During the discussion Stipe's father covered a sheet of paper with words and mathematical equations. The result, Stipe says, looked like it belonged in the Swiss museum that collects outsiders' art – the work of mental patients, convicts and others on the fringes of society. "It's really beautiful," says Stipe affectionately.
And some of the eccentricities seem to be the purposeful designs of a shy person who wants to keep the world at arm's length. "Michael is normal as hell, and as different as anybody you'd want to meet," says Jefferson Holt, who lived with Stipe briefly. "It's an act of will by which he creates his life and the space in which he lives."
But if Stipe is the band's shyest, most private member, he's also the one most often besieged by R.E.M. fanatics. "I think a lot of people get presumptuous, think they're soul mates, think Michael is speaking directly to them," says Mike Mills. "I mean, that's the point of some of his lyrics: to get to someone's insides. But that doesn't mean he wants them to come over to his house, you know?"
When the subject is broached, Stipe grows visibly uncomfortable. "Athens is full of people looking for R.E.M.," he says, shaking his head. "Not all the time, but..." He trails off. "I don't really want to talk about that because I'm still a little bitter about it."
Still, Stipe says he's learning out how to deal with the attention. "Not to be Cartesian," he says, "but, you know, I feel fairly well protected now from people coming up to me and wanting a piece of me. I'm able to dole out what I want, you know. Whereas before I was a lot more accessible for people to reach in and pull out vital organs."
So Stipe stays in more-protected situations: a large, muscular personal aide stands beside him at backstage gatherings, and he rides from show to show in his own bus (accompanied, on the first leg of the tour, by 10,000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant, whom he joined onstage every night during the Maniacs' opening set), separate from the rest of the band. The separate buses, says the band, weren't planned – but Stipe, who eats health foods and can't stand to be anywhere where the windows won't open, couldn't tolerate the sealed windows in the band bus.
"I used to really hate touring," says Stipe. "But it's gotten easier for me. It's not that I've relaxed more, it's just that the rest of the world has relaxed a little bit, so it's easier for me to walk the streets and stuff. To find food and find water. And find windows that open occasionally."
But the separate buses also reinforce Stipe's separation from the rest of the band, a separation that already existed to some degree. "There is a difference, and it's always been there," says Bill Berry. "There's no doubt that he's an eccentric individual, that that's the way it should be. He is who he is, and R.E.M. is who they are because of who's in it."
Stipe concedes that there are differences between himself and the musicians in the band: for one thing, he prepares for a show by getting quiet and withdrawn, which means the hyperactive Buck has standing orders to stay away for a couple of hours before each concert. Still, Stipe says, "we share so much more in common than most people would ever give us credit for. We're very much a group."
Stipe glances across the room, then shakes his head. "I'm watching TV in a mirror," he says. "I just realized that. I've been focusing in on this thing, and it's a television set in a mirror." He grimaces. "Nothing really upsets me more, on a really regular basis, than television. And the whole culture that's built up around it is horrifying. The fact that I can sit here and talk to you, and there's a TV in the corner, and I'm attracted to it... The best comparison I can make is moths to a light."
Television culture provided part of the inspiration for "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)," a song, Stipe says, about "bombastic, vomiting sensory overload." But the first line of that song deals with another calamity – "That's great, it starts with an earthquake" – and when he finds out the reporter's from Los Angeles, Stipe's thoughts turn to the recent 6.1 tremor that he's been mentioning when introducing "End of the World."
"Wow, were you there when the earthquake and everything happened?"
"Are you gonna move?"
"A lot of my friends from the West Coast called me immediately, because they wanted to know when the next one was coming. I usually get headaches when an earthquake happens – when Mexico City went down, I was on my back for three days, really bad. But last week was the first time since I became aware of it that there's been an earthquake anywhere in the continent and I didn't know about it ahead of time."
He rambles on about earthquakes for a while, mentions the Superman movie in which Lex Luthor buys up soon-to-be beach-front property in Nevada, then admits that even if California were to fall into the ocean – if it does, he's not saying that it definitely will – the rest of the country would be in big trouble, too.
"My parents' farm is right on a fault line, in Georgia," Stipe says absently. "But it's not like the San Andreas."
He looks up and laughs and does his best to change the topic, albeit in his own disjointed fashion.
"Anyway, earthquake talk," he says with a shrug. "It's the end of the world."
With that, Michael Stipe raises his coffee cup. "Cheers."
"We've already agreed that we will not make Michael go to the West Coast in 1988," says Jefferson Holt, chuckling, as he sits backstage in Fairfax, Virginia, the Washington, D.C., suburb where the band is playing a welcome reserved-seating show. But then, calming Stipe's earthquake phobia isn't going to mean R.E.M. will cancel any shows or reroute any tours next year – because for now the band plans to follow up its biggest success to date with a year, in Bill Berry's words, "to clean out the closet and rearrange the shoes.
"We've been locked in this thing for the last six years," he adds, "We go in the studio, put out a record, tour, rehearse. It's getting to be a really predictable thing. And I'm not saying it's stifling us, but this record bought us the opportunity to take a year off." He laughs. "We were gonna do it anyway, so thank God the record's doing what it is."
