Ask Michael Stipe: Finale!

September 28, 2008

Here we go: The final batch of questions and answers from Michael Stipe. It all starts off with my own question to Michael. 

Hi Michael,

Thanks again for answering all of these questions. It’s been very
entertaining and illuminating, and I’m endlessly grateful for offering
your time to do this.

It sort of blew my mind when I realized that you’d read the site, or
at least some of it. It had never dawned on me at any point in writing
the site that anyone in the band would *want* to read it, so it kinda
freaked me out, but in a good way. You had mentioned that you didn’t
always agree with my takes on the songs, which is pretty
understandable given that I was pretty harsh with a few of the later
songs, and you know, obvious differences in frame of reference. My
question is this: Aside from a few times when I just outright disliked
a song (like, say, “Make It All OK” or “I’ll Take The Rain,”), where
did you feel I was furthest off the mark in terms of analyzing the

fine to dislike or even hate songs by artists you admire or follow.  That’s cool, it means you really care about the work.  The critique below is raw, unedited, flat out.  I don’t really expect you to print it, I wouldn’t.  But it feels right to say it, since you asked.  Honestly, don’t print this unless you really feel compelled to, its pretty harsh back[at first only.]…  No one but you me and ethan have read it, and frankly I don’t think it needs to go further 

so bad news then good. 

you became a music critic.  You routed out a few off the mark [I think ] plotlines and theories about how I write and think, and then could only see every single song and lyric and character arch through those constraints.  You confused and injected me[real Michael] into the work.  That’s the biggest mistake, I’m actually a better writer than all that.  I do tend towards becoming ‘advise guy’ in real life, which I hate, and sometimes that taints the songs or lyric.  But not to the degree that my own character or shortcomings define every note or lyric of up, reveal, ats.  You didn’t get lazy, you just bought into your own take on it all, instead of staying open.  

ok that’s the brutal and unedited slapback.  Heres the toughie: I could easily point the same charge at myself; I think that’s what’s most upsetting about reading it [the advise guy into character arcs that is; along with my own critiques and regrets about those records, my own cornball tendencies, etc; but whats done is done. ]  Thanks all the same Matthew, I think obviously, and mostly brilliantly, you really care.  Which is what matters the most.  You’ve clearly put a lot of thought and listening into this body of work and that’s an incredible charge for me, and you have been right more than most people ever even tried; the experiment of popsongs has been I think a smash success and fun to follow[ your take on The Apologist blew my head, for instance.  And Low Desert and Undertow[ idiomatic phrasing] are both moment of death songs.  That changes the religious part significantly.  Anyway]  For all that you’ve done here, I’m deeply honored.   _Michael

Okay, this is fairly random but here it is: If you were listening to the radio and an R.E.M. song came on, would you listen to it or change the radio station? Thanks for answering so many of everyone else’s great questions, even if you don’t get to my pointless one. 

really depends on the song, and the situation.  If I was in the car by myself I would probably try to listen objectively, like I didn’t write it; if im in a restaurant its always a little weird.  In stores its ok usually because I can keep moving

Being my favorite lyric from an album that’s full of great ones, I would like you to share with us what was your inspiration for The Worst Joke Ever, and if the year of 1954 relates to any particular event (McCarthyism, perhaps?).

inspiration for The Worst Joke Ever was memories of the cat burglar, like the beatnik, the urban fag, the temptress, the bosomy nurse or secretary…those 1960’s cartoons like Richard Prince does paintings of.  In the song the guy is of course looking back at his own life and the opinions and mindset that he couldn’t let go of or grow out of[the worst joke ever].  That’s the 50’s reference.  And of course the joke itself in the first verse is not funny or clever at all    

All The Way To Reno:  Reading a David Sedaris piece a few years ago, I
was struck by how much it reminded me of All The Way To Reno.  Katrina
washed away my copy of it, but I think it was in his _Barrel Fever_.
It was a fanciful/ridiculous Oscar acceptance speech in which the
narrator related his trip west to seek stardom.  As I recall, he hummed
on his bus ride, and several phrases phrases he used suggested the song.
Did a Sedaris piece inspire the song or is this just a coincidence?

coincidence, but a good one.  I love Sedaris’ work, and I used to eat his sisters cupcakes at my local takeaway in NYC.  She always put a little plastic toy on top like a clown head

Dear Michael,

one of my favorite REM-songs is HOPE, because I really love the background sound, as well as the energy it transports
and the  rate.
The lyrics are great, I especially love the line ” and you want to cross your DNA with something reptile”, so what is the song about
and  what was the idea about this special line?
Thanks a lot for answering

felt very futuristic/21st c. to me that someday we will use prehistoric ‘living fossil’ animal dna to bolster our own immunity; the guy in the song is facing some very difficult questions about longevity and survival, and basically grabbing at any possibility to stay alive.  I obviously lifted most of the song from Leonard Cohen, along with the imagery ideas from World Leader Pretend 

Hi Michael,
You’ve stated before that at one point when it came to touring and performing onstage that you tried to adapt a different persona or character for each tour. I’m just wondering have you ever taken this approach when sitting down to write lyrics for a particular album – Have you ever intentionally set out with a particular character (or persona in mind) as a focal point for an album, or do you start writing and then see what develops from that point onwards?

I always just start writing and see what develops.  I think the ‘different persona for performing or touring’ was either taken out of context or misunderstood/translated; I don’t recall ever thinking or saying that…


I  bought Accelerate when it came out and I like it very much! Although I also like around the sun, especially “electron blue” very much. My favorite songs from the recent ones are at the moment “sing for the submarine” and “on the fly” The take away show versions I could watch and listen over and over again. So I would like to know what is “on the fly” about and Why didn’t you put it on the record?

I love Electron Blue also, its one of my all time faves, up there with Country Feedback and Ebow.  On The Fly, Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance and Kick the Traces are all songs we worked on and really like but they just didn’t fit our idea of what ACCELERATE should be.   They will come out someday I’m sure

First off thank you from the fans for doing this. Of the instrumental only songs REM have done, have you ever written lyrics for a song originally intended as instrumental or even after the song is on the record? 

yes New Orleans Instrumental no.1 had a lyric…I don’t recall whether before or after it was recorded but it didn’t really work… 

Where did the ideas and events from the lyrics for Star 69 come from? I mean I get the caller ID bit, but seems like there is a first person point of view going on there, I’m assuming it’s not yours. Correct me if I’m wrong.

its all made up and I have no idea where it came from;  I just made it all up.  Squirrelys I probably lifted from Vic Chesnutt 

Two Find the River questions.
1) The line “I have got to Find the River”, what happens if the person doesn’t?
2) Does the line “The ocean is the river’s goal”, not contradict the song? If the song is about enjoying life’s journey, the person must find the river before thinking about the journey to the ocean.

the ‘fortune for the undertow’ is all we gather, memory and experience, on the journey…good point made.  I’m not sure the ocean indicates an end 

My second question is a bit random; why the Dr Seuss/Cat in the Hat references in ‘Sidewinder’ – are you a fan?

I love Dr. Seuss, always did, but it drives Mike crazy how I pronounce it…its how I grew up pronouncing it

To Michael,
My name is I, I am 7years old and I am from England and I love begin the begin It’s wicked.
“… tiger run around the tree
Follow the leader, run and turn into butter…”
Is It from my favrut book “The Story of Little Black Sambo”?.

yes it is exactly from that book.  

2. How do You pick favourites from Your own songs? As a listener? The ones You enjoy the most to sing? Or probably the ones you’re most proud of as a lyricist?

favorites to perform, well, hopefully they’re easy and satisfying to sing [Man on the Moon, LMR, Supernatural Superserious]and I love the lyrics too…that’s a slam dunk as a performer.  Sometimes I like singing songs because I think they’re better live than recorded, and it feels like it breathes a different take into the song itself to perform it

Ignoreland this tour for instance is I think more powerful than the recorded version

Wendell Gee doesn’t get much attention. Matthew P. even referred to the song as an almost unnecessary ending for the Fables album and I understand Peter is no big fan. I love the song. (Personal memory from the 80’s: I played it on repeat one long drunken night while I sobbed my way through the end of a relationship. Most cathartic.) The tune is beautiful. The lyrics seem to be about a child in a situation he wants to escape. Mike’s harmony vocals are perfect even though I can’t make the exact lyrics. Question 1: What do you remember about writing the lyrics and the story within? Question 2: Can a song you hear become a personal favorite to you without even knowing the lyrics or the meaning to them?
I’ll answer in reverse.  My favorite song of the summer’08 is L.E.S. Artistes by Santogold.  If I had to accurately sing or describe one lyrical line of that song to save all of mankind, we would be fucked.  I’ve listened to it 60,000 times and I have no idea what its about or what the lyrics are.  I just know that it moves me and I love it.  Voila. 

Wendell Gee was a death dream where I was buried in a hollowed out log with this metal mesh kind of lizard skin over the top and I could hear and talk, but all of the alive people could not hear me.  Like a ghost.  I stole the name from the highway between Athens, Georgia and Jefferson, Georgia, where I would visit with R.A. Miller in the early 80’s.  It was one of the few really autobiographic but from dreamworld lyrics that I wrote; shortly after that I barely ever injected real life situations into the songs or lyrics, instead focusing on what I felt was my strong suit as a writer.  Weirdly, on a personal note, the song later played a huge role in the death of a friend of mine who’s mother was a Jungian scholar.  

Hi Michael


Thanks for doing this. It’s great.

I read that you have different characters that re-occur in your songs. I remember reading that The Lifting (I love this song) was a sequel to Daysleeper. Has this character emerged again since? Maybe the protagonist in Hollow Man?

no, but I expect she’ll come back at some point.  Her particular arc is a tough one

fyi: originally for the video to daysleeper I had insisted on casting a woman.  I was dissuaded and played the part myself

Also from my 6 yr old daughter. Is the set for the Imitation of Life video the same as the set on High School Musical 2??!!

oooh. I don’t know.  It is in L.A., and was probably one of those houses that gets rented out a lot to different projects…that would be superfun to investigate

The song Lotus…I have always wondered if it had anything to do with the Lotus eaters in the Greek Mythology or is it only my imagination that got carried away with this interpretation?
yes it does. 

Has this Q&A experience with us fans and reading our interpretations that are sometimes totally opposite of the meaning you had have with certain songs at their genesis added a new layer maybe to the songs for you Michael?….I don’t mean in a way that it has changed ur perception and interpretation of the songs, since obviously u aren’t at the receiver’s end like us and u would be the one who’d know the songs inside-out but what I am trying to find out is basically the following: this has been obviously a rather exquisite and invaluable experience for us….Would it have a similar effect on you, do u think u have gained something extra from this apart from the joy of talking to us lovely people:P?
I have enjoyed getting a few things off my chest, or setting a few things straight.  I’ve often said, and I still maintain, that my interpretation of the songs is the least important, that the power of music is how we each of us interpret it for ourselves; there are a few songs or lyrics that, even though I think I’m being incredibly open and obvious, are neither easy nor obvious; and it feels good to just say that was about Burroughs, or whatever  

1) Anywho, personal anecdotes aside, what I’m most curious about is the process of writing the lyrics to each album. Do you attack the music with a conceptual idea of what you’d like the lyrics to roughly (and as a whole) be about? Do you for instance, “decide” that album X needs to feel more lush and private, and album Y needs to get its teeth into some more abstract political situations (sorry for the weird phrasing of that) – or is it perhaps more a case of you afterwards realizing that overall themes came out of all the thoughts and reflections you had in you at the time of recording an album?
I usually figure it out after about the 5th song is written.  Only then do I maybe try for something thematic, like easy example, REVEAL equals druggy hypnotised summer

first, I wonder about the recurring theme through your lyrics of “I am not afraid.” I would imagine that the word “afraid” might appear in more REM songs than any other. is that something you’re conscious of — a message, an empowering goal you’re interested in? at the same time, is it something you ever try to stay away from, as in, “I can’t use the word afraid in this song again!” 

I have to mantra in my real life, ‘the only thing to fear is fear itself’.  Life is scary.  I just think that pops up a lot thematically in my lyrics because, even though it’s a low emotion, I think about it a lot

  1. I have noticed that at least on three occasions (“Swan Swan H”, “Parakeet” and “Lotus”) you kind of bring discredit on cats! They are described as mean, unpleasant creatures and in general I think you present them as something evil. I still haven’t decided though if I’m supposed to love or hate “Star Me Kitten”. You must prefer dogs than cats, don’t you?

