Advertisement
Share

GRAMMY TIME : How R.E.M. Spells Success : After 14 years, the Grammy nominees have won both mainstream and alternative acclaim, thriving not only on their talents but because of ground rules designed to stem the music-biz urges of ego and greed

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. </i>

The Globe, a corner bar with the cozy informality of a ‘60s coffeehouse, may be the only collegiate hangout in America where the members of R.E.M. don’t cause a stir.

Lead singer Michael Stipe, 34, is a special target because his lyrics offer a comfort and kinship that attract rock fans to him and the other members of the band.

In Athens, however, where the quartet has been based since the early ‘80s, fans pride themselves on respecting the musicians’ right to a degree of normalcy.

On a recent night, however, even the locals can’t ignore the town’s favorite sons, who have reigned for a decade as America’s most acclaimed band. Throughout the bar eyes are on Stipe as he walks through the room and takes a seat at a window table where R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, 37, and bassist Mike Mills, 35, are waiting.

One fan in his early 20s follows Stipe, hovering a few feet away as he waits for a diplomatic moment to approach the table.

Advertisement

There are reasons for the special interest. The band hasn’t been in Athens much in recent months, and there are questions about the status of the group.

R.E.M. has not toured in more than four years and took off most of 1993--a “sabbatical"--to get time away from rock ‘n’ roll.

When the group members got back together to explore new material last fall in New Orleans, there were no guarantees that they’d even make another album together, much less tour. If anyone believed after the year away that things were stale, he could extend the sabbatical or, in the extreme, call an end to R.E.M.

But the sessions provided an avalanche of new material and the band--rounded out by drummer Bill Berry, 35--was now back in Athens, working in its rehearsal hall on almost 40 tunes, a quarter of which will be on an album due in the fall.

And what about a tour?

That’s what the fan at the Globe wants to know as he finally steps toward the band’s table. He’s heard that R.E.M. is going to do a surprise show the following night at the local 40 Watt Club.

“No,” the gregarious Buck says politely. “Not tomorrow night . . . but we are probably going to start playing again.”

All right ,” the fan says eagerly, then heads back to his buddies across the room.

*

Tuesday’s Grammy ceremonies could represent another milestone in R.E.M.'s career. The group, which has won three Grammys previously, has been nominated for four more, including two that underscore dramatically the wide-ranging appeal of the band.

Its “Automatic for the People” is nominated in both the best album category, where it competes against such commercial pop mainstays as Whitney Houston and Billy Joel, and in the best alternative music category, where it is matched against such radical young rock forces as Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins.

Conventional wisdom in pop is that you can’t be a mainstream favorite and an underground rock hero, but R.E.M. has never been known to accept the conventional wisdom.

When R.E.M. didn’t tour after its 1991 album “Out of Time,” industry insiders said the group was jeopardizing its future. Without live shows to promote the new record, they said, sales would surely fall.

Things didn’t work out that way. Thanks to the hugely successful hit single “Losing My Religion,” the album sold 10 million copies worldwide--more than twice as many as the group’s previous best-selling release. And 1992’s “Automatic for the People” has passed the 8-million mark.

Forgetting their original warnings, industry insiders now speak of R.E.M.'s break from touring as a shrewd move. Concert promoters are drooling over the prospects of another R.E.M. tour. Having been away from the road so long--while enjoying its two most successful albums--the band is a bigger draw than ever, the promoters say.

Stipe, in his first interview in nearly two years, laughs at the idea that the break from touring was a commercial strategy.

All four group members agreed at the end of the 1989 “Green” tour that they needed a break, he says. The problem wasn’t the usual suspects--drugs or other self-destructive behavior. Rather, it was the accumulation of a decade on the road.

“We were physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally spent,” he says, heavily bundled on this 35-degree night as he leaves the Globe. “I thought I would never tour again. The idea to stop touring wasn’t any strategy. It was survival.”

By the time the “Automatic for the People” album was released three years later, however, everyone except Stipe seemed relatively open to touring. Yet his reservations were enough to cancel the plans.

“Tour burnout is like an injury,” Berry says of Stipe’s continued resistance to going back on the road. “It takes time to heal and it takes longer for some people than others, but we recognized that.”

