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Miami moments with Charlie Pickett and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck

A few weeks ago, South Florida rock legend Charlie Pickett released “See You in Miami,” his first studio album since 1988, when Pickett and R.E.M’s Peter Buck produced “The Wilderness.” That was when Charlie Pickett and the Eggs’ raw and incendiary live shows seemed destined to carry them to stardom — just before the vagaries of musical trends cast the band aside, to become part of local mythology.

With Buck back on board for three songs, “See You in Miami” (Y&T Music) is a remarkable, rollicking comeback for Pickett, an attorney in Boynton Beach who can still be found performing in clubs around South Florida from time to time.

Not merely a rekindling of the passion he once felt, Pickett seems to be raging anew on the thumping boogie of “Miami Interlude,” the velvety underground anthem “Teajay & Mindy” and “So Long Johnny,” a Peter Buck-penned salute to Pickett guitarist and friend Johnny Salton, who struggled with drugs and other demons. Salton died in 2010.

In Rolling Stone, music writer David Fricke once celebrated Pickett and his band for forging a “brawling-roots mix of Johnny Thunders, Sun Records and trailer park Lou Reed in Florida bars … That rattle 'n' smack now sounds raucously prescient.”

Still ahead of the curve, “See You in Miami” does Pickett’s legend proud as an extraordinary time capsule valuable not just for the memory of what South Florida rock ‘n’ roll was capable of 30 years ago — but what it should be aspiring to now.

In separate conversations, Pickett and Buck answered questions about their friendship, the new record and the great Johnny Salton.

What is it about your relationship that has allowed it to endure?

Buck: We were all part of the same kind of scene. We were passing through some of the same clubs. I loved the band, and I really loved Charlie’s songwriting. And we got to be friends. Then it was, I guess, like around 1986 that I produced the record [“The Wilderness”], and I played on it a little bit. Over the years, we kept running into each other. He’s in Miami, which is someplace I’d pass through, and [R.E.M.] made a couple of records there, and I always would call him.

Pickett: I think we have a mutual respect. I think he sees me as somebody who played, didn’t make it — in terms of getting money — and wisely got out and pursued it without trying for a career. I just do it for love.

R.E.M. famously opened for Charlie Pickett and the Eggs in Athens in the mid 1980s. What do you remember about that night?

Buck: We were recording [the “Document” album] in Athens, and they had booked a date there, and I think I might have even suggested it. We were just finishing the “Document” stuff. I said, we’ll open up and we won’t tell anybody. The day of the show, I made a couple of phone calls and, it wasn’t super packed — we were playing in front of a lot of people in those days — but it was probably over 300 people. They played really well, and I got up and played with them.

If memory serves, Charlie and the boys made a pretty large amount of cash, and we got to play our [“Document”] songs in public for the first time. I think we did everything except “It’s the End of the World,” because we weren’t quite finished with it yet.

Pickett: The club was packed out. It was the first night that they played “Document,” the first time that they ever played it live, and I was shocked that they were so good at playing new material. I hate to sound like I was trying to be prescient, but I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this stuff is so good.’ It was harder rock, more impassioned rock, than they had done previously, by my lights.

I saw Mike Mills last year or so, and he said, “You know, we always liked you guys.” [Laughs] That’s not your typical backstage talk. So they liked us, and it’s not like we needed money, but we could sure use some, because we were recording. By giving us the door, they basically paid for three days of recording.

There’s a picture of you two onstage with Johnny Salton. Everyone looks pretty pleased. Peter, you play on a song you wrote about Salton for Charlie’s album, “So Long Johnny.” Can you talk about that?

Buck: I was trying to capture a little bit of my relationship with Johnny. I heard he passed awhile after he did. Johnny and I loved each other. I also wanted to strangle him sometimes, give him grief about his life choices, whatever, but it was a good, fun relationship.

Part of my job was to get Johnny to produce in the studio. If he was feeling bad — he didn’t have a connection in Athens, so he was always feeling crummy up there — I just had to goad him into playing well. And when he played really well, he just floated above everyone else. You just had to get Johnny on.

You are talking about the album you did with Charlie and his band, “The Wilderness.”

Buck: Yes. We did three or four different sessions, and I just remember one particular stretch where [Salton] was really sick. You know, I don’t know anyone who had heroin or sold heroin, but I was trying to do what I can to get him to play. I think I got him some pot, you know? [Laughs] I said, “Maybe this will mellow you out. Drink some wine, smoke some pot, whatever, try to be focused a little.” I’d just have them do takes until Johnny was on fire. And then, that would be the take.

Salton was that good? He was worth waiting for?

Buck: Yeah. He was a great player. And he never played the same way twice. So you really had to make it count, to catch a combination of when Johnny was really playing and where everything that he does works. Because there were times, live and in the studio, where he’d just be struggling. He wouldn’t be connected to it.

That was one of my jobs. To get good performances, to a large degree, meant inspiring Johnny. Sometimes, that was by telling him he could do better, and sometimes it was by lecturing him. [Laughs] I don’t think I ever actually strangled him, but I kind of wanted to. But I really loved the guy.

Pickett: There’s the kind of lead guitar that’s blues-based — everything from Eric Clapton to Albert King to Harvey Mandel from Canned Heat — and John played in the same positions that all of those people played in. He chose different notes, and he chose to phrase them differently, and he chose to shape them differently. John just had an ability to use the same colors that everyone else uses, but it comes out in a different way. Similar to the difference between realism and French impressionism. … Johnny had great note selection, in a way that spun a wonderful tableau. It’s the difference between “Charlotte’s Web” and a story about a spider who talks, you know what I mean?