I prefer dogs in my real life it’s true.  I’ve never thought about my subconscious as cat hating.  I just think they’re mischievous.

Dear Michael,
We’ve just had our wedding last weekend. I want to let you know that the opening dance was on At My Most Beautiful on our wedding. Thanks for “singing” it for us.
My q-n is: what was the most special occasion for which an r.e.m. song was used/played?

weddings births and funerals.  What a stunning first dance!  I’m always really flattered when I hear that, thank you

The two songs from the Dublin rehearsals left off of “Accelerate,” “On the Fly” and “Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance,” are both exceptional songs, especially “On the Fly.” Do you plan on releasing these in the future? Also, more importantly, did the heartache of “On the Fly” come from any personal experience or was it just the experience of a character you created? And, as you mentioned when you played “Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance” in Philadelphia, the song explores something people will experience if they are very lucky. So, does this mean the song references personal awakening or just deep focus on a goal one wants to achieve.

On The Fly:  invented.  Like a great Jem Cohen movie but starring Marilyn Monroe and Monty Clift and, I don’t know, Karl Malden
Staring Down…: by that I meant I hope you reach the age where you’re looking back on your youth from a long way gone.  I hope you live a long life that’s what that meant

Dear Micheal
Parakeet has always been one of my favourite REM songs (and I have many that I love).
I have always felt that the lyric refers to a concious entity probably a person who is represented by the Parakeet. The parakeet is in bad shape but is rescued by Buddhas. Is this a very spiritual message you are conveying here? Do the ‘sunspot flares of the early ’90s’ refer to aprticular time of your life?
Thanks for everything

she saved herself, it’s a parable about domestic abuse and liberation, and the Buddhas are just painting a new life background[and someone told me that koala bears are high their entire lives, I don’t even know if it’s true, because supposedly eucalyptus leaves are hallucinogenic; so they’re just plopped right onto the highest buddha ladder rung and yawn their way right through].  The sunspot flares actually happened and apparently severely interrupted radio transmission, do a search on it

Swan Swan H pretty miraculously spins lyrics in swirls and whirlpools, and any central meaning seems nicely elusive. Could you discuss your views/ intentions/ interpretations of the track? Sometimes I think of redemption/ Christianity; other days its the US South/ slavery/ repression; other days its loneliness.
“What’s the price of heroes?” is a line I’ve always enjoyed getting lost in. How does the Swan fit in?

Many many thanks

civil war song.  That’s all I know of writing it, I remember the inspiration but it just flowed.  What noisy cats are we I lifted from an actual civil war written piece

and Mike and I agreed finally; the title is now Swan Swan Hummingbird.  My pretentious 20’s are long gone and we can now all breath a sigh of relief.  kindof

Michael, do you find it more fun to write sexy vamp tunes?  Specifically I mean a few of the tracks from the mid-90s, such as “Crush With Eyeliner”, “The Wake-Up Bomb” or the more subdued temps of “Tongue” or “Star Me Kitten”.. These are some of my favorite songs lyrically and for some reason it seems like you are having the most fun singing them.  But that could just be my nostalgia talking.. HELP

they are fun, and I love every song you mentioned above.  They’re cartoonish and wicked and silly and camp I suppose.  I mean I feel like Strange Currencies is a real stretch for me, I was just trying to be Michael Hutchence and be intense and in love in the lyric and delivery

Hi Michael,
             Can I just ask how you feel about Up now? I realize it was a difficult time back then, but I personally feel out of it came your lyrical master-piece, would you agree? As far as I am concerned it is a master-piece full stop and Why not smile is the most beautiful song ever recorded. 
Thanks for your time.

thank you very much.  I decided years ago to never publicly diss a song that we wrote and put out there because maybe there’s a you out there who thinks it is the greatest song ever [for the record, I like Why Not Smile but as an example]; and so.  I think UP is about 3 songs too long as an album; I think most of the songs are too slow; and I wish someone brilliant would scour the stuff and re-record or remix some of this-era-of-our-output, and make it their own thing.  I do think there’s some great stuff there; maybe it needs distance, a different voice or take, a different arrangement.  Then it could breath differently  

While you’ve mentioned here that some early songs were, the words of a questioner, “lesser” and thus left off albums, the band has revisited very early tracks like “All the Right Friends” and “Permanent Vacation.” I’ve always hoped for a quickly banged out album of all these early songs — “Narrator,” “Lisa Says,” “Baby I,” “Sheherazade,” etc. — perhaps available through the fan club. Any merit in such an idea? Are those early tunes at least fun to play even if they don’t perhaps carry the same heft as your later, more thought-out songs?


I didn’t even write the lyrics to most of those you mentioned above.  And no, we cherry picked the pretty great ones and recorded them[at some point Hole was going to cover All The Right Friends]; that’s that.  As far as ‘basement tapes’ type early work compilation goes, I just don’t think theres much there personally

Michael, please do forgive me as I’m a Brit with a limited understanding of US politics but are the lyrics “so hold tight your babies and your guns forgive us our trespasses, father and son” from “Until the day is done” on Accelerate a dig at the Presidents Bush, Senr and Jr?  Like you I so want Obama to win in November – yes saw you in Twickenham – fab gig!  Also just want to say how much I love “At My Most Beautiful”… especially “I save your messages, Just to hear your voice” – that’s absolutely spot on about being in love….  
Best wishes, Tracy  

I felt like that lyric addresses the often conservative American pro-death penalty/anti-abortion stance, and oddly describes our countrys odd reality right now; and yes, I think there’s a degree of confusion between father and holy father there.  sad

Are there any songs you wish you could go back and re-record in the studio after performing them live?

most of them, yes.  Like 95% of them.  So it goes  

Hey that’s it for now; thank you to everyone for all the questions and especially thanks to Ethan Kaplan and especially especially to Matthew Perpetua for his incredible, ambitious, and I think brilliant site.  Thank you Matthew.  All the best  from Michael Stipe

Ask Michael Stipe #5

September 22, 2008

Here is another batch of answers! There is going to be one more of these posts, so you should probably not send in any more questions. I’m pretty sure we’re just dealing with things that have already been sent in for the final round. As you can imagine, there have been quite a few questions.

And here we go:

when i was young i loved the until the end of the world soundtrack, which my older brother had a cassette of, and often played on family road trips. it wasn’t until years later (and some growing up) that i suddenly understood how brilliantly-double-entendre-dirty the lyrics to fretless seem to be…
i’m pretty sure the song is about a sad love triangle, but was i really singing along to accepting cum with a gentle tongue in front of my parents?    🙂

uh no, not exactly.  Thanks for asking…?    

Am I correct in viewing some of your songs as wrestling with the concept of destiny/fate vs choice/free-will (Falls to Climb is the first song that comes to mind)?  Does the character in this song represent, in some way, an active struggle that takes place in your own mind (even if the character in the song is not you)?

Falls to Climb is my rewriting of ‘the Lottery’.  And yes, I think many of us choose between whatever belief is convenient to our present situation, be it destiny, free will, whatever.  That is the failure of organized religion at this point in history, I believe  


I was once asked: “If you could send one song into outer space for an alien civilization to discover, which would it be, and why?”

My response was “You Are the Everything.  Because it evokes very human experiences and emotions.”

I would like to ask you the same question: “If you could send one song into outer space for an alien civilization to discover, which would it be, and why?”

Thank you,

I’m afraid an alien civilization may misinterpret the ‘teeth in my mouth’ line and it could go all hannibal.    I would send Birdland.  It’s about alien abduction and raw innocence and beauty and wanting, and I think a good introduction to human emotions…  

2) One of my R.E.M. favourite songs is Strange Currencies (which, by the way, is also the love song I used to “conquer” my confused partner!). I’ve read different interpretations about the song, like the “stalker” one which makes the song sooo much creepier. To me SC is just a beautiful love song dedicated to someone who just doesn’t want/need you (anymore?! maybe). Am I just making it too easy? pls don’t tell me that our love song is abot a stalker…. 🙂
Thank you for your help, see you in Turin next week!! Sara 

I did not write Strange Currencies with that in mind, to me it is unrequited or forgotten/grown-out-of-love themed.  I have written some songs that are I think bordering on creepy or questionable, Be Mine topping the list

Also, ‘Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)’ reminds me of a 1960s horror film called ‘Carnival of Souls’.  I wondered whether you had seen the film and if so if you were thinking about it when you wrote the lyrics. 

Carnival of Sorts is written about the Carnival night scene in the film ‘The Elephant Man’; I think they are escaping under cover of night, I don’t recall right now.  I don’t think I’ve seen ‘Carnival of Souls’.

Were Document or any of its songs conscious reactions to fIREHOSE’s “For the Singer of REM”? The One I Love sounds like a close cousin to Minutemen’s “Stories,” and when I hear you wail out “FIREHOUSE!” in Oddfellows, though I know you mentioned in one of your earlier responses that it refers to a specific firehouse in Athens, I sure can’t help but make the fIREHOSE connection in my head. And that Mike Watt seems like a bit of a peewee. 

no connection.  I think our song was written before the Minutemen were even a band.  Peewee was a real guy.  

Who in God’s name is Jack Pruitt from “I’m Gonna Dj”, is he from a
barbershop short story in the Internet?

A never clearly answered question… Is the Matthew from “Hope” a
reference to Matthew Shepard?

Thanx again, see you guys in Perú.

Jack Pruitt I made up, just liked the name, it flew out of me, the lyric was written very quickly.   and Matthew is from Matthew Mark Luke and John.  Good solid name.  

As a HS English teacher I always wondered about your intentional bending of grammar rules and parts of speech (such as “Feeling Gravitys Pull” without the possessive apostrophe), but you answered some of my long-time questions in a previous post.  But could you comment further?  Or, since I am also an art collector (I own one of your Tokyo photographs, one of Chris Bilheimer’s carousel photos, an an early Sandra Lee Phipps print of you), can you comment upon any other artists or painters who you have worked into any lyrics?  I know an obvious one is Man Ray in “Feeling Gravitys Pull,” but I’ve always equated the writing style of many of the lyrics with the painting style of Jean-Michel Basquiat and how Basquiat used signification and continual symbols such as the crown throughout his works.  Any other artists inherent in the lyrics? 

I liked Basquiat fine but his work did not affect my own, certainly not directly.  Warhol most certainly did, and to a degree Francis Bacon.  Most of the grammer fuckups were either unintentional or I just didn’t like the way they looked on the page or album sleeve.  So its a graphics thing.  I am btw the best speller in the R.E.M. Office[surprise!], and Mike is the walking dictionary.  Big surprise

The characters in the songs on Monster are very different in many ways from those in your earlier material- they seem more cynical,  perhaps world-weary and jaded. They have a much harder edge and live in world that seem conflicted and compromised
Were these changes in character orientation the result of having to write lyrics to accommodate the change in the band’s new musical  ideas or direction? Peter Buck talked about “throwing away the mandolins and folk instruments and making a rock record”. Or was this change the result of  changes in your own personal outlook of the world as you saw it?
I think mostly it was just an attempt to match to sound of the music…i really pushed the production to be over the top and strong, and I wanted the imagery to be almost cartoonish.  Exactly different from the two records flanking this one.  I scratched an itch I guess

has technology changed your writing process at all? obviously r.e.m. have embraced web2.0 (especially with the tour hub now), but is there anything you use to aid with inspiration, or sharing ideas? 

it’s much easier now to find out if I stole a line or lyric simply by running a search on it.  The first record I wrote on computer was automatic for the people.  I think the first song was Drive.  Before that I used an electric typewriter, before that manual typewriter, and before that a notebook or nothing[memory]


You described the Outsiders as taking place in a restaurant in the Mission District, SF.  I lived on Valencia and 25th for a good decade, and never did figure it out.  Which restaurant? 

uhm, wow.  I did a lyric search to re-read this one; I don’t know where in the lyric you read that it happens in SF…I wrote it without a city in mind.  Did I say something about SF in an interview?  If so it was an in the moment thing…i don’t recall placing the narrative anywhere.        

I love this series.  Here’s my question.  When I was a kid driving down to Florida from Michigan I distinctly remember seeing the comet Kohoutek over I-75 in Georgia.  I’m sure it was visible from all over the country, but I happened to see it in Georgia.  For a little kid that gave Georgia a special cache.  Also liked the red dirt.  The first time I saw R.EM. was on the Fables tour and I always imaged that the band (Stipe really) had seem Kohoutek at the same time when it passed over Georgia in the 1970’s.  Am I right? 

