Skip to main content

Michael Stipe Pays Tribute to Patti Smith in New Book.

Singer Michael Stipe with the band R.E.M. He has a new book of photographs "Two Times Intro: On the Road with Patti Smith" (Little, Brown & Company)

46:16

Other segments from the episode on May 11, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 11, 1998: Interview with Michael Stipe; Review of John Irving's novel "A Widow for One Year."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051101np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Two Times Intro
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Michael Stipe, the lead singer and songwriter of the band "R.E.M." The band was formed in 1980 and for several years, it was a critics favorite with a devoted following among alternative rock listeners. But despite its emphasis on making non-commercial music, R.E.M. went on to become a commercial success as well.

Michael Stipe has been an inspiration to musicians starting their own bands. Now, Stipe pays tribute to the performer who most influenced him. Stipe has a new book of photos of Patti Smith. He took the pictures in 1995 over a two-week period when he accompanied Smith on her tour with Bob Dylan.

Patti Smith sang a duet with Stipe on R.E.M.'s most recent album, "New Adventures in Hi-Fi." Let's start with part of that track.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI")

MICHAEL STIPE AND PATTI SMITH, SINGERS, SINGING:
Look up and what do you see?
All of you, all of me, (Unintelligible)
(Unintelligible) surprise

I can't look it in the eyes
Sucking on Spanish fly
I said kerosene cherry-flavored (unintelligible)
Can smell the sorrow on your breath
(Unintelligible)
I got it

Aluminum
Tastes like fear
Adrenalin (Unintelligible)
Tastes like fear
(Unintelligible)
Tastes like fear
(Unintelligible)

(Unintelligible)
Tastes like fear
Tastes like fear
(Unintelligible)
Over, over, over, over, over

GROSS: Michael Stipe, welcome to FRESH AIR.

STIPE: Thank you.

GROSS: In your new book, you write that the first time you found out about Patti Smith, you were in detention study hall at your high school in Collinsville, Illinois, just outside East St. Louis, and you were 15. Tell us the story of how you did discover Patti Smith.

STIPE: There was an article that the writer Lisa Robinson (ph) had written about the ceebie-jeebie (ph) scene in New York which was just starting, I think, in '74, '75, was when Willy (ph) kicked in with Patti and bands like "Television" and I think the "Talking Heads" and "Blondie" came a little bit later.

But she wrote an article comparing that scene to the music of the times, saying that the music of the time was very technicolor and very blown out and very colorful. And this was very stripped down and visceral and raw, and much more like black and white TV -- like a static-y old TV.

And there was a photograph of Patti Smith leaning against a wall, looking at the camera, and the picture was so -- so haunting and so mesmerizing I think I immediately felt, you know, like there was something here that was worth investigating. And so, I started -- started trying to find out about this music and trying to find out about these people that were making it. And bought her first record the day it came out.

And it was very epiphanal. I decided then and there that music was what I wanted to do with my life.

GROSS: So at this point, did you have any sense that you could sing or that you could write songs?

STIPE: Not really. I mean, I played accordion when I was in third grade. I really wanted to play organ, but they ran out of organs, so I played accordion. And -- but I never really sang, you know, very much and I didn't really have an idea of what I wanted to do with my life.

But the punk ethic in the mid-'70s when all this stuff was going on -- Patti Smith and Television are really the two bands that I looked to -- the ethic was kind of "do it yourself" -- that anybody could do what they were doing. It didn't take a special person to do it, and I took that very literally and decided then and there, at the age of 15 or 16, that I was going to be a singer.

GROSS: Excuse me for being side-tracked here for a moment, but accordion -- what were you playing on -- those accordion books. Did you have one of those "beginning accordion" books with the horrible songs in it?

LAUGHTER

STIPE: I don't think I could read them. I mean, I don't think I could read the music. But my third grade class, Mrs. Swindall (ph) was our teacher, had a band and we -- we could play various songs of the day. I think the "Green, Green Grass of Home" and stuff like that.