Peter, you play on three songs on “See You In Miami,” including “So Long Johnny,” which reaches its heights with a great rock-guitar riff. That’s not R.E.M. Peter Buck.

Buck: I got to do my best Johnny Salton on those songs. I got a Gibson SG guitar, set up loud amps and played standing up like it’s a show, which is what Johnny always did, and tried to capture some of the flavor of his playing in my playing. He was better at that kind of stuff. [Laughs] Anything that I recorded on the record, is me trying to think, “What would Johnny be doing in this band?”

There’s a lot of great music on “See You in Miami.”

Buck: It sounds like vintage Charlie Pickett. The worry for me was, if he’s coming back, is he going to want to make a slick record? And he didn’t. He made a Charlie Pickett record. Which is really good.

Pickett: What I wanted to do is just celebrate the things that I love. And I’m not the kind of guy who talks in great big statements. I talk in little statements that say a little more than what they appear to say on the surface.

To me, the most important song on the record is “Four Chambered Heart.” … It says what I really mean, which is the best thing that a person does in life is love. But you won’t find the word “love” in there anywhere. It’s really a statement to guys, for guys, from a guy: Be careful, because this is a best thing you’re ever gonna do in your whole life. So be careful with it. That’s the main part of the whole record.

There was an interview with Peter and Joseph Arthur, talking about the Arthur Buck album — fantastic, by the way — and Arthur said, “We aren't just tired old cats who are bored and f---ing around.” There’s a vitality to the music on “See You in Miami” that feels timeless. Where does that come from?

Buck: I think all of us can say, at one point or another, that music saved our lives. My life was OK, it was kind of sh---y, I had a lot of crappy stuff growing up, but music was — from the second I saw the Beatles on “Ed Sullivan” — it was the most important thing in my life. And all through my teenage years and as I got older, being in a real band, it’s something that has been there for me my entire life.

I take it seriously. I take it very seriously. Anything I do, I’ve got to be 100 percent focused. I’ve got to reach and find everything that the song needs. It’s something that’s important to me, so yeah, I wasn’t fooling around with the Charlie stuff. I geared myself up for it.

Pickett: I just stone-cold love rock ‘n’ roll. I love passion, and I love the sound of an electric guitar, and I love the drive you get from drums and a churning beat. 4/4 is not just 1, 2, 3, 4 — it’s 1 and a gap, and 2 and a gap, and 3 and a gap, and 4 and a gap. And how long you play that gap, that’s where you get the “roll” in rock ’n’ roll. I hate to use the word “magic,” but it’s an internal burning, smoldering thing, always ready to catch fire.

It’s not hard for me. I have a Cadillac CTS that I bought only for the stereo. Only for the stereo. [Laughs] I go in every day with it all the way to the top, and I ride home every day with it all the way to the top. [Lately, it’s been live 1972 Rolling Stones and the “Arthur Buck” album, he says.]

One of the enduring mysteries around here is why the Eggs never made it as a major national act. Great songs, great guitars… Peter, can you solve the mystery?

Buck: I think there’s a little bit of the idea that they were just a little too rough for the real world. It wasn’t polished off. They didn’t have glitzy videos. They didn’t dress fashionably. The music was kind of chaotic and raw. All the stuff that I like about it, makes it less likely to be listened to by housewives and guys working in the kitchen of a restaurant.

You mentioned R.E.M. in Miami. You recorded some of “Automatic for the People” at Critieria Studios. Mike Mills told me the story of recording “Nightswimming” on the same piano used on the Derek and the Dominos classic "Layla." Do you have a memory of working at Criteria?

Buck: My big memory of that era is that Jimmy Page was in the studio next door [recording with David Coverdale], and he borrowed my electric dulcimer and then ordered one from the company, which was really thrilled. He played and borrowed a couple of my guitars, and I got to go in when he wasn’t there and play his stuff. So, you know, they had the big amp and they had that double-neck Gibson that he plays on “Stairway to Heaven,” so I just picked it up and played “Stairway to Heaven” on the original guitar. You know, you kind of have to do it. [Laughs]

Mills answered the obligatory question by saying you guys have no plans to reunite. He described it as the perfect breakup. How do you respond to fans’ R.E.M. reunion fantasy?

Buck: Every single person, including, like, my wife and everyone we know, assumes that some day we’re all gonna go, “Yeah, hey, we’re definitely gonna get back together.” The fact is, we haven’t even discussed it because we did make a decision. This wasn’t young guys and ego and anger … We were three adults, who felt like we had accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish and rather than sully our history by hanging around when we’re not needed, it was good for us to check out. You know? I don’t think any of us miss it.

I play and write and make records all the time. And I see the other guys all the time. I just got an email about some publishing thing, and we’re all just emailing back and forth.

The three of you? Four?

Buck: Four. As far as I’m concerned, Bill [Berry] is still in the band. We don’t make music or tour or write songs together really — although Mike and I play together regularly — but we still have band meetings. We have two or three corporations. We own property that have buildings on them. We have decisions to make. So in a lot of ways, we haven’t broken up. We have the same manager, same office staff.

Whenever I mention to my wife, “Oh, since the band broke up … ,” she says, “The band didn’t break up. There’s still an R.E.M. They’re all still in R.E.M. It’s just a nonfunctioning entity.” And that’s how I feel.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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