I didn’t live in Georgia until the very end of the 70’s.  I don’t think I ever really saw it, just remember reading about it and maybe looking.  But then in my head I had Kahoutek happening in the 80’s after the band had started…hmm.

Here are a couple I’ve been wondering about.

1. “Just a Touch.”  Elvis dying. Women in mourning.  Is this August 16, 1977?  

If its the day elvis died, then yes.

as a lyricist myself I’m really interested in the narrtive you have for certain songs.
the story of saturn return has always fascinated me, in that you have this oblique tale
in it. Just coming from a craft where most writers are so centred on themselves and their
own experiences I was just wondering how much of a story do you work out?
I mean do you internally flesh out these characters or is it just they exist in the story of the song
and any additonally exploits may creep up in a later song? To boil it down how well do you
know that character in Saturn Return? 

I feel like I know her really well,  or at least her spirit.  It surprised me the line about her Mother, but there are obvious metaphors to the saturn part of the lyric[…breaking from home etcetera].  I always hate it in movies when something is explained by a crap childhood or bad parent, but in this lyric I surprised myself.  It became one line and I thought that was ok.  It just seemed to help make her look outside of herself, to not be so internal thinking all the time.  That can be helpful.   
and my second question, is do you enjoy the mythology that people attribute to you?
like the “R” on the back of Green, people assume has some “Stipian” signifiicance, when
you have said it was merely a typo. do you enjoy this analysis or do you wish people
would just chill out about things?
is it a case of both just depending on your mood?

probably both, yes.  

I’m wondering who or what is the inspiration to She Just Wants To Be from Reveal. 

Shortly after this album’s release, I read Ethan Kaplan’s ( interview online with Peter asking Peter’s interpretations of all of the songs.  Peter gave somewhat detailed answers to all of the songs, except this one, to which he replied (btw, i dunno how I still remember this…) “This one’s about a person, someone I think we’ve met” (…at least, I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.)

Anyway, just wondering what Michael would say.

It’s a pretty song, but I can’t tell if Michael is being encouraging to the protagonist, or critical – could be both of course.

encouraging, I hope. 

You’ve all brought back a lot of old songs on the current tour — thank you for that! — but you’ve clearly made a point of playing “Ignoreland” and “Let Me In” at just about every show. What informed your collective decision to make those two songs set staples? 

They just feel right to all of us right now.  Simple as that  

I asked Peter at a booksigning back home in Seattle if you guys could play “The Flowers of Guatemala” in Europe. I’ll happen to be in Zurich the night of your show there, and whether you guys get to play the song or not, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that song.

Was it in fact referring rather literally to the serious human rights issues that were occurring there at the time of the writing, as some old interviews have suggested? 


Do you aim for timelessness when writing songs, or is that only unexpectedly achieved?

I used to think “timelessness” was superimportant.  Now I don’t. 

Hi Michael, 

I’m curious about your song “The Lifting” on Reveal.  I love both the
album and the demo version (available on the Imitation of Life single
and your greatest hits collection).  I’m curious why you decided to
change the lyrics on the album version to “You said you felt the
lifting …” from the demo version’s “You’ve said the air was singing
…”  As it is, the album version now never references the title,
which is pretty interesting.  I’m also curious about your general
thoughts on this song.  I find it to be very uplifting and inspiring.

The Lifting is a character I frequently revisit.  Here it’s a motivational conference much like what I imagine EST to be, or like the Tom Cruise character in Magnolia [NOT an influence btw. At ALL.].   It teaches you how to dream, how to think or imagine beyond the tangible, for those who cannot.  Eventually, because of pressure and humiliation, she lies to feel a part of the seminar, to not insult, and mainly because she wants to believe.  But in fact, she never took off, never lifted.  The seminar is a failure.  Deep inside, a part of her knows that she has the capacity, because of dreams she’s had of places she’s never seen.  That’s the prologue, and the hope 

Michael, as a big Smashing Pumpkins fan I was struck at the time Reveal
came out by the “Chorus and the Ring” lyrics which picked up the same
machine-of-God theme that was central to the Pumpkins’ then-last album
from the previous year.  Knowing that you’d been friends with Billy Corgan
I have always enjoyed telling myself that the song is about Billy, a peer
who certainly has endured his share of “insults” and who keeps them
guessing (and particularly did so with the play-acting Machina album).  I
wasn’t entirely sure whether the song would have been encouraging or
criticizing him — and of course I have no delusion any of this was
actually your intent — but I’m curious to know whether that thought
prompts any reaction.

I have huge admiration for Billy both as a person and as a songwriter, but no; the song was inspired by a conversation I had with Peter Buck about deus ex machina, and then finally it was my elegy and eulogy to William Burroughs and Kurt Cobain.  

Hi Michael,
What do you think is the easiest and hardest song you have written?

At My Most Beautiful was really hard.  The verses  

Well, my question will be short since you have got so many of them. In “Country feedback” we have the lyric “I need this. It’s crazy what you could have had”
I suppose that the second phrase is about what the other person could have if there were a relationship or that relationship wouldn’t end, right?
Now for the first part, what is “this”? It’s the relationship? It’s the self confirmation? Or you need the other one to admit the above interpretation?
Thank you 

I don’t know.  Every time I hear it or sing it it feels different to me.  Truth.  

Hi Michael,
I’ve always (well, 20 years now) been fascinated with the lyrics of “World leader pretend”. It seems pretty much a song about an all psychological “war” the character wages with himself (I sit at my table, And wage war on myself… I divine my deeper motives… This is my world… This is my life, and this is my time..). What was the inspiration for these very introspective lines? Were you coming across a self-reflective time, or was an external event that led you to write such introspective lyrics? And, it seems to me these lyrics come from a sort of dissatisfaction the character has with himself.. is this a passing and circumstantial unhappiness, as may happen at any time in our everyday life, or is it a deeper feeling of a thorough “inadequacy” he feels toward life and his commitment to it?
Grazie mille Michael, and thank you also for your extremely inspirational lyrics!
this was my first real lift from Leonard Cohen.  I took a very personal vantage point and used the language of war to describe it.  

There was a fair degree of discussion around Up on this blog with regards to how it rates with the rest of R.E.M.’s work. I was on the side of it being genius, so my two questions are both related to that album.  


  1. The lyric  from Falls to Climb: “Romantically, you’d martyr me/and miss this story’s point”. I find that the crucial moment in the song. I interpret it, together with the final uplifting cry “I am free”, as the protagonist making the statement that he’s not a martry, just an ordinary guy fighting an evil system, doing what’s right. 

I think you nailed it there.   

2. Walk Unafraid is one of my favourites and I love hearing it love. It’s been interpreted as the climax of the Michael Stipe narrative. How personal is that song? 

personal in that its quite literal inspiration was something Patti Smith told me, some great advise she gave me as a lyricist and artist when I was really in hardcore writer’s block…but I think it goes beyond me, and that’s not my self mythologizing but trying to push it further out into the world of collective experience

Hello Michael,
My question is:
Has it ever happened that during or straight after brilliant live gigs you get the inspiration and you write lyrics or just any thoughts as a reflection of your state of mind during/after the concerts (be it sheer joy, being moved by special moments or surprised by the band and by the crowd)?
If it happened, in which song?
Thanks for the opportunity to ask you, its very generous of you!
truth is, as far as I can remember, that has never happened.  Live performance is its own thing 

Ask Michael Stipe #4

September 19, 2008

Sorry for the delay! 

Here we go:

I recently bought Accelerate and would be really interested to know who exactly Mr Richards is. I know some people think it refers to Michael Richards, and I tend to think of him as a sort of composite of disliked/discredited American public figures called Richard (Perle, Nixon, Cheney…). Is there any truth to either of these interpretations?

I made him up.  Really anyone high up in the current Bush administration could fit the profile…

Also: Paul Weller recently expressed some displeasure about Tory leader David Cameron’s professed fandom of the Jam. What are your feelings, as someone who’s always been outspokenly liberal, about Cameron AND Blair both claiming to be R.E.M. fans? (Cameron chose Perfect Circle for one of his Desert Island Discs and stressed that he preferred your early stuff.)

Many thanks for your time,

paul weller is a twerp

Howdy Michael!
Thanks a lot for taking time out for this.  Your band is my absolute favorite, and you guys turned me on to so much great music by namedropping impeccably in interviews.  By way of an example, you guys totally got me into Patti Smith, whom I love just as much as R.E.M. now, so thanks for that.
Anyway, at the end of “Just a Touch” on Lifes Rich Pageant you bellow what sounds like “I can’t sing” and then there’s some inspired hollering before you wrap up the track with what sounds like “I’m so young I’m so God damn young”.  Just like Patti does at the end of her cover of “My Generation”.  The first time I discerned this it thrilled me to no end.  I was curious as to what conjured that line there at the end of the tune, and if you’d reveal a personal favorite track or two of Patti’s?  Much obliged.

of course I stole it from her.  Favorite tracks of hers?  Beneath the southern cross and, for lyrical brilliance, 1959.  My Blakeian Year.   Birdland.  We Three.  Free Money  Amazing stuff

I’m a first time writer, long time listener.    We’ve already seen the band in Boston and London this year with tickets to the Dallas show next month.  My question to you is how the metaphor “a lazy eye on the rocks” applies in the beautiful song “Sad Professor”. 

the professor himself is on the rocks, myth and tumbler.  Not pretty either one.  The lazy eye I think is brilliance that goes awry, gets lost, gets lazy.  Forgets its power.  I love that song except for the double time vocal part.    

I must admit that I am not very good at interpreting your wonderful lyrics and have a habit of taking them at face value, but my husband has an interesting question about Nightswimming.

In the lyric “The photograph on the dash board taken years ago, turned around backwards so the windshield shows, every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse,” does this mean something along the lines of coming to the realization that you are no longer the person that everyone thinks you are. Possibly, that your persona has now taken over the perception of the real you?

no.  it’s literal.  Jem Cohen and I have talked about this line and how his films – – are the visual equivalent; it’s something reflecting something else that makes you see it or notice it for the first time; possibly in a different context.  Simple but powerful

btw; I cannot drive if something’s on the dash.  Makes me crazy the reflection thing.  Same as glass top tables[see Horse to Water]

Thanks so much for taking questions, and for making (with Mike, Peter, Bill, and others) so much wonderful music… Up damn near changed my life.  I was surprised to read that you found fan interpretation of “Why Not Smile” (one of my favourites) to be pretty off the mark from what you intended… I had thought the song was pretty straightfoward, emotionally, which I guess means I’m probably off the mark as well.  It always sounded to me like a song about trying to make a person you love feel better, so if the intent was something else, I’d love to know what; and if that’s what it was originally about, what’s the common other take on it?

With the opening line ‘the concrete broke your fall’ it feels pretty hardcore to me.  This song can be taken any number of ways, and that’s intentional.  I felt like the sentiment being expressed was overly naïve and simple, and didn’t really address harder problems or issues like mental illness, depression or substance abuse.  It’s an easy out, like, “hey, smile! C’mon, the sun is shining.”   which is good and fine if you’re in that headspace but not so much if you’re not.  That’s the problem with trying to pull someone out of that place.  Sorry to be hippieguy. 

Chorus and the Ring is a song that I liked from first listen and was happy to sing along, unconcerned that I had only a limited interpretation of isolated lyrics.   I confess that when I eventually tried to develop an overall understanding of the song I became hopelessy lost.  Anything you can say to help illuminate the overall themes of Chorus and the Ring would be wonderful. 

Chorus and the Ring is my elegy to William Burroughs and Kurt Cobain, and basically follows a conversation I had with William one afternoon in his backyard about Kurt [ I was presented to William at his home in ‘95 by Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore].   The 2nd verse is among my most favorite lyrics that I’ve ever written, topic being instinct,  and feels like the man who sold the world to me.  But I’m complementing myself there.  William, to be clear, was truly shocked that such a smart, beautiful and sensitive man as Kurt could take his own life.  Shocked.   Not exactly the WSB that I expected.  Brilliant

The blackbirds in the last chorus is an obvious nod to the Beatles.

Dear Michael,
First of all, I know you’ve heard this a lot by now, but thank you for
all the amazing music you and R.E.M. have created.  You’ve helped me
more than you could know.
Secondly, I have two questions about lyrics.  What does “drifting off
to sleep with your teeth in your mouth” refer to?  [You Are the
Everything]  Does the subject of the song wear dentures?  It confounds
my interpretation of the rest of the song. 

