A Fully Loaded Au­to­matic

Newsweek - - NEWS - ZACH SCHONFELD @zzzza­aaac­c­c­chhh


“This is not what I ex­pected,” the re­tired rock star says, pok­ing at the plate of fish he’s just or­dered at a seafood bar in New York City’s East Vil­lage. “Do you eat an­chovies?”

This is not what I ex­pected ei­ther: be­ing served seafood by the ex-front­man of R.E.M. I po­litely de­cline, cit­ing veg­e­tar­i­an­ism.

“I’m ve­gan-de­fault,” Stipe says, laugh­ing. “I like th­ese lit­tle fishies.” So…a pesc­etar­ian? “No, I eat any­thing. But most of the time, I’m ve­gan.” He swore off meat as a teenager but “started eat­ing ev­ery­thing again when I was 40.”

Aging, which plays strange tricks, is on both of our minds as we eat: Stipe is a 57-year-old man look­ing back at the re­luc­tant 32-year-old su­per­star who made Au­to­matic for the Peo­ple, the 1992 re­lease that’s com­monly cited as R.E.M.’S melan­choly mas­ter­piece. He’s look­ing back, in part, be­cause that al­bum is be­ing reis­sued this month to mark its 25th an­niver­sary. “I’m kind of in awe of what we did as rel­a­tively young men,” he says. “I mean, we started very young.”

It’s fit­ting, then, that Au­to­matic is pre­oc­cu­pied with mor­tal­ity. Among its most en­dur­ing tracks are the end-of-life med­i­ta­tion “Try Not to Breathe,” the grief nar­ra­tive “Sweet­ness Fol­lows” and, of course, the pop­u­lar anti-sui­cide plea “Ev­ery­body Hurts.”

For Stipe, it’s “su­per weird” to re­visit this mile­stone now that R.E.M. is no more. “It makes me feel like Fa­ther Time,” he jokes. Not that he looks the part (any­more): Stipe’s long beard—the moun­tain­ous ZZ Top–wor­thy fa­cial hair that be­came a fix­ture in 2016—is fi­nally gone. Wear­ing white slacks and a white but­ton-down shirt, the singer is in a chatty, jovial mood. Noth­ing is off-lim­its, and ev­ery R.E.M. song I men­tion prompts a story or in­sight (on “Ig­nore­land,” his rant blast­ing the GOP: “The pro­duc­tion could have been a lot an­grier”). It’s a Tues­day af­ter­noon in Oc­to­ber, and Stipe has just fin­ished a taped in­ter­view with Dan Rather, whom he iden­ti­fies in an In­sta­gram cap­tion as “Hero.”

The early ’90s were re­mark­ably event­ful for R.E.M. In 1991, Out of Time, the band’s hugely pop­u­lar sixth al­bum, ush­ered in a brighter, more or­ches­tral sound and shot to No. 1 on the strength of “Los­ing My Reli­gion.” The nerdy col­lege-rock band from Ge­or­gia was now as fa­mous as Madonna. “Sud­denly, I was a celebrity,” Stipe says, some­one who got rec­og­nized on the street. “It went to a dif­fer­ent level be­cause of MTV.” He lip-synced for the first time in the “Reli­gion” video, end­ing a long-stand­ing R.E.M. pol­icy. The singer de­cided to give it a try after see­ing Sinéad O’con­nor’s “Noth­ing Com­pares 2 U” video. “Prior to that, I had thought, This is in­cred­i­bly stupid, and ev­ery­body’s in on the joke, and you just look like a mo­ron.”

At that year’s Gram­mys, R.E.M. guitarist Pe­ter Buck wore casino-themed pa­ja­mas as a gag be­cause he didn’t ex­pect to win. The joke was on him: R.E.M. got three awards. “What [1991’s suc­cess] brought to us as a band was this in­cred­i­ble con­fi­dence to jump off a cliff to­gether,” Stipe says.

In­stead of tour­ing be­hind Time, R.E.M. went into the stu­dio with a string sec­tion and quickly made Au­to­matic, a largely somber coun­ter­point to Time’s pas­toral pop. A quar­ter of a cen­tury later, it re­mains per­haps the most ele­giac al­bum to have sold 18 mil­lion copies.

