January 4, 1960 – Michael Stipe:
“As a 14 or 15-year-old, All The Young Dudes resonated with me because of my sexuality. There was a hot guy in glasses and I wore glasses.”
A few days ago, I had a friend take issue with my free use of the term “Queer”. I explained to her (a straight person) that I found the word to be inclusive of all sorts of gayness and that it was, for me, like the N word, mine to use freely, offensive for most other people to use, and after decades of facing the term ”Queer” as a jeer, an insult, a slight, it is fun to own the word and I wear it as a badge of honor. Also, I like Qs. I collect them; I even have a Q as a tattoo.
Two and a half decades ago Michael Stipe came out of the closet as Queer, not Gay. I liked that. I like Stripe. I like that band that he used to be in. I liked them a lot apparently, I have every album they put out, including B-sides and rarities.
“In 1994, most people had a largely binary perception of sexuality, the message was complicated for them. I am thrilled to see how much this has changed in those 20 years. The 21st century has provided all of us, recent generations particularly, with a clearer idea of the breadth of fluidity with which sexuality and identity presents itself in each individual. Gender identification, and the panoply of sexuality and identity are now topics that are more easily and more widely discussed, debated and talked about openly. It’s thrilling to see progressive change shift perceptions so quickly.”
“I think queerness is a state of mind brought about by an understanding: it is understanding difference, accepting your own truth, desire and identity, and lovely, lovely choice.”
In the 1990s, I had a lot of voice-over work and much of it was recorded at Seattle’s Bad Animals Studios, partly owned by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, and where bands and artists like R.E.M., Soundgarden, Johnny Cash, Nirvana, and Danny Elfman could be seen roaming the halls.
In 1992, I ran into (literally) Stipe there. I would describe him as enigmatic and shy, to say the least.
When the strange, beautiful, semi-acoustic R.E.M. album Automatic For The People appeared that year, the reticent singer had fully grabbed my attention. R.E.M. began work on Automatic For The People soon after all four members had turned 30-years-old. It reflects the loss of youth but is filled with emotional intensity.
Appearing a year after Nirvana’s Nevermind (with the Seattle Grunge movement’s anthem, Smells Like Teen Spirit), R.E.M.’s understated album seemed at odds with the times.
”It sounded like the work of people who have just come through their 20s, past the famous age in Rock ‘N’ Roll when people of 27 drop dead. There are a lot of songs about darkness and sadness and death and transition. These are songs of transition.”
But, for Stipe to come out in 1992, would have just been too difficult. Stipe:
”I had lived with fear of HIV for almost 10 years. The first New York cases were being reported in 1983 and in the neighborhoods where I spent most of my time. I had to cope with not knowing if I was positive until I was able to get tested anonymously, only to find out I was healthy. People thought I was sick but I wasn’t.”
Stipe’s skinny body and gaunt face prompted a lot of speculation. His R.E.M. bandmates Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry were worried. Stipe:
”When I got my status, they were certainly aware of it but I don’t think they knew how scared I was. I lost, we lost, a lot of people. I wore a hat that said ‘White House Stop AIDS’. I’ve always been skinny, except in 1985 when I looked like Marlon Brando, the last time I shaved my head. I was really sick then. Eating potatoes. I think AIDS hysteria would obviously and naturally extend to people who are media figures and anybody of indecipherable or unpronounced sexuality. Anybody who looks gaunt, for whatever reason. Anybody who is associated, for whatever reason, whether it’s a hat, or the way I carry myself, as being queer-friendly.”
In January 1980, Stipe met Buck at the Athens, Georgia record store where Buck worked. The pair discovered that they shared similar tastes in music, particularly artists like Patti Smith, Television, and The Velvet Underground. Stipe:
“It turns out that I was buying all the records that Buck was saving for himself.”
Stipe and Buck met fellow University of Georgia students Mills and Berry, who had played music together since high school and lived together in Athens. The four guys agreed to collaborate on several songs. Stipe later claimed that “there was never any grand plan behind any of it”. The unnamed band spent a few months rehearsing and played its first show in April 1980, at a friend’s birthday party. The band decided on R.E.M., which is an acronym for rapid eye movement, the dream stage of sleep, which Stipe had selected at random from a dictionary.
Starting with Murmur in 1983, the band released five albums before its two most commercially successful albums, Out Of Time (1991) and Automatic For The People (1992), which veered from the band’s original punk sound and catapulted them to international fame. Monster (1994) was a return to a more rock-oriented sound, but still continued their run of bestselling and critically acclaimed albums.
The success of multiplatinum Out Of Time and its monster hit singles and the videos of Losing My Religion and Shiny Happy People made Stipe Bono level famous.
In 1996, R.E.M. signed with Warner Bros. for $80 million, at the time, the most expensive recording contract in history. Their first release on the liable, New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996) brought strong reviews, yet fared worse commercially than the earlier albums. The following year, Berry left the band, while Stipe, Buck, and Mills continued the group as a trio.
Through changes in musical style, the band continued its career into the next decade with mixed critical and commercial success, despite having sold more than 85 million records worldwide and becoming one of the world’s best-selling music artists of all time.
In 2007, the band was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, in their first year of eligibility. R.E.M. formally broke up in September 2011.
I love all of their music, but one song that resonates through the years is Everybody Hurts, frequently covered, but never better than R.E.M.’s original version with Stipe’s aching vocals.
On the first five albums, Stipe’s songs were opaque and mystical, but Everybody Hurts was raw and unadorned.
”One of the things that I didn’t want to do was write another love song. There were enough of those in the world and I wasn’t sure that I could rise to the occasion and do a better one. That song grew wings. It’s a very simple thing but simple is sometimes hardest to attain. We managed to write a song that struck a chord with people and has that unique position of being exactly the right song for the moment.”
I don’t hear much about Stipe these days. In 2014, he inducted Nirvana into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.This past autumn, Stipe teamed with Fischerspooner on Have Fun Tonight for their album Sir. Stipe generously claims: ”I’m not great without those R.E..M guys as a performer.”
Stipe did provide a bit of controversy after the 2016 election, when he emphasized compassion for Trump supporters, stating:
”Rather than people voting for a racist, xenophobic agenda, an intolerant agenda, I think they were just trying to smash the machine…”
”I tried unsuccessfully to inject a bit of nuance into a few things, and I got shut down really fast. Which is gonna happen. I understand that. I knew that I was putting myself in a firing line. But that’s okay, I can take it. It’s not a time for nuance, but it’s exactly what we need. These are real people with real problems and real lives. The people who are falling between the cracks are who I’m concerned with. It’s a very fucked up time to be. That said, I’m an optimist. I think maybe things need to get really bad for people to recognize what needs to be done. I’m not sure I know what needs to be done. But, we need to start listening to each other. That’s a very hippie thing to say, but… we don’t all need to have opinions on everything. We just need to listen a little more.”
Stipe owns the Athens, Georgia building that houses his vegetarian restaurant. When not in Georgia, he shares a TriBeCa loft, recently featured in The NY Times, with his hot boyfriend, photographer Thomas Dozol.
By the way, the use of the word ”Queer” is debated among gay people to this day.