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.


13 Responses to “Ask Michael Stipe #2”

  1. Dark Bob Says:

    A great big THANK YOU to Michael Stipe for being so generous and kind to his fans. The Man is a class act.

  2. Ben Says:

    Cool! He answered my question! Mine is the one about “Low Desert”, the song with maybe my favorite Stipe lyric ever: “The mountains yawn, the clouds let out a sigh”. I have no idea why I love that line so much, I just do.

    Thanks, Michael.

  3. Timb Says:

    Aaaaaaaaahhhh OMG he answered my question *faints*

    This is so awesome, thanks Michael and Matthew 😀

  4. Wezzo Says:

    Wow, a lot of questions answered. He’s certainly being generous with his time! This is so interesting..

  5. Ilona Says:

    Michael, thank you so much for your delightful willingness to share your thoughts and by that a part of your world with us.

    You definitely enrich this wonderful world.. may all life’s passing seasons bring the best to you and yours!

  6. sue Says:

    some fascinating questions and answers here. i particularly like the good advices and low desert question/answer. they are two of my favourite r.e.m. songs.

  7. ScottMalobisky Says:

    utterly intriguing
    and only getting better

  8. ScottMalobisky Says:

    and now when I listen to Low Desert I envision the spirit of the victim rising out of the body during the guitar solo, hovering briefly, then flying away……

  9. Terry Knouff Says:

    Thanks Matthew and Michael, your a couple of classy guys ! encore, encore !

  10. Kirsten Says:

    Way to avoid the Watertower question Michael!

    Gotta agree with Ben on Low Desert. Beautiful lyrics that evoke such imagery of (my impression of) American deserts.

    I think the “he” in “he’s alive, he’s alive” in Supernatural Superserious is the same as “I’m alive, I’m alive”.

    In relation to what Michael said about Saturn Returns: One of my favourite lyrics is “roses a dollar a stem”. I can’t believe so many of you don’t like that song – the music just creates this feeling of vastness and outter space and the lyrics are brilliant.

  11. I feel like Saturn Return is one of the songs I came to enjoy more because of doing this site, and like a bit more now than I did when I wrote the original entry.

  12. protimoi Says:

    I submitted the Boy In The Well question, and although Michael’s answer was cryptic and confusing to me, I still am glad I got through! Such a fucking cool idea, Matthew.

  13. steve Says:

    Michael replied:
    “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.”

    So I looked it up and could only find that maybe he meant “neoprene” instead of neopryn. Other than that I’m lost.

    Where some would say it’s a misspelling, I consider it artistic license.

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