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New wave icons The B-52s are on the road for their last tour

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's time now to dance. And we got the perfect song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE SHACK")

THE B-52S: (Singing) If you see a faded sign at the side of the road that says 15 miles to the love shack...

SIMON: "Love Shack" by the B-52s - Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Keith Strickland. The new wave band from Athens, Ga., has been rolling nonstop since 1977 through the good, the bad, the funky and the weird. But now the B-52s are about to put the brakes on. They're on the road - without Keith - for their farewell tour.

KATE PIERSON: The last tour.

FRED SCHNEIDER: Well, it's the last tour, but it doesn't mean we're not going to do shows anymore. This - we're not going to tour anymore, really. Well, we say that. But we're not going to do, like, an Elton John or Cher thing where we keep touring and say we're not.

PIERSON: I keep calling it the Cher-well tour because, you know, never say never. But being on the road is wearing, but playing the shows - it's great, so...

SCHNEIDER: Yeah, we'll do shows.

PIERSON: We'll do shows.

SCHNEIDER: We'll do more shows - especially, like, festivals and big outdoor places...

PIERSON: Fireworks.

SCHNEIDER: ...State fairs, bar mitzvahs...

CINDY WILSON: Kate does it for the fireworks.

PIERSON: That's right.

SCHNEIDER: ...Weddings.

SIMON: You're not ruling out much - I mean...

WILSON: (Laughter) Well, I think what he's trying to say is long tours and being away from home for a long time is hard.

SIMON: I wonder if you can bring us back a bit. I mean, a lot of people have wondered what was in the water of Athens, Ga., in the mid to late '70s?

WILSON: Fluoride.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: All right. But, I mean, you know, B-52, R.E.M.

PIERSON: Well, we...

SCHNEIDER: Well, there was nothing to do, so...

PIERSON: We were the first sort of new wave-y punk band. So we had to make our own fun. And we just one night had a flaming volcano at Hunan's Chinese restaurant. And we had - we didn't have money for food. We had five straws - six straws, actually, because our friend Owen Scott was with us. And we started jamming in Owen's basement after the flaming volcano, and magic was in the air. But we used to party and crash parties.

SCHNEIDER: Ruin parties.

WILSON: Oh, well, you know, it was - Athens had a really great vibe. You know, you didn't need a lot of money, which is why a lot of people ended up staying, you know, once they...

SCHNEIDER: Rents were, like, 60 bucks a month.

PIERSON: My rent was $15 a month. I had sort of the original love shack out in the country. It was set way back in the middle of a field.

SCHNEIDER: The love shack...

PIERSON: It was funky.

SCHNEIDER: It didn't have a bathroom, though.

SIMON: We...

SCHNEIDER: It had an outhouse.

SIMON: We don't need to hear everything, you understand.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: But that's all right. Well, all right, Fred Schneider.

SCHNEIDER: Yes.

PIERSON: Here.

SIMON: I think I speak for a lot of people when I ask...

SCHNEIDER: Are you crazy?

SIMON: ...Why - well, maybe you are - why "Rock Lobster" and not rockfish?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK LOBSTER")

THE B-52S: (Singing) We were at a party. His earlobe fell in the deep. Someone reached in and grabbed it. It was a rock lobster.

SCHNEIDER: Well, I went to this place in Atlanta called the 2001 Disco, and they had slides of puppies, babies and lobsters on a grill. And I thought, oh, wait - oh, rock - rock lobster. And that's the way I think. So I came back, and...

SIMON: Poetic inspiration.

SCHNEIDER: ...I jammed on it. And we - the way we work is we jam, and...

WILSON: Through all the inspirations.

SCHNEIDER: Yeah.

WILSON: But Fred was a poet.

SCHNEIDER: We do things differently. There's no one leader or anything like that. Everyone really shares. And you could see that on stage because we all work together.

PIERSON: We write. The process of writing is by jamming, and then we...

SIMON: Yeah.

PIERSON: ...Collage things together.

SCHNEIDER: Kate and Cindy had never sung together before, and all of a sudden, they blended like no other...

WILSON: Like butter.

SCHNEIDER: ...People. Yeah, like Fleischmann's margarine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK LOBSTER")

THE B-52S: (Singing) Motion in the ocean - his air hose broke. Lots of trouble. Lots of bubble.

SIMON: On this tour, I'm told you're playing "Is That You Mo-Dean?"

SCHNEIDER: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS THAT YOU MO-DEAN?")

THE B-52S: (Singing) Waiting for bus Number 99 - going to the store for hot dogs and wine.

WILSON: You should tell that story, Fred.

SCHNEIDER: Oh.

WILSON: Yeah, what we used to do.

SCHNEIDER: Well, we used to - If Ricky broke a string, I was sort of, like - all of a sudden...

SIMON: This is Ricky Wilson, your brother, Cindy.

WILSON: Yes.

SCHNEIDER: I was the frontman.

WILSON: You told the jokes.

