The phone rings. Finally, those late-night cable ads for my detective agency are paying off. It was a music journalist looking for information. His deadline looms like a tip-hustling waiter and he needs help finding some drummer. Normally, I'd pass on tracking down a musician, but times have been tough on this old gumshoe.
"Who is this guy, what's his M.O.?," I ask.
"Bill Berry was the drummer for the Athens-based rock band R.E.M.," he says, sounding like a damned PR machine. "He was a member of the band -- along with Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills -- from April 1980 until October 1997. Then he retired to his farm in Watkinsville. R.E.M.'s mid-'80s albums on I.R.S Records are highly influential examples of intelligent, atmospheric post-punk jangle-pop. However, the group's output in the past decade on Warner Bros. has veered toward somber, adult contemporary drone-fests, culminating with the absolutely somnambulistic Around The Sun in 2004."
Geez, no wonder this guy is layin' low. The writer on the phone adds that the entire band will be inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame on Sat., Sept. 16, and it will play three songs together that evening. Should be a big deal, too, because Berry's only played with the group three times -- always unannounced -- since he quit. This Berry sounds like a homebody, a hermit.
I'm off to Athens, Georgia, a football town with a jumpin' underground music and art scene. In the car, I try to get into the band's collective mind by listening to its recently released two-CD set, And I Feel Fine ... The Best Of The IRS Years 1982-1987. Good stuff, even for a bunch of weirdos, I think. As the previously unreleased version of "All The Right Friends" blasts from the speakers, I figure I'd go find some of Berry's pals.
According to the writer, the band played its first show at a church in April 1980. All that's left of it now is the decaying steeple. Naturally, a set of condos has cropped up around it, and it's next door to a rehearsal facility called Nuçi's Space.
I toss a well-worn photo of the band down on the counter inside Nuçi's. "Anybody here seen this guy?" I ask, pointing to the sweaty man behind the drum kit in the picture. A gal approaches and introduces herself as Vanessa Hay of the band Pylon. "Bill has always been a really nice, friendly person," she says. "The first time that I saw him, he was the drummer for a one-off band for [college radio station] WUOG's birthday party at Memorial Hall back in October of 1978. The band was called the WOUGERZ or something like that."
"What about this church show?" I prod.
"I was at the church show. I took photos, but the slides have disappeared," she says. "There was a group of young ladies who called themselves the Di-Fi-U's who went absolutely bananas when the Twisted Kites -- that's what [R.E.M. was] called then -- played. Love Tractor, the Swindles and the Side Effects also played."
Hay slips me a piece of paper with the name and telephone number of drummer and music historian Paul Butchart, of those "Side Effects," a band that predated R.E.M. by about three months. I find a pay phone.
"I saw him last year," Butchart says without much prompting. "We caught up on old times, his life on the farm, being a father and his solo project, BOMB, Bill's One Man Band."
Come on, Butchart, cut to the chase. How much did he contribute to R.E.M.?
"I remember a party at Bill's house. Bill was playing guitar and I remember requesting 'We Walk' [from R.E.M.'s Murmur, 1983]. I was impressed with how well he could play. I thought he was just the drummer, then I thought, 'Hmm, I wonder if he has more influence with the songs than just the beat?'"
The conversation peters out and I go lookin' for the Love Tractor guys. I find Mike Richmond. He looks mighty innocent for a guy with his back story. Wild parties. Cross-dressing. Wheels of cheese. My mind reels.
"I've only had brief contact with Bill over the years," Richmond says. "He's very reclusive. Fame will do that to some people. Bill was never really a guy that hung out much with the arty types, anyway."
"But he was in your band, I hear." I can practically smell the art from where I stand.
"Bill was a fan and wanted to join up with us. He played with us only a few months. At one point, Bill announced that he was going to quit R.E.M. to join us and that he didn't know how he was going to break the news to them. But it never happened because [the rest of Love Tractor] was still in school. The idea of touring around the country in a 'rock band' was the last thing on our minds. So Bill went back to them and they started touring seriously."
"Then he made a name for himself with these R.E.M. punks and skipped town, right?" I say.
"I think he grew tired of the music business and the constant touring," Richmond continues. "He also had a few health issues that probably were the deciding factor. I can't really speak about Bill's current state of mind. If I had to make a guess, I would say that he now enjoys his life as a gentleman in the country, riding around on his tractor."
Crap. This is getting me nowhere. I call the writer and tell him that he's S.O.L.
"I guess I'll try to catch him at the Hall of Fame dinner and show on the 16th. Dallas Austin, Felice Bryant, Jermaine Dupri and Gregg Allman are also being inducted," he says. "He'll be there."
"That's pretty impressive company," I say, pushing my fedora back a bit.
"Yeah," he says.
I'd heard enough.
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