ago that R.E.M. announced that the band would take a break from performing live and possibly even recording. R.E.M.’s steps forward have always been careful — the result of an intriguing blend of deliberation, intuition and a staunch sense of integrity. The popularity that came in the wake of the platinum Document annihilated whatever vestiges remained of R.E.M.’s insulated cult status. The consequences of that change had to be analyzed and absorbed before the band could define a suitable direction.

“One thing that was affecting us was this blind acceptance and enthusiasm for anything that was said or done onstage,” Mills says about the tour that followed the release of Document. “People are so frantic by the time you get into these larger halls that it’s just a party no matter what you do. It makes you feel kind of weird about meaning what you do. You may put your heart and soul into something, but it doesn’t matter because those people can’t hear it anyway. Since it’s something that we did love to do so much, we wanted to step back before we got burned out on it.”

Another issue R.E.M. had to confront was the end of its contract with I.R.S. Records, the label that signed the band after the release of “Radio Free Europe.” I.R.S. very much wanted to re-sign the group, and R.E.M. felt a great deal of loyalty to the label, which from the first endorsed and committed itself to the band’s insistence on total creative control and progress at the band’s own pace. When R.E.M. was first shopping for a contract, according to Buck, the folks at I.R.S. were “the only ones who didn’t say, ‘Boy, if you guys cut your hair and stop wearing dirty clothes, I can turn you into the Go-Go’s.”‘ The band members all say that leaving I.R.S. was the hardest decision they ever made.

The key factor from the band’s perspective was that I.R.S. and its overseas distributor, CBS International, had been unable to expand R.E.M.’s authence outside the U.S. Says Berry, “We got really tired of going to Europe and pretty much being given an ultimatum by the record companies over there, the affiliates of I.R.S., who were saying, ‘If you don’t come over and tour, we’re not going to promote your record. You won’t even see it on the shelves.’ Then we’d get over there, and there’d be absolutely no promotion at all.” The band’s core of followers never grew significantly.

Needless to say, news that R.E.M. was thinking of leaving I.R.S. excited interest from virtually every major record company. Ultimately, the band was impressed both by the assurances given by Warner Bros. that R.E.M. would be a top priority of the company’s overseas division and by the label’s artist-oriented reputation. “They’ve had some of my favorite artists on the label for years and not really bothered them so much about selling records,” Buck says of Warner Bros. “Van Dyke Parks still puts out records. Randy Newman, sometimes he has hits, sometimes he doesn’t — he makes great records. We figured that just looking at people’s track records, you can understand what kind of business they’re going to run.” That Lenny War-onker, president of Warner Bros. Records, was himself a producer also weighed heavily with the band.

Still, it may be hard, at least in the public’s estimation, for R.E.M. to maintain what Holt calls the “small, homey, hokey, Mayberry R.F.D. kind of feel to the way we live our lives” while earning millions of dollars, selling millions of records, pursuing international markets and working with one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the world.

From the questions they asked, according to Berry, the kids at the Basement seemed to “think of Warner Bros, as literally like a monster, just something that consumes and spits out. I think a lot of kids wonder how we fit.” Sitting in his office, Holt halts a conversation about the move from I.R.S. to Warner Bros., saying, “I feel completely uncomfortable discussing that situation, because I just don’t think that anything said about it is going to translate, that there’s any way for people to understand. It seems like you’re either biased towards ‘Well, they did what they had to do and went for the money’ or ‘God, they really did the underdog dirty.”‘

In fact, nothing riles R.E.M. quite like the charge that the band has sold out. “My response is, like, Guns n’ Roses,” Berry says. “Great band, by the way. I love ’em. But it’s like they’ve got this ‘fuck you,’ ‘rock & roll kid’ attitude, and they sell 7 million records. Their first record. And here we are on our sixth record — Document was our fifth full LP, it sells a million records, and ‘R.E.M. has sold out.’ But Guns n’ Roses gets all these accolades. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. I really don’t.”

Guitarist Mike Mills, left, and singer Michael Stipe of REM perform on stage at the Carver Hawkeye Arena in Ames, Iowa, March 10, 1989.

Guitarist Mike Mills, left, and singer Michael Stipe of REM perform on stage at the Carver Hawkeye Arena in Ames, Iowa, March 10, 1989.

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Never known for pulling punches, Buck hits the question dead on. “Pretty much all the extreme opinions about us I think are wrong,” he says. “We’re not the best band in the world — nobody is — so who cares about that? And all the people who think we’ve sold out, I don’t really care much about them either.

“I know what I do, and I’ll set my job up against anyone else’s any day and say that I make less concessions to what people tell me to do than anyone else around — I mean, no matter what job they do. But, then, no one’s going to believe that.

“There are a lot of people who like bands when they’re smaller — and I’m one of them,” he says. “I really love the Replacements, but I don’t go see them now. I saw them in front of twenty people fifty times, and the same with Hüsker Dü. The last time I went to see Hüsker Dü, I was, like, 800 people back and getting elbowed in the gut by a fat guy with a leather jacket.

