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Time Out

A tour and best-of give R.E.M. fans old-time religion.

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R.E.M. made me sick.

It fell to me one Thursday afternoon in February 1989 to secure a line number to buy R.E.M. tickets the following Saturday morning. It fell to me because neither of my two friends was willing to fake pre-vomit panic and bolt from our seventh-hour class to the bathroom. To maintain the illusion of nausea long enough to get a pass to see the nurse (an appointment I cleverly wouldn't keep), I kept my face slack and willed myself pale. But it was my unsteady gait that tipped off the girl sitting next to one of my friends: "Scott must have diarrhea." For your favorite band, you make sacrifices. And as R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe told a breathless fan for the benefit of a Rolling Stone reporter in 1988, "I shit, too."

My curiosity about R.E.M. was at its zenith then. That was before books such as Marcus Gray's It Crawled From the South and John Platt's R.E.M. Companion. That was before lyricist Stipe coyly began to denude his persona of its shy, mumbling facade the same way he used to shed layer after layer of baggy secondhand clothing onstage. That was before I realized the band had steadily mowed down the kudzu of its quasi-mystical debut, 1983's Murmur, leaving in its place a field -- at times, as on 2001's dense, holographically detailed Reveal, an absurdly lush one, but a field nonetheless, its paths clearly marked and well-worn.

I know this band. So much so that the prospect of a telephone interview with bass player Mike Mills generated a lack of curiosity that would have appalled my seventeen-year-old self. But I didn't want whatever mystery remained to be trampled under the hooves of rote publicity.

R.E.M. is touring, supporting a best-of disc (In Time) in advance of its October 28 release, a circumstance cynics might think of as a two-for-one special on sellout moves -- the placeholding compilation and the placating oldies tour. Maybe the band's robust activity level (R.E.M. spent the summer in Vancouver, British Columbia, working to complete its next full-length as well as shooting a video for "Bad Day," one of the new recordings on In Time, and taping appearances for VH1 and various MTVs domestic and foreign; a 2004 tour is likely) signals an end to three-year waits between albums rather than the beginning of an approach to the shark-jump ramp. Of course, three-year waits might be the band's only remaining enigma.

But I don't ask Mills about any of this. I don't propose my theory that, eventually, you don't want to ask your favorite band how and why it does those favorite-band things and how much longer it will last; you'd rather talk about how and why it got to be your favorite band and explain how long you've felt that way.

I don't tell him about the tape deck in my old Nissan that held a sixty-minute Maxell of R.E.M. songs in a death grip for more than a year, its capstan gradually slowing until Stipe had become a basso stroke victim. I spent several late nights and early mornings with pocketknives, screwdrivers, flashlights, chopsticks -- I tried everything to get it out, and not gently.

I don't tell him about the live bootlegs collected, the lyrics parsed, the merits of lesser songs debated, the thrift-store couture imitated.

No, instead I ask Mike Mills about relevance, about marketing, about retrospectives. I ask him all the shit he expects, because I know already the shit he'll talk about and the shit he won't. Stipe shits; Mills shits; I shit, too.

So here's what cost-efficient Mills, the least conspicuous harmonizing bass player this side of Michael Anthony, the scrappy guard dog of his group's image and position, says:

"I'd like to be on MTV and VH1. When MTV shows videos, they're short-attention-span theater over there. But videos are important commercials, and you can make them cool.

"[Warner Bros., R.E.M.'s label] went through a long period of difficulty, when they behaved like corporate idiots. For a few years, it was a poorly run corporation. They seem to have their ducks in a row now.

"The only time I really listen to old stuff is when we relearn them live. But they all stand out for one reason or another, because we're really good songwriters.

"One reason we're doing [a best-of] is to reintroduce ourselves to people who haven't thought about R.E.M. for a while. And honestly, it makes the company happy. People are going to assume that we don't have something fresh. I trust people to make up their own minds."

I could put his comments in context and in order, but the context when Mills speaks is always R.E.M., and the order is always good-to-better, meaning the band has always been good but is still getting better.

In fact, 1998's Up ranks with acknowledged masterpieces Automatic for the People and Murmur as one of the group's finest albums. Reveal isn't far behind. But R.E.M. has experienced commercial success at the superstar level, so it's not enough to make uncompromising music. R.E.M. has to remain visible while dodging the charge that it has grown too comfortable, can no longer turn on a dime.

Writing the "America Underground" column for the April 1982 issue of Trouser Press magazine, Robert Payes reviewed R.E.M.'s first single, the Hib-Tone label "Radio Free Europe," with the laudit: "Three cheers for tuneful Georgians!" More than twenty years later, Trouser Press is long-buried, that first 7-inch has become a talisman of '80s college rock, and the group is down to one cheer apiece. But the Athens, Georgia, post office box listed at the end of Payes' 73-word writeup (Dear R.E.M.: Enclosed is $2 for a copy of your 45) remains the address of R.E.M.'s fan club, the same fan club with a Web site that takes requests for the band's tour.

I hang up with Mills, then e-mail the site and ask R.E.M. to play me something from that stuck tape.

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