Giants of the 20th Century
November 23, 2021 6:23 AM   Subscribe

Michael Stipe is Present (A November 2021 interview with David Peisner of The Bitter Southerner)
posted by box (25 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
This is fantastic. Thank you for posting it!
posted by minsies at 7:20 AM on November 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

That is a really great profile, and I really like Peisner's perspective.

It's also delightful to hear from a musician who appreciates that the art they created was really good. " “I’m very proud of what we did as a band, and I’m very proud of my contributions to our successes and our failures,” he says." That's wonderful.

I'm so glad he's rediscovering his pleasure in singing.

Thank you so much for posting this, box!
posted by kristi at 8:00 AM on November 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

I also played with pillbugs in the mud as a child, but I don't know if they've evolved, or Stipe is just playing with bugs that are molting.

But I always love reading Stipe interviews. They've always got ruminations on the passage of time and stories with gratuitous name-dropping. And it's good to know I can keep wearing white print t-shirts when I'm 60.
posted by credulous at 8:08 AM on November 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Medlock Lane - he must have played in Burnt Fork Creek sometimes, when he wasn't engaged with rolypolys. I was there just this morning! The creek follows a rail corridor for most of its length; so, there has not been development along it, and it is kind of a wildlife refuge because of that.
posted by thelonius at 8:17 AM on November 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is timely.

My fiancee and I went to a REM cover band Saturday night and really enjoyed their chronological-organized set. They opened with "Wolves, Lower"! That was a welcome surprise. They'd been playing REM since the eighties, and they nailed most of the songs.

As good as they were, their set also reminded me just how fucking great REM was.

By the time Peter Buck (the oldest) was was 30, they had recorded:
Chronic Town (1982)
Murmur (1983)
Reckoning (1984)
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
Document (1987)
Green (1988)

This six-year run is freaking incredible. At their peak, they cranked out song after song after song, and almost all of them work. From "Talk About the Passion" to "Turn You Inside Out"?

If memory serves, Eponymous had a sticker on it that said, "REM: The Band You Grew Up With." which captures how a lot of people feel about them, I think.

I also love their stuff from Out of Time onward, too. But after Up, it just doesn't compel in quite the same away. And that's okay, too.

I'm really glad to see a little into how his post-REM life is both an extension of that life and a turn toward something new. Thank you for posting this.
posted by Caxton1476 at 9:10 AM on November 23, 2021 [12 favorites]

chronological-organized set

It's always disorienting for me to talk to fans who haven't listened to the records before Document, and I plead with them to at least check out Chronic Town.

My high school garage band tried to cover "Wolves, Lower". I mean we DID cover it, but I'm just as glad there is no recording.
posted by thelonius at 9:32 AM on November 23, 2021 [8 favorites]

Loved REM back in the day. They were one of the top bands for outsider smart kids in the 80s.

Unfortunately as I aged and heard more about Michael Stipe's attitude toward non-famous people I respected him less and less. The anecdote from Sarah Barron's book, where she waited on his private party for five hours, while he would only speak to the staff through intermediaries...and then didn't tip...was illuminating.

Great band back in the day though.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 9:50 AM on November 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Sometime last year I played all of REM's albums because a) we had all of them on a massive playlist on our server, and b) it was their turn alphabetically on all the artist playlists I spent months creating (we have over 2K albums on our personal server).

I am a Southerner, born and bred. REM existed for me as a band that was very firmly rooted in where I was from, and honestly, aside from fanatic friends who loved them, I just sort of kept them at arm's length. (Most of my teen years were spent with Goth and grunge, etc.)

But man. Playing at entire playlist of their albums was like a goddamn slingshot back to the South. That feel, that aching, that longing, just utterly and completely reminding me of home. It is the South--especially those first few albums. And I felt so homesick and happy and it was strange. My formative years were spent in Greenville, South Carolina, a mere 90 minute drive from Athens. It was not uncommon as I got older for me plus friends (and me solo too) to drive to the 40 Watt for shows, or just spend a day record shopping, thrift shopping, eating french fries with feta dressing at the Grill. I am sure the landscape is different now, but when you turned off the Commerce GA exit off of I-85--you know, where all the outlet malls are--and took the back county roads to Athens, it was weirdly magic. All old houses, fields, the occasional lone Gulf gas station, and at some point along the way, a sea of wrecked cars, glinting in the sun. And when you get closer to Athens' downtown, you have to pass that famous kudzu train trellis seen on Murmur. There is a shade of green in the South that I don't see anywhere else, but it feels spangled with gold and it tells you where you are. And oh god, those songs took me back. I didn't expect to feel so strongly about that sense of place, but dang.

