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R.E.M. on tour
Michael Stipe at the Apollo
Photo: Jane Stockdale

R.E.M.: The Carnival Comes to Town

By Mike Zwerin

ANTWERP, 15 March 2005—R.E.M.'s point man Michael Stipe described an international tour by a superstar rock band like theirs as: "The carnival comes to town. We set up, perform, break down, and leave for the next town in the middle of the night. And I guess I'm the barker."

Some 70 of them were traveling in six busses and seven large trucks. The Sports Palace in Antwerp was, like their other concerts, sold out. With more than 15,000 people in the audience, and a similar number predicted tomorrow night in Paris, the production people's Powerbooks were busy communicating in every nook and cranny backstage. Telephones were being worked with increasing enthusiasm as the evening wore on ("great, they're getting up on the East Coast"). Big unwashed men with hammers, keys, and cables hanging from their belts walked by an accountant counting piles of cash. This was a major concentration of energy, efficiency, money, and, not the least of it, first class catering.

They had been touring since October, when, along with Bruce Springsteen and the Dixie Chicks, they topped the bill of the Vote For Change tour for John Kerry. By the time their international itinerary winds up in Cardiff, Wales, on July 10th, they will have performed in the US, Mexico, eastern and western Europe, South Africa, Japan, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia. It takes time for a bloated circus like this to get revved up, and it became well-oiled, and a decision was made to keep it going for a while.

R.E.M., which stands for Rapid Eye Movement, is known as a smart and politically savvy rock band. Although slipping lately in the US, it remains on the highest commercial level just about everywhere else. "Americans perceive music from the radio and music television," Stipe shrugged: "And we've never been a radio band." Recently, he and his fellow founder and songwriter, the band's bassist Mike Mills had laughed when Stipe told him that he had managed to rhyme "apostle" with "nostril." Not a rhyme for present-day American radio. He noted the lines on the memo pad function of his cell phone, which is how he writes song lyrics on the road. Having spent the time between the sound-check and the concert in his five-star dressing room keeping tabs on his intercontinental business affairs, he pointed to the phone and the sleeping laptop computer on top of which it was sitting, and said: "That's my office. Very 21st century, I guess."

R.E.M. in Copenhagen
Michael Stipe in Copenhagen
Photo: D. Belisle

He came across as much as an executive as a musician. He calls himself an entertainer. "Our job," he said, "is to make beautiful music that hopefully lifts people by bringing an emotion, or a smile, or a catharsis, or, at best, an epiphany." R.E.M. was formed when they were students at the University of Georgia in Athens, and it will celebrate its 25th birthday in April. Stipe said that their audience has come to include "people who enjoyed our music in the 80s coming back with their grandchildren." Reflecting back, he said: "Actually, I've become quite grounded for someone holding down a job like this."

When Peter Buck, guitarist and the band's third songwriter and founding member, said that R.E.M. is the "acceptable side of the unacceptable," Stipe added that "we are very much into the mix of American pop culture, and we present ideas and themes through our work that are extremely radical. I like the idea that we can mess stuff up, and do it like a tapeworm, from the inside." Inside indeed. Stipe's job description includes being a partner in two moving picture production companies, in New York and Los Angeles. He produced Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, and a "black comedy that was popular in Europe" called Saved. He has a television movie coming out soon on HBO, and there are three projects currently in pre-production. Calling himself a "very hands-on producer," he said he likes the change of perspective involved with "being around creative people who are not making music."

On stage, when Stipe announced a political song about a "strange, faraway country called the United States of America," the crowd here in Flanders booed. (They cheered the song itself.) He is an exceptional lyricist—the title song on R.E.M.'s new album Around The Sun, for example—and he has a good strong voice, a great deal of conviction, and an electric stage presence. Stipe bragged that the band was rediscovering some of their material from the early 1990s, and changing the set-list nightly; he said it illustrated how alive and well they still are. Songs that began with the same bone-crushing back-beats behind tonic chords on steroids brought forth instant recognition in the form of roars, handclaps, and sing-alongs. It was amazing how they could tell one song from another.

The good lyrics tended to be lost in the band's arena sound system, and it became harder to bear the alarmingly alike, undergraduate, predictable melodies that kept following one another as the concert wore on. But reaching a mass audience is the nature of their game, they do it well, they wear well, and music should be judged on its own terms.

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Zwerin who has lived in France for 33 years, was promoted recently from 'Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' to 'Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Minister of Culture.

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