I really hate that line, but what it really is, and I’m happy to shout this, is when you just wake up and your body is in that paralyzed state and you’re not sure you’re awake;  and grinding your teeth together or biting down hard is the first acknowledgement that this is real life, not a dream.  That’s what that line is, it just came off really really awkward.  I’ve always regretted that line in that song, so thanks for the chance to speak out about it

One of my top fav REM songs is Pretty Persuasion.  First I would like to
know what it is about, and second there is a line -“wear that on your
sleeve”, that I believe is also sung in another song.  I heard that it has
to do with a photo shoot?

the band and I laugh about the wear that on your sleeve line, its in like 60 rem songs as far as I can tell.  MOTM, great beyond.  P.Persuasion.   I guess I say it a lot.  The song is from a dream I had when we all lived at the church and it was a rolling stones single sleeve of a song called ‘pretty persuasion’.  The picture was keith, mick and brian shot from above on a pier, and when I woke up I told peter about it and he said, ‘well you have to write a song called that.’   So I did.  It’s about growing up queer in the weird 80’s but kind of before AIDS hysteria really set in bigtime

The song “walk unafraid” has been there to guide me and give me strength since it’s birth on UP

I’ve noticed a connection between “Walk Unafraid” from UP and” I’ve Been High” from Reveal.

 It seems to me the narrator from Walk Unafraid is similar to the one found on “I’ve Been High.” 

I just want to hold my head up high” from “Walk Unafraid” and “What I really want is just to live my life on high” from “I’ve Been High.”

It’s as if he made the leap in “Unafraid” and the result of these emotions are reflected on “High?”

Was connection intentional?

thank you for yr words and inspiration,

Adrian Ernesto Cepeda

I love both those songs, they just feel very real.  Beyond that I can’t really say much, there’s probably an element of real me in there 

Micheal, have you ever heard somebody’s interpretation of your lyrics and thought “Steady on – it’s just a song!”, or is everything you write deep and meaningful?

all the time.  Truth is I usually put a good bit into writing them but then I usually want to say ‘it’s just pop music after all‘   you know what.  Music really means that much to people, all the better.  We need to find our way through everyday and if a pop song provides that for 3 minutes then right on, no issue.  I just don’t often feel like the deepest guy in the room  

My question is, on this tour have there been any songs you have recalled to the set this that you have rarely played in the past but now love? I guess ignoreland would come to mind?

ignoreland, great one.  It just flew up out of nowhere and suddenly mattered again.  I think we’ve played it every night this tour.

Michael, my question is to do with Accelerate. I love this record and the characters you portray in the lyrics who seem to be deeling with a world reeling, spinning out of control at times. But, in two songs (Hollow Man and Accelerate) you use the line “I’m incomplete”. I’m curious to know why you gave the person(s) in your songs this personal admission in the context of everything going on around them. 

in Accelerate the final line is cut off,  “I’m in complete control”.    The guy either hits bottom, or wakes up;  you get to write the ending  

I’m curious what songs you’ve heard in your life that made you just drop whatever you were doing and go, “You know, why can’t I write a song like this,” or, perhaps, “Damn, I wish I had written that.” 

short list:  Birdland, One, Beautiful Day, Man Who Sold the World, Ashes to Ashes, Karma Police, Rhyme[by Television], and more recently l.e.s. artistes

My favorite author, William Gibson, sometimes includes hat-tips to his
favorite musicians in his novels (I think because he listens to music
as he writes).  “Fables of the Reconstruction” is a chapter of one of
his novels (Idoru), so obviously REM is among them.



My questions are:

1. Have you read any of William Gibson’s work? (If not I recommend.)
2. What have been your strongest inspirations that originated in
distinctly other art forms (short stories and novels, movies,
photography, paintings, etc.), and what lyrics did they inspire?

James from Indiana

Crazy enough I met William Gibson a thousand years ago in Tokyo at Tokyu Hands, Douglas Coupland presented me.  It was such a shock to see him there

one of my favourite REM songs is Let Me In, a beautiful song. What are the exact lines of the second verse? “I only wish that I could hear you whisper down, Mister fisherman, to a less peculiar ground” seems popular on the internet but doesn’t sound quite right to me? Am I wrong to say that?

Mr. Fisher moved to a less peculiar ground.   I think in the aftermath of his death Kurt seemed like a Jesus figure to so many people, that I went to obvious biblical reference there.  I was still in shock when I wrote and we recorded the song. 

Also, another from Monster that I’ve now been loving for 14 years (!) is You. I remember you introducing it as a ‘boy song’ – why was the main character wanting to hold his ‘syrup’ close to someone?

I’m guessing I said it was a boy song from the stage, around the time I was introducing Tongue with, ‘this song has tits’, and just evening the field.  I do think I wrote it to a man but no one real or in particular, just guy vibe.  And syrup?  C’mon! 

Not long after we first heard “Daysleeper” both my wife and I found ourselves in jobs that involved working crazy round-the-clock shifts. We both think you really nailed the feeling of that kind of work stress in the song.

What was your inspiration for it? At the time, my wife said “Michael Stipe must know people (or still have friends) in the ‘real’ world”, as the song conveyed something so true to life. Do you have good friends who have jobs like this and did you chat with them to ‘research’ the song? Or is the song just a work of pure imagination? Alternatively, did the strange hours you must keep while on tour actually give you all the inspiration you needed?

My first job I worked the midnight shift and would go to high school first period straight from work.  I have a pretty good memory of that, although from a teenage point of view.  And I am a nightowl still

Accelerate is a brilliant album, but until the day is done seems really cryptic. In it are you saying that despite the country in ruins, it can be rebuilt, its not over till its over (or until the day is done), or is this just a simple prediction of the future of modern society, with people living in despair? Also there is a lot of religous imagery, are you using this to try and highlight the despair of the situation, which the lines in the chorus suggest especially “providence blinked”, and that religious ideals need to be returned to, to improve the situation, which the third verse seems to suggest? But then the quote from sinclair lewis almost suggests the opposite…

I think Providence looked down on george w bush and dick cheney and just went what the fuck?  This song is the sister song to ‘I wanted to be wrong’.  I do think the key to the lyric is in the bridge 

Ask Michael Stipe #3

September 15, 2008

Keep those questions coming in! Once again, the address is popsongs08 @

from Colongne Monday afternoon

ATTENTION possible spoilers so don’t read if you don’t want to know a particular interpretation of some song lyrics

This is a fairly random question, but my sister (who lived in Athens for a while) and I have wondered whether the firehouse mentioned in “Oddfellows Local 151” is a specific reference to the Firehouse package store that’s on Broad St.

no it’s the old firehouse on prince ave.  

Ciao Michael, thanks for this fabulous opportunity! I wanted to ask

you what you meant with this sentence in MOTM: “Mr. Charles Darwin had the balls to ask…”

the original lyric is ‘…had the gall to ask’…the balls part is a live in-joke for fans during the shows. Casual listeners probably wouldn’t really get it 

What is this?

A shiver came quick,

grabbed me up by the back of the neck,

and shook me down to the floor,

through my shoes, through the floor,

to core of the earth.

I muttered something, swallowed some air.

Science, miracles, monkeys, or prayer,

I’ll believe in anything when I’m there

I’m certain I’ve said that before.

I’ll believe in anything when I’m there

I’m certain I’ve said that before.

I don’t know but I recognize it.  Did I write this?  Where did it come from, it feels very very familiar and sounds like me. 

You’ve spoken of how the film Blade Runner resembles your post-apocalyptic dreams, and how you often tap into that world in your songs (Electron Blue, Feeling Gravitys Pull, Sing for the Submarine). My question is, did you dream of this world prior to seeing these sorts of films? Do you feel like the films in any way inform your dreams, or are the similarities coincidental? (I’m reminded of a conversation I read you had with David Lynch, where the two of you disagreed as to whether the nature of camera zooms and movements were based upon our dreams, or our dreams were informed by them.) And, I picked up on “Tyrell and his mechanical owl” as a, perhaps allegorical, blade runner reference, but what does “a moth disguised as a leaf” refer to?

My dreams have been like that as long as I can remember, and frankly the films are kind of a relief, an affirmation.  The Tyrell line is a direct reference, and it really threw Peter which we later had a good laugh over.  The moth was just something that was there on the wall in the studio the day I wrote the lyric.  Above the coffee maker, and I think Scott McCaughey pointed it out or was there when I saw it. Very Bladerunner.   

2:  Since you create so many fictitious characters in your music have you ever been tempted to write a novel?

no that seems like a lot of work.  I think I work well with 3 verses and a chorus or two.  

3: do you ever use the same characters again in different songs?

oh yeah. 

Bittersweet Me (alongside Wake Up Bomb and a couple of others from NAIHF and Monster) feels, how can I say it, pretty “teenagery”. I can certainly relate, being some months older than Automatic for the People myself. Back to Bittersweet Me: “The underneath is lacking”, “All static and desire”… these bits appeal to me in a way I can’t really explain. Did you have anything in mind particularly while writing these lyrics?

it really is about a teenage, or if not exactly or always teenaged, a raw or unformed desire…

And, if you don’t mind me asking this, are there any lyrics beyond Rockville written by Mike Mills (I’m such a Mike Mills fangirl, I can’t help it…)? I’m not sure if he wrote Texarcana and Near Wild Heaven. 

Mike’s input, directly or as a co-writer/editor, has informed the lyrics from the very beginning.  It would be difficult to say what he has not been involved in…basically everything. 

1. My friend and I have an ongoing debate about the appeal of the expression of love in At My Most Beautiful and Be Mine, and these two songs do seem to polarise fans. For me the selflessness of the protagonist in At My Most Beautiful is a refreshing change from the suffocating egocentricity of the character in Be Mine. Perhaps the listener’s reaction says more about that person and their evaluation of sincerity than the song itself. So I guess my question is, which is preferable, to be the object of affection in At My Most Beautiful or Be Mine?

definitely AMMB.  Be Mine is a little self centered and creepy in my opinion; “I want the finger with the ring.”…ick.  It’s really dark and questionable, the degree to which he needs to own this person.  And the sentiment is of course from Valentine candy hearts.

AMMB on the other hand is at the outset [the title] a little suspect; but clearly becomes a true and wildly romantic song.  

2. The first time I heard Houston I thought it sounded like a musical haiku – short, meaningful, unfinished and full of unanswered questions. For me it works so well because of its brevity. Did you set out to give this impression, or did the song evolve into this beautiful couple of stanzas?

I finished it during the Dublin live rehearsals, 5 minutes before taking the stage.  I wanted it to be short and direct, but I feel like the narrative is clear and complete, almost novel length in its portals into detail.  It’s Peters favorite lyric on that record.   

In Saturn Return is the “You’ve found a ladder in the pattern of your wrist a reference to stitch marks in a wrist?” , you know, as in an attempted suicide scar? Am I stating the obvious here? Why do I always feel like most people wouldn’t make that connection? 

2) For the lyrics, which are more associative, there are many different interpretations. “Saturn Return” is easily on of those. There are “these elvis poses”, “late shift convenience store” and the “northwestern sky”. Is there really a hint to suicide (”you found the ladder in the pattern of your wrist”) and were those lyrics as direct and straight from your mind as “Country Feedback”?

There’s no suicide intended in the narrative of Saturn Return, that’s an interesting interpretation but not one I imagined.  For me she’s young and smart but has this temp job and a shit family life and literally finds something new in the sky that sets her off on a path of greatness.  The ladder in the wrist is the skin on the underside of the wrist; I don’t know about you but mine looks like a dna ladder.  She also uses an actual ladder to climb onto the roof of the convenience store late at night to look at the desert sky and think and get away from the florescent light; that sets off her discovery 

And , Could you talk a bit about I Remember California, really struck by how that song for me really captures the haunting, astonishing–actually disturbing and unnerving–beauty of California: What came first, the musical landscape or the lyrics? Was this song a result of you (yourself) or the band as a whole being totally moved by your initial experience of California, perhaps?  Which one of you four was the initial impetus for the song ? I mean was it like you said “Hey Guys , let’s write a song about that crazy place ,California”??   Thank you.   