*

S urvival .

Most of rock’s landmark outfits--the Beatles and the Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Doors--failed to last even one decade as a recording unit. Cream soured after three years. The Sex Pistols never made it to a second album.

Other bands, usually with personnel changes, have continued into their second or third decades. Few, if any, however, have maintained a sense of creative urgency. The Rolling Stones have been an uneven proposition for years on record. The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, the Allman Brothers--among many--no longer matter as recording forces.

Yet R.E.M. is a survivor, a group that, like U2, has defied almost 40 years of rock history by not only recording together for more than a dozen years now, but also continuing to make vital music.

It’s a remarkable story: a band that emerged in the early ‘80s as the leader of a loose federation of underground groups, from X to the Replacements.

These bands saw that there was a dignity and reward in simply making music with character and heart rather than in copying the soulless commercialism of such then-popular acts as Journey and Styx--even if it meant playing small clubs and traveling around in vans, not chartered jets.

But while most of its peers remained part of the underground scene (and ultimately disbanded), R.E.M., thanks to the strength of its songwriting, ultimately gained mainstream acceptance.

The group’s folk-dominated, guitar-accented style reflects an American rock purity that goes all the way back to the Byrds. The vitality and grace of its music and the arty introspection of its videos have influenced a whole generation of ‘80s and ‘90s bands, from such obvious parallels as 10,000 Maniacs and the Lemonheads to a more subtle connection with Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana.

Some of the old fans worried in 1987 when one of R.E.M.'s singles, “The One I Love,” went into the national Top 10 and again the following year when the band left tiny I.R.S. Records in favor of giant Warner Bros.

After eight studio albums, however, R.E.M. stands with its original independence and vision intact.

Nirvana’s outspoken Kurt Cobain, who is quick to attack corruption and laziness when he sees it in rock, is among those in awe of R.E.M.

“God, they’re the greatest,” he told Rolling Stone recently. “They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.”

Even Miles Copeland, chairman of I.R.S. Records, lauds the group’s integrity.

“Most bands start out saying they’ll be true to their vision, but R.E.M. was one of those rare bands that meant what they said,” Copeland says. “I’ve had plenty of bands come to me since then and say, ‘We are prepared to handle our career R.E.M.'s way,’ but they won’t. They want money or success right away, and they’ll eventually do anything that they think will get it for them, including changing their sound.”

Not only does R.E.M. continue to make acclaimed music, but it also uses its power with taste--supporting social issues, from environmental concerns to safe sex, that may be the definition of political correctness today, but without the sense of self-congratulation that often accompanies celebrity endorsements.

On the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards show, when the band won six awards for its “Losing My Religion” video, Stipe walked onstage to accept each award wearing a series of T-shirts, each with a different message printed on the front. Each time the group returned to the stage to accept another award, Stipe peeled off another shirt, revealing a different message:

Love Knows No Colors.

Wear a Condom.

Choice.

Handgun Control.

“I watch them and I’m amazed,” says Lenny Waronker, president of Warner Bros. Records, which has released the band’s records since 1989. “I have children who are now in rock bands, and I always end up using R.E.M. as the perfect example of the best way it works . . . how they force themselves to take chances artistically and pull together.”

*

What’s the secret of R.E.M.?

The band’s manager, Jefferson Holt, and attorney, Bertis Downs, try gamely to supply a blueprint for success during dinner at a crowded, upscale (for Athens) restaurant next to the band’s rehearsal hall.

Holt, who managed a North Carolina record store and booked concerts on the side when he met the band in 1980, speaks about “a miracle of chemistry between the four members.” Downs, who was a young lawyer in Athens at the time and now also teaches entertainment law at the university, cites the way the band members realize that the music they make together is better than they could make with anyone else.

After half an hour, Holt and Downs both realize they are just going around in circles in trying to define how R.E.M. has defied so many rock odds. With a sly, conspiratorial look on his face, Holt leans across the table and says, pointedly: “The truth is, I don’t know .”

Yet there are clues to be found.

In separate interviews with all four band members, they make clear that certain guidelines have been present from the beginning--many designed to prevent conflicts over matters of ego and money.

