By Chris Heath
What is Michael Stipe least likely to do?
Bill Berry: Marry Brooke Shields.
Peter Buck: Eat pork.
Mike Mills: Play golf.
Michael Stipe: I don't think anything's outside the realm of possibility.
First the usual weirdness. Michael Stipe enters the lobby of New York's Four Seasons hotel carrying half a bottle of water in one hand. In his other hand is a single rose; to my eyes, peach.
"Circus-peanut orange," he corrects me. "It's my favorite color." He selects a quiet, comfy spot, throws down drink and flower, and heads for the bathroom. "I'll be right back after I've urined."
When he returns, presumably having urined satisfactorily, I notice that his fingernails are painted, alternately, blue and orange. I also notice that he is wearing a blue cardigan and an old distressed orange shirt. "They just happen to match my clothes," he protests. "It wasn't intentional."
For a while, Michael Stipe wasn't talking. The first time I met him, on the set of the "Everybody Hurts" video, he was in an official no- interviews mode. It said a lot for Michael that, even though he wouldn't talk, he hid behind no caretakers, he readily shared his Pepperidge Farm goldfish with me, and left me feeling that my desire to know more about him was far more impertinent than his refusal to oblige. After I wrote a story about the making of the video, Michael found my girlfriend's phone number and left a sweet message on her answering machine for me. As pop recluses go, he was a charmingly uncommitted one.
Now he is talking again. The reasons may be practical. Maybe he can clear up the sort of annoying rumors which silence sometimes breeds. Maybe because R.E.M. are following the release of "Monster" with months and months of touring and there would be something absurd and illogical about their singer hiding from the world. But maybe there's a little more than that. The life of Michael Stipe has been changing. The last time he did interviews, in 1991, R.E.M. were college rock favorites, America's most popular cult band, and had just released "Out of Time." "Losing My Religion," the hit from that LP, became the kind of international pop phenomenon the band had never experienced before or since. When the dust settled, Michael Stipe was a cultural figure of a larger kind. If his initial reaction was to respond to this role with silence (message: I am not the sort of person you should look to for answers), he has since begun to explore some of the freedom his new role can bring him.
So today he talks. We start with questions about his past. He polices this district with care--one of the reasons he stopped talking was to avoid all that unsolicited free psychoanalysis-- and inquiries are regularly deflected into areas he finds more comfortable. The following is a partial list of subjects he brings up during the hour I try to unearth details about his childhood: how he used to bite into little flashlight light bulbs when he was a kid to get to the filament; the fact that he gets the shivers just like his late grandmother; the difference a photographer's height makes on his or her style; the theatrical merits of painting your eyebrows.
We talk, and it's pleasant, though I am mildly distracted when--during a story about the time his aunt shaved her eyebrows and they never came back--Michael picks up a pair of sugar tongs and hangs them over his right ear. When I allude to this, he makes the very act of mentioning it seem impossibly uncool. "You're gazing into your coffee," he retaliates, accusingly.
I ask questions, trying to understand him better. It is not always easy. Some things we know already: Born in 1960. Father in the army. Two sisters. They traveled around--lived in Texas and Germany. Michael studied art at college. Became obsessed with Patti Smith. Played in various cover bands before R.E.M. Shaved his head and eyebrows in 1986 because he was depressed. (He shaved his head again recently, this time because his hair is thinning.) Likes photography. Has a film company. And so on. But he has kept the finer details closer to his chest.
What is the first thing you remember?
I had scarlet fever when I was two. I sang about it in "I Believe." I was hallucinating and I was being photographed in a Christmas sweater and it was very hot, and the photographer was coming in and out of focus like the Jack Nicholson acid movies from the 1960's.
You don't just remember it from seeing it in the photograph?
No. I distinctly remember it from being inside my head. But it's interesting you bring that up, because there's something about photography--Susan Sontag wrote about it in "On Photography"-- about how much it has changed out perceptions of memory and nostalgia. Particularly memory. I kind of resent and regret the fact that, along with everyone else in the late twentieth century, I've been photographed so much. It's kind of cool that with Buddy Holly there is just one photograph that we all think of. Buddy Holly apparently hated the photograph. Which would suck.
