In a storied irony, the band that achieved its highest-charting single with “Losing My Religion” would begin its wobbly launch toward rock superstardom in a church in Athens, Georgia.
It was April 5, 1980, at a private birthday party in the city’s former St. Mary’s Episcopal, where 50 people were expected to turn out. Five hundred showed up, standing shoulder to shoulder in a room that Peter Buck would later describe as “a rotten dumpy little s— hole. … It leaked, it was cold, it had fleas. … There was a grave under the stage.”
R.E.M. performed under the moniker Twisted Kites at the time, but the fundamentals were there: Guitarist Buck, vocalist Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry, passionately working through breakneck covers of ‘60s garage and surf chestnuts, the crowd dancing until the floorboards broke.
This is how John Hunter opens his new biography Maps and Legends: The Story of R.E.M., an exhaustively researched and illuminating account of not just the band’s journey but the players’ childhoods and backstories, and their sometimes-fertile post-R.E.M. projects. (The tome, published Aug. 2 by Nottingham Press, contains more than 200 pages of endnotes; Hunter jokes that “you could always use it as a doorstop if you don’t like it.”)
Maps and Legends is far from a hagiography. In his debut book, Hunter, who studied English at the University of Georgia in the late 1980s and even played in some of the same Athens clubs that helped hatch R.E.M.’s career, acknowledges that the artists behind some of his favorite music could be petty, hypocritical and downright mean. Weaving in such occasional brutal honesty, Hunter says in this conversation with Palm Beach ArtsPaper, is a decision he still “wrestles with.”
The book does not contain any new interviews with the members of R.E.M. Did you expect that they would decline your requests?
At the start of the project, in 2018, I called Bertis Downs, their manager, on the telephone, and spoke to him for about 15 minutes. … I was honestly surprised he took my call and talked to me as long as he did. He was very generous with his time. But on behalf of the band, he said that they were not interested in speaking to biographers anymore.
I expected that. I had never written a book before; it’s not like I was Peter Guralnick or some established biographer calling him up and asking for their time. So I wasn’t really surprised. Having said all that, I’m not sure what would have been gained by me talking to them. They have given a voluminous series of interviews over the decades, and I did my best to read or watch pretty much all of them.
Parts of the book are not flattering to them, and I wrestle with that to this day — is the book too negative? A lot of that is just where my research led me. But I don’t think, if I had been able to interview them, I would have necessarily gotten anything out of them that they hadn’t said to other, more established writers than myself.
I would also say that when you do get interviews with the band, to some degree you become beholden to them. When you write an authorized biography of them or of anyone else, when you get access to them, that comes with strings attached, in a lot of cases.
Why is now a good time for this book, and a good time to reassess the legacy of R.E.M.?
I don’t know that it was a good time for this book. There have been excellent biographies of R.E.M. Did the world need another one? I don’t know. I don’t think it was so much that it was time for one; it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do, and I finally hit a point in my life where I decided I was either going to do it or give up on it. So I did it. I do feel like if I’ve contributed anything to the scholarship about their story, I have maybe shone a little more light on the beginning of their career and the aftermath of their career, particularly Peter Buck’s solo endeavors after the band broke up. David Buckley’s book [R.E.M. Fiction: An Alternative Biography] came out in 2003, before they had broken up. So of course his book couldn’t cover their later career or solo endeavors.
What’s your R.E.M. origin story?
I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the early 1980s, and grew up listening to my mother’s record collection from the ‘60s, like the Beatles and Stones and Dylan and all that. I guess as an early member of Generation X or the last vestiges of the baby boom, I had this sense that I was an oddball kid, kind of a bookish kid, and I had this sense that I just missed something — this whole ‘60s thing had happened, and my mother got to live through it, but I didn’t. In 1980, I was listening to Foreigner and Tom Petty and Rush and whatever was on the radio. And in 1983, I heard “Radio Free Europe” on WQDR, which was the local FM station in Raleigh. I think WQDR jumped on R.E.M. early, because the band had a North Carolina connection. They recorded the album in North Carolina, but WQDR also had vestiges of the freeform ethos of radio in the 1970s. So they were, even in the early ‘80s, still willing to take a chance on an indie rock or college rock artist. So that really knocked me out.