Among them: shared songwriting credit and royalties on every song; the policy of a sole member having veto power over key career decisions, and remaining based in Athens, thus avoiding the pressures of a major recording center. Buck, who is now in the process of a divorce, moved away from Athens last year, but it was to Seattle, not Los Angeles or New York.

*

R.E.M.'s imprint is virtually everywhere you step in the old downtown section of Athens, which is about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta and home of the University of Georgia.

Just down the street from the Globe is Wuxtry Records, the store where Buck, then a clerk, and Stipe, a student at the university, met in 1979. Also nearby: the site of the abandoned Episcopal church where R.E.M. gave its first performance in 1980. The property now houses the Steeplechase Condominiums, named after the church’s only remaining symbol: its steeple.

If you ask enough people, you can also be directed to the house where Stipe lives and the house where Buck used to live. Both are within walking distance of City Hall.

Gwen O’Looney, the first woman mayor in the city’s history, recalls dancing to R.E.M.'s music at local clubs in the early ‘80s, but she speaks most about the group members’ contributions to the city--how they have paid for a study about the future use of the downtown area and supplied the funds needed to keep the city’s homeless shelter open.

She also thinks Athens is good for them.

“It helps them stay connected to the everyday,” she says, sitting in her office. “The other day, I went into the vacuum cleaner shop, and there was Bill Berry and he was talking to the man about how his vacuum cleaner worked . . . as serious as you can imagine.

“If he was out in Los Angeles or someplace, he’d probably have someone else bring it in for him--if he’d use a vacuum cleaner at all. They are very modest people. I’ve never seen them do a snobby thing.”

But you can’t be a hero in a small town for all these years without some backlash, and someone has expressed displeasure with the group, on the wall across the parking lot from the rehearsal hall.

Written in bold letters: REM Suk .

When a photographer asked about a good backdrop for a photo shoot, Peter Buck good-naturedly suggested that wall.

“Hell, if I grew up around here hearing about a band for all these years, I’d probably write that on the wall too,” he says, with a smile.

*

It’s just past noon the day after the Globe gathering and the band members are starting to arrive at their rehearsal hall on Claypool Street, a block away.

This is the final day of two weeks of work on the songs for the new album. The sessions normally start around 1 p.m.

Berry, the first to arrive, is checking some of the equipment in the main room of what was once a carriage house. The songs’ working titles are written on a piece of paper--playful titles like “Big Fuzz Bass,” “Compulsion” and “Cranky” that will later be changed as the band selects which ones it wants and Stipe puts words to them.

Though Stipe writes most of R.E.M.'s lyrics, all three of the other members write the music. Though there is normally a primary writer on each song, all four are credited as co-writers.

“That was one of the first and best decisions we ever made,” says Mills. “When we started out, my thought was that when I wrote a song, the record should say it was written by me and the same for the others. But Peter said, ‘No.’ He said we are all four going to write these songs, so we should all get credit for them because it eliminates money as an issue.”

Buck, who reads about rock history as fervently as he listens to vintage recordings, knew about all the tension caused in groups by lucrative songwriting royalties. Creedence and the Band both broke up at least in part because of songwriting issues.

“I remember reading an interview where the drummer for a famous ‘60s band said, ‘The money’s in songwriting, and I am going to get three of my songs on the next album no matter how bad they are,’ ” Buck explains.

The band members feel so strongly about partnerships that they also share certain royalties with Holt and Downs.

*

The members of R.E.M. remained active between 1990 and 1992 despite the absence of touring. They recorded “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People,” did interviews in this country and acoustic radio-TV appearances in Europe, as well as “MTV Unplugged.”

The real time off came last year. They didn’t use the year to do things considered glamorous by rock ‘n’ roll terms. They used it to simply unwind after more than a dozen years immersed in the rock ‘n’ roll world.

Berry and his wife bought a small cabin on a lake and oversaw the building of their new house in the countryside outside Athens. Mills traveled some but mostly stayed around Athens. One of his private treats: making it through a whole season with his local softball team.

