No one saw it coming. When R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry collapsed on stage in March, the rest of the band thought he had the flu or a migraine headache. Little did they know Berry needed brain surgery that would alter the course of the tour and remind them of the reason they formed R.E.M. in the first place - for friendship. “It’s Bill’s health first and the career of the band is way behind that,” R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck said a few weeks ago as the group - with a recovered Berry - prepared to resume its tour in San Francisco on May 15. They play The Gorge tonight.
The band feels Berry is fully healed from the brain aneurysm he suffered the night of March 2 in the middle of a show in Lausanne, Switzerland. In a true display of unity, the band was at his bedside for the next month in a Swiss hospital, cheering him up, naughtily bringing him donuts and squelching any outside requests to resume the tour with a replacement drummer.
“None of us in the band or management suggested another drummer, but it was definitely suggested by a lot of other people - and I can’t really blame them,” said Buck. “Some promoters, insurance people and record company people would have liked us to keep going without him, but that’s not what we do.
“We’re not the ‘lovable entertainer’ types,” Buck added during the phone interview. “I’m not going to go out and pretend that everything is cool with a drummer I don’t know. There’s a reason we were successful and that’s because it took the four of us together to do this. We’ve known each other a long time. I was the only one who wasn’t a teenager when we met. So it wasn’t a hard decision. We stayed in Switzerland for the month instead, waiting for Bill to feel better.”
In a sense, Buck and other band members Michael Stipe and Mike Mills, who started the band in Athens, Ga., in the early ‘80s, know they were lucky. They could have lost Berry had the life-threatening aneurysm occurred in a more remote part of the world, but it happened in Lausanne, which has a medical specialist who pioneered this type of brain surgery. “People fly from LA to have the operation done by this guy,” said Buck, who admits to having become a “semi-expert on aneurysms” since the surgery.
The day of Berry’s collapse was a nightmare, as Buck recalled. “We all had the flu. We were all sick and dehydrated. We had just done four shows in a row and traveled overnight every night for five nights. We were like, ‘Well, man, we’ve got to keep going.’
“Then Bill collapsed and the paramedic said, ‘It’s probably a migraine.’ Bill’s had migraines and his blood pressure is a little elevated, so that’s probably what it was, we thought. He just felt so bad that night that we took him to the hospital. It wasn’t until the next day they did tests and then immediately scheduled the operation for the day after.”
Somehow, R.E.M. finished the show with drummer Joey Peters from opening act Grant Lee Buffalo. “You can’t cancel a show with 20,000 people there, especially in the middle of it,” said Buck. “And we’ve really only canceled two shows in our career.”
What was it like playing with Peters on such short notice? “Well, it was like being on drugs,” said Buck. “Joey is a great drummer, but I had to stand in front of him and signal the beginnings and the ends of songs. He knew our stuff, but had never played it. Sometimes it was way different, because all the songs have starts and stops in them.”
For one week after the operation, Berry was groggy and out of it. “But when he started getting PO’ed about the hospital food, that’s when I knew he was recovering pretty well,” said Buck. “I remember Bill saying, ‘God, you know they don’t have any donuts in this country?’ But I managed to find one place that had donuts, so we got Bill 20 of them.”
Berry has since worked hard to get back into top physical shape. He’s been walking, swimming, riding his bike, golfing (he shot an 87 three weeks after leaving the hospital) and driving a tractor around his farm in Georgia.
“The doctors said the fact that Bill was really stubborn was a good sign, because a lot of people have this operation and go into a deep depression,” Buck said.
“It’s tough having your head operated on. A lot of people just don’t come back, because it’s the end of the world to them. After the operation, Bill could barely move, but he still said he’d be ready to play in two weeks. We knew there was no way of that happening.”
Only in the two weeks before their tour resumed did R.E.M. rehearse again, but the group is quickly rounding into form, Buck said.
“I don’t think things are going to be different because of Bill’s illness. We rehearsed and he played fine. We’ve got another five or six days of pretty serious rehearsal, but he’s in good shape. He’s way out of danger, obviously. We wouldn’t even consider this if there were any health ramifications.
“With aneurysms, surprisingly enough, once you’ve had the operation, you’re done with it. Once you’ve tested 100 percent, you’re safer than other people would be. Not to say that we don’t all have health concerns, but I’m more likely to have an aneurysm now than Bill is.”
Regarding the tour, which is R.E.M.’s first in six years, Buck said the band is focusing on material from its last three albums - 1991’s “Out of Time” (which sold 10 million copies), 1992’s “Automatic for the People” and last year’s “Monster,” with the hits, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Crush with Eyeliner.”
“We also have five new songs that we’re working on,” said Buck. “The new stuff is less rock ‘n’ roll, but more noisy and chaotic. I’m excited by it. It’s pretty powerfully wild stuff.
“Michael (Stipe) is still working out the lyrics, but the ones we have in the set are pretty chaotic and demented. … I don’t know how to describe them. A lot of them have one or two chords that just drone on and on, in a kind of cool way, with melodies and subtexts and weird harmonies and stuff.”
Buck, who in recent years has moved to Seattle, married and fathered twin year-old daughters, said he feels a new love of life after what happened to Berry.
“The fact we have walked by the gallows pole successfully has given us a chance to reflect about it,” he said.
“We’ve thought: What does it mean that we’ve grown up together and are still doing this? In my case, it’s made me appreciate it a little more - the friendship and the fact that we get to do this creative thing together and make a living at it.”