I liked them for a lot of the same reasons I liked Tom Petty and the Byrds and that jangly Rickenbacker sound, which probably wasn’t very fashionable at the time. And then in 1984, when I was 16, I went to see them play at Page Auditorium at Duke University, and that was a life-changing experience to see them at that moment, in the peak of their early powers.
From that show, did you agree with their earliest boosters, that they are the Stones or the Beatles or the Who of their generation?
Unequivocally, yes. I had this sense that this amazing thing had happened in the ‘60s and had somehow gone wrong in the ‘70s, and I had missed all that. And then here you are, and suddenly here’s R.E.M., and you could see them in a club, and it was amazing. To me, it was as exciting as anything I imagined had happened in the ‘60s. I very much had that sense.
And it was not just the music, although the music, of course, was excellent. But just like with the Beatles, beyond the fact that they were the best musicians of their era, they had the charisma, the look, the personality. There was an X factor about them that transcended the music.
You write in the book: “After REM broke up, the Salem witch trials of ‘80s indie rock had long since been forgotten.” Expand on what you mean by “Salem witch trials,” for readers who might not be so steeped in the kind of cliquishness and purity tests that I think you’re speaking of.
I think all that came to a head with Nirvana in the 1990s, where Kurt Cobain agonized over coming out of a punk rock scene in the Pacific Northwest that was very insular and cliquish, and had a lot of self-imposed rules about selling out, and then all of a sudden he’s selling 10 million records, and his video’s on MTV every two hours. I think maybe people in their 40s could remember Cobain and Nirvana going through that internal crisis about, is it OK to be this popular?
But having lived through the ‘80s and participated in that scene and been around it, that didn’t start with Kurt Cobain. And that was a huge thing from the earliest days of R.E.M.’s first shows in Athens. They were considered uncool by some of the artsier bands in Athens, like Pylon and Love Tractor, even though they were friends with them onstage. When I first encountered them on the radio, I thought, wow, this is the weirdest, coolest, artsiest thing I’ve ever heard, because I was listening to Foreigner. But if you really look at it, within the Athens scene early on, they were perceived as square, as sellouts. They played Monkees songs. They were popular with the uncool kids, the sorority people. Whereas Pylon was playing this extremely artsy music that also crossed over to the sorority and fraternity people but not quite to the same degree.
And there was this huge tension in the ‘80s underground rock scene — not just with R.E.M. but with the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and every other American band: How big is it OK to get? How acceptable is it to admit that you want to get big? How acceptable is it to be seen to be trying to get big? I think R.E.M. and a lot of other bands of their generation had to engage in this elaborate charade, where clearly Michael Stipe and Peter Buck wanted to be popular rock stars, but they had to pretend like they didn’t want to be, because that was just not allowed. Again, I think all that comes to a head with Kurt Cobain, where the internal contradictions of that ethos become unsustainable when Nevermind goes 10 times platinum.
It seems that indie and mainstream have completely blurred by this point, and bands are not afraid to sell their music to commercials.
It’s an issue that’s still debated today; is it OK for Wilco to sell their music to a car commercial? And I would say 100 percent. Wilco are not having hits like “Losing My Religion.” They’ve certainly put in the work, and if they can make, to pick a number out of the air, $100,000 from Volkswagen to use their song in a car commercial, great.
You write that there was an egalitarian streak in R.E.M. from the beginning, where all the songs were credited to all four members, even if they were one member’s creation. That said, was there a chief visionary from R.E.M., who is most responsible for their success?
I’ve had people say this to me: To me, the book might as well have been called Maps and Legends: The Story of Peter Buck, because to me, he was the visionary. I’m sure many people would disagree, and cite Michael Stipe, but from my perspective, Peter Buck was the driving force behind the band.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about R.E.M. during your research for the book?
