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 


15 Responses to “Ask Michael Stipe #4”

  1. Brian Says:

    I can’t get enough of this feature. Thanks Matthew. Thanks Michael.

  2. Brian Says:

    Also, poor Paul Weller.

  3. John Says:

    I seem to remember Weller saying some nasty things about REM awhile back, perhaps in response to Peter expressing an unfavorable opinion about The Style Council. So yeah, there’s some animosity there.

  4. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Put a fork in Mccain. Take Obama minus the points…. I don’t really care for either one of them–I mean ,you know, as our Fearless Leader– but I am voting for Obama as a total repudiation of the Bush administration; I just can’t stomach the thought of people losing track of just how grotesquely abyssmal the Bush administration is…Too many folks would ignorantly feel that if Mccain got in, that’s a vindicaton of the Bushwhacker and his Cronies, like, hey I guess it wasn’t that bad ,huh? I think the alarming financial crisis of this past week is really magnifying just how incapable McCain is. Not too crazy about Obama either but I think in this situation the message must be sent of just how disgusted we are with Bush. Just take a chance. Fucking Change !! What a trainwreck! (And both campaigns ought to be ashamed of themselves for the blatant lies in their Spanish language ads to the Hispanic community; I guess the ads are meant for those who do not know English at all, will never hear the perpertrators being called out by journalists with intergrity because they don’t understand English. Shameless pandering that knows no bounds. They’ll never know…)

  5. Timb Says:

    Wow, someone asked a question based on Michael’s answer to one I asked. How cool 🙂

  6. maclure Says:

    Yay, thanks for posting my question MP and thanks for answering JMS… you made my day.

  7. Allan Says:

    Given my age, I remember the Jam and thought they were superb which meant that when The Style Council kicked in, I couldn’t believe that it was the same Paul Weller. The Style Council were shit when they were a going concern (anyone remember their stellar turn at Live Aid? No, thought not) and their legacy is shit X 100 now. The best thing that Mick Talbot did was singing with Dexys Midnight Runners when I saw them a few years ago in Glasgow. The reason I got in to R.E.M. was the alternative they offered to the 1980s crap music that Britain had to suffer in the 1980s. The only good thing about the Style Council is that they haven’t reformed. Rant over.

  8. Aerothorn Says:

    While I’ve been a longtime Pop Songs reader, I fear I may have jumped on this feature a bit late – by the time I sent in my questions (sometime after #2 was posted and before #3) it had been linked to around the net, and I imagine the floodgates had been opened.

    Awesome feature, though.

  9. Justin Says:

    He answered my question! Yay! And he rattled off two of my favorite Patti Smith tunes, too!

    “Chorus and the Ring” has long been a standout track in my mind, both for lyrics and music. To find it’s a eulogy for Burroughs (my favorite author) is a real thrill. Thanks again to Michael for being one of the coolest motherfuckers in rock!

  10. C Says:

    Thanks to Michael for taking the time to answer so many questions, and especially for providing me with some context for Chorus and the Ring. The insight enriches the song, leaving me with even more to consider. Wish I could ask more.

  11. ScottMalobisky Says:

    listening to Houston sounds particularly poignant combined with the images on my TV station of the Galveston area after Ike. Michael called that one…

  12. jeff Says:

    “And syrup? C’mon!”

    Now THAT’S hilarious!

  13. Paul Alferink Says:

    Puts me right off my pancakes, that does.

  14. johnny lawless Says:

    As I recall, the words to that poem were not Michael’s, it was Tristan Tom, and it was called ‘New As Life’.

  15. […] Matthew at Pop Songs 07-08 who managed to score a series of guest posts by Michael Stipe. […]

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