Thanks, REM, for the time travel.
posted by Kitteh at 9:53 AM on November 23, 2021 [27 favorites]

I plead with them to at least check out Chronic Town.

This. Listen to “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)” right now, if you haven’t.

And eveything Kitteh said. I grew up just up the mountain in Asheville and yes, yes, yes.
posted by thivaia at 11:20 AM on November 23, 2021 [6 favorites]

Hey, I didn't know about Chronic Town. Thanks!
posted by djeo at 12:15 PM on November 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

“The voice is the voice,” he says. “I admire it and still almost can’t believe that it comes out of me. I do feel like I’ve been able to offer things to that voice that are important to individuals’ lives or helped someone out of a bad mood one day, or helped put them in a bad mood to realize that they’re not alone in their sadness about this or that thing, whether it’s unrequited love or politics or just some existential fucking crisis that we’re apparently going through on a daily basis now.”

I'm glad to hear him say that. Dabble with photography all you'd like, but do not forget that gift.
posted by superelastic at 1:14 PM on November 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately as I aged and heard more about Michael Stipe's attitude toward non-famous people I respected him less and less. The anecdote from Sarah Barron's book, where she waited on his private party for five hours, while he would only speak to the staff through intermediaries...and then didn't tip...was illuminating.

To me, he comes across in interviews as being really down to earth and self-aware. Bummed to hear that this may not be the case. I get that celebrities can be entitled assholes at times but yikes
posted by treepour at 2:19 PM on November 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I get that celebrities can be entitled assholes at times

I sense that he disappeared into his fame a little bit for a while there. It's happened to literally every great artist I admire who's taken a turn on that merry-go-round. But I gently set that point aside.

I had the privilege of interviewing Michael Stipe about two months ago for a music documentary project I'm working on. I found him to be funny and generous of spirit. I never once asked him a direct question about R.E.M., and perhaps he felt a bit more liberated knowing that wasn't on the agenda. But every single time he brought it up of his own accord, he referred to them as "my former band, R.E.M.," which felt like a gently pointed rhetorical choice.
posted by mykescipark at 2:46 PM on November 23, 2021 [11 favorites]

For me the thing about REM was that their songs seemed to have always existed, had been discovered rather than created. Of course that’s not true, but they seem primal and sometimes slightly feral.
posted by sjswitzer at 5:46 PM on November 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

I teach photography in NYC and a while back I sent students out with view cameras to shoot portraits of strangers. A group came back with a handful of portraits of Michael Stipe with that long white beard. They didn't know who he was but they figured out he might be famous when people started to stop and watch. They said he was very nice asked them lots of questions about their camera.
posted by Drab_Parts at 5:49 PM on November 23, 2021 [12 favorites]

Southern Gothic doesn’t seem exactly right to me, but having REM on in the background while reading Faulkner isn’t the worst idea.
posted by sjswitzer at 5:49 PM on November 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

I lived in Athens on and off from right around when Fables was released up until Green was released. For what it's worth, I heard "Wolves, Lower" in January, 1983 on WVGS (Georgia Southern College, Statesboro, GA) and realized I'd found my tribe among the others I met who were also drawn to this new and strange sound.

I knew Stipe indirectly, mainly because I worked at a place where a lot of people in bands worked, and at the time everyone knew everyone, and the Venn diagram of "band member" and "restaurant worker" was essentially two overlapping circles. The times I met him he seemed nice enough, but that was also at a time when it was starting to get obvious that things were about to really take off for the band. I mean, Green went two times Platinum - those aren't rookie, small indie college town band numbers anymore.