Con­sid­er­ing all that glitzy suc­cess, what ex­plains the al­bum’s down­beat tone? “We had just come through the 1980s,” he says. “Rea­gan and Bush and AIDS. It was fuck­ing dark times. And this record is a dark record.”

There were per­sonal losses too. “My grand­par­ents were at the end of their lives. I had a sick dog. Con­flat­ing a sick dog with the AIDS cri­sis is ob­vi­ously dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory, but this was what I was deal­ing with on a day-to-day ba­sis. And the ’80s were just fucked up. So many peo­ple dropped off and dis­ap­peared and died. I don’t know. I hit 30. I guess you think about things dif­fer­ently.”


John Michael Stipe was born into a mil­i­tary fam­ily at the dawn of the 1960s. De­spite be­ing yanked from state to state by his fa­ther’s mil­i­tary ca­reer—texas, Illi­nois, an army base in Ger­many—the singer has said he had an “un­be­liev­ably happy” child­hood. Stipe rarely dis­cusses his early life in in­ter­views, so

I’m sur­prised when he starts talk­ing about his fa­ther. “He was an as­ton­ish­ing man. But he was weird. He had this dark­ness, and he had this odd­ness.”

When Stipe was 15, he saw Andy Kauf­man on tele­vi­sion and felt a flash of recog­ni­tion. It was 1975. The comic was deep in char­ac­ter as “For­eign Man” dur­ing the first sea­son of Satur

day Night Live. Stipe was struck by the ir­rev­er­ence of the bit. “I was like, This is in­sanely fucked up,” he re­mem­bers think­ing. “[Kauf­man] was ad­dress­ing for me, as a teenager, what CBGB and punk rock and Patti Smith and Tom Ver­laine [would rep­re­sent]. This was my is­land of bro­ken toys.”

Stipe was liv­ing in East St. Louis at the time, and now he felt seen. “Andy Kauf­man and punk rock: Sud­denly, I found my tribe. Th­ese peo­ple are like me. This is what I’m go­ing to do.” Stipe was also dis­cov­er­ing his sex­u­al­ity (he came out as queer in 1994) and “re­al­iz­ing that I was re­ally dif­fer­ent from any­body else. But I’m not nor­mal any­way. I’m a lit­tle bit odd.”

After high school, Stipe lived with a punk band in Illi­nois, sub­sist­ing on spaghetti and but­ter. He soon moved to Athens, Ge­or­gia, to at­tend the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia, where he met fu­ture band­mate Buck at the record store where the guitarist worked. They de­cided to form a band with fel­low UGA stu­dents Mike Mills (drums) and Bill Berry (bass). The rest is col­lege-rock his­tory. Mur­mur, the band’s in­scrutable de­but, ar­rived in 1983,

Reck­on­ing in 1984 and so on. Years later, Stipe’s ob­ses­sion with Kauf­man re­sulted in the beloved R.E.M. song “Man on the Moon.” An af­fec­tion­ate send-off to the co­me­dian, who had died in 1984, “Moon” is Stipe’s fa­vorite Au­to­matic song. It’s also one of two writ­ten about tragic celebrity fig­ures of am­bigu­ous sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion: “Monty Got a Raw Deal” ad­dresses the life of ac­tor Mont­gomery Clift. When I men­tion the track, Stipe launches into a story about the meet­ing Clift’s one­time co-star El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor. When he told the el­derly ac­tress about the song, she grabbed his hand and said, “The love that we had was more pow­er­ful than any love I’ve ever known. There was no name for it then, and there’s no name for it now.”

In 1992, Stipe, like Clift long be­fore him, was cop­ing with the per­ils of new­found fame and the prospect of pub­licly ac­knowl­edg­ing his queer­ness. Ru­mors (false) swirled that he had AIDS. “That was dis­may­ing, be­cause I didn’t feel like it came from a place of true con­cern,” he says. “I felt like it was more petty ru­mor­mon­ger­ing.”