Stipe devoted most of his time to his photography hobby and the development of a film company, C-00, which specializes in feature films, videos and public service announcements. Though he says music remains his primary interest, the company is now showing added ambition. On tap is a movie, “Desperation Angels,” which he will executive-produce with Oliver Stone. The film--which Stipe describes as a “volatile American road movie about the wreckage during the Reagan-Bush years"--will be directed by Jim McKay, a partner in C-00.

Buck fed his lifelong wanderlust by spending much of the time on the road, delighting in his anonymity.

“The only thing I resent about being in a rock ‘n’ roll band is the regimentation,” he says.

“I love to be in the situation where I can get up in the morning and throw stuff in a suitcase and go wherever I want--and that’s how I spent most of last year. It was great for me. I grew this huge beard and hitchhiked around Mexico--and ate meals in places you could see them killing the chicken out back.”

The band members came back together last fall for a week at Daniel Lanois’ New Orleans studio, where they had worked on “Automatic,” to see what they had for a new album. It was a heady time: pieces of almost two dozen songs--most of them in a harder rock sensibility than the slower, moody currents of “Automatic for the People.”

That’s when they agreed to regroup in Athens to work more on the material before going into a Miami studio in April to begin recording.

Buck reflects the enthusiasm of the entire band these days.

“I never felt we’d fall victim to things like ego and greed,” he says after the rehearsal. “The main thing I worried about is that we would run out of songs someday. That’s why it was so thrilling when we got together in New Orleans. I could see that we had the new songs. . . . Taking this time off was the best thing that could have happened.”

*

It’s been almost nine years since Michael Stipe sat on the steps of one of the buildings on the University of Georgia campus and defined his goals in R.E.M.

It was just before the release of “Fables of the Reconstruction,” the group’s third album. Even then, there were questions about whether R.E.M. would be able to retain its values and vision amid the increasing national acceptance.

“My biggest goal isn’t to be No. 1,” Stipe said at the time. “My goal is to be able to think in 10 years from now that I’ll be able to listen to our third album and not be embarrassed by it.”

Reminded of that quote, Stipe rolls his own cigarette--regular tobacco--as he sits on a couch in an otherwise bare room adjacent to the band’s rehearsal hall.

“Well, there’s still two more years before I can really tell you, but I still feel pretty good about that album,” he says good-naturedly.

In the early days of the band, Stipe was extremely shy and avoided interviews, which many saw as an attempt to build mystique.

There’s still something enigmatic about him, partly because he, like his friend Natalie Merchant, steadfastly draws a curtain around his private life. Yet he’s far more relaxed than in the old days, and he talks freely about the band and even his songs.

“I don’t think I’m the trickster that people want to make me out to be or the strategist,” Stipe says in his soft-spoken tone. “I think all of us have certain standards we try to bring to the band and we like to change the music and keep people a bit off guard, but it’s not like we sit around and say, ‘How can we come up with something today that is incredibly manipulative and clever?

“In fact, I don’t think that ‘being clever’ is what is important in music or in the arts. What’s important to me is conveying feelings and ideas. . . . And cleverness sometimes gets in the way of real feelings.”

*

As a writer, Stipe once seemed guilty of putting cleverness over passion--as he sang words that seemed like little more than riddles and made them even more mysterious by slurring them.

Today, however, there is a directness, revelation and vulnerability in the lyrics to songs such as “Man on the Moon” and “Everybody Hurts,” a stark ballad that seeks to comfort.

“That was written for teen-agers basically, saying don’t kill yourself,” he says of the latter tune. “My sister is a teacher and someone she knows, who is 15, tried to kill himself, and it led to this song.

“The idea was to write something that would appeal to someone who is having trouble . . . so that if they hear the song, they might be able to say, ‘God, that’s me,’ and feel some sense of hope or that someone might care about them.”

Stipe pauses when asked about any new goals.

“If you have any ambition at all, there is a point in a band’s career that you begin thinking about making the perfect record,” he says. “I don’t know if you ever do that, but I do feel good about what we’ve done so far and I’m happier now than I’ve ever been with the band.

“When we got back together, we were all in the same place. We all wanted to kick butt musically . . . get the energy back. . . . But there’s going to come a point where we get back together and the passion is gone; I hope we have the courage to stop.”


Advertisement