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R.E.M.'s Brave New World

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At a little after six o'clock on saturday evening, Michael Stipe, driving a gray Volvo station wagon, pulls up in front of the two-story building R.E.M. has restored in downtown Athens for its offices and rehearsal studio. The street is deserted, the weather is uncommonly cold for Georgia, and the sky is darkening. Stipe, who is wearing his cloth cap and a long coat, suggests a cup of coffee, but when the coffee shop proves loud, brightly lit and, most problematic, crowded, he wants to leave after about a minute.

Unlike Buck, Berry and Mills, who are exactly the people they seem to be, Stipe, at twenty-nine the youngest member of the band, is much harder to fix – a fact that leads many people to dismiss him as pretentious or worship him as a mysterious god. With people he doesn't know very well, he is by turns remote and friendly. Anyone who grows used to one aspect of his personality is hurt or pleased, but always surprised, by the unexpected flash of the other. The emotional distance he seems to require, the imminence of departure that eases the threat of intimacy, is eloquently captured in lines from the song "Good Advices," on Fables: "I'd like it here if I could leave/And see you from a long way away."

It's the perfect attitude for a performer, and Stipe – perhaps inevitably and perhaps as a means of protecting himself – has made his personality part of his art. After climbing into a chair in Jefferson Holt's office and pulling his knees up to his chest, he says, "I can easily say, 'Which Michael do you want today?'"

The room is dim, and the window behind Stipe, lit with the day's last light, frames him, a dark silhouette surrounded by a waning brightness. As the interview continues and it grows darker outside, Stipe emerges more clearly among the room's shadows.

"It's so odd, I really don't have any idea how people look at me," he says, a cigarette in his hand and a cup of hot tea on the desk at his side. "I mean, I've always thought that the worst thing would be to be the court jester of a generation, and sometimes I feel like that, especially with the hats and tails onstage. But those are pretty simple devices, and they really stem from something that is a necessity for me. They also stem from an admiration and understanding of theatrics and the fact that you are in the public eye or the media and being able to utilize that."

During the week before November's presidential election, Stipe tried to utilize the fact that he was in the public eye by buying advertisements in college newspapers in Georgia and California that read, STIPE SAYS/DON'T GET BUSHWACKED/GET OUT AND VOTE/VOTE SMART/DUKAKIS. Green, with its suggestions of optimism, environmentalism and innocence, was releasedon election day. The singer meant for the album to be a gesture of hope and encouragement.

"I decided that this had to be a record that was incredibly uplifting," Stipe says of Green. "Not necessarily happy, but a record that was uplifting to offset the store-bought cynicism and easy condemnation of the world we're living in now."

One dimension of Stipe's decision is that after years of being accused of obscurantism, he chose to print the lyrics to "World Leader Pretend" – a song that takes emotional honesty and directness of expression as its very subjects – on Green's sleeve. A number of the other songs on Green, like "Pop Song 89," "Stand" and "Get Up," are similarly straightforward and bracing.

But frustration over misreadings is another reason why Stipe went for greater sonic clarity and linear meaning on Green. "There was frustration," Stipe admits, "to the degree that I rewrote 'Green Grow the Rushes' two times – as 'The Flowers of Guatemala' and 'Welcome to the Occupation' – where I actually ghostwrote the bio that went out to the press, so that they would say that 'this is a song about American intervention in Central America.'"

Despite the general sense of uplift on Green, the album doesn't lack disturbing moments. "Orange Crush," about the herbicide Agent Orange that was used in Vietnam, was originally written around the time of Document. The haunted travelogue "I Remember California" chronicles the human wreckage, the "nearly was and almost rans," of the L.A. fast lane. The harsh, metallic "Turn You Inside-Out" also provides a menacing note.

"I understand that all high-school boys think it's about fucking," says Stipe with a chuckle. "That's the report I've gotten back from the grade schools. It's about manipulation and power. To me, it had a great deal to do, emotionally, with what a performer can do to an audience. A performer could be myself, it could be Martin Luther King, it could be Jackson, it could be Reagan, it could be Hitler – any preacher that is able to manipulate a large group of people."

Despite the urgency of his concerns, one of Stipe's more appealing qualities is his occasional willingness to poke fun at himself. He catches himself in the middle of an intense explanation of how "Oddfellows Local 151," on Document, was a "debunking" of the rural mythologizing of Fables of the Reconstruction. "Are you there?" he asks, laughing, and then admits, "I always get so serious in interviews, I think people think I'm a really serious person from that. My voice always drops way down to here, and I take on this Buckminster Fuller persona where the world hinges on my words."

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

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