I can see how fame might have made things weird for him, at least for a bit. Not doubting the anecdote about him being kind of standoffish to the waitstaff, but that wasn't the person I ever dealt with. I remember that I used to drive by his house (probably the one mentioned in the article) all the time to get to a friend's place, and it was the kind of street where there is a sidewalk, then a few stairs up to a walkway, and then the walkway up to the porch. And just about every time I drove by, someone was sitting on those steps. They might have been reading, or drawing, or sometimes playing a guitar, but he had people sitting on the steps at the end of his walkway, all the time, and they were sitting there because it was his house. You never saw this in front of the houses for the other guys in the band, all of whom still lived in Athens at the time.

So the guy is in his house, probably wanting to maybe walk down the street to see a friend, or get a beer, or maybe something to eat - you still saw the band all around town, all the time - but there is someone sitting on his steps. This was before they had whatever apparatus around them that comes with fame - they were still very much "locals." That would have weirded me out to no end, and I would have gotten a bit standoffish too about dealing with people.

In the end, I mostly stopped listening to them around Life's Rich Pageant. I don't think their later music is bad, but it didn't speak to me in the same way that their earlier stuff did. I still recognize their songs when they come on the radio, though.
posted by ralan at 7:15 PM on November 23, 2021 [8 favorites]

I met a guy in the late 80's who my roommate picked up hitchhiking and became friends with. He was from Vermont and really into reading and organic farming, hippie type but not at all into drugs. Anyway, he had a cassette of Phish, who he was an early superfan of, and I think he was friends with them. I remember he was talking about how great their New Year's Eve show was.....anyway, a couple of years later, he was totally disgusted with them, because of the changes that took place around the band as they became successful. He tried to go backstage and there was security and they wanted ID, that kind of thing. He used to walk back there and visit on his own recognizance, and he did not have an ID.

I did not know anyone in R.E.M's inner circle in the early years, but I have heard talk that a lot of them felt about like that, as they broke.
posted by thelonius at 7:28 PM on November 23, 2021

(laughs) Not every Outsider Smart Kid in the 80s liked R.E.M.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:18 AM on November 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

"I disliked them before it was cool"
posted by thelonius at 5:38 AM on November 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

I'm still not sure how I stumbled onto REM (most likely it was KFOG) but I was definitely hooked from the get-go (had the Chronic Town EP, for sure) and loved the run up until around "Out Of Time." I saw them live once, in the UK, with The Blue Aeroplanes opening (Hammersmith Odeon, 1989) and I though the concert blew chunks. Much preferred listening to REM the way I listened to them as a teenager, curled up and awash in that sound and whatever the hell it was they were saying on Murmur.
posted by chavenet at 6:01 AM on November 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is not a gripe about Stipe, but this journalist's Covid timeline is preposterous:

On February 26, 2020, Stipe went to a Tibet House US benefit concert at Carnegie Hall... At the time, COVID was not much more than a rumor, a potentially dispiriting bit of international news floating in the ether. There were troubling reports coming out of China.

No. China quarantined entire cities on Jan. 23, and announced asymptomatic transmission of the virus on Jan 26. The WHO declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30, by which time the virus had spread to 16 countries, including the US and the UK. Italy declared a six-month state of emergency on Feb. 4.

There were no confirmed cases in New York until March, and I'm not faulting Stipe for going to Carnegie Hall, but the idea that "COVID was not much more than a rumor" in late February is wrong.
posted by oulipian at 8:47 AM on November 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

I disagree that the journalist is offering a preposterous timeline. From that same paragraph:

There were troubling reports coming out of China. There were epidemiologists offering anxious warnings on NPR. But most of us were still happily cocooned in our ignorance, assuming that COVID would go the way of SARS, MERS, and swine flu before it: Frightening public health emergencies that were mostly only emergencies for other people.

In the U.S., this is precisely accurate as to how Americans were treating Covid in Feb 2020.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:00 AM on November 24, 2021 [9 favorites]

I remember hearing an NPR story about Americans stuck in Wuhan that winter. I thought idly, wow, imagine that happening here, and drove home, instead of going to fill my car with toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
posted by thelonius at 9:33 AM on November 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

He left a message on my answering machine about 30 years ago. I still have the tape.

Yeah, I'm a fan.
posted by spilon at 12:21 PM on November 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

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