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Peter Buck Talks About Reveal's Songs

Says Stipe's lyrics are from the perspective of a variety of characters

We asked Peter Buck to talk about some of the songs on R.E.M.'s new album, Reveal.

"Imitation of Life": In my head, I always picture a teenager; it's a teenage complaint. Now you could ask Michael, and he might say something totally different. It's kind of a melancholy song in its own way. The weird thing is it's gone through so many changes. It used to have two different choruses. It's a very sad song. Well, "Imitation of Life" is the title, gives you a clue — "Are you really living this life?" It's scattershot. 'Cause the chorus goes into that "It's Hollywood," all things that aren't particularly real. What "Imitation of Life" is saying, the person who's singing it — I think you're supposed to look at that person and just go, "This person doesn't have a real clue." And it could be the same person who's going to Reno. I don't know. I don't think so, though. I think the person going to Reno is female — that's my guess. "Imitation of Life," I think, is a young guy.

"All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be A Star)": Here's someone who wants to be famous, and they're going to Reno? But it's sung totally straightforward. If you're going to Reno to be famous you are a serious loser. But that's not what the song says. I think that's a young woman going to Reno.

"I Been High": It's about capturing the perfect moment. Whether that's a real, true.... One of the things Michael doesn't get credit as a lyricist for is, a lot of times what the lyrics say and what you see them meaning [are different] — that's a character saying that. So is the character right? You could always tell with Randy Newman — when he was singing about short people or using the n-word in a song, that's not Randy Newman. He's commenting on this person. With Michael he tends to play it closer to the vest. You could listen to the record and not notice that, "Hey, these are from other people's perspective." I honestly don't know if "I Been High" is a real capture-the-moment thing, or someone thinking they're capturing the moment. It's kind of a sad-sounding song, so maybe the sadness has to do with the fact that it's not. You're supposed to read it and be distanced from it. That's one of the things that I like about his writing. You don't necessarily know the perspective it's written from.

"She Just Wants To Be": That's about a person — someone I think we've met.

"Beach Ball": He'd written a song about Vancouver, this area of Vancouver, Hastings and Main, where you can score any kind of drug you want. The studio just overlooks it. We'd look out the window and see people dealing drugs, and every time I'd walk to the studio, someone would be going, "I got the rocks. Valium." I'm like, "No, thank you. I've got a bit of work to do. Maybe I'll check back later." Michael wrote this song about drugs. And then he went, "I don't want to write some song about [dealing drugs on the street] — Lou Reed does it great. I don't need to do it." So he kept the first line — "Foggy seaside town" — and then in his mind turned it into some kind of... It's kind of a real optimistic, these people having fun at the beach, the "well-tequilaed guys who smile at strangers." I find that line kind of threatening, personally. But then it ends, "You'll do fine." And I like the record ending with "You'll do fine." I tend to take that song at face value, that it is kind of an expression of joy.

"I'll Take the Rain": It's about someone who is maybe a little bit self-pitying, but accepts it: "OK, I'll get the bad stuff, I'll take it." And you revel in that. If rain is a metaphor for the pain or sadness or whatever, you accept it and live with it. Now the character might be a little on the self-pitying side, but that's not Michael, that's the character. But I take it very straightforwardly. I think it's a real song of strength.

"Disappear": I think there's a little bit of Michael's trip to Israel in there. It's about self-effacement, obviously. After he recorded it, he goes, "Have you heard the new Radiohead record [Kid A]?" I said, "Yeah, I bought it two days ago." He said, "I hear they have a song about disappearing on it." I said, "Don't worry, he doesn't say what you say." Michael never listens to records while we're recording. He said, "I talked to Thom [Yorke] and I said 'Do you have a song called "Disappear?" ' and he said, 'It's OK, 'cause I stole some lines from something you told me, so if you take anything from me, it's OK.' "

"Summer Turns to High": That was one I wasn't sure I was going to show the band. It had so many chords, and I didn't think it was right for how this record was going. But I just played it once and the band just fell in and played it amazingly well. At that point it was in 6/4 time and had a real Irish feel. It was acoustic guitars, accordions, really kind of a sea-shanty type thing with a ton of chords. Michael loved it, but it was too busy for him. So we stripped everything off, brought it down to just drums and bass and one keyboard, and then Michael threw this melody on top that pushed it completely out to left field. It became more electronic and more Beach Boys, all those harmonies. Someday people will hear the demo, we'll put it on a b-side or something. It would have fit right in the middle of Automatic perfectly, it would have made total sense on that record. But then we've done that. And we were trying to push ourselves in another direction.