And me and my best friend Mike Rooney (ph) played accordion. And at one point we asked Mrs. Swindall if we could yell things out because we weren't allowed to sing. We had to play the accordion. I guess that took greater concentration than singing.

But we asked if we could yell things out like "go daddy-O" and so...

LAUGHTER

... the two of us would stand on the side and in the middle of the Green, Green Grass of Home, we'd be like "yeah, man, yeah -- go Daddy-O."

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Oh, that's really great. Right.

STIPE: That was my auspicious musical beginnings. But I just decided -- I mean, I felt really -- I felt like I had discovered something that I felt very much a part of at that pretty young age. And I stuck to it.

GROSS: So when you heard Patti Smith and you decided that it was going to be about music for you, what did that inspire you to do? Did you start trying to perform right away or buying more records? Like what direction did it lead you in?

STIPE: I bought records. And you know, in 1976, it was really hard to find those kind of records. And so, you know, the search was kind of part of the fun. I remember the day that her record came out. I had been to the record store three weeks prior, every day, saying: "is it here yet? Is it here yet?" And they're like: "no, it's not coming out until" -- but I would go back the next day and say: "is it here yet?"

And that anticipation -- I think at that point, I had heard her perform on the "King Biscuit Flour Hour" and I -- I had taped with one of those really bad secretary cheap cassette decks, I had held it up to the wall speaker and taped the King Biscuit Flour Hour of her performing live in Washington. And that was -- that was arresting, but nothing could prepare me for -- for "Bird Land" off of -- off of that first record.

GROSS: In your book of photos of Patti Smith, you say that when you were 15 and you discovered her, you were a "dork-nerd." What qualified you for "dork-nerddom?"

STIPE: Well, I think I'm still kind of a geek, you know. And most of my really good friends are too. It's just -- it's like there's that old adage that the world is divided into two types of people: those that snore and those that admit that they snore. Is that how it goes?

GROSS: I don't know it.

LAUGHTER

STIPE: I can't remember. Anyway, I think we're all pretty geeky. You know, we're a pretty geeky species and I'm just -- I'm just smart enough to admit it, I guess.

But I -- I didn't -- you know, I think in high school I felt very, kind of very much an outsider. And I didn't really feel like I fit in anywhere, and this music gave me a place where I felt like I fit in.

GROSS: Now, I think that Patti Smith is perhaps among the few women in rock music who not only inspired other women to enter music, but inspired men, too. I think men are kind of usually inspired by men in music -- to go into music -- especially in rock, you know? There's always this big division in rock between, you know, the male thing and the female thing.

STIPE: Yeah.

GROSS: So, I'm wondering what it was like for you to be so inspired, you know, by a woman.

STIPE: It didn't -- I mean, I think there were definitely sexual elements to it, but it had -- it didn't make a difference to me that she was a woman. She was very androgynous.

GROSS: Right.

STIPE: And the -- you know, the thing about her, I think, is that she was -- she was incredibly sexy, but she was very -- she was very sexy as a woman. She was also very sexy as a man. She was -- you know, she just kind of like blurred all those lines in a way that I don't think we had seen before, certainly from a female performer.

And it just -- it didn't matter that she -- it didn't matter whether she was a man or a woman. It was in the music. It was in the energy of the songs and the words and what she was -- what -- you know, she was just so directly tapped into the source. And it was so glaringly obvious when compared to the other music that was around and that was available.

The -- that this person had tapped into something that -- that was very uncommon and very unusual and very inspiring.

GROSS: Back in 1992, you told Rolling Stone magazine that no one has picked up on how much you've lifted from Patti Smith as a performer. What do you feel like you lifted from her as a performer?

STIPE: Oh, well, just -- there were things about her vocal style that I really admired. And there was a certain freedom and looseness to -- almost a scatting quality that she has. And a fearlessness -- I mean, more than anything, I think the fearlessness.

