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 


23 Responses to “Ask Michael Stipe #5”

  1. MAB Says:

    “Up” is brave, bold, and brilliant work. F@#k the critics and pop culture in the states. Thank you Michael.

  2. Kirsten Says:

    “You said you felt the lifting” – I thought it was “You said you found the lifting”. either way, I also prefer that lyric.

  3. protimoi Says:

    Oh damn, meant to ask him about the “jury’s half black, prosecutor’s gay” line in “Diminished” and only available on one version of Up!

    Oh well, i still piss myself reading all his thoughts. I really like what The Lifting means, a little different from my original interpretation but wow.

  4. sue Says:

    some more great questions and answers. my favourite album is up, and i was going to send in a question about falls to climb (but didn’t want to be greedy, as i’d already sent in two and had them answered!) the connection with the lottery is very interesting…such a thought-provoking story.

  5. MAB Says:

    Protimoi, where in Diminished does the protagonist state “the jury’s half black prosecutor’s gay”? Sorry I can’t find that anywhere.

  6. Paul Alferink Says:

    When he says Accerate is very different from the two records flanking it, does he mean Around the Sun and whatever comes next, or did he use the wrong word and mean Around the Sun and Reveal? It’s interesting to know that the next album is very different.

  7. Kat Says:

    so glad about the Falls to Climb question & answer; just what i thought but was sure i had understood it all wrong. my absolute favourite, now even more so.

    also love the inside to Walk Unafraid; such a special, special song.
    and me too protimoi, wet myself with some of Michael´s answers. no need but i´ll say it anyway; funny, funny man.

  8. MAB Says:


    I believe Michael is referring to the amount of time invested in the studio mixing Reveal and ATS coupled with the softer rock of the two records. The objective of Accelerate was not only to rock and record quickly and from the heart while minimizing the studio mix.
    Hope that helps.


  9. It’s only after reading that Michael writes his lyrics on a computer that I realized my unconscious picture of all songwriters is that they scribble their lyrics on a notepad or torn sheet of paper or napkin or something. Why would I think that?

  10. Jamie Says:

    The line “jury’s half black, prosecutor’s gay” from Diminished was on the DVD-A version of Up.

  11. Figgy Says:

    @ Paul A and MAB:
    I’m sure Michael was referring to the two albums that flank MONSTER (i.e. Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi Fi).

  12. Paul Alferink Says:

    Thanks Figgy. I got confused as two what album he was talking about. Monster makes sense.

  13. […] Ask Michael Stipe #5 Here is another batch of answers! There is going to be one more of these posts, so you should probably not send in any […] […]

  14. Figgy Says:

    Interesting question about ‘Fretless’! Was that Bisky by any chance?

  15. ScottMalobisky Says:

    the vocal on Patti Smith’s elegie is incredibly spine-tingling up the neck
    idea for Smith/Stipe collaboration to be called Horses To Water

  16. ScottMalobisky Says:

    no 🙂

  17. Paul Alferink Says:

    So if Stipe is the Spelling Bee Champion and Mills is the dictionary, what does that make Buck and Berry?

  18. Figgy Says:

    Heh, heh. Only joking, Scott. I knew it wasn’t your question. I’m glad you laughed and also relieved that I caused no offence!

  19. Kirsten Says:


  20. ScottMalobisky Says:

    The words between the lines of ages.

  21. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Hey Michael, can you bail me out?

    Just give me 100K of your hard earned and well deserved dollars, no questions asked, no controls or oversight required, and I promise to pay my debt so everybody can breathe a sigh of relief…….Trust me on this (even though I’m the one who got myself into this mess). It’s only right that you–the hard worker that you are– should bail my incompetent elitist ass out.

    “Tie another one to my back , Baby…”

  22. ScottMalobisky Says:

    jms got me saying “truth” now, new habit, not enough that I writhe in public though without that level of profound svelte slinkiness……truth

  23. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Free Money new theme song for Wall Street. Proposed theme song by me , Horses Ass To Jail.
    REM moment at debate, McCain said, “Can’t get there from here.”

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