The specter of rowdy southern rock continues to haunt R.E.M. "I r.e.m.ember reading this review in the Village Voice," says guitarist Peter Buck, "that said R.E.M., who are supposed to be a southern band, might as well be from Chicago. Now the [Boston-based] Del Fuegos, they're a southern band because they write about driving around in your car and drinking beer and partying on Saturday night.
"I went, oh, so that's what being from the South is about? Well then, Flannery O'Connor isn't a southern writer and neither is William Faulkner, but Richard Price is because he writes about driving in your car and drinking beer."
R.E.M. performs in Washington Wednesday night, at George Washington University's Smith Center. The group's music may know no borders, but there's no questioning the southern sensibility instilled in its formative years. Buck spent most of those years in Roswell, Ga., a town whose rural ways have since been eclipsed by nearby Atlanta's urban hegemony. But in his day, says the guitarist, "it was all old Dairy Queens and guys in overalls with hay in the back of their battered pickup trucks, poking through town and spitting tobacco juice on the sidewalk."
The nearest record store was 15 miles away, and Buck, an avid record lover, suppressed any early desires of becoming a musician. "Everybody I knew liked music," he laments, "so I figured, well, I'll never be in a band, to hell with it. I'll be a music critic, or I'll collect records and work in a record store."
But fate spared the world another music critic when Buck ventured to Athens and met up with Michael Stipe, an enigmatic vocalist who, as producer Mitch Easter would soon brag, made great animal noises. With bassman Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry, who had both recently escaped Macon, Ga., the quartet stirred up an original, evocative style that would inspire imitators on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. With the advent of its fourth LP, "Life's Rich Pageant," it's finally set fire to the nation's pop charts as well.
"Northerners want sense, southerners want sound," wrote South Carolina novelist William Price Fox. "The Bronx could never have produced Faulkner, nor could Cheever have come out of Tallahassee."
When critics weren't picking at R.E.M.'s lyrics for betraying its southern heritage of drinking, driving, partying, spitting tobacco and hauling hay, the band was taken to task for Stipe's elliptical vocal delivery, a mumble that inspires one to sing along phonetically, having no idea what is actually being sung. With "Life's Rich Pageant," Stipe is less content with just making sounds and leaving the sense to the listener's imagination.
Stipe's current fables are, by R.E.M. standards, less oblique than usual. There are ruminations on the Civil War ("Swan Swan H"), intervention in Central America ("Flowers of Guatemala") and the losses of native Americans ("Cayuhoga"). John Cougar Mellencamp's producer, Don Gehman, brings a new production clarity.
"Randy Newman wrote a song about [the Cuyahoga]," says Buck, "but don't tell Michael that!" Buck laughs. "If I had said that Randy Newman had a song called 'Cuyahoga,' he would have just thrown it away. And I loved the lyrics. So now it's too late. I guess I can tell him now."
The guitarist, it turns out, is not above sinking a song idea he doesn't like merely by suggesting that it sounds like someone else's, which usually sends Stipe back to the drawing board. Buck has the advantage in this situation, being a considerably more active listener than the more introspective singer.
"Michael likes to remain out of touch," says Buck. "He goes through things where he'll be fascinated by one record and play it all the time, but he's not like me. See, his theory is if you listen to too much stuff, you're influenced by it all. And my theory is if you listen to everything, then you're influenced to such a wide degree that no one's ever gonna tell."
Stipe's recent obsessions have included Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, and a Charles Mingus record Buck says he must have heard 50 times on the tour bus. "I don't know if it had any influence there, but that's the way things work. I mean, I listen to Sonic Youth all the time, and I don't really think we sound like Sonic Youth. But that's all in there."
"Life's Rich Pageant" is sort of a homecoming for R.E.M.. Not as close to home as the first EP and two albums, which were recorded in North Carolina with Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, but certainly more so than last year's "Fables of the Reconstruction," which found Georgia's Fab Four trekking through perpetual rain each day to record with Joe Boyd in London.
This time out, Buck maintains, Gehman wasn't hired as the producer-of-the-week. "I was telling him that we wanted to make more of a rock and roll record, more of a focused, hard-edged record," recalls Buck. "And he said, 'Well, what do you think about commercial success? Do you want it?' And I was going, 'I'm indifferent, I want to make a great record.' He says, 'Fine, that's fair enough.' "
Buck says Gehman took a sizable cut in pay to produce R.E.M.'s record, but the new album (including equipment rentals, flights and hotel rooms, clocked in around the $ 100,000 level, a heftier price tag than the $ 2,300 EP that introduced the band to a national audience four years ago. With "Pageant" marching into the Top 30 after only four weeks on the Billboard pop chart, no one's complaining. "This time we felt like taking a bit more time in the studio and working a little harder on some things," says Buck. "And still, the thing is that we've never owed the record company any money. I mean, the day the album came out, we paid the money back."
