Those R.E.M. Blinkety-blinks

Let's face it. If James Dean were alive today, he'd be about as svelte as Marlon Brando and nearly as sexy as Gavin MacLeod. If Jimi Hendrix were still around, ten to one he'd be about as revolutionary as Eric Clapton. In other words, "Spuds" Hendrix. Hey, no one wants a hero to mature. If it's your goal to be a legend, you're better off dead.

R.E.M., the Athens, Georgia, band that seven out of every ten bands in college towns will be imitating this weekend, could've been legendary. Had one of its old ratty tour buses blown a tire on some curvy, backwoods highway somewhere in middle America when the band was touring early this decade to support Murmur, the group would've been Dean-ified on the spot. It would've gone out with all it needed: one masterpiece of an album--which upon inception made R.E.M. the only band in America worth imitating. That would've made guitar-rock fans forever misty-eyed.

The problem, kvetchers say, is that R.E.M. had the noive to live and to make albums for nearly a decade without letting loose another Murmur. Peter Buck, however, has never fancied himself as the Sylvester Stallone of the underground rock scene.

Peter Buck, 32, is the leader of a band that since 1984 has taken pains never to do a sequel. R.E.M. has wandered from the plaintive to the chaotic to the pure pop to the angular and back again. All the Murmur heads want is another masterpiece of murkiness, an intoxicating album filled with swirling, enigmatic, uplifting, breathtaking, jangling guitar rock.

And so it's no surprise when, speaking from R.E.M. pre-tour headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, Buck says with a hint of a sneer and a snippet of annoyance, "If they want Murmur, they can still buy it on CD, record, cassette. Even the eight-track is still available, I think. That's not where we are anymore. We're not interested in that."

In fact, the only time R.E.M. discusses its early work is probably at the insistence of pesky reporters. "I don't think I've ever heard them discuss those records and wanting to bring back some of that, not in the studio, not anywhere," says Green producer Scott Litt. "People consider those records classic records, and they are, but as soon as you start trying to make a classic record again, there are gonna be problems. If you're trying to imitate something, it'll never be as good as the original."

So last year, R.E.M. did what any band sick of being an institution unto itself would do: It decided to have an out-of-body experience and record an album called Green to prove it.

When Buck returned from hovering above his body, it was with a mandolin in hand and a Mellotron by his side. Drummer Bill Berry came back also as a part-time mandolin player. Bassist Mike Mills resumed life as an accordionist and keyboardist. And singer Michael Stipe came back with his mouth fixed. The legendary self-imposed speech impediment that had Stipe mumbling artily up until about 1987's Document has now disappeared. Stipe returned also with a serious disinterest in continuing to write his series of enigmatic mystery poem-songs.

It's no surprise that Green is R.E.M.'s calmest album. No longer is there the feeling that R.E.M. is writing songs by pulling apart an old Byrds' song and skewing it until it resembles "art." Green contains pop songs so straightforward they seem scarily right-wing next to some of the band's early material. The "bubble-gum heavy metal," as Buck has called the R.E.M. sound, is showing up all over the radio in AOR heavy rotaters like "Orange Crush," "Stand," and "Pop Song 89." Those ditties, which hard-core R.E.M. fans whine about for not being obtuse enough, surround the quietest songs the band has ever thunk up--mandolin workouts like "You Are the Everything," "The Wrong Child," and "Hairshirt."

What gives? Is it that Buck's recent marriage has mellowed him? Is the band just out to stick it in the face of the Murmur glee club? Or is this just what 32-year-olds tend to do in their dotage?

"Actually," Buck says with the enthusiasm of a musician who's done too many interviews in support of a tour, "I bought a mandolin. If there's a mandolin, I tend to write on it. Those are songs you can just sit around and play, and it's all kind of emotion and melody. This record is kind of a challenge. We threw away the blueprint for whatever was the R.E.M. sound."

