This is an extract from Tony Fletcher’s R.E.M. biography Perfect Circle, which benefited from his long friendship with the group, especially guitarist Peter Buck. I’m envious of Tony. He saw all three of their shows on first visit to the UK in 1983 and at least once on every one of their five subsequent trips up to and including 1987.
The book wasn’t ‘authorised’ in the sense that it was ‘official product’ or that R.E.M. profited from it, and the fact that they helped Tony without asking for anything in return endeared me to this group all the more. Actually that’s not strictly true. When a Japanese edition was published Peter Buck was so delighted he asked for several copies to send to his friends as Christmas presents. I was happy to oblige and I got a limited edition R.E.M. Christmas single in return.
We’re in 1982, the Chronic Town EP and ‘Radio Free Europe’ are spreading the word but life on the road is far from a cakewalk.
R.E.M.’s following grew steadily, but there was always a badly advertised or ill-arranged show to bring them back down to earth. In May 1982, living on the road to make the most of ‘Radio Free Europe’’s surprising success, they followed up a couple of prestigious New York dates with a midweek trip to Detroit on a night that the venue rarely even opened.
“There were five people there who happened to be driving by who were all on mescaline,” recalls Peter Buck. “They enjoyed the hell out of it, they all had a great time. They asked us for an encore, and we came back out and said, ‘Listen, this is ridiculous, there’s as many of us as there are of you. We’ll just take you to dinner.’ We made $300 that night, so we took them to this Greek restaurant.”
Such occasions did nothing to dampen R.E.M.’s collective spirit. “I remember playing at The Antenna Club in Memphis,” says Buck, “and we were playing really well. But there were only about eight people there, and two of them were this old wino man and woman, and they were dancing in front of us, like waltzing, and slobbering on each other, and groping. Some people would think that’s humiliating, but I thought ‘We’re playing really well; I don’t care if there’s old winos having a good time and six people at the bar.’ Even if you only had three people, those three people would be saying ‘God, they’re pretty good’.”
On signing to I.R.S., and with the backing of [booking agency] F.B.I., R.E.M. might have assumed those days were over. Their two most sublime shows were yet to occur.
Driving out to the west coast in August 1982 for that first month in California involved a 1,400-mile, week-long void between Austin and San Diego. With no ‘new wave Mondays’ or progressive pizza restaurants in this neck of the woods, F.B.I. could come up with just one date, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The band drove into town only to find they were opening for a Hot Legs contest.
“These professional strippers were coming and doing obscene dances,” says Peter Buck, whose memory of the club is a drunken audience a thousand strong chanting for ‘tits and ass’. The promoter looked at the oddly-dressed bunch of Athens ex-college boys, at his raucous crowd of cowboys, and back again.
If you go on before these naked women, he told the group, I’m worried that these guys are going to kill you. Better I pay you your $500 and you go on your way. A flabbergasted R.E.M. took the cash and hurried off on the next 700 miles of their journey before the promoter could change his mind.
More than a year later, with their début album causing a noticeable stir and a considerable following in much of America, F.B.I. booked them and Mitch Easter’s new group Let’s Active into an Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. Michael Stipe’s sense of déjà vu as they drove up to a compound all too familiar from his childhood was enforced when they took the stage to face a sea of rednecks with crewcuts. The music that was winning them critical acclaim across America did not score points with the men of the USAF.
“There were oranges flying out of the audience,” recalls Peter Buck. “They were passing notes: ‘If you play one more song like this, you DIE, faggots!’”
“These guys would not get really violent, because they’d be arrested by the MPs,” said Michael Stipe a year later. “But they had this mock violence and mock threatening and that was more frustrating to me than just having them come up and smash our heads in.”
Not even the group’s repertoire of Rolling Stones songs could appease a crowd hungry for ZZ Top and Van Halen. Finally, Bill Berry stormed offstage, leaving Sara Romweber from Let’s Active to take his place and finish the show to thunderous booing.
“I remember Peter demanding the band break up over that, (because) it was so unprofessional,” recalls [record producer] Mitch Easter of Bill’s abrupt departure. “It was actually sort of funny. Everybody got mad with everybody, and everybody was gonna quit, and so and so wasn’t ever going to play in a band with so and so again. There were varying degrees of temper within the band. It takes a long time for it to sink in just why you have to put all of that aside.”
A night straight out of the celebrated rock ’n’ roll satire documentary This Is Spinal Tap, the events of Wichita Falls were matched only by the drive from New Jersey to Michigan for that ill attended Detroit show.
High up in the mountains of Pennsylvania in the still of night, Bill and Peter pull the van over at the Howard Johnsons to get coffee and relieve themselves. They ask if anyone needs anything, but are greeted by silence. Everyone is asleep.
Almost a full hour after resuming the long journey north, Mike Mills wakes up. He asks what happened to [manager] Jefferson [Hope]. Peter tells him he’s asleep in the back. Mike insists he’s not. Michael Stipe wakes up and confirms it: Jefferson is not there. Realisation sinks in. Their manager had got out at the service stop without telling anyone, and the group had driven off without him.
With Jefferson carrying the tour float, they must turn around. But on this winding mountain road with a fence running along the central reservation, there is nowhere to do so. It’s a further twenty miles before they find an exit, another hour and a half before they return to the Howard Johnsons. There, a despondent Jefferson Holt sits by the kerbside, waiting patiently. No one says a word as he gets back in and the group resume their journey, almost 200 miles and two and a half hours behind schedule.
Years later, travelling in luxury coaches with bunk beds. VCRs and stereos, to towns where their equipment would already be set up and five-star hotel bookings under individual pseudonyms had been pre-paid, where the shows were already sold out and the strippers were confined to the local go-go bars, they would look back on those days in the faithful Dodge van, on the sleepless nights, the endless drinking, the disasters, the triumphs and the pocket-sized crowds they knew by name, and think, We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.