If there were just one photograph of you, how would it look?
I don't know. It would probably be black and white. At any rate, I have this theory that memory is what we have when we die, the only thing we have, and there's a great deal of energy that's got to go somewhere, and I have a feeling that it might be the gasoline that is our soul that fuels the great beyond or the universal chaos, or whatever it is. Maybe it's just wishful thinking. Maybe it just slips away. I don't think so. If in thirty-four years I've developed anything even remotely leaning toward faith, that would be it.
Which talent do you wish you had?
To debate. I'm not good at pulling in facts, being able to back up what I've said. Debate is like the jewel in the crown of analytical thinking, and it's something I admire. I've had to learn to cherish nonanalytical thought, because it is the movie in which I am the star and I have no choice. Analytical thought is way beyond me. (leans toward me) Do I have bad breath? Are you aware of it?
Um, no. Why do you think you've got bad breath?
I forgot to bring toothpaste to New York.
You can buy it here, you know.
I haven't had time.
The last time we met, you brushed your teeth all day, which seemed rather strange.
I carry a toothbrush. I have bad teeth and food gets stuck in them, and I eat constantly. I think the only thing strange about it is that I'm not afraid to whip my toothbrush out in a restaurant. Everybody brushes their teeth; everybody doesn't brush their teeth at the table. I don't know why they shouldn't. It is quite pleasant.
How would your parents have described you as a child?
Well, I was always a little charmer. I could charm my way in and out of anything. Unfortunately that extended to my education--I didn't really pay attention.
Did you have a nickname at school?
When I was in kindergarten they called me Mike Stipe the Shining Light. And my father would call me Mr. Mouse, because Mighty Mouse was my favorite cartoon.
What did you tell people you wanted to be?
An archaeologist. I loved dinosaurs. And I collected rocks. It seemed cool to travel to wild places and sit around in little dirt pits with little instruments and wear bandannas around your neck and pick away at bones. I liked "Jurassic Park" a lot. That's what I wanted to be. Then when I was fifteen I wanted to be a photographer.
Your father was in the army. Did his job seem weird to you?
Yeah. (looks me straight in the eye) I don't really discuss my childhood that much. The way it has been handled before reduced and cheapened my relationship with my father.
Did your --
I'm getting unbelievable heartburn. I just ate some eggs and I don't usually eat eggs. I wish I could get some Tums.
Do you want to get some?
I'm gonna be okay. Let's carry on.
Did your mother work?
Mm-hmm. Simple work. I don't want to talk about it. The one thing that does occur to a family that moves around a great deal is an intense closeness. We came out of moving around with a cherry on top and an A-plus. You could say the same thing about R.E.M.: Ranks cannot be broken; when we get in a huddle, that's that. It's served us well. We've forged our own path. We've made horrible mistakes, but we can't blame them on anyone else.
What are the mistakes?
(laughs) "Shiny Happy People."
R.E.M. are in New York to do "Saturday Night Live." I talk to them in pairs --- Peter and Bill, Michael and Mike. That's how they're doing it these days. They've done weeks of these interviews. Same questions, same answers. Last autumn R.E.M. released "Monster", which bubbles with a certain turmoil. So they talk about its loud sexiness, and the interviewers gingerly elicit the same responses from Michael--about his late friends River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain; about the fact that he is not HIV-positive; about his status as "of dubious or unpronounced sexuality."
Those questions seem so overasked that, for all R.E.M.'s fine intentions, they can find little more than sound bites to answer or block them. So we talk about other things.
Should members of R.E.M. be allowed to play golf?
Michael Stipe (nongolfer): No. Whatever. I knew them before they were golfers. I don't like golf courses. They're too consistent in texture, and it bothers me. I'd much rather be in a parking lot. Bill Berry (golfer): We're evenly split on this one. It's just a game. It may not be very "rock star," but I'm not a rock star. I'm a golfer who enjoys playing music.