SCHNEIDER: I would get the audience to - it was Maureen Dean, (laughter) John Dean's wife. And she was called Mo Dean. So I thought, that's a good name for someone from outer space. And so I had the audience go, is that you, Mo-Dean? And I'd go, it's me, Modine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS THAT YOU MO-DEAN?")

THE B-52S: (Singing) Is that you, Mo-Dean? It's me, Mo-Dean. Is that you, Mo-Dean? On a UFO. Is that you, Mo-Dean? It's me, Mo-Dean. The interdimensional outer space being.

SCHNEIDER: And we'd go back and forth till Ricky...

WILSON: Fixed his guitar.

SCHNEIDER: ...Fixed his guitar. And then I'd just go, thank you. Or I'd say, are there any questions? And then I'd just make up questions 'cause I couldn't hear what the audience was saying and answer them.

WILSON: We had another imaginary entity, and it was Bronda (ph).

PIERSON: Yeah, when things would go wrong, Bronda did it.

SIMON: Oh, like the imaginary friend who lost his things (ph).

SCHNEIDER: The imaginary nemesis.

WILSON: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: Cindy?

WILSON: Yes, darling.

SIMON: I hope you don't mind. May I ask you about your brother Ricky?

WILSON: Oh, you know, yes, he's - he was very special. Of course, we all miss him very dearly. And it was like an atom bomb when Ricky passed, of course.

SIMON: He died, I guess, in 1985, right?

WILSON: Yes, he did. You know, and it was terrible. It was just - the worst thing, you know, personally, a lot of death and destruction was going on. And it was all very new and early in the whole set of AIDS.

SCHNEIDER: You were even afraid to say you were gay back then a lot of times because the response was - you know, you'd get beaten up in places sometimes.

SIMON: Yeah.

WILSON: I think everybody went into a deep depression. And eventually, I sorted it out within myself that I'm going to always have Ricky in - you know, he's always going to be with me.

PIERSON: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE B-52S SONG, "PRIVATE IDAHO")

PIERSON: He had such a unique playing style that he sort of had a rhythmic part on some of the lower strings, and then he'd have a melodic part on the top strings. And he's just, like, such a - and he would just be on fire when he played on stage. That's why he broke so many strings because he was just dynamic and...

WILSON: Yeah...

PIERSON: He used the guitar - it was almost like a gun. You know, it was just like...

WILSON: Well, it was complete...

PIERSON: ...Firing.

WILSON: ...Concentration.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRIVATE IDAHO")

THE B-52S: (Singing) You're livin' in your own private Idaho. You're livin' in your own private Idaho.

SIMON: It must wince a little to think that he - well, just to lose him personally and to think he didn't see so much of your success, although I guess he has seen it, hasn't he?

PIERSON: We conjured a lot of his spirit, I think, when we did "Cosmic Thing." We thought that was the end kind of of our band when Ricky died. But we came back together. Keith started writing some music. And we started getting back together and jamming.

WILSON: You know, Keith was in a big depression. And the way he get through it is writing music. And we didn't know, you know, with Warner Brothers if we were going to do another record. And then he approached us and said, well, do you want to try, you know? And so we went to a studio and just played around to see how we could do it. And it felt like Ricky was in the studio.

PIERSON: It did.

WILSON: And it became obvious that it was a healing process for us all.

SIMON: The music, making music...

PIERSON: Making music together. And then when it started getting radio play, you know, that was affirmation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROAM")

THE B-52S: (Singing) Roam if you want to. Roam around the world. Roam if you want to, without wings, without wheels.

SIMON: What do you see when you look out at today's audiences? What do you notice about them?

SCHNEIDER: They're still dancing no matter what age they are. I mean, some people sit down. I don't know why. But most people stand and dance the whole hour and 15 minutes we're on.

PIERSON: And I noticed a lot of young people - and it seems much more lately, and I think it's because of the internet and YouTube and all the people posting stuff - that there are all these young kids there now and some little kids really dancing, too. But...

SCHNEIDER: We had a 4-year-old...

PIERSON: ...It's - to have a much younger audience, too.

WILSON: Fred sang "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star..."

SCHNEIDER: To a 4-year-old. Well, we all did.

PIERSON: We all did.

(LAUGHTER)

PIERSON: Very cute.

WILSON: It was very cute.

SCHNEIDER: Yeah, she was tiny. I forgot kids are that tiny.

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: You forgot?

SIMON: They're kids, really. I mean...

SCHNEIDER: Well, I mean...

PIERSON: They grow.

SCHNEIDER: That tiny?

WILSON: Sometimes, they grow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEADBEAT CLUB")

THE B-52S: (Singing) Going down to Allen's for a 25-cent beer.

SIMON: Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of the B-52s. Their last tour on earth is going on now. I want to thank you all for being with us and for so much good music. Thank you.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you.

WILSON: Thanks a lot.

PIERSON: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEADBEAT CLUB")

THE B-52S: (Singing) We're the deadbeat club. Deadbeat club. We're the deadbeat club. Deadbeat club. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.