R.E.M. guitarist Pete Buck sprawled on a couch backstage at the Aragon Ballroom before the band's show last Saturday, Bud in hand, unshaven, wearing the same red and blue striped shirt and black levi he had worn in Milwaukee the day before, trying to explain that, despite all the critics praise, the larger venues and bigger crowds, things hadn't changed that much for the band.
"We still enjoy talking to people, but people do tend to get that impression of us being distant-partially because, you know, there's this big machinery around you, whether you like it or not.
"It's probably a whole lot looser than for anyone else at our level. It's still tightened up a little just because . . .you know . . eventually things start getting a little weird.
"WELL, LIKE today the plaster casters came and wanted to have us do the . . . you know . . . " he trailed off, a little embarrassed about his encounter with the infamous Chicago groupies who, aside from providing the usual r 'n' r for rock 'n' rollers. Buck politely explained, "make plaster casts of your sex organs."
He laughed nervously, his voice jumping an octave. "And I don't know what to say to someone like that . . . I mean, I'm sure they're nice girls and everything. What do I say? 'Sorry darling, that's not my style?' "
"That must mean that you've really arrived, " I suggested.
"Yeah, that’s what I thought: " He shook his head.
"WELL, DID you let 'em do it?"
"Nooooooo .. . . .ooooooh . . . Noooooooo, " Buck giggled, rolling his eyes. "It's just not my style. The thing is, I recognized the girl, even before she started waving the kit around. That when it was nice to have the machinery - 'Tell them politely that you are not interested in that, ' you know. And for really strange people who want to come back to your hotel room, right now, male or female. It's like, "No, I can't. " And you can only say 'no' so many times before you have to say, ' Oh, I've gotta go somewhere, and in that respect it's kind of sad. They wouldn't do that to me if they just saw me on the street and didn't know who I was. So it's part of the perception of thinking musicians are something amazing."
When I got to know R.E.M., things were a lot different. The Athens, GA - based quartet was still relatively unknown, although their independent single, "Sitting Still"/"Radio Free Europe" had landed on New York Times critic Robert Palmer's year-end best list. Their Chronic Town EP was only just starting to draw even more raves.
R.E.M. was playing the last show at Stages, now Metro, before the club closed down. The room was so empty when we walked in that my friends and I went backstage to reassure them that people didn't hate them or anything-most of them probably thought the show was cancelled. They were cramped in the small dressing room, looking nervous. When we explained, they just kind of shrugged their shoulders. They seemed used to tiny audiences.
BUT BY the end of that set, all the trendies who had been drinking and snorting up in the Smart Bar (it was upstairs back then) had come down to check out what was going on. So the club was filled as R.E.M., in their unique live collision of grace and fury, made their points-that you don't have to be trendy to be cool, that you don't have to be singing lofty, poetic things to inspire and affect people, that you don't have to be unapproachable to be in a band, that you don’t have to be great musicians to make great rock 'n' roll. They worked on unbridled punk energy, honesty, and passion.
The personalities that emerged in that first interview and subsequent ones were approachable and accessible, friendly and polite. Eventually it was that "just regular guys" image as much as R.E.M.'s evocative, shimmering music-in a scene filled with postured, snotty haircut bands-that helped contribute to the "saviors of American rock" reputation the band now has. As Buck puts it, with characteristic humility and a touch of wonder, "A lot of people think we're the only band in America."
It wasn't just the band's success that earned them the reputation, but the way they went about being successful-calling their own shots. They recorded their records in North Carolina with a relatively unknown producer, Mitch Easter, instead of going to LA and using a big name. They refused to lip-sync or fill their videos with girls in lingerie. They turned down opening spots with the Clash, U2, the Go-Gos and other big names (except for a few dates with the Police which they later called a "mistake", opting instead to win over their own fans in small, smokey clubs. And on their way up, they make sure to point out the loads of other bands as good as they are - Husker Du, the Replacements, Jasong and the Scorchers, Chicago's own Naked Raygun, to name a few-just waiting to be heard.
