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. 

30 Responses to “Ask Michael Stipe #3”

  1. Paul Alferink Says:

    This post appearred, disappeared, and appearred again. If that apparition just appeared,Took you up and away from this place . . .

  2. Matheus Says:

    Wow! I wasn’t expecting to get more answers so soon. I guess Michael is having some fun answering our questions!

    Thanks again!

  3. Paul Cosgrave Says:

    I’m really enjoying reading this Q&A with Michael. It’s a wonderful thing for him to do for his, and R.E.M.’s fans.

  4. protimoi Says:

    The second verse of ‘Chorus and the Ring’ is my favorite lyric of all time, ever. Glad he ranks it so highly too!

  5. Dark Bob Says:

    The second verse to Chorus and the ring was used in the beginning of Country Feedback when I saw them live, gave me chills.

  6. Liva Says:

    keep the awesome questions coming, it’s really interesting to find out the stories behind the songs. thank you Matthew and thank you Michael!

  7. Flor Says:

    Anyone know what the “I’ll believe in anything when I’m there”-thing is? I remember it’s on Tourfilm as an intro to a song… I want to say “I Believe”?

  8. Paul Alferink Says:

    There is an intro to Believe. It’s a snippet of a song called “Future’s Forty (String of Pearls)”

    The lyrics go:
    Hey there, man, I’m making moves and
    I am so much stronger.
    I am so much stronger than you.
    Everybody thinks the way that we thought
    We thought ahead and look what we got
    I did not invent this world
    call my words a string of pearls
    and you will find the sheen loses all its luster.

  9. Jared W Says:

    “It’s just my take on it, and that’s secondary to yours.” How awesome is that.

  10. Susan Says:

    Hi Michael, Listening to ‘Leave’ helps me to remember and really know who I Am – Thank you for touching my soul with this one! Paradoxically, I get a sense of All is One (and nowhere else to go) if that’s the case? Is this (most beautiful) song resonant with a realisation of non-duality and inner connectedness with all? And, because everything is within that – could it be about Bill Berry too?:-)

    All Love


  11. ScottMalobisky Says:

    right, Flor, that’s before I Believe, along with the “Hey Man, I’m making moves ….” thing….in Tourfilm.

  12. Amanita Says:

    …I’ll believe in anything when I’m there
    I’m certain I’ve said that before. etc

    is the intro to I Believe on Tourfilm.
    wow! impressed about Michael’s answers, my Question wasn’t in there though…

  13. There’s a lot of questions coming in, and Michael is taking them in batches. If yours hasn’t been answered yet, it may not have been in a recent batch.

  14. Kirsten Says:

    Mine neither Amanita 😦 , but imagine how many questions he must have to sift through….

    These are fantastic questions, guys. I was worried we were all going to ask the same 4 or 5 questions. Michael’s answers have been awesome. Will have to add “Firehouse on Prince Ave” to my places to visit one day…..

  15. maclure Says:

    Yeah, me neither. 😦 But I’m not too bothered. I once managed to ask Peter Buck a question on a live webchat – that’ll do for my claim to fame. Actually, the questions people are asking are excellent as are the answers. MS is being very gracious to us. The weird thing is it makes this blog into a lot more than the sum of its parts (as Matthew intended it, I imagine). It’s now an authoritative artefact on the meaning behind REM songs. Awesome.

  16. Heyberto Says:

    He did half of my submission… pretty cool… great that he’s doing this..

  17. Kirsten Says:

    I can’t believe he’s wasting his time on us. Am I the only one finding this increadably humbling?

  18. Dark Bob Says:

    Check out the blurb on REMHQ regarding this blog. Damn this is fun!

  19. Kirsten Says:

    I feel like we’re about to get invaded Dark Bob.

  20. Susan Says:

    Thank You Michael
    Big smiles
    All Love
    Susan x

  21. Sara from Italy Says:

    What can I say??? Just thank you Matthew and thank you Michael! Questions are really interesting!

  22. Laura (Maybelline Eyes) Says:

    Thanks Michael for all your replies. Thanks Matthew for the opportunity of asking Michael the questions. It’s been interesting reading all your lyric interpretations too, and while some differ wildly from what i imagine i think it’s great that you had a go at them all!

  23. […] top it all off, Matthew has managed to get Michael Stipe on board this week for an ongoing series of posts as Michael has been responding to emails sent in to Pop Songs. It’s […]

  24. Figgy Says:

    Yes, Kirsten and Dark Bob. It does kinda feel like we’re about to be invaded. The rest of the world is hearing about the precious ‘popsongs’ site and there’s gonna be a stampede through the doors! It all good though.
    I must say, I’m enjoying the JMS Q&A sessions. Nice of him to do it and even though my own questions haven’t appeared, I don’t really mind. The ones we’ve seen so far have made great reading. Looking forward to the next installments.

  25. Timb Says:

    Way to go Matthew – you got a banner on the REMHQ frontpage 😀

    Actually is it a banner or an ad. Either way its a plug…

  26. ADB Says:

    Well, I go away on holiday and come back to find all this! A fantastic way to end what has been a fantastic blog. Just wanted to add my thanks to Matthew and to all the people who’ve contributed – this has been my favourite site to visit for the last year and a bit. Cheers guys! Right, better get my thinking cap on for some questions to ask JMS…

  27. ScottMalobisky Says:

    it’s too late to fall in love with Sharon tate
    ain’t no one left that I even wanna imitate

  28. Bruno Says:

    This whole experience is very questionable.

  29. Heyberto Says:

    Not to toot my own horn, but I wonder if Michael decided to get the band to play Sing for the Submarine as a result of my question that he answered in the second batch of questions? That’s awesome that they played it either way!

  30. johnny lawless Says:

    the snippet is from ‘New As Life’ by Tristan Tom.

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