Cover Story

R.E.M.: ROAD WORRIERS

THE MODERN ROCK PIONEERS RETURN AS CONQUERING HEROES-ONLY TO SEE THE YEAR'S HOTTEST TOUR NEARLY DERAIL.

The ironies ran deeper than the lines of fans who camped out overnight for R.E.M. tickets. Seven weeks into the band's almost yearlong world tour, Bill Berry, the group's congenial drummer, was talking about how happy he was to be back doing what he loved best-playing amp-pulverizing rock & roll. ''It can't get too loud for me,'' he said in his soft Georgia drawl. ''If I had the hair for it, I'd be in a metal band.'' Sipping soup in a chilly backstage area in Rome, Italy, Berry, 36, spoke of how much he had matured in the five years since the band had temporarily retired from the road. ''I was 30 on the last tour, and I had the brain of a 20-year-old,'' he admitted. ''The tours would end, and it was like, hey, the party keeps on. On the last tour, I was a mess. I was drinking too much. That's not gonna happen this time.'' It was clear that the members of R.E.M., no strangers to a bit of rock & roll high life, were taking better care of themselves. Guitarist Peter Buck, 38, had shed some of his extra poundage and was joined on the road by his new wife and their 9-month-old twins. The group had bought a treadmill machine for exercising before shows, while Berry and bass player Mike Mills, 36, brought along their golf clubs. (''When we're in the States, they'll probably be up before me to play nine holes,'' cracked tour manager Dave Russell.) When not working, Berry lives quietly in a restored colonial house outside of R.E.M.'s home base, Athens, Ga., with his wife, Mari. Says longtime band friend Jim Herbert: ''The guy was never affected by fame.'' A week later, all that preparation amounted to zip. On stage in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 1, the drummer was seized by a massive headache and left the stage. Back at the band's hotel, doctors examined Berry and assumed the problem was a migraine. When the headaches continued, he was checked into a local hospital, where it was discovered that he had suffered a ruptured aneurysm (a burst blood vessel) on the right side of his brain. On March 3, Berry had a craniotomy for not one but two aneurysms-the one that had ruptured and one that could have. The band's label, Warner Bros., issued a statement saying Berry was ''expected to make a full and speedy recovery'' and would ''be able to pick up his drumsticks within the next two to three weeks.'' Three days later, Karen Moss, a Warner Bros. vice president, said that back-to-work forecast was ''unlikely'': ''They're saying he'll make a 100 percent recovery, but they can't tell how soon that will be.'' On March 6, the band announced it was canceling all its European tour dates through April 20. On the eve of returning as conquering heroes, R.E.M.-which hadn't toured since 1989 in order to save itself from the rigors of the road- ironically found itself victim to something worse than backstage food. One of the year's most awaited tours became that much more anticipated-but for all the wrong reasons.

The ironies don't end there. According to Michael Stipe, the group's lead singer, it was Berry who initially goaded the band into hitting the concert circuit again. ''Bill was the first one to pick up on the fact that as a band, we were a little bit falling apart,'' said Stipe, 35. ''We realized we were not going to be our idea of a band if we didn't tour again. In a way, it was a little bit of an effort to pull us back together.'' What kept R.E.M. off the road all that time were memories of its grueling % 1989 Green tour, the already established band's first foray into actual arenas. ''It got to be really routine, like a job,'' recalled Mills of those concerts. Added Berry, ''We were either gonna break the band up or explore some new avenues.'' They opted for the latter, which included two relatively unconventional albums (Out of Time and Automatic for the People), a lengthy break from the road, few interviews-and, ironically, combined album sales of 6.5 million.

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