“So whenever people say, ‘You’re just too big, I don’t enjoy going to your shows,’ I say, ‘That’s fine.’ I understand the people who say, ‘You’re too popular. I’m going to go follow the Butthole Surfers.’ That’s valid.

“Of course,” Buck says, with a wry grin, “now the Butthole Surfers are getting a little too popular.”

At a little after six o’clock on saturday evening, Michael Stipe, driving a gray Volvo station wagon, pulls up in front of the two-story building R.E.M. has restored in downtown Athens for its offices and rehearsal studio. The street is deserted, the weather is uncommonly cold for Georgia, and the sky is darkening. Stipe, who is wearing his cloth cap and a long coat, suggests a cup of coffee, but when the coffee shop proves loud, brightly lit and, most problematic, crowded, he wants to leave after about a minute.

Unlike Buck, Berry and Mills, who are exactly the people they seem to be, Stipe, at twenty-nine the youngest member of the band, is much harder to fix — a fact that leads many people to dismiss him as pretentious or worship him as a mysterious god. With people he doesn’t know very well, he is by turns remote and friendly. Anyone who grows used to one aspect of his personality is hurt or pleased, but always surprised, by the unexpected flash of the other. The emotional distance he seems to require, the imminence of departure that eases the threat of intimacy, is eloquently captured in lines from the song “Good Advices,” on Fables: “I’d like it here if I could leave/And see you from a long way away.”

It’s the perfect attitude for a performer, and Stipe — perhaps inevitably and perhaps as a means of protecting himself — has made his personality part of his art. After climbing into a chair in Jefferson Holt’s office and pulling his knees up to his chest, he says, “I can easily say, ‘Which Michael do you want today?”‘

The room is dim, and the window behind Stipe, lit with the day’s last light, frames him, a dark silhouette surrounded by a waning brightness. As the interview continues and it grows darker outside, Stipe emerges more clearly among the room’s shadows.

“It’s so odd, I really don’t have any idea how people look at me,” he says, a cigarette in his hand and a cup of hot tea on the desk at his side. “I mean, I’ve always thought that the worst thing would be to be the court jester of a generation, and sometimes I feel like that, especially with the hats and tails onstage. But those are pretty simple devices, and they really stem from something that is a necessity for me. They also stem from an admiration and understanding of theatrics and the fact that you are in the public eye or the media and being able to utilize that.”

During the week before November’s presidential election, Stipe tried to utilize the fact that he was in the public eye by buying advertisements in college newspapers in Georgia and California that read, Stipe says/don’t get bushwhacked/get out and vote/vote smart/Dukakis. Green, with its suggestions of optimism, environmentalism and innocence, was released on election day. The singer meant for the album to be a gesture of hope and encouragement. “I decided that this had to be a record that was incredibly uplifting,” Stipe says of Green. “Not necessarily happy, but a record that was uplifting to offset the store-bought cynicism and easy condemnation of the world we’re living in now.”

One dimension of Stipe’s decision is that after years of being accused of obscurantism, he chose to print the lyrics to “World Leader Pretend” — a song that takes emotional honesty and directness of expression as its very subjects — on Green‘s sleeve. A number of the other songs on Green, like “Pop Song 89,” “Stand” and “Get Up,” are similarly straightforward and bracing. But frustration over misreadings is another reason why Stipe went for greater sonic clarity and linear meaning on Green. “There was frustration,” Stipe admits, “to the degree that I rewrote ‘Green Grow the Rushes’ two times — as ‘The Flowers of Guatemala’ and ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ — where I actually ghostwrote the bio that went out to the press, so that they would say that ‘this is a song about American intervention in Central America.”‘

Despite the general sense of uplift on Green, the album doesn’t lack disturbing moments. “Orange Crush,” about the herbicide Agent Orange that was used in Vietnam, was originally written around the time of Document. The haunted travelogue “I Remember California” chronicles the human wreckage, the “nearly was and almost rans,” of the L.A. fast lane. The harsh, metallic “Turn You Inside-Out” also provides a menacing note.

“I understand that all high-school boys think it’s about fucking,” says Stipe with a chuckle. “That’s the report I’ve gotten back from the grade schools. It’s about manipulation and power. To me, it had a great deal to do, emotionally, with what a performer can do to an audience. A performer could be myself, it could be Marun Luther King, it could be Jackson, it could be Reagan, it could be Hitler — any preacher that is able to manipulate a large group of people.”

Despite the urgency of his concerns, one of Stipe’s more appealing qualities is his occasional willingness to poke fun at himself. He catches himself in the middle of an intense explanation of how “Oddfellows Local 151,” on Document, was a “debunking” of the rural mythologizing of Fables of the Reconstruction. “Are you there?” he asks, laughing, and then admits, “I always get so serious in interviews, I think people think I’m a really serious person from that. My voice always drops way down to here, and I take on this Buckminster Fuller persona where the world hinges on my words.”

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.

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