22 Years Ago: R.E.M. Drummer Bill Berry Suffers Aneurysm on Stage
It was a Monster, all right. R.E.M.’s 1995 world tour wasn’t just the band’s first in six years, but the first since the one-time college rockers had become mega-stars on the backs of Out of Time, Automatic for the People and the then most-recent CD, Monster. Before it was over it would see three of the group’s four members undergo surgery.
The first to become afflicted was drummer Bill Berry. During R.E.M.’s March 1 show at Patinoire de Malley in Lausanne, Switzerland, the percussionist began to feel a throbbing pain in his head. The show was about 90 minutes in when the 36-year-old Berry collapsed with what he, and others, thought was a migraine.
“It felt like a bowling ball hit me in the head,” Berry later recalled to the Los Angeles Times. “There wasn't any warning. I was just singing the falsetto part on ‘Tongue’ when it happened.”
Berry received medical attention and a trip back to the hotel while Joey Peters, from openers Grant Lee Buffalo, filled in to finish the show before a crowd of 20,000. Bill just needed some time to rest, and then everything would be OK – or so everyone thought.
“He just felt so bad that night that we took him to the hospital,” guitarist Peter Buck told the Boston Globe. “It wasn’t until the next day they did tests and then immediately scheduled the operation for the day after.”
The tests had revealed that Berry had two aneurysms on the right side of his brain – one that had ruptured and one that hadn’t… yet. A craniotomy happened as soon as possible, the procedure was a success and Bill was soon healing in a Swiss hospital. It was the drummer’s luck that the incident happened in a country with one of the most in-demand brain surgeons in the world.
“People fly from L.A. to have the operation done by this guy,” Buck claimed.
In the meantime, the R.E.M.’s fans and the rest of the rock world were alerted to Berry’s dangerous accident via the media, which were given world in an official statement by the band. Although the group’s tour was postponed, the good news was that Berry was all right.
“Berry is in good hands and good spirits and is expected to make a full and speedy recovery,” the statement read (via the Chicago Tribune). It also confirmed that the drummer’s motor and brain functions had “not been impaired in any way” and that R.E.M.’s tour would proceed in a few weeks.
“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.”
Yes, recovery took a bit longer. Berry would remain in a Swiss hospital for a month after the procedure, surrounded by bandmates Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, as well as other members of the R.E.M. entourage, who cheered him on and snuck in donuts. Buck said that the members never considered keeping the tour going without Berry, although there was considerable pressure from outside of R.E.M.
“Some promoters, insurance people and record company people would have liked us to keep going without him, but that’s not what we do,” the guitarist said. “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… So it wasn’t a hard decision.”
Eventually, the R.E.M. guys were able to fly back to their homes in the U.S. Berry continued to recuperate, although he was wary about his recovery as a percussionist.
“I found myself not wanting to go around the drums because I didn’t want to find out there was something wrong,” he said. “So I ended up testing my hands by playing some golf, and everything was fine. I’m 100 percent.”
By May, the band began rehearsing for the tour’s recommencement. The group started anew in May 1995, more than two months after Berry’s accident.
Although the drummer remained in good shape for the rest of the tour, his bandmates weren’t so lucky. Multi-instrumentalist Mills had to undergo surgery for an intestinal tumor (benign, fortunately) in July and frontman Stipe went under the knife for a hernia in August. Buck was the only one who escaped the Monster curse.
While Berry was present for the rest of the tour and R.E.M.’s subsequent album, 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, he eventually parted ways with his bandmates in 1997. He’s remained retired ever since, only taking the drum stool on a few special occasions. R.E.M. continued as a trio, with significant support, until the rock legends split for good in 2011.
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