After the tour, Berry plans to go fishing, play some golf, spend time on his boat, do some reading and simply hang out in Athens with his wife of a year and a half, Mari. Mills will likely hit the golf course himself, perhaps join a softball or basketball league and definitely spend some time working in his yard. Buck will go back to the big new house he recently bought, which is cluttered with the flotsam and jetsam of the road; he'll probably work with a few new bands or with friends like Fleshtones guitarist Keith Streng. Stipe – who's directed some of the band's videos in the past – has some video projects in the works. Once in a while, Mills and Berry will get together in the Corncob Webs, their Sixties-cover band. Many nights the whole band will wind up together, in one of Athens's three clubs. And next fall they'll go into the studio to make their sixth album, one they hope will be weird rather than commercial.
R.E.M. is also at another crossroads: with Document, the band's deal with I.R.S. Records has expired. Plenty of other labels have already expressed interest in signing away I.R.S.'s biggest band. "We may or may not sign with I.R.S.," says Berry. "That's undetermined."
The band's long-term plans are nebulous: the only constant is that they all assume that one day they'll stop working together. It's not that the band seems to be in the midst of any major personality conflicts – by all accounts they get on better now than they ever have – but that they simply don't plan on doing this indefinitely.
Stipe says he's not sure he'll even be in the music business in another decade; if he is, he says, he can see himself being like Tom Waits, with an offbeat, theatrical ensemble. Berry says he simply hopes that until record making gets to be tiring – which he assumes will happen long after they've stopped touring – they'll still work together in some form, even if not as R.E.M. But before they drift apart, Peter Buck has a goal.
"I think it's within us to make one of those Top Twenty all-time rock & roll great records," he says. "We haven't done that yet, and I don't know how you pull that out of you. Sometime, somewhere, the inspiration hits. And you hope it hits when you're awake and you have a guitar in your hands.
"All I want to do," he adds, "is make great records, and be a great band, and play great live. But I'm not sure that I want to keep going the way that we're going. I have no doubts that we can do it; it's just I don't know if I want to do it. For me, personally, I'd rather turn out a record that's really brilliant and then try to find some other way to present ourselves onstage, something that short-circuits the rock 'n' roll rah-rah thing.
"I don't know how to do that, but I think there's some way to do this at an interesting level. Who knows? Maybe it means putting out a record that's really great and doesn't sell at all. That would be really cool."
In the meantime, R.E.M. has a hit album, a hit single, a new, bigger audience and a tour that'll run until the end of November. And when they take the stage in Fairfax, they've found exactly the right way to respond to their new situation, at least for a night: the show is a rock-hard, well-paced, furious blast of intelligent and provocative rock 'n' roll. For more than two hours, Stipe reels around the stage, and his band mates play with surprising fury; with the repertoire drawn mostly from the last two albums, you can hear the hardening of this band's sound and clearly catch the vehemence and humor in Stipe's assaults on an environment he finds nearly unlivable.
For the encores, they pull out all the stops: first, there's a three-song set of covers, from Lou Gramm's "Midnight Blue" (the crowd laughs uneasily, then responds to the anthemic chords, while Stipe strikes exaggerated arena-rock poses and the rest of the band plays hard on a song they really do like) to Television's "See No Evil." They do the hit, with a gorgeous, hushed introduction; they do Chronic Town's "Wolves, Lower" after Stipe says, "Moving way back to the Pleistocene era ..." And at the end, Stipe and Buck stand side by side at center stage for an exquisite slow version of "So. Central Rain," which ends with Stipe tossing in a few revealing lines from Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain": "I come to you, defenses down, with the trust of a child."
Three hours, a few six-packs and a couple of bottles of champagne later, the members of R.E.M. straggle into the lobby of their hotel. It's 2:30 in the morning, and the only other guests in the lobby are a group of Continental Airlines pilots and stewardesses, who pile into one elevator and then yell out, "Don't any of you want to ride with us?"
With that, Michael Stipe – his flyaway hair tied back in a ponytail and tucked under a beret, his tattered clothes more disheveled than usual and his eyes still caked with heavy black eye makeup – strolls into the elevator. As the doors start to close, his voice can just be heard: "So, are you all with an airline?"
And when the other members of the band take another elevator to their floor, Stipe is waiting on the landing, a huge grin on his face. "They asked if I was in a band," he says enthusiastically, "and when I said I was in R.E.M., they got all excited and said, 'Is the whole band staying in this hotel?'"
In the hotel hallway the guy who's supposed to be R.E.M.'s shyest member breaks up laughing, and exclaims, "It was great!" And suddenly it looks as if this arty college band might have the temperament for the real world after all.
This story is from the December 3, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.
• R.E.M. Break Up After Three Decades
• Photos: R.E.M. Through the Years
• Interview: R.E.M. Roar Back with 'Collapse Into Now'
• Rob Sheffield Says Goodbye to R.E.M.
• From Art School to Hall of Fame: R.E.M. Tours Through Their Discography
• R.E.M.'s 15 Greatest Videos
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