When Stipe fi­nally ad­dressed his sex­u­al­ity in 1994, he was pro­mot­ing the louder and flashier R.E.M. al­bum

Mon­ster, but he was still writ­ing about death. “Let Me In,” that al­bum’s cen­ter­piece, finds Stipe wail­ing about the then-re­cent sui­cide of close friend Kurt Cobain. It’s like the har­row­ing “Ev­ery­body Hurts” com­ple­ment no­body wanted and ev­ery­one needed.“i’ve had more than my fair share of suicides,” Stipe tells me. “I’d like to have no more.”


In 2015, Don­ald Trump, then a long­shot pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, used R.E.M.’S 1987 hit “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” as en­trance mu­sic at a GOP rally. Bad idea. Stipe’s de­nun­ci­a­tion came hard and swift: “Go fuck your­selves,” the singer told Trump’s cam­paign in a state­ment. “Do not use our mu­sic or my voice for your mo­ronic cha­rade of a cam­paign.” (Mills joined in the dis­gust, call­ing Trump an “or­ange clown” on Twit­ter.)

It was clas­sic Stipe: stri­dent, lib­eral, anti-es­tab­lish­ment. It was also a show of artis­tic and po­lit­i­cal unity by the mem­bers of R.E.M., four years after the band am­i­ca­bly broke up.

Stipe was never shy about shar­ing his po­lit­i­cal views, es­pe­cially dur­ing the Au­to­matic era: This is the rock star who wore a “White House— Stop AIDS” hat to the 1992 Gram­mys. POST-R.E.M., his po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy has in­ten­si­fied. He has spo­ken out against the “un­jus­ti­fi­able” treat­ment of U.S. mil­i­tary se­crets leaker Chelsea Man­ning and joined with El­ton John to sup­port trans­gen­der in­mates in Ge­or­gia. In 2016, he be­came a vo­cal sup­porter of Bernie San­ders, of­ten in­tro­duc­ing the se­na­tor at ral­lies. Stipe and San­ders were once pic­tured eat­ing hot dogs at Coney Is­land.

Are they friends? “No, not friends! We don’t ex­change text mes­sages or

“My gen­er­a­tion has done the ex­act op­po­site of what I thought it would do.”

any­thing.” But San­ders was the out­sider can­di­date, “so of course I ended up with him. You’re talk­ing to the guy who wrote ‘Ev­ery­body Hurts,’ but I con­sider my­self an out­sider.”

Stipe de­spises Trump and feels “per­son­ally in­sulted” by the coun­try’s sharp po­lit­i­cal swing to the right. “I’m a hip­pie,” he says. “My gen­er­a­tion was go­ing to solve the prob­lems of en­ergy ef­fi­ciency and the en­vi­ron­ment. And look where we find our­selves—at the brink of ab­so­lute col­lapse. My gen­er­a­tion has done the ex­act op­po­site of what I thought it would do.”

The singer takes so­lace in artis­tic ven­tures: sculp­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy, video por­traits, mu­sic. He has an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal book of pho­to­graphs com­ing out in 2018. “I don’t even like talk­ing about it, be­cause when I read about it, it seems like, You pre­ten­tious twat! Just go fuck­ing write a song again. I imag­ine other peo­ple read­ing that and go­ing, Shut up!”

He’s hap­pier talk­ing about the R.E.M. reis­sue project; he en­joys rein­tro­duc­ing the band’s mu­sic to the world. Out of Time got the 25th birth­day deluxe treat­ment in 2016, Mon

ster is due for a reis­sue in 2019, and Stipe’s fa­vorite al­bum, the sprawl­ing

New Ad­ven­tures in Hi-fi, should fol­low two years later. Just don’t ex­pect a re­union tour. (I had to ask, though it might have sounded more plea than ques­tion.) “That’ll never hap­pen,” Stipe says plainly. “I can’t think of a sin­gle thing that could make us come to­gether to do any­thing pub­licly.”

Why so cer­tain? “Be­cause we did what we did. To try to put the band back to­gether for any rea­son would just be sad and wrong.”

Would he ever make a solo record? “I don’t know what a solo record is th­ese days. So the an­swer is no. But I want to use my voice again. I re­ally like it.”

PEO­PLE PLEASERS Stipe, with binoc­u­lars, and the rest of R.E.M. in 1992, from left, Buck, Berry and Mills.

LOOK BACK IN ANGER Stipe feels “per­son­ally in­sulted” by Amer­ica’s sharp po­lit­i­cal swing to the right.

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