ATHENS, Ga. — Michael Stipe was walking home from a rock club. It was nearly 3 in the morning and the downtown of this little college town was deserted--all four blocks of it. It was just as safe to walk down the middle of the street as on the sidewalk.
Stipe, 25, lead singer of rock quartet R.E.M., was on a quickie vacation before returning to the road, where he has spent almost half his time since the band was formed five years ago. Its first "show" was for about 50 friends a couple of blocks away in an abandoned church.
R.E.M. has since done hundreds of concerts and recorded three albums that have catapulted it to the front of a new generation of independent American bands that have captured the artistic momentum in rock.
But Stipe still enjoys coming back here. The slow pace lets him relax before another round of touring. He also feels that the isolation from pop centers like Los Angeles and New York plays an essential role in allowing the band to maintain its own musical voice.
"This is like our private little world," he said, passing the steps that lead to the University of Georgia campus where he studied art. "Things are so much slower here. In London, a band is on the cover of every major magazine before they write 10 songs. They don't have time to develop.
"We had time to be renegades and play in biker bars and pizza parlors, sometimes to just five or 10 people. It gave us a chance to develop without having to worry about what the 'record industry' was going to say."
But Stipe isn't pleased with everything that goes on in Athens. He stopped in front of an old two-story frame house that was being demolished.
"There's no respect for history here," he said. "Every time we come home, another beautiful old building has been torn down. You'd think with all the land available here, developers could put up their buildings without tearing down the past. But they want to be right downtown so they just knock over whatever is in their way."
Rock 'n' roll has been victimized by a similar indifference, a point that isn't lost on Stipe, who named the group's new album "Fables of the Reconstruction." The title refers to R.E.M.'s Southern roots, but also alludes to the efforts by R.E.M. and a loosely aligned group of new bands to revive the heartbeat of American rock.
R.E.M. and groups like the Replacements out of Minneapolis, the Meat Puppets from Phoenix and Los Angeles' Minutemen are part of an informal network of new bands that have rejected the "corporate rock" calculation that's resulted in anonymous hit-making outfits like Journey and Foreigner. Roots conscious, they rely on musical strains that go back to Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters and Hank Williams.
Despite wide variances in post-punk styles (see profiles on Page 47), these bands display a common spirit and commitment. They seem to be more interested in self-expression than in chart position.
Explained Stipe, "I don't like to talk about (these bands) in terms of a movement because it is really just a bunch of musicians who worked out their own philosophies all across the country. It was only after we started traveling and met each other that we began to see we had all these things in common.
"We all learned from the mistakes and excesses of that horrible rock-star stuff that came down in the '70s. . . . The Lear jets and the champagne and girls and drugs. That's all part of life, I suppose, and everyone probably gets corrupted in some way. But it ends up ruining the music . . . not to mention your life.
"I'd like to think it's possible to define success in rock in other ways--namely the music. My biggest goal isn't to be No. 1. It's to be able to think in 10 years from now I'll be able to listen to our third album and not be embarrassed by it."
Rock 'n' roll was born in America in the '50s, matured here and in England in the '60s--and almost died here in the mid-'70s when the business of pop suffocated much of the music's vitality. Instead of being populated with strong, independent figures, the top of the charts were clogged with with timid, anonymous journeymen.
That's because record companies and radio stations went after the widest possible audience. They became more concerned with acts that wouldn't offend anybody than with those that would excite a few. Though the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac made engaging records, most of the soft-rock outfits that filled the bill were distressingly dull. Their music ranged from the anonymous art-rock of bands like Yes to icy commercialism of Boston and the Moody Blues.
Even worse than the blandness of the best-selling acts were the indulgence and aloofness of the veteran rock stars. Bruce Springsteen was one of the few mainstream figures in American rock offering a sense of integrity and vision, but even he was viewed with suspicion by much of the pop establishment.