And now, with the release of their second album, the already much acclaimed Reckoning, R.E.M. have successfully proved that they're not one-shot wonders. On the road, they're playing larger venues, and traveling in a large air-conditioned, cushy bus, a far cry from the silver van they once crossed the country in, sleeping on a huge communal pile of dirty laundry. The band members have less time to horse around town with their old friends and original supporters. Now there are in-store appearances and interviews on all those radio stations that at one time wouldn't touch them.
And, like the plaster caster incident proves, they're meeting up with people who show their admiration in more . . uh . . . varied ways. Like the woman who cornered lead singer Michael Stipe at the Milwaukee's Summerfest, pulled down the v-neck of her knit top and asked, no commanded him: "Sign my tit, " she said.
Or the girls who sent Pete Buck nude photos of themselves in hopes of arranging future meetin. Not to mention the troops who try to follow Stipe around, certain that his murmured, muddled lyrics prove he's a hip guru who knows the truth. It's just one more aspect of success that the guys in R.E.M. have to deal with, and they handle it with their characteristic good humor.
"It's not that serious, but yeah, there's a whole lot of people who want to be Michael Stipe, and dress like him and all that kind of stuff: it's kind of weird, Buck says. He makes a sour face, and then chuckles, "What a horrible thing he's done to the world-instilling his fashion sense."
Buck's ability to view it as a laughing matter doesn't belie the fact that as R.E.M. has gotten more successful on their own terms, the greatest threat to their own equilibrium and sanity may not come from themselves or all the music industry phonies they've learned to handle, but from some of those people who claim to like them the most. As the band comes to rely more and more on the machine that protects them from hangers-on, they also succeed in keeping away the genuine fans, many too shy to even approach the band they almost can't help but mythicize.
As Buck says, "The reasons we do it haven't changed. The way it's looked at has changed, but I don't really give a fuck about that. We've never really bowed to people's preconceptions before; there's no reason to start doing it now."
He's confident that they won't fall into the traps of stardom that seem to trip up even the most careful bands. "I think we're all aware enough of the traps to avoid them, " he says. "I'd like to be able to use the game so that whatever people respect us for, we can get our way, and use it to help other bands, do a lot of things that rock 'n' roll bands aren't expected to do, and not follow the regular business and lifestyle patterns.
"Once you start using it, maybe it starts eating you up- that's what I always worry about. Because there's this thin line between trying to be successful, keeping your integrity, and then just bending over for the whole music business. I just get this fear that I'll wake up one morning, look in the mirror and say, 'God, I'm a whore'. So I guess right now, we're bending over backwards to avoid it. "
They strive to keep their lives as normal (for rock musicians, that is) as possible. During the opening act, the band members usually sneak out to mingle with the audience and watch the show, Buck says, usually unnoticed.
"I'VE HAD people who didn't recognize me go, "When's the band going on? What's R.E.M. like?' " Buck giggles. "I always say, 'They really suck, just to see them get shocked. I've actually had people in record stores-and I don’t think they are being smartasses-pull out our record and say, "Oh, what's this like? And I'll go, 'Man, that’s a bunch of weenie shit.' I did that in Athens when one person recognized me and one didn't and this girl went, ' Really? I thought they were supposed to be good.' And I said, 'No man, they suck.' And her boyfriend just laughed."
The band members all live around Athens's own music row, Barber Street. Buck, who's 27, shares with drummer Bill Berry, 25, a $110 a month apartment that looks just like the motel rooms where they spend more of their time and where Buck feels most at home. Stipe, 24 lives 30 feet away, and 25-year old bassist Mike Mills is the foreigner living three blocks from the others.
They stay in Athens when they're not on the road because it's one of the few places where the music fans don’t look at them funny. Most of them are their friends, many musicians themselves.
As Buck says, "If anything, we were uncool when we started. And everyone thinks it's kind of funny that we're still as much the losers that we are, doing this. Like when we were on David Letterman, everybody went to the 40-Watt (an Athens club) and they had it on the big screen. And they laughing and jeered at us and threw stuff at the screen." He pauses a minute and laughs. "I mean they're our friends."