I’ve just always been really inspired by southern California and the southwest since we first ever went there, it’s so different from what I knew growing up in the south and midwest.

so, Electrolite, I Remember California, How the West was Won and Where it got Us, Low Desert, Man on the Moon, All the Way to Reno, Leave, etcetera

I also wanted to ask about referencing your lyrics from earlier songs.    You said in “Sing for the Submarine” on “Accelerate” you reference “Electron Blue” and “Feeling Gravitys Pull” because they are also songs that came from your dream life.   In “Lotus,” your lyric “dot-dot-dot and I feel fine” always makes me smile.    How do you make the decision to reference earlier lyrics ?

There are lots of overlapping narratives and characters that I return to over and over again, I think that’s where and why the references pop up; I also always loved the idea that country music stars might reference themselves in their songs[this was around Kahoutek time], I feel at this point more comfortable referencing the work itself.  

Ascent of Man:  I find I like to play this song on my iPod when I’m traveling.  Somehow it seems to strike a mood that’s both a little bit melancholy, but also very grounded, somehow, at the same time.  How would you characterize that song?

I love that song, especially the chorus and the yeaaaahs, and the part about being a cactus trying to be a canoe; stock still versus glide 

Also, my hubby and i were hoping that you wouldn’t give too many “secrets” away because it sometimes changes the listener’s idea of a song! Do you think you might regret doing that?

In my mind I’m barely scratching the surface here, and not because of what my interpretation means or what inspired the actual lyric, but because there are so many possible interpretations 

and mine doesn’t really that much matter in the long run. So no, I don’t think I’ll regret sharing a few ‘secrets’ with those who really care about the songs.  It’s just my take on it, and that’s secondary to yours.  Thanks for asking

Why have you guys not played Sing for the Submarine Live? It’s my favorite off of Accelerate. Congrats on that wonderful album!

We may still.  It’s a great song, just longish compared to what we’re doing now.  

3) The chorus of “The Outsiders” is absolutely fantastic, since you explain with a little detail on a tablecloth much more actually. What were the ideas behind the song and the lyrics in the chorus?

revolution.  I loved the idea of this guy trying to recruit and illustrate covertly at a table in a tacky restaurant the plans laid for a revolution.    

I realize you said that the first few album lyrics shouldn’t be analyzed too much but I’ve always had the sense that ‘Laughing’ was a reference to getting high (the giggle kind when the participants are fairly new to it). That’s what I’ve always pictured when I hear the chorus at least. I always thought the lyric was Laughing at you, but the image still works with ‘Laughing in tune’. Locking the door and latching the room is to ensure privacy (and possibly a hot box effect) before lighting. My question therefore is do you see any literal meaning in the song, and if so, can you explain it a little?

It’s not a reference to getting high.  I did take the character of Laocoon and change the sex from male Itto female and I wrote it about that and a very watery swamp in my futuristic dreams.  The lights were under the water.  Honestly [ I was an art student].    

My second question is a short one. If you were forced to pick your favorite lyric of all REM songs, what would it be and why? 

Second verse of Chorus and the Ring would be a very close contender.  Also the ‘I’ve had enough’ rant from The Wakeup Bomb.  All of Ebow.  Worst Joke Ever. 

Ask Michael Stipe #2

September 13, 2008

Here’s the next batch! All of Michael’s words are in bold, FYI. Sorry if some of the attributions are getting lost — I’m not really editing the text Michael sends along.
Keep sending in your questions, the address is: popsongs08 @

And here we go:

In Rolling Stone you and Mike made oblique references to New Adventures in Hi-Fi having a theme of alien abduction – especially “Electrolite” – can you say anything more about that or themes on that album?

any reference on record, like “new adventures is about alien abduction”, or “it sounds like two oranges being nailed together” probably means the interviewer or situation was somewhere between not good to wretched…and we were having a laugh as ricky gervais the extra would say. There is no alien abduction theme on new adventures, to answer your question.

In the song lotus, it contains such lines as ‘ocean flower aquarium’ which is a shop in San Francisco. The song also contained lines such as I was hell. let it rain, rain….

I went by that shop every day on route to the studio so yes, it was the beginning of the inspiration for the lyric. Good call.

Was this song about the tough experience of recording ‘Up’ in San Francisco with the recent departure of Bill berry??

no. pretty sure not.

Thanks so much for doing this! I’ve been a fan since Murmur and was fortunate enough to interview you (and Bill) in NYC after the release
of Out of Time (I was the guy with laryngitis that day). When I listen to very old live recordings of the band, I’m always surprised to hear songs like Pretty Persuasion, Radio Free Europe and 1,000,000 alongside the lesser songs that soon fell by the wayside. At the time, did you feel like there were two tiers of songs (quality-wise) in your sets? Also, why did you record Harborcoat with a second set of verses deep in the background?

i’m not sure which lesser songs you mean but I can guess it means songs that werent recorded for an album. I don’t know what I thought at the time but I suspect the better songs got recorded for a reason and the lesser songs didn’t, because maybe they just weren’t that good, or sounded too much like something else. As for Harborcoat, which we played tonight btw, a lot of the songs had counter melodies or other sets of lyrics written, and one melody or lyric won out over the other. We still would sometimes layer the two just because it sounded good. Fall On Me does that too I think.

Is the song GOOD ADVICES your own personal reaction to the stress and homesickness of being on the road at that particular time in your life, or is it a view on social anxiety thru the eyes of a fictional character? Thank you.

Truthfully it’s probably a combination of the two. I’m sure I thought I was not writing autobiographically but I’m also quite sure at that point that I was.

In REM’s beautiful song FIND THE RIVER, you mention many plants/herbs (bergamot, vetiver, coriander, etc.) I am familiar with all of these except ROSE OF HAY. What is that? I’ve tried looking the name up but never can find anything. I thought it may be “ROWS” of hay, but any lyric source I’ve checked mentions the other. I’m very curious what Rose of Hay is. Thank you.

it is rose of hay. I made it up because I needed, and could not find, something that rhymed with ‘way’ and ‘naivete’. Nice catch dark bob. check out the list of convenience store goods in ‘saturn return’ for another gaffe in honest lyric writing. That one is particularly embarrassing.

Which fan song interpretation has surprised you the most compared to the song’s original meaning?

sweetness follows, the one I love, why not smile

For me one of the most endearing (dare I say even charming!) things about an R.E.M. Song lyrically is the unexpected turn-of-phrase. There are so many examples I’m thinking of, for instance “Houston” has one that makes the song one of my new favorites: “If the storm doesn’t get me, The government will-I’ve got to get that out of my head” A strong statement is made, and then immediately turned on it’s head, makes it so intriguing. Or from the earlier days, these chestnuts: “Speaking in tongues, with a broken lip (?)” “Suspicion yourself, don’t get caught” “it’s a Man Ray kind of sky”, unexpected and intriguing, and all so satisfying to the ear!

FINALLY THE QUESTION!(sorry) Michael, could you say something about the origins and practice of what I think is a hallmark of an R.e.M. song: The Well Turned (sometimes on it’s head) Phrase?

the Houston lyric is
“if the storm doesn’t kill me, the government will”
and the Pilgrimage lyric is
“speaking in tongues, it’s worth a broken lip”
suspicion yourself from Wolves is just bad grammer, but it works. Well it’s in a song called Lower Wolves that is titled on the record as Wolves, Lower. What did you expect? It’s like in Leaving New York, and I had to go to Mike for approval on this because he’s the grammer guy, “…leaving was never my proud”. We both decided that even though it was ungrammatic [or ungrammatical, Mike would know], it worked, and the idea came across.

Michael, people who are more knowledgeable than I am about your songwriting have suggested on Matthew’s blog (and elsewhere) that a lot of your song lyrics that seem nonsensical may be inside jokes that may or may not have anything to do with the subject of the song they are featured in. My favorite song is “I Believe”, and I’m most curious about the line “example is the checker to the key”. Does this have something to do with a checkered cab you drove, or is there a reasonable, but hidden meaning that actually applies to the song? Thanks for taking the time to do this — you are legendary, and tremendously generous to your loyal fans.

CHECKER CAB. Hope you’re not disappointed. I’m sure in my head at the time[ I was 26. I mean c’mon.] I thought that checker was close enough to ‘check mark’ and that it all made reasonable sense in some way. I did, by the way, have a fever as a kid, and I did wrestle [and kill] rattlesnakes when I lived in texas. And plus I was kind of a hippie.

looking back now, which one of your lyrics would you personnally nominate as being the most “congruent” in terms of intention and expression?

Honestly I just don’t think about the lyrics or the past work that much. I really could not say…beyond the songs that we’re doing right now or that I’m working on right now, I just don’t ever really think about it.

is the certain direction the lyric will go mostly determined by the emotions you get after hearing the song scaffold or does it happen more often that you got the idea of a song first and then make the music fit your intention?

Music first, almost always. Ebow the letter is an exception, and Departure. And Belong. I still write down ideas and lyrics but honestly they hardly ever make the cut. The liner notes or graphics of I think monster, were all lyrics that didn’t make it.

My favorite R.E.M. song is “Low Desert”, and it’s one that I haven’t really read anything about outside of a very few mentions in interviews over the years. I’d love to hear what the imagery in the lyrics meant to you as you were writing them, as that song puts as vivid an image in my head as any song I can think of.

I really love that song too. I think it didn’t really make peoples best of or get talked about because the vocal is so low in register and its a dark song but not dramatic…anyway.

it’s a car wreck in the desert and nature claiming the victim, but not by natural death, so kind of pissed or non commital about it. And it’s questioning how did the accident occur, what brought it on, so there’s a list of possible things that might have happened. It’s connected to Departure and Undertow in stopping time at the moment of death to ask questions about belief.

You use rhyming quite often and personally I find that REM lyrics can be absorbed without music perfectly in a different way of course. So the term ‘poetry’ often comes into my mind when reading them and a few artists like for example Leonard Cohen produced an extreme volume of work of both poems and songs. Also, I know you got involved writing haikus before, so I wonder have u ever looked at your songs as a piece of poetry and were u influenced by poetry writing at all at any stage of your career or you’d rather prefer to draw a sharp line between the two and think of them as two different entities?

I can barely stand poetry truthfully, to read it; I do like to hear it but often the reader gets too dramatic and blows it. Respectfully I’m happy that poetry and poets exist, it’s just not really my cup of tea, like reggae and bluegrass are not my cup of tea, with few exceptions. Patti Smith of course is brilliant at taking a reading into another place, where it all works and even later when you look at the elements you’re puzzled as to how it could be so moving, so real, so silly or funny, so tearful…but she’s just that good when she’s on, and I’m still learning from her. I don’t think of my stuff as poetry and never did really.

Two lyrics come to mind from Time After Time (Annelise). The opening lyric;

Ask the girl of the hour by the water tower’s watch
And the following;
when the bull’s on his hooves, when you gather friends by the tower
First, it’s one of my favorite R.E.M. songs (daughter is named Annelise), and I’ve always wondered where the tower is and the significance of said tower.
Thank you for allowing me to submit.
Andrew Wall

The tower was in Athens on Chase street and has been torn down, and the line is ‘when he pulls on his hooves, will you gather friends by the tower’. We played it last night. Annelise is a made up person I took two and put them together into one. Neither had anything to do with the actual story that inspired the song.

It regards the cover image for Accelerate. The cityscape featured seems to me to be a visualisation of the city that “sputters like its ready to explode” in the title song and that which may also be inhabited by the character of Sing for the Submarine. Each song that Submarine name-checks: Electron Blue, Feeling Gravitys Pull, End of the World and High Speed Train has to some extent to do with futuristic dystopia or apocalypse. I wondered whether Michael could please tell us a little about the world of these songs, where it comes from inside of him, whether it draws any parallels with his concerns for the real future or if it is entirely fabricated, and whether any more R.E.M. songs come from this world?

good one. Its a happy dystopia, theres a lot lot lot of water, and you’re absolutely correct here.

Hi, here’s my question to Michael Stipe: To what extent were the lyrics Shiny Happy People written in irony? Or was it just a genuinely happy song?!

I really wanted it to be happy, but like the Monkees or the Banana Splits happy…fruity happy like fruit striped gum. When we did the video Kate showed up really dolled up and she looked supergreat, but we had to amp it all up to kind of match her. I went home and got all my yellow green clothes and the dance got a little sillier. Same happened with Stand and Near Wild Heaven. That was kind of it for our pop experiment. Well, Pop Song 89 and Get Up, but there the videos were a little darker, so it turned how they were accepted.

