March 2005R.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."
Michael Stipe in Copenhagen
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 lyricistthe title song on R.E.M.'s new album Around The
Sun, for exampleand 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 Culturekiosque.com. 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.