The foursome didn't always seem so bankable. "I never saw the band as a serious thing we'd keep doing until we signed a contract," says Buck, "and even then we were so broke for two years that we could only go to bars where one of our girlfriends worked."
A percentage figure is unavailable for how many bands start out by living and rehearsing in abandoned churches. But the altar and pews of the house of prayer that gave birth to R.E.M. were an appropriate setting, given much of the music's mystical bent, the fact that Stipe's grandfather was a preacher ("he thought it was blasphemous") and that everyone but Buck attended church regularly until their late teens.
Coming on the scene at a time when bands such as Pylon and the Method Actors were taking the art school approach to rock, R.E.M. was looked upon as a group of dumb kids that would get drunk and play, or worse still, a pop band. "The first year, we wrote some really miserable songs and some good ones. We were working out our identity, I was learning how to play ... by the end of the first eight months, we had started really turning out good songs -- 'Gardening at Night,' 'Sitting Still,' 'Shaking Through' ... "
Buck recently dropped by a party at the old church, which now houses a new batch of college students. The band still lives in Athens. Michael Stipe's and Mike Mills' houses are literally a stone's throw from each other, and Buck believes that, even if they take a couple of years off for independent projects, the band members will remain friends and continue working together on some level. But he admits that the road to longevity isn't well-charted for rock bands.
"With jazz, when you're improvising, all it takes is some great musicians. No, not all it takes," he revises himself, "that's a lot. But rock 'n' roll is intangible. It's like trying to catch a moth in a jar. It's hard and something that works one day might not work the next.
"Jazz musicians aren't under the pressure to move forward and change ... They can mine a valley of work for 10 years and not be seen as hacks. But in rock 'n' roll, you can make the same record twice in a row, people start going, 'Ah, it's not as good as last year, they're repeating themselves.'
"Rock 'n' roll never really has grown up. It's still, for better or worse, kind of adolescent. But there's ways around that. I'd like to try to do it when I'm 45 and make records that are cool. I can't imagine being the Ramones when I'm 45, but I can imagine being Van Morrison."
The South's oral tradition occasionally inspires Stipe to give forth with a straightforward lyric like "South Central Rain," but R.E.M. remains unlikely candidate for the Joe Strummer Plain Talk Award. Even Buck is baffled by two R.E.M. songs: "Harbor Coat," which entwines two vocal lines ("One of them is a religious-type thing, 'David keep your medal hidden.' The other one is kinda confusing"), and "Laughing" ("Never meant anything to me at all.")
But the guitarist says he understands everything else, though he's not sure that knowledge enhances the appreciation of the songs. "You don't have to know explicitly what something is about to understand the song. The song 'Camera' on our second record, that's obviously a goodbye song, it's a sad song. I don't think it makes it a better song or will help your understanding much if I tell you it's about a friend of ours that's gonna write, well, this is for Carol who died in a car. I think that everyone that knew her and heard that song was moved by it, and people that didn't know her picked up what it was anyway."
The New South has its share of public relations problems, though they don't always emanate from from the region. "Only someone who hasn't lived in the South for 15 years would dare put a Confederate flag up above their stage," says Buck of Tom Petty, a musician he otherwise respects. "It really bothered me. The Confederate flag basically stands for a lot of badness that I don't want to know about, that should be gone. And it's the idiots that wave those kinda things around that don't think.
"Every black person that sees that thing is gonna think you're a cracker and you're an idiot and a racist. Which is what I think. I know he's not a racist and I know he's not an idiot. Maybe he is a cracker. But it's a bad symbol. And I'm against flags anyway. I don't believe in nations. It's all some guy's illusion, sitting in an office writing dots on a map and saying this is my land, stay off."
Still, the Georgia quartet does confess to a southern sensibility. "The southerner," says Buck, "is a terminal outsider. He is ... In movies and on TV, the southerners are always hicks. They're idiots. There's never a smart southerner; they're always mindless morons and bigots. Everyone tends to look at you as if it's a miracle that you're a normal person from the South ...
"And we're in the belly of the beast ... But by the same token, we're not part of it. We utilize the machinery, but when all is said and done, I go home and I'm a musician. I'm not a music biz smoothie ...
"Then again, growing up anywhere, you might feel like an outsider. I mean, I'd probably feel like an outsider growing up in Brooklyn, too. You definitely get the feeling that this America isn't exactly yours. That it's not exactly made for me. California is an American state. Georgia is a southern state. And there's a bit of a difference."
Bill Forman is the editor of the California magazine BAM.