1. CATAPULT: On Catapult, is the catapult a metaphor for growing up too fast? (on the fan lyric pages, I was responsible for changing “hear the howl of the road” to “rope” – but they refused my suggestion to change “Opie mouth” to “open your mouth” – was I right on both counts?)

it is ‘open your mouth’.

What is “Boy In The Well” about? I take it as someone who wants to be one of the “popular” kids in high school but doesn’t fit in, and at the end of the song they realize they don’t need those people after all. Am I close? And what does “the well” represent?

I just love the idea of the Tennessee Goth. 2005.

I’ve heard rumors that the lyrics to ‘Country Feedback’ were largely improved and made up on the spot. Confirm or deny?

I don’t remember.

On the subject of “Hope” — I remember an interview you gave shortly after the record came out, confessing to surprise that people were interpreting the line “You want to go out Friday and you want to go forever” in two different ways. it could either be read as a statement of hedonism, or as a reference to suicide. At the time, I recall you mentioning that you had one of those ideas very clearly fixed in your head when you wrote the line and were surprised that the other interpretation was so common — but you didn’t pin down which meaning you had in mind. There’s obviously support for either view within the song. Ten years on, are you willing to nail it down, or will the line always remain ambiguous?
– Chris Conroy

Hedonism. Just a Friday night out that never ends.

In Supernatural Superserious, the lines, you cried and you cried he’s alive, he’s alive. Who is he? Would he be like an inner voice ?

The clues that are everywhere could not be more obvious here. HOUDINI…! Its a post-life crush song.

Is Sing for the Submarine(beautiful song by the way) a continuation in any way of the sort of dream state you wrote about in High Speed Train?
– Denise

yes. Where else could antelopes jump off tall buildings and submarines be fueled by melody?

Thanks for interacting so much with your public.
I lived in Athens for 5 years; saw you at Flicker and Go Bar numerous times and talked about the Coen Brothers with you.
Jim Herbert was my landlord, and I have work with Chris at Mercury Art.
‘Tongue’ is one of the most beautiful and twisted songs I’ve heard and is in its own pop universe.
Can you talk about the attitude of that song? The female POV seems pretty self-depreciating and seems to take sexuality as a vicious cycle.
Painter Lari Pittman talked about ‘knowing his sexulaity, but having no clue what his gender was’.
Does an attitude like that inform that song?
And is the line ’empty to nothing, watch me run’ or ‘ninety to nothing, watch me run’….and please discuss. i get empty, but not ninety.
I am a caramel turn on a dusty apology.
Thank you so much Michael!
Neil Bender

it’s NINETY TO NOTHING. I grew up with this phrase, I guess it’s about cars. I don’t know. It means fast stop.

the song is from a female perspective and so sung in falsetto. Which is not real, but pulls at the heart. That’s what the song is I think. it is the ‘last ditch lay’ song. Not pretty but something we’ve all seen. Totally fabricated, not from real life. And ‘caramel turn on a dusty apology’ is just what an unwrapped caramel in a corner would look like when the vacuum cleaner can’t quite pick it up and you have to do it with your hands. That’s what you feel like morning after when you’re not the first choice lay. It’s bad.
one of my favorite ever lyrics that I’ve written. It exactly feels like that feeling.

Getting right to it- There’s so much star imagery in your songs, especially the most romantic, or saddest…maybe the most overtly emotive songs…? “You are the star tonight,” “the stars are the greatest thing and they’re there for you,” “stars drip down like butter,” the beginning of e-bow with “look up and what to you see / aall of you and all of me / fluorescent and starry…” et al. It’s such a clear image, but at the same time it’s really vague imagery, can bring up stars in the sky, hollywood stars, far-away-ness, amazed wonderment, and on and on. My question, I guess, is what you get/think of/feel when you invoke star imagery? To crib raymond carver – what do you talk about when you talk about stars…?
– Hannah 

you nailed it. Its all of the above, and that simple. It is shifting in its meaning. That’s the beauty of it. And speak of cribbed: ‘yeah all those stars drip down like butter’ is a purposeful and direct patti smith and hole lift. Voila.

Ask Michael Stipe #1

September 12, 2008

Michael has already answered a bunch of your questions! Here’s the first batch. Just so you know, Michael’s writing will always be in bold. Keep sending in questions! Once again, the address is popsongs08 @

Here we go:

Responding from Riga, Latvia. WE ARE SCIENTISTS are onstage and sound great.

When you were writing “Aftermath”, did you have any specific personal experiences in mind? The domestic imagery – “overfeed the cat”, “plants are dry” – admittedly conjures up a picture of generic mundane day-to-day life, but beyond that appears to lurk something rather more specific and personal than a lot of recent R.E.M. tracks.

it is based on real life, not about me but real life. And I took ‘london bridge is falling down’ and made it just a much more personal story.

Dragonflies are mentioned multiple times on tracks on “Reveal” (”Beat a Drum”, “Summer Turns to High”). Is there any special reason for this? Do they represent anything specific to you?

it was only after that record came out and I read a few reviews where people thought I was using dragonflys as metaphor for something that I realized that most people don’t have dragonflys in their everyday life. Duh. The pool that my family uses has a lot of dragonflys and one summer we realized that they’re really attracted to metallic nail polish. You can get in the pool hold up your hand or foot and they would light on you. That’s all. They were around a lot when I wrote most of that record, and the record is all about summer after all

In the final verse of Driver 8, I have always believed that Michael was singing: “We finally did this song in a plane like that one…” And 23 years later, boy howdy I sure would like to know what he meant by that.

And that’s it. That’s all I’m gonna ask. For a few years there, I used to sing “Driver 8″ at least once a day with my college roommate/world-travel-and-busking partner (who has actually gone on to become a semi-famous musician in her own right), and every time we sang it, we’d sorta be thinking of whatever “plane” we were in or on or experiencing that day. I sure would love to be able to call her up and tell her that I finally figured out precisely which plane we were supposed to be in!

he piloted this song in a plane like that one,
she is selling faith on the ‘go tell’ crusade

Thanks for the opportunity to ask you this: What was the inspiration for Kohoutek? Fever built a bridge, reason tore it down?

honestly I have no idea. I think the idea that relationships are or can be fleeting, of the moment, then gone. Kahoutek is the comet that was supposed to be big as Haley’s comet, and then fizzled out. It was a non event

Hello Mr. Stipe,

First, what a wonderful opportunity for R.E.M. fans and fans of this blog (a tad redundant, I know). Its very generous of you to set aside a few moments in your schedule to answer questions.

As you have a visual arts background along with currently perusing photography and sculpture, do you ever find that in your song writing, you first have a visual image or images that you wish to convey? Or do you focus on themes and lyrics and any inferred visual references come later? If possible, I would love for you to point out any songs as examples.

the best song lyrics I think are the ones where i’m responding to the visual landscape that the music provides. It’s tough, because sometimes the guys don’t want to add all
the layers so that the melodies can be whatever they can be…and i’m left with something barebones or sparce…sometimes they add so much stuff it’s hard to see through it. There’s no single way of doing this thing that we do.

the lyrics do tend to reflect the aural vista or landscape. a great example might be country feedback, which of course wound up keeping its working title, or ebow the letter, same. Both songs however, musically, were sad, down, dark dark wide open vistas like a cartoon desert or moonscape. Ebow of course became the teenage swirl of confusion and endless possibility, country feedback the final sentence at the end of a particularly bad relationship. Departure felt like a storm spinning out of control, and saturn return otherworldly, ethereal, but based in dirt, mundaneness, humanity and a desert convenience store

Hi Michael:

I know The Wrong Child is about the boy in the bubble that made headlines back in the late 80’s. I love the song and so does Mike Mills (according to several interviews he’s given). Why doesn’t R.E.M. play the song more often? I know even Eddie Vedder has included lyrics from it within Pearl Jam songs during live performances.

My question is this: My boyfriend interprets the song as a child that realizes he’s gay very early on in his/her life, and how others react to that person (in a negative and homophobic way). Are you fine with that interpretation?

Thank you, Mike, Peter, Bertis (and Bill). Your music has meant everythin to me since my teen years. (I’m 37 yo)

Steve Miller
Pittsburgh, PA.

i’m fine with any and all interpretations that arent manifested in real life as harmful, hateful or violent. The wrong child was not written about the boy in the bubble or a gay kid, but was instead the influence of HUGO LARGO[who I was working with at the time], particularly mimi goese, and her particular and brilliant flair of singing and writing[the double tracked lead voc was at one point going to be mimi or mike]. I just wrote it about a kid who is physically handicapped, and left it purposely undefined.

In New Test Leper, what is the test? Why is the protagonist under attack, and by whom (various opinions on this were posted in response to Matthew’s review)?

The test is short for testament, the new testament of the bible being the reference. Also of course to be tested. The protagonist as I wrote it was inspired by a transvestite on a tv talk show trying to explain and defend her choices and orientation. It was painful to watch her basically humiliated simply by the decision to be on the show. And with commercial breaks. I couldn’t imagine what was said when they were off camera. Glaring horrible studio lighting.

In Around the Sun, you sing, ‘I wish the followers would lead.’ I’d love to know what you were getting at with that, and how it relates to the lyrics that precede it.

well that’s a pretty broad statement, intentionally written very simply so it could be taken any number of ways. Politically i’m amazed at the difference between the USA and European countries, one of which treats its political leaders as elected employees who are not above reproach or true criticism; and the other who treat their leaders as someone who, by becoming elected, ascend to a position of moral and legal authority. USA being the latter

From Can’t Get There From Here, there is an ambiguous line just before “Brother Ray can sing my song.” It sounds like: “Trish is sure to serve the beer now.” Is this correct?

tris is sure to shir[sp?] the deers out. Its a friend chris’ nickname, and his ability to whistle to attract deer

Hey, These are the questions i would like to ask Mr stipe.
Thank you so much for this
1.In World Leader pretend the studio version why isnt there the ”We live, as we dream, alone. To break the spell we mix with the others. We are not born in isolation. But sometimes it seems that way. We live, as we dream, alone” like there is in the live DVD Tourfilm. was that a just alittle added verse for the preformance at that time?

that’s a great GANG OF FOUR song, and the beating on the chair in that song is something I lifted from them. I’m pretty sure the song is called, ‘we live as we dream, alone’ and may be from a joseph conrad novel.

2. There is a song on Green called “untitled” what was your thoughts on a possible title at the time? Was there a working title for the eleventh untitled song from Green? I heard it was So awake, Volunteer. Any others?

at the time it was really cool to have unlisted, ‘hidden’ tracks for the fans, and that was ours. Its untitled because we just pretended like it didn’t exist. I really wrote it to my Mom and Dad, from the road. We basically toured the entire 1980’s and I didn’t see my family much.

Hi Michael, much love from Memphis & hoping this finds you well.
A general question: you’ve intimated in interviews that the first two R.E.M. albums essentially had no real lyrics (something which you just alluded to in mention of the chorus to”Orange Crush”). Did the lyrics to the songs on those two albums eventually stick or do they continue to evolve for you over time with repeated performances?

those songs were mostly written to be sung live. The pa systems were so crap that no one could ever really hear the singer anyway, including the singer. We just never intended to make records, and then suddenly we were making records and the songs were in my head like that, so we just blurred the vocal and turned it way down. The songs that do have words don’t really make any or much sense, it was about creating a feeling and emotion in the room in the moment. As it turns out the records turned out pretty great too, just inscrutable. I had to learn pretty fast how to write a good or great lyric after that. Please don’t analyze them, there’s nothing but feeling there. Sing along and make it up, that’s what I still do.

Encore: Ask Michael Stipe!

September 11, 2008

Okay, everybody. I went through all the songs and I said my goodbyes, but it’s not time to turn on the house lights just yet. Oh yes, it’s time for an encore!

This is sort of mind-blowing for me, but Michael Stipe has volunteered to spend some time answering questions from me — and from you — about the songs and his lyrics. Here are some guidelines, in his own words:

Remember that I’m not the best at recalling studio memories, etcetera, and so the more interesting questions for me will be about intention and exact lyrics or my interpretation of what I meant, what I think I meant, whatever.  Remember also that some songs have no real lyrics [chorus of orange crush comes to mind] and so I cannot answer those.