Like we were talking about climbing the ladder of success, to me, the single most interesting thing I learned was that before I wrote the book, I had this vision that they played the party at the church, and they led this charmed life, and it was a straight upward trajectory, and everything went their way. But what surprised me when I really dug into it is that from 1981 to 1982, between the “Radio Free Europe” single and the Chronic Town EP, their situation was far more precarious than I had originally thought.
There was a moment when Pylon were selling more records, Pylon were touring the U.K., Pylon were playing New York City, Pylon were in the Village Voice. And R.E.M. were playing free shows at the University of Georgia Art School for 10 of Michael Stipe’s friends. That’s easy to forget, but I think the historical record bears that out. Even though there were people who saw them from the first show, and said, “you guys are going to be the next Beatles,” one thing I gathered from my research is that from 1981 to 1982, they were far closer to falling apart than is acknowledged. The IRS [record label] contract arrived as a life raft at the last possible second, before they turned the corner with Murmur and never looked back.
You called the book Maps and Legends, which of course is a great track from Fables of the Reconstruction, but why did you select that title for the book?
I spent about five years working on this, and for four and a half of those years, the title of the book was going to be Pilgrimage, another song from their catalog. That seemed to make sense. And at the last second, I had the idea to switch it to Maps and Legends, and I guess the reason I did that was a pun on the fact that they were the Beatles of their generation, they were legends. But at the same time, I do address the fact that to a large degree, they created a mythology around themselves that wasn’t 100-percent true. I think the reason I chose that title was to play on the word legend in particular.
Why did R.E.M. call it quits? In rock years, they were pretty young to retire.
This is the obvious answer, but sometimes the obvious answer is correct, and that would be that when Bill Berry left, that was a fatal blow to them. With four, they had that magical, Beatle-like chemistry. And when Berry left, he had been Peter Buck’s ally, in terms of, they were very spontaneous, like, “let’s go into the studio and record a song in two or three days and move on to the next thing.” And Michael Stipe and Mike Mills preferred to take weeks or months, endlessly tweaking and remixing the material.
Once Bill Berry left, Peter Buck lost his ally. Triangles are inherently unstable. The same thing happened to the Who when Keith Moon died. Peter Buck never got his way anymore, because when they were four, they could deadlock on things two votes to two, and then Scott Litt, their producer, or somebody else could break the tie. When Bill Berry left, pretty much every decision was a two-to-one vote, where Stipe and Mills were outvoting Buck, and Buck just gets more and more upset about that, to the point that during the recording of Around the Sun, he walked out of the studio halfway through, and they mixed the album without him.
Also, during Up, Buck quit, and had to be talked back into the fold. And they went to a ski lodge in Idaho and had a crisis meeting. They did the same thing Metallica did [as captured in the documentary Some Kind of Monster]; they hired a therapist/mediator, who forced them to all sit down and talk to each other.
It was a long, slow decline after Berry left in terms of their group unity, and a lot of people would say they stayed together because they had signed this second Warner Bros. contract, and when they fulfilled that contract with Collapse Into Now, they called it a day.
Was it the right time creatively, considering the reception for their last two or three albums was not as strong?
I think breaking up after New Adventures in Hi-Fi, when Bill Berry quit, might have been the right time in the abstract. I do think Up and Reveal are very strong and underrated records. And it would be a shame if we didn’t have those two records. Up is a record like Big Star’s Sister Lovers, where the band is disintegrating. Bill Berry has quit, Peter Buck is quitting, and out of that comes this amazing, messed-up, flawed masterpiece of a record.
But you can only really pull that trick once. Reveal was a temporary truce where they were getting along, and by Around the Sun they were back to not talking to each other, and Buck walking out. Unlike Up, that didn’t produce an interesting, messy record; it produced a boring, dull record.
And finally: Favorite R.E.M. song?
“Harborcoat.” You’re always going to like what you experienced when you’re 16, and I was 16 when Reckoning came out, but I would like to think that even without the factor of me being 16, that’s their best record.