Mike Mills (golfer): I think they should be forced to play golf. To play it well you have to be able to deal with yourself, because that's who you're playing against.
Peter Buck (nongolfer): I'm not going to say anything nasty about golf. I have a standing offer--and I've told this to Bill and Mike--that if they ever do a charity golf thing again, I will get knickers and a tweed cap and, never having touched a golf club in my life, I will take mushrooms and do a full eighteen holes. As long as it's televised.
Michael Stipe tells me about becoming a vegetarian. He'd cooked steak in a restaurant for a year. He was poor, so he'd eat free there: steak, salad bar, cheesecake. The day he walked out, he vowed never to eat steak again. (He still doesn't like cheesecake either.) The moral reasons came later. He just wanted "to get the fuck away from that restaurant."
That night, a few of his coworkers walked out as well, and they went to this girl's house. "It was the basement of one of the waitresses who had really bad teeth. Her parents were upstairs watching TV, and downstairs there was a table with drugs and a bunch of alcohol. I drank sloe gin and threw up all over myself and took my clothes off because they were stained red. This girl deposited me on my parents' front step with no shirt on." His parents woke him up really early the next morning and prepared "the biggest breakfast I'd ever seen--oatmeal, grits, scrambled eggs, biscuits, bacon, sausage, orange juice--and politely urged me to eat everything." He ate the bacon and sausage that morning. And for a while after that he would also eat Kentucky Fried Chicken chicken livers when the band was on tour. One day in North Carolina, he looked at his KFC chicken livers and realized they were gross. He had ordered them, so he ate them, but that was the last time.
Almost. Peter Buck and Bill Berry tell me about the final occasion they saw meat pass Mr. Stipe's lips. R.E.M. were opening for Bow Wow Wow in Denver. Someone threw a pork sausage at the stage and it hit Michael. "And," remembers Peter Buck, "he picked it up and took a bite out of it, just like fuck you. I'm not saying he swallowed it. But who brings a pork sausage to a concert?"
"Someone who doesn't like Michael Stipe," says Bill Berry.
Right now, what do you wish R.E.M. stood for?
Mike Mills: Rest Easy, Mom.
Michael Stipe: Rembrandt--the teeth whitener.
Bill Berry: Really Enjoys Masturbating. Though when "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" came out, Dan Rather said he put us together and that it stands for Rather's Excellent Musicians.
Peter Buck: Rear End Men. We're totally queer.
I follow Michael Stipe to Los Angeles, where he's working on music and undergoing dental work. I visit him at a studio where he is recording a song with Tori Amos for "Don Juan DeMarco and the Centerfold." We are supposed to spend time talking together, but they are running behind so it isn't possible ("I feel like a bad date," he apologizes), and instead I just watch. Perhaps you have wondered what happens when records are made. Sometimes it goes like this: "Come in," he says when I arrive. "We were just talking about cannibalism." Tori Amos sends Michael into the vocal booth. He sings, but too quietly. "I'm stuffed like a pig," he apologizes to her. Then he burps at huge volume. "Why can't you sing as loud as you burp?" demands Amos. He sings the line again. Silence.
"Tor-eeeee?" he inquires.
"Yes-eeeee," she answers.
"It sucked?" he inquires further.
"No, it didn't suck," she says. "It was great. The pitch was kind of funky, but it should be good. . . "
He tries a new harmony.
"Was that a third?" he asks apologetically.
"Yes," she says sternly. "It's okay--we're still friends. I won't pee on you." She turns to me. "I hate thirds," she explains.
Michael returns to the control room; they listen to the playback. "The tone of my voice is so..." -- he pauses, looking for the right words -- "Grand Canyon."
It is Tori's turn to sing. She adds a new counter melody to the chorus.
"It's Moses parting the Red Sea," says Stipe.
"Yeah, it's exactly like that," says Amos dryly.
"It's Charlton Heston in a fright wig," he continues, unbowed.
Stephen Dorff arrives. Michael shows him the sparkly black trousers he took from the Details photo session that morning, and turns around so that Dorff can pull down the back and see the label. Tori goes off to sing some more. Michael instructs her to try an octave higher.