Not that everyone was sitting around musing on a life without amplifiers. Out of this neo-coffeehouse atmosphere, one J. Michael Stipe, lead singer and R.E.M. videomaker, calmly stepped to the forefront. Instead of mumbling cloudy, little dialectics like "Radio Free Europe" and "Fall on Me," Lieutenant Admiral Stipe was feeling uppity enough to bark commands like "Stand in the place where you are!" And he became quite content to tell listeners, "Sometimes I feel like I can't even sing/I'm very scared for this world/I'm very scared for me." (Hopefully, he was being ironic.) Instead of his former "I don't give a damn if you listen to what I'm saying" attitude, he dared you to ignore him now.

"When we were writing Murmur, we were writing it for ourselves," Buck explains. "I didn't care if anyone heard it except ourselves. Now Michael wants to be more straightforward. I think Michael is going for a more direct style lyrically. He wants people to understand what he's saying. He wanted to break down whatever walls there were between himself and the audience. It was a big step for him. I was surprised when I heard the way the lyrics were going. Michael sweated blood because of the lyrics. It's exciting when you do that."

GONE ARE THE DAYS when this band would choose to play theatres for their intimacy. R.E.M. is an arena band now. Moreover, R.E.M. is a political-arena band. When you walk into an R.E.M. show these days, you find the people at the tables aren't all there to sell Green tour tee shirts. They're there for a festoon of causes R.E.M. supports--liberal orgs from Amnesty International to Greenpeace. It's no surprise that R.E.M. released Green on Election Day last year, urging fans to vote on their way to the record store.

Peter Buck is a millionaire, thanks to the reported eight-figure deal the band cut with Warner Bros. last year after bolting from big-indie label I.R.S. And just the other day, R.E.M. did what it was supposed to for its new label--namely, get a platinum platter.

If 24-year-old underachieving musician Peter Buck had been able to look at 32-year-old musician-with-a-cause Peter Buck, he says, "I probably wouldn't have liked him." Buck quickly adds, "I don't think we were one of those sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll bands in the beginning, anyway. Maybe our concerns are different, but we really haven't changed. Just personally, I look at the outside world now and again. In 1981, '82, '83, we were guys in our early twenties in a band careening around the country. I didn't care about who was president."

This attitude continued up until about 1985. This was before mainstream radio discovered R.E.M.--the band couldn't eat the mash notes addressed to them by hundreds of starry-eyed rock critics.

"Nineteen eighty-five was the year all of us were unsure of being in a rock 'n' roll band," Buck recalls. "It started out as a hobby, and I think in 1985, we realized, `Oh, this is what we're going to be doing for awhile.' We thought, `Should we break up?' Well, we got to the talking stage about it. Nobody left the band or anything. There were times when you'd sit down and think about whether you really wanted to do it. That was just a rough year. I think it was the culmination of being on the road for five years and nobody eating or sleeping. We were poor, and none of us made any money. It seems like we were on a treadmill. We wanted to decide whether we wanted to have rough years. We decided it was worthwhile."

Since 1985, then, the R.E.M. story, abridged edition: Hunger begat platinum, platinum begat vacation time, vacation time begat social awareness.

"Maybe with having more leisure time, we can look around at the world, see what's wrong with it, and change it. Who knows?" Buck says. "Look around in 1989. People are living outdoors. I don't think it's a very easy time in America, contrary to what our leaders might have us believe."

Not that R.E.M.'s planning to lay two- hour-plus guilt trips on its fans at every show a la Bruce Springsteen and Springsteen's Amnesty International tour buddy Sting. In fact, R.E.M. declined to involve itself in the National Enquirer-sponsored Springsteen-Patti Scialfa-Sting menage a trois free-for-all that the Third World Amnesty tour became. "We were asked to do the Amnesty thing," Buck says. "I didn't see us going on at four in the afternoon for twenty minutes. Nobody knows who we are in Africa or Senegal."

You don't get the sense that R.E.M. would've benefited from major overexposure anyway. The band's current tour is its first full go-round of arena jobs, and Buck is well aware of the perils of playing before a sea of noisy lighter-flickers. "You've gotta be watchful. We've gotta be really good, really strong, and work really hard at it. We have to do our job, and we have to play as well as we can. We can't say, `Hello, Pittsburgh!' and that kind of crap.


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