We hope to have Michael answering questions, maybe a few a day for a couple weeks, starting sometime next week. All you have to do is email your questions to me, and I will have them sent along.  To keep things fair and to make this easier on Michael, let’s stick to a maximum of two questions per reader. Michael is going to be selecting the questions that he answers, and this will be within the limits of his available time, so there is no guarantee that every question will be used. If you are a regular commenter here, please include your handle in the email.

Please send your questions to: popsongs08 @

I hope you’re as excited as I am about this!

Well, it’s all over for now. The original mission of this site is completed, and I have written an entry for every song on every R.E.M. record that existed as of March 2007, plus every non-album track that I deemed worthy of consideration. I am generally quite proud of the results, and some of my favorite writing that I’ve done in the past few years has appeared on this site.

A lot of my favorite posts here are the ones in which I arrive at an idea about a song, or discover something in a song that I probably wouldn’t have found if I had never taken on this project, and spent so much time thinking about a body of work that I’d come to take for granted, or just accepted as good and pleasurable without thinking much about why the songs and the band have resonated with me for so many years. 

I will definitely be writing about all of the songs on Accelerate at some point in the future, perhaps at some point in 2009. (I may also hit some songs I missed the first time around.) It’s important that I have some time to let those songs sink in — a lot of what made this site work is that I lived with all the music for quite a while — and I think it’s absolutely crucial to wait for the result (and aftermath) of the 2008 Presidential election to put the lyrics in their proper context. 

This project would not exist were it not for Chris Conroy. I was stuck on writing up a Fluxblog entry, and I asked him what I should write about. He suggested R.E.M., and specifically “Let Me In,” and so I did. I realized that I could probably find something interesting to say about every R.E.M. song, and the thought of doing just that crossed my mind. A few days later, I saw a video by Ze Frank in which he advises his audience to execute every idea they have, and I felt like a gauntlet had been thrown down, and I had no choice but to go for it. I recommend that all of you take Ze Frank‘s advice to heart. 

I would also like to thank my friends Eric Harvey, Bryan Charles, Mike Barthel, J. Edward Keyes, Maura Johnston, Susan Broyles, Karen Broyles, and Hannah Carlen for their feedback and support throughout the life of the project. 

Thanks to Scott Lapatine and the Stereogum crew.  

Thanks to Trent Wolbe and WFMU.

Thanks to Ethan Kaplan and

Thanks to Bertis Downs, David Bell, and everyone at the R.E.M. office. 

Thanks to the readers of this site, most especially the regular commenters. I feel extremely lucky to have had such an amazing bunch of commenters on this site. In addition to being exceptionally civil and well-behaved, I could always count on you all to provide your own thoughtful commentary, bring up interesting bits of trivia, offer words of encouragement, or go off on your own little tangents. You are the most enthusiastic and generous audience a blogger could ever hope for, and I really appreciate your attention and support. 

Thanks most of all to R.E.M. themselves, for doing what they’ve been doing for all these years.

I hope that if I am alive and present for the End Of Days or the Apocalypse or Ragnarok or the Final Crisis Of Man or whatever you want to call it, that no matter how awful and gruesome it gets, it would at least be heralded by the four opening drum rolls of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” 

True to its title, “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” feels simultaneously frantic and carefree, with its rapid-fire vocals and brisk tempo offset by some exceptionally crisp guitar parts, and a fairly relaxed harmony vocal that confronts what seems to be an imminent global catastrophe with a cool, deapan remark: “It’s time I had some time alone.” Maybe it’s best to take the song as a sort of default state of mind for living in a world that seems to be in a state of perpetual crisis, and from any number of perspectives always seems to be moving in the wrong direction. Crucially, the band are not singing about The End of the World, but rather the end of the world that we know, which is much more accurate and reflective of the shifting contexts that shape our understanding of the overwhelming number of things that happen on the planet every moment of every day. You can blame the media for “information overload,” but if anything, the media pares down what we could see and know into something more manageable. The song takes in just a bit of what is going on around the singer and what is inside the singer’s head, and the result is a bit of panic, a bit of resignation, and a bit of contentment. There’s a sense of scale in the lyrics, in which the significance and relative insignificance of things are weighed against one another, and it all comes out feeling equal. Everything matters, and nothing matters. It’s fine.

In the final verse, Michael Stipe describes a dream that he’s had about being at a party where everyone in the room is a famous person with the initials L.B. It’s silly and weird, and it’s a non sequitur in a song full of non sequiturs, but it’s perhaps the most memorable part, and provides its best shout-along moment: “Leonard Bernstein!” In the context of the song, it’s a colorful moment that captures the imagination with extremely specific language, but in the context of the band’s career, it’s one more example of Stipe delving into his unconscious mind for an impression of the world skewed by the imperfect way the human brain processes and categorizes information. In an old interview, Stipe expressed a bit of concern about why some corner of his mind could automatically offer up a list of famous men with the same initials, or why that sort of scenario could come up at all, but really, that’s just part of the beauty of the mind, and of dreaming. I reckon that if there’s any reason he has written about dreams on every record of his career, it’s because they provide our only direct path to the mysterious workings of our own minds, and the baffling pile-up of information, memories, traumas, received wisdom, and images that somehow add up to inform our perspective on the world, and form the basis of our identities.

“What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is your Benzedrine, uh huh.

As the story goes, back in October of 1986, Dan Rather was attacked by two men on Park Avenue in New York City. As the men accosted the famed anchorman, one of them repeatedly asked a puzzling question: “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” It doesn’t really matter so much what actually happened, or what they meant by their strange query. The important thing is that Rather told his version of the story on television, and after that, the event took on a life of its own. Rather’s critics questioned the veracity of the story; some meditated on the attackers’ question as it if were the Riddle of the Sphinx; and this one guy described the episode as “the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century.” More than anything, the “Kenneth?” story became a bit of pop cultural trivia; another strange fragment in a sound bite world.

R.E.M.’s song is not strictly about Rather’s incident, but instead touches on the cultural meaning of the phrase, and the value of esoteric knowledge. Michael Stipe is addressing someone for whom this knowledge is akin to a stimulant — this is a bit vague, but the implication is that he’s in dialogue with a person who relies on controlling information and knowledge as a way of attaining power, and since the market for information shifts constantly, that person is in something of a precarious position. (This person could just as well be Dan Rather himself, given his profession and position of prominence in the media world.)

Tunnel vision from the outsider’s screen.

At its most basic, “Kenneth” is about the tension of media insiders vs. the media’s audience, and our singer is in the uncomfortable position of either being a bitter and ineffectual cog in the media machine, or an outsider who has accrued enough knowledge to understand the workings of that world. In any case, our protagonist here is irritated by the way the media shapes a cultural narrative, and is questioning their motives for revising history, however recent. 

I’ve studied your cartoons, radio, music, tv, movies, magazines.

Though “Kenneth” is a far more political song than anything else on Monster, the lyrics tap into one of the most potent themes on the record: Obsession. In its way, the song is an echo of “Losing My Religion,” with our protagonist ruminating endlessly on his relationship with an entity that barely seems to acknowledge his existence. “Kenneth” is a few steps removed, and places Stipe in the role of the celebrity stalker who develops his own narrative based on information that he finds, and perhaps inserts himself into the story in troubling ways. It’s a disturbing tension; the push and pull of feeling that you are irrelevant and powerless, and laboring under delusions of grandeur. Though it’s easy to relate to the singer of the song, it seems rather obvious that the character is being written as an unreliable narrator. 

Richard said “Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.”

You said that irony was the shackles of youth.

Specifically, I think “Kenneth” is about a frustration with the way the media packaged “Generation X” in a way that deliberately glorified Baby Boomers, and infantilized younger people, and wrote off discontent with established forms of political engagement as cynicism and apathy. (You can see echoes of this in how many people write about “Millenials” in recent years.) The implication here is that the person Stipe is addressing is out of touch, unable to understand this new context, and has invested too much in a narrative that casts their generation as cultural heroes, and vilifies and/or belittles the youth. The most bitter irony of the song is that it is apparent that both sides find it difficult to engage with a version of reality that is not some kind of story. 


Peter Buck is not a guitarist known for his impressive guitar solos, but his lead part on the bridge of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” is particularly inspired. The melody expresses a blank, disappointed form of melancholy, but it’s all rather understated and fluid even though it’s being played backwards in the studio recording. Whereas backmasked parts tend to be rather psychedelic and impressionistic, the solo in “Kenneth” has a more literal effect — it sounds as though we are listening to the notes from a reversed perspective. This suits the song’s lyrical themes about the media and outsiders rather nicely.

I never understood, don’t fuck with me, uh huh.

It still amazes me how many radio and television stations have aired — and continue to air — the song without editing out the swear at the end. All those years of “mumbling” finally paid off.

Life and How To Live It

July 22, 2008

1. The opening guitar figure of “Life and How To Live It” is like a lit fuse in slow motion. The fire gradually consumes the wire, and when the song kicks in all at once at the 30 second mark — KA-BOOM.

2. The opening line is “burn bright through the night,” which may help to explain why I can only imagine this song visually in terms of hot light contrasted with total darkness. In addition to the fuse imagery, I have long associated “Life and How To Live It” with a county fair or amusement park at night. I have no idea how this ever got in my head — some of you may recall that I have a similar though somewhat more literal interpretation of “Carnival Of Sorts” — but it’s in there, and it’s probably never going away.

3. The first time I saw R.E.M. perform this song was at Madison Square Garden in 2003. It was the first song in the encore. I remember the lights going out, then some flicker of strobe light as Peter Buck began the song. I’m not sure if that’s actually accurate, but it’s what I remember in my mind’s eye. When I think of this moment, I see it in black and white. I didn’t realize what Peter was playing right away, and it had never occurred to me that it would be in the setlist. I was stunned.

4. “Life and How To Live It” reveals itself in concert. It gets wilder, faster, and more cathartic. The moments of the composition that feel euphoric on the studio recording sound absolutely unhinged in live performance. Whereas the version of the song on Fables of the Reconstruction capably simulates the manic state of the song’s deranged protagonist, its live incarnation finds the entire band taking a method approach, and fully inhabiting his ecstatic madness.

5. “Life and How To Live It” is based on the true story of Brev Mekis, a schizophrenic man from Athens who split his home into two sides, each with a totally different set of furniture, books, clothing, pets, etc. He would live on one side for a while, and then switch to the other, and back again. After he passed away, it was discovered that he had a few hundred copies of a book he had written outlining his philosophy published by a vanity press hidden away on one side of his house. The book was titled Life: How To Live.

6. The majority of the songs on Fables of the Reconstruction are concerned with older, unknowable men who in some way retreat from the world around them. Whereas the other tracks describe a man’s actions from the outside looking in, “Life and How To Live It” is written from the perspective of its subject. I doubt that this was a deliberate decision, but it would make sense that Michael would relate to Mekis’ radical compartmentalization of his life. Most obviously, Mekis’ lifestyle is roughly analogous to that of a touring musician — time is split between two distinct ways of living, each accentuating a different state of mind. Ultimately, both sides feed into the other, arguably giving the person a more varied and rich life experience. (Also, one could make an interesting argument that the song reflects Michael’s sexual confusion as a young man, and the intentionally separated home represent life in and out of the closet.)

7. It helps to think of the song’s arrangement in the context of its lyrics: Michael is singing about a man running around and hollering as a structure is being built. Bill Berry lays the foundation of the building, and holds the piece together as Peter’s parts give it substance, color, and shape. Mike Mills’ bass part is the most dynamic element — it darts, climbs, and leaps around and through the form of the song, as if to represent Mekis’ frenzied state as his vision of an ideal life takes shape before his eyes. Mills’ bass lines in the song are crucial to the success of the composition, and are essential to its feeling of constant frenetic movement and elation.

8. All four members of the band get at least one moment in the song when their respective contribution seems to pop outside the bounds of the composition. (For one example, consider the way Peter’s guitar part seems to bounce up dramatically in the chorus.) This is brilliant, not simply because it makes for a ridiculously exciting piece of music, but because it allows each of the musicians an opportunity to channel the character’s joyous lunacy. For a song about a bizarre loner, there is not even a trace of alienation or condemnation in “Life and How To Live It.” Truly, every aspect of the song respects its subject’s skewed vision, and throws itself headlong into his creativity, pleasure, and unwavering faith.