"Are you serious?" she says. "You'll say I'm a new-age Druid."
"I'll allow it," he says. "Enya has left the building."
She sings it again.
"More balls," he says.
"More balls? Like I care about you?"
"Be a redhead."
She tries to follow these instructions.
"I think it's a little precious," he says. "Push the same amount of air but make it a little wilder, and we're on the way to Zaire."
This time she not only follows these instructions to everyone's satisfaction but sings the words "on the way to Zaire." If it makes the final cut, it will be just the thing for generations of Stipeologists to overponder for months at a time.
Tori suggests that it is time to break out the Guinness. Bottles are passed around and the entire song is played.
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"Would you fuck to this, Chris?" she asks me. "I would."
Maybe I would, I say.
"We'll put it on a loop for you," offers Michael.
"I'll wear my rubber dress," she says.
Who is the sexiest member of R.E.M.?
Mike Mills: Me! Because I love me! I think at any given point in the day, one of us is the sexiest man on earth. I've seen every one of us look devastatingly handsome.
Bill Berry: I'd say Bertis, our lawyer.
Michael Stipe: I can't answer that. Certainly not myself. Bill, maybe. Because of the Eyebrow.
Peter Buck: Definitely Michael. He knows how to work it.
Alone with Michael Stipe now, I talk about kissing, dreaming, scheming, dressing up, and Morrissey.
Which kiss will you remember forever?
(thinks a minute) Oh, Ace Frehley. He had the best makeup.
Can you tell me about your dreams?
All my dreams are postapocalyptic. It's mostly destroyed buildings and bombed-out cars and shit. Everything is destroyed but I have complete clarity of vision and complete focus from the absolute foreground to infinity, and I can see every crack in every wall and every leaf on every tree. I've had it since I was a kid. I haven't the foggiest idea what it means. It's disturbing, but when I'm there, it just seems natural.
What is the strangest rumor you have heard about yourself?
That I'm ruthless and calculating.
Do you have any fashion tips?
Why did you write fan letters to Morrissey?
I didn't. I might have sent him a card once or twice, but it was nothing more than "I'll be in London at this hotel on this date and I'd love to meet you." We've spoken about four times. But people got very excited about it: (wryly) the legend that he is and the legend that I am. Kids still come up to me and say "How's Morrissey?" and I say "I haven't spoken to him in three years."
So the wedding plans have been exaggerated?
Yeah. He's a great guy. Not much of a pen pal, but real nice.
The next morning Michael will travel, by limousine, to a suburb called Alhambra to visit his dentist. He invites me along.
"Hello, Walter," he says to the driver.
"Thank you for remembering," replies Walter.
On the way, he buckles himself into the backseat and we discuss Kenny G ("a great mystery"); Bill Clinton ("I feel he's pretty radical still-- more so than popular opinion would allow"); whether Phil Collins could have written "Everybody Hurts" ("But he didn't, did he?); and, eventually, his friends. Most of his friends are, he agrees, artists of one sort or another.
The recording of Monster was punctuated by the death of two: River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain. There are a few details he has been sharing in R.E.M. interviews--enough that he worries he may be cheapening his own memories. The story that sticks in my mind was that Cobain had to end his last telephone conversation with Michael because he was burning a pizza.
I ask about the day River died, and where Michael was, and I quickly realize I am asking more than I should. Michael stares out of the limousine window. "I dont' want to talk about it. It makes me really sad." We pull up in the dentist's parking lot and for a moment Michael Stipe just sits there. "It was just a horrible mistake, his death," he says quietly. "A stupid mistake. There was a difference in him before his death--he had made a very vast change as a person, for the richer-- which made his death more of a shock."
After the appointment Michael Stipe checks his new fillings. Day by day he is having all his silver mercury ones removed, replaced by temporary ones, though eventually--after R.E.M.'s tour--it will all be gold: "Gold doesn't fuck up your body." His dentist plays a '70's radio station: At the moment of the most intense drilling all he could hear was Toto's "Hold the Line."
All the way home, we talk about sex.
