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?"
R.E.M. - Reckoning (IRS)
WHEN I hear the word 'plangent' I reach for my applause button. Which is why 'Reckoning' and its predecessor, last year's 'Murmur', confirm R.E.M. as one of the most beautifully exciting groups on the planet.
It would be naÃ¯ve to deny that enjoyment of these vinyl cathedrals is untouched by love of the tradition from which they spring - the soaring trajectory from The Beatles 'Hard Day's Night', through The Searchers to America's electric Dylan and reaching an apogee in West Coast laureates The Byrds, Jingle-jangle merchants have followed - '70s British pub-rock, the likes of Dwight Twilley, Orange Juice at times, and a whole new generation of 12-string choristers. But none have devoted themselves with such inspiration to the driving, towering purity to bye found in the fullness of what is demeaningly called space-folk guitar music. When I get to heaven, the angels will be playing not harps but Rickenbackers. And they will be playing songs by R.E.M.
Drugs don't come into it: there's no need for a head full of snow or funny pills to groove into the spirit of R.E.M. It's to do with America, the journey west to the Promised Land with nothing buy a shimmering horizon ahead and a blazing, deep blue sky above. And though R.E.M. address themselves particularly to America the country, they resonate beyond that to signify America the state of mind; a Garden of Eden before its loss of innocence, its fall from grace.
It seems no coincidence that R.E.M. hail from Georgia in the New South, the paradise to be regained after California was lost. Wheel me out frothering if your like, but R.E.M. sing wistfully of a Golden Age hat never was. Though even the most part-time romantic wishes it had been and hopes, in some tiny moment of nirvana, it will come again.