I Believe

July 19, 2008

If R.E.M. has a credo, it is most certainly “I Believe.” Though the song has its share of self-deprecating jokes and baffling Michael Stipe-isms, it is essentially a litany of virtues and aphorisms that inform the band’s outlook on politics and life in general. It’s earnest, but it’s also rather playful. One of the best tricks in the song is the way Stipe strings together aphorisms until they collapse into nonsense, which has the curious effect of making the listener reflect on the actual meaning of cliches that normally go in one ear and out the other. Some may take Stipe’s humor and obscure language as a sign of immaturity and a need to cling to inscrutability like a security blanket, but it’s actually essential to the piece, not simply because it keeps the lyrics from getting too Pollyanna-ish and preachy, but in that Stipe values levity and mystery just as much as change, honor, and “time as an abstract.” 

Stipe sings about his adult convictions in the context of his experiences as a little kid. He recalls childhood illnesses, outdoor adventures, and the moral codes encouraged by scouting, and rather obviously wishes to reconnect with his former innocence and curiosity about the world. At its core, “I Believe” is a song that expresses a desire to regain the idealism of childhood, and to cast off the ethical compromises that mark adulthood. The sentiment of “I Believe” is ultimately rather poignant because both the audience and the singer know the truth: Though you can draw on youthful idealism and do great things, you can’t turn back the clock and become naive again. 

A baffling Michael Stipe-ism note: The line “example is the checker to the key” makes very little sense in or out of context, but according to Marcus Gray’s It Crawled From The South, it is a reference to Michael’s car at the time — a checkered cab.

You know that oft-quoted Brian Eno line about how the Velvet Underground‘s first album sold about a thousand copies when it was released, but everyone that heard it went out and started a band? R.E.M. are not one of those bands, but rather the progeny of that first wave of Velvet Underground acolytes. I’m pretty sure that the band, and most especially Peter Buck, were acutely aware of this lineage, and it comes through in all of the band’s VU covers.  Like a majority of R.E.M.’s cover versions in the ’80s, their arrangements for Velvet Underground tunes seemed intent on reverse-engineering them in order to uncover their connections to the mainstream pop of the 50s and early 60s, kinda like a form of musical genealogy. This is especially true of their take on “There She Goes Again” from the Velvets’ debut album — stripped of Lou Reed’s tough guy/poet affectations, the song is neat and streamlined into pure bubblegum.

“Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale” are a slightly different matter. For both songs, the arrangements are reasonably close approximations of the Velvet Underground versions, but Michael Stipe’s approach to the vocals is rather sentimental and straight-forward compared to the original performances by Reed and Nico, respectively. I actually heard R.E.M.’s version of “Femme Fatale” before I’d encountered the VU recording, and I’ve got to tell you, I was pretty surprised when I realized that Stipe’s performance was a lot more traditionally feminine than Nico’s aloof Teutonic intonation. Stipe’s versions eliminate the more subversive qualities of the songs, but I have to be honest — I’ve always found his take on both songs to be far more emotionally affecting.

It’s a shame that R.E.M.’s best and most interesting Velvet Underground cover was never tracked in a studio. “After Hours,” a gem from the Velvets’ self-titled album, is a lonely, melancholy song about fantasizing about the fun and glamor in other peoples’ lives, but as covered by R.E.M., it’s all goof and fluff. It’s a rare case of a band gutting the most emotionally affecting aspects of a song, investing it with a completely different meaning, and making it work. In R.E.M.’s context, “After Hours” was their cheeky farewell song, the thing they played at the end of a majority of their concerts in the late 80s. They recast the tune as a music hall/cabaret showstopper, and often allowed the song to collapse upon itself in multiple fake-out endings. I can’t imagine how fun it must have been to see the band end their shows in this way — silly, giddy, humble, weird, and a tiny bit sad. Seeing in that it’s probably never going to be performed by the band ever again, I can only hope to experience it vicariously via the ending of the Tourfilm video.

I Wanted To Be Wrong

June 30, 2008

I looked over the entries for all of the Around The Sun songs, and I was a bit sad to realize just how much I’ve slammed that album over the course of doing this project. My opinions haven’t really changed — I may have overstated my distaste for “Leaving New York” and “Final Straw,” but let’s face it, even if I give them a bit more credit, I am not ever going to love those songs. However, I would like for you to come away from this knowing that while I can’t fully endorse Around The Sun, I don’t think it’s a total failure. If anything, the frustration of the album comes from the fact that it’s a mixed bag, and a few really great songs have to share space with half-baked duds and unsuccessful experiments.

“I Wanted To Be Wrong” is one of the album’s unqualified successes. It’s a slow, pretty folk-pop ballad that attempts to reconcile a strong feeling of alienation from George W. Bush’s America and a sense of obligation to feel empathy for people the singer views as a destructive influence on his country and the world at large. It’s a very conflicted song, but it’s surprisingly low on angst — if anything, it comes across like a defeated shrug. There is certainly some anger in the lyrics, but it’s stifled and buried as the singer looks around, struggling to understand a culture that he barely recognizes, and openly rejects his identity and ideals. He’s trying to be fair, he’s trying not to be judgmental, but he can’t help it. Ultimately, his empathy is strained, but his frustration eventually hardens into the righteous, empowered fury of Accelerate.

You Are The Everything

June 24, 2008

“You Are The Everything” is a rarity in the R.E.M. catalog, at least in the sense that it’s one of very few songs Michael Stipe has written that expresses a deep fear of the future. At the start of each verse, the singer nakedly declares his anxiety, and pointedly, it applies to both himself and the world around him. Rather than to elaborate on this dread, he copes by “eviscerating” his memory and revisits a moment of beauty and tranquility from his past. Stipe’s flashback in the first (and third, it repeats) verse ranks among his finest achievements as a lyricist; he sets the scene with language so precise and evocative that I would not blame anyone if they had ever confused it with one of their own childhood memories.

“You Are The Everything” is a clear turning point in the R.E.M. songbook, both musically and lyrically. Most obviously, the arrangement anticipates the emphasis on acoustic instrumentation that would come to define both Out Of Time and Automatic For The People. Lyrically, the song falls in the context of the overtly political writing on Lifes Rich Pageant, Document, and Green while deliberately diminishing the Big Picture in favor of a smaller, more personal narrative. It’s a love song, but not in the traditional romantic sense. It’s the sort of love you feel for your parents and your family, or your best friends, or maybe in your best moments, humanity at large. “You Are The Everything” is  the heart and soul of Green; the song that gets to the core of why a person may feel compelled to try to make the world around them a better place.


June 17, 2008

“Photograph” was written for Automatic For The People, but for whatever reason, it was abandoned and completed later on with Natalie Merchant for inclusion on the pro-choice benefit album Born To Choose. (This was a pretty nice record, by the way — it also featured a spirited live recording of the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” by Matthew Sweet, and “Greenlander,” one of Pavement’s all-time best non-album tracks.) Stylistically, it’s more or less exactly what a somewhat cynical person might expect of R.E.M. in the early ’90s: Mid-tempo yet perky, and almost a bit too tasteful in its arrangement. The song is very well crafted and incredibly ingratiating, but it’s not hard to understand why it was cast aside — it’s a bit too neutral in tone for Automatic For The People, and it’s perhaps one step too far into inoffensive, toothless coffee shop pop.

Despite only contributing some backing vocals and co-writing the lyrics, Natalie Merchant has a rather overpowering presence on the track, to the point that its general aesthetic edges closer to that of her band the 10,000 Maniacs than R.E.M. This is most apparent in the lyrics, which speculate on the life of some smiling stranger in a photograph found by chance. It’s a nice, albeit extremely precious concept, but many of the lines fall flat due to Merchant’s penchant for a plain-spoken obviousness. Her approach is accessible and pleasant, but it’s not particularly poetic or charming, and the end product comes out seeming a bit flat and overly twee, especially in comparison to the majority of Stipe’s output in that period.

Country Feedback

June 16, 2008

A lot of the time, when we think back on traumatic events, our memory holds on to the odd, seemingly trivial fragments. “Country Feedback” is partially comprised of these sort of random, evocative images; some of them come across like flashes of painful memories, the rest are the bits of scenery you may get a fix on when you can’t bear to look someone in the eye. On the printed page, they seem like non-sequiturs, but in song, they resonate, and not simply because they are stunning bits of language. (I’m particularly fond of “a paper weight, a junk garage, a winter rain, a honey pot.”) We can intuit the personal meaning, and project what we need on to these bits to make the song our own.

The remainder of the song’s lyrics are disarmingly straight-forward. Out Of Time is an album of love songs, and “Country Feedback” is love’s bitter end. Blame is passed back and forth, guilt and confusion do the singer’s head in, and he’s left battered and broken, simultaneously lamenting a million mistakes and clinging to the past. He says that he needs the relationship, but it’s plain as day: What he wants and what he needs has been confused. 

The arrangement for “Country Feedback” is more or less exactly what the title suggests: It’s a country dirge paired with a mournful electric guitar part by Peter Buck that recalls Neil Young at his most despondent. In live performance, Buck’s solo at the conclusion is extended significantly, drawing out the pain until it fades into resignation. Otherwise, the music is rather static, leaving Michael Stipe to provide the key dynamic shifts. 

A goofy note: 

Matthew Perpetua: I’m doing a big one today — “Country Feedback”

marathonpacks: Whoa

Matthew Perpetua: Or wait…
is it “Country Feedbag”?

marathonpacks: I think it’s “Country Feedbag”

Matthew Perpetua: I am pretty sure that Michael Stipe wrote it about the closing of a beloved all-you-can-eat country buffet
“it’s crazy what you could’ve had — ribs, chicken, greens!”

So. Central Rain

June 15, 2008

Despite its title, I’ve always associated “So. Central Rain” with wide open blue skies. Here’s my explanation: The song doesn’t take place during the storm; it’s in the time immediately after the deluge.

That’s Reckoning for you — nearly every song on the record in some way deals with the aftermath of an event, and at least half of them are traumatic. It’s an album about mourning your losses, taking stock of changes, owning up to guilt, and, in the end, moving on. In this way, the recurring theme of water in the lyrics is extremely appropriate. Just as with the fire of Document, the floods of Reckoning are destructive, but also purifying. There may be panic and trauma on Reckoning, but it’s ultimately a record about finding maturity after a period of chaos. 

“So. Central Rain” revisits the theme of communication from Murmur, but it’s notable that the inability to communicate has nothing to do with the singer’s social awkwardness, and everything to do with circumstance: The phones are down. Even aside from the chorus (“I’m sorry!”), a sense of guilt permeates every lyric and melodic turn in the song, implying that the anxiety related to the missed phone calls is symptomatic of a nagging conscience. The composition chugs along with a mellow grace — I suppose the body of the song could be described as ersatz country rock meets ersatz R&B — but it eventually reaches a sudden, cathartic vamp that rivals only “You” from Monster as being the most angst-ridden finale in the R.E.M. discography.

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” has a utility in R.E.M.’s live repertoire, and it’s been the same since very, very early on in their career: You are getting rained on, and they are playing the song because they kinda feel bad for you. It’s a bit funny, it’s a bit jerky. Earlier this evening I happened to be at an R.E.M. show that was delayed by a severe, torrential rain storm. Inevitably, they started the show with the song, and then it kept raining and it didn’t stop until the final notes of the last song of the night. In case you were wondering: Yes, I most definitely saw the rain.

Imitation Of Life

June 14, 2008

“Imitation Of Life,” a song trapped in the middle of an album that could not decide whether it wanted to be space-age pop or a sun-soaked vacation in affluence and muted neuroses, is so close to the classic archetype of an R.E.M. composition that it sounds almost as though the band deliberately tried to write something that sounded like themselves. Given the limited commercial potential for the other songs on Reveal, it seems somewhat likely that the band felt the pressure to deliver a sure-fire single. It’s just as likely that they — consciously or not — needed a song that grounded the record, and tied its more experimental moments to their earlier work. It definitely does the trick. If you have any love for IRS-era R.E.M., the song’s jangly guitars and lush harmonies have a sort of Pavlovian effect, making it easy to like, even if you can’t quite connect to it on an emotional level.

Lyrically, the song comes across as late period Michael Stipe boilerplate; another in his series of pep talk songs directed to frightened and confused younger listeners. “Imitation Of Life” has a pleasant sentiment and some nice imagery — I’m particularly fond of the references to literally sweet things in the chorus — but like the rest of the song, it can’t help but feel a bit recycled and overly familiar. (Almost as if to prove my point that the lyrics are Stipe-ish to the point of self-parody, the message of the song has essentially been re-written as “Supernatural Superserious” on Accelerate.)