You've never really presented yourself as a particularly sexy figure.
No. Why play that card? It's too easy to become a cartoon. Everybody else is trying to, and I don't see any reason to. I've just always had bad skin and wanted to kind of hide behind my hair. I didn't think of myself particularly as frontman material.
Are you saying you didn't feel particularly lovable, separate from being in a group. . . um, is this question making any sense?
Not really. And I want to answer your questions.
Let me think of a smarter way of asking.
Maybe a dumber way would get you what you're looking for. Let's bring it down to a third-grade level and roll with it.
Oh, okay. Do you enjoy shagging?
Do I enjoy fucking? Sure.
What's the best part?
The buildup. The mystery of not knowing.
You've always let it be known that you have an indeterminate sexuality-- should people deduce from that a genuinely complex sexuality, or simple a desire for privacy?
So, if we're still being in third grade, do you sleep with people of both sexes?
Have you found people's attempts to pigeon-hold you annoying?
Annoying is a good word. I'm kind of 'So what?' about talking about who you fuck. It's the whole thing I've said about binary thought and people's inability to understand that not only sexuality but a whole lot of things in life are constantly changing. I'm an equal-opportunity letch. And I'm perfectly comfortable with it. I've dealt with it for over twenty years. It's other people's perceptions that throw it off.
How easily do you fall in love?
I've never fallen in love.
Is that a stance?
No, it's probably a personality disorder.
It sounds really sad to me.
No. I think "in love" is when you're completely and utterly infatuated with someone to the degree that when they're not around you think about them constantly. And I've never experienced that. It probably means that I have a fear of commitment more than anything else--like most red-blooded American men. I think I just develop really deep, obsessive crushes. And they may last all of seven minutes, but they're very intense and very real.
Are those crushes better consummated or unconsummated?
Generally unconsummated. It's just sweet. It's sweet and fun and throws a little curve in the day. (stares at me) I'm being playful with this, but I'm dead serious. I'm kind of in love generally and not specifically.
But being "in love generally" can't be very consoling on a winter's night.
(sighs as though he has rarely heard anything so preposterous) "We live as we die, alone"? Don't throw that one at me.
Don't you wish you could be in love?
No. It seems like a very thorny path.
Presumably people intermittently fall in love with you?
Abstractly, and otherwise.
Is it annoying?
No, it's sweet.
That must be difficult to deal with.
Welcome to life. Everything has to be dealt with.
Over these days--in New York and Los Angeles--there are plenty of other things that get said. Michael will summarize his latest film ambitions (he has a new Hollywood film company, Single Cell, and is looking for projects) and emphasize his love of photography. ("I am a great photographer," he tells me. "I'm not too afraid to move in close." Possibly his best photo is one of a plant, with the Grand Canyon, out of focus, behind it.) He will tell me about music he made with River Phoenix and music he makes now with Stephen Dorff. He says that the last book he read was "Einstein's Dreams", and when I tell him that Sylvester Stallone gave me the same answer, he says, deadpan, "Maybe we got different things out of it."
I ask each member of R.E.M. which books they have read twice.
Mike Mills: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe.
Bill Berry: The Catcher in the Rye.
But for both Peter Buck and Michael Stipe, the answer is On the Road. Buck read it each year from the age of fourteen to twenty-seven and only stopped because it's now all in his head.
Michael Stipe, who claims not to be a big reader, says it is the only book he has read twice. "I feel like I kind of come from and I totally dig the whole bohemian side of shit. Peter and I--that was out goal, to do our version of Kerouac."
I don't think this is just the standard twenty-something Hollywood-actor version of loving the Beats in the '90's: an easy set of clothes in which you can be stoned and simple and free, but only when it fits your schedule. There is an honesty in the way Michael Stipe says-- and it is an embarrassing thing to say-- that when he first read On the Road, "It was everything I wanted. I wanted to travel and be wild." If you mix that in with the Hollywood trappings that he now plays with and the emotional safety nets in which he is swathed, then maybe you can just catch a glimpse of the furniture in Michael Stipe's head. Maybe.