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Monster Madness

R.E.M. finally deliver the full-tile rock & roll album they've been promising for years. And they went through hell to do it

October 20, 1994

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 693 from October 20, 1994. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

"Everything stopped. Cold," says Michael Stipe as he sits in a lounge at Ocean Way Recording, the Los Angeles studio where R.E.M. are attempting to put the finishing touches on their raucous, unsettling new album, Monster. It's after midnight — nearly everyone else has left for the day. Stipe speaks softly as he tries to convey the degree to which Kurt Cobain's death last April sucked the spirit out of R.E.M. as they worked on their album.

"We all loved and respected and admired him a great deal," he says. "It was not an incredible shock, because I had been in contact with Kurt. Everybody in the band kind of knew. We were speaking to each other daily, a couple of times a day...." Stipe's voice trails off, and then he chuckles as the zany, flopping sound of someone flexing a cardboard poster wafts through the room. He looks toward the doorway. A visitor has arrived.

"Hey, how's it going," Stipe says, as Anthony Kiedis strides into the room. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have been working in a studio down the hall.

"It's going OK," says Kiedis. "How you doin'? You all right?"

"Yep."

"I'm just getting ready to go have a little midnight snack."

"Where you goin?"

"Jones."

"Jones!" Stipe exclaims, acknowledging the restaurant's status as the town's hottest eatery. "Get the tomato leek soup. Do you guys know each other?" Stipe asks and then introduces me to Kiedis.

"Oh, I'm interrupting an interview here, my goodness," Kiedis says, genuinely chagrined.

"No, it'll be good," Stipe says, laughing. " 'Michael's dear friend Anthony Kiedis walked in and sat down. They talked about soup.' "

"How blasphemous of me," says Kiedis, slyly. "I'm sorry. I looked into your eyes, and I saw nothing else."

"You're not the first," says Stipe.

"I'll come back and get you another time. What stage are you at here?"

Stipe rolls his eyes, thinking about the state of Monster. "We're kind of late. We're on the hind titty. We're supposed to be mixing right now, but I'm still writing," Stipe says. "We're all zoom eyes. Is Flea around?"

"You're sucking the hind titty," Kiedis says absently. "Flea's in a studio about eight blocks away doing bass over-dubs. We're doing the double-studio thing to try to crunch in the time. You're still writing? That's gonna be me on this record. I still have crazy stuff to write."

"Well, I'm going to be around for a while, so we should go to Orso or Jones," Stipe says.

"I'll tell Flea to come over, and we'll hang out," Kiedis says on his way out "I'm terribly sorry to disturb the interview. I'll try that soup. See you, Michael."

Yes, Virginia, there is a rock & roll royalty, and R.E.M. — particularly singer Michael Stipe, whose head is now shaved to a stubble, save for a pair of discreet sideburns and a hint of hair on his chin — are now at the center of it. It has its good and bad aspects. Kurt Cobain calls in his time of most extreme need, and Anthony Kiedis drops by to suggest a midnight snack. And by the way, where's Flea? Shall we go to Orso or Jones? Issues of great seriousness mingle with the standard-issue celeb schmooze. It's heady and fun. But then again, sometimes it's simply harrowing. There are people who die.

Stipe leans back, rolls another of his cigarettes and returns to Cobain. "I had been talking to Kurt, and when he disappeared, I knew it," he says, speaking nearly in a monotone. "We all knew it. For seven days nobody knew where he was. I knew that a phone call was going to come, and I was just hoping that it was going to be a good one And it wasn't. So we were a little prepared. But it was bad. Really bad."

The sonic-guitar windstorm on Monster, "Let Me In," a ravaging plea for contact, was written for and about Cobain. Stipe has also stayed in contact with Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, and accompanied her to the MTV Movie Awards last June. "We've been talking since Kurt's death," Stipe says. "I have a great deal of respect for her. I admire her a whole lot. And I think her record kicks ass."

R.E.M. and Nirvana had discussed the possibility of doing some shows together, and shortly before Cobain's death, Stipe and Cobain had talked about collaborating. "We Fed Exed a few things back and forth, but nothing was ever recorded," Stipe says. "It was in the planning stages. I saw it as a window of being able to get him out of the head that he was in. That was what I threw out to him, like a rope, to try to pull him in -'Let's work on this project together.'

"I knew that he had a great deal of respect for me and for the band. We had spent time together — he came to Athens [Ga.], he and Courtney and Frances, and stayed at the house. We talked a lot. The truth of the matter is, we really didn't know each other that well. It was more of a mutual respect. He was very publicly an R.E.M. fan, which I think is incredibly daring for someone in his position.

"So that's where that thing came out of. I wanted to get him out of Seattle. I knew that he was there, and he was by himself. Everybody had tried everything they could, and that was my attempt to get him enough out of the head that he was in that he wouldn't kill himself or hurt himself. I thought it was going to be an overdose." Stipe hesitates and can't seem to gather his thoughts: "I wish he had... I don't know ... you can't... what if?" He is silent for a moment.

"It was going to be very acoustic — and some organs," Stipe says. "That's the kind of music he wanted to do. He wanted to do something that was really not loud."

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