That's not to say that throughout R.E.M.'s career, I've really -- I've really embodied that. I'm not sure than I have. But I think in moments here and there, we've produced stuff that -- that has that same energy to it.

Some of my favorite songs are the ones that really just seem like -- I don't -- I didn't even know what happened. Suddenly, there was a song and there were words and somewhere in some very obtuse way, they made sense.

GROSS: In your book, you include some short essays by other people in the music world, including Thurston Moore (ph) of "Sonic Youth." And he describes Patti Smith as the biggest influence on his creative life. He describes her as the most mythological and the most alien. He says "I could not imagine talking to her face to face."

I don't know if you felt that way about her or not, but she was this kind of hero to you. And then you met her as a person, a colleague in the music world. What was it --- what was it like for you to go from knowing her as myth to knowing her as person?

STIPE: Thurston and I are exactly the same age, and our experience with her music and with the music of the time and how it influenced us, and the decisions that we made to start bands and to kind of stick with it -- exactly mirror one another.

I think, in terms of meeting face to face someone that's had such a profound influence on you, when I talked with Thurston about what he wanted to write for the book, he related this story of having met Patti and Lenny (ph) and going out on the road with them, being in Kansas and going to visit Jack Kerouac's grave.

And then one night in his hotel room, they're sitting up and talking and talking and talking and talking, and he had a headache and he was really tired and he just kind of wanted them to leave 'cause he was really tired, and he wanted to go to sleep. And the, you know, the contradiction there -- that as a 15- or 16-year-old, he would have probably given his left arm to be sitting in a room with Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye (ph) talking to him and telling stories, where in real life, he just wanted to go to bed and make his headache go away.

And that -- that's a little bit what it's like, you know. I was very -- I was anxious about meeting her. I wasn't sure that -- that we would even really like each other or get along, but it was one of those very instantaneous sparks. I mean, there was -- there was no doubt that -- it was just one of those things, you know, when you meet somebody, you know right away that -- that it's really right and it's really good.

GROSS: I'm sure a lot of people see you as being a mythic figure in their lives, and I wonder what it's like to be on that end of it when you meet them -- and they're giving their left arm to be with you in the same room?

STIPE: I think I've finally kind of -- I think I've finally come to terms with that as a media figure, as a celebrity, as a singer. And I try to be very gracious with people when they come up, and assume that they're, you know, maybe not able to say exactly what they want to say, if indeed they really are excited to meet me.

GROSS: Do you ever worry that -- I don't know, it seems to me when you're very famous that there's two things you could worry about: one is that it could have a really damaging effect on your ego; and the other is that it could make you more insecure that you're not going to measure up to these impossible expectations that people have.

STIPE: Right, right. I think, well, Peter Buck (ph) put it best, and I've used this phrase ever since.

GROSS: The guitarist with R.E.M.

STIPE: Yeah, our guitar player -- it's when you buy your own myth that you're really in trouble.

GROSS: Right.

STIPE: And I mean, I think it takes a certain type of ego to be a media figure and to be -- to front a rock band, certainly. And I don't deny that, but you know, I don't -- I don't wake up in the morning and think of myself as an incredibly famous person or someone who's influential or anything. I just think that I need to brush my teeth, you know, and get some coffee.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Stipe. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Michael Stipe, lead singer and songwriter of the band R.E.M. His new book, "Two Times Intro" collects the photos he took of Patti Smith when he accompanied her on her 1995 tour with Bob Dylan.

How did Patti Smith end up inviting you on this tour in which she was performing with Bob Dylan?

STIPE: I was in New York doing some activist work and had been off the road -- my band had toured for about a year, for the better part of the year in '95, and I had been off for two or three weeks and was going up to New York to do some activist work with this human rights organization. And Patti knew that I was going to be there 'cause I invited her to go along with me.

Well she then, in turn, invited me to come out on a couple of shows. Bob Dylan had asked her to do a string of I think it was 13 or 14 shows for two weeks around the Northeast, and she accepted. And it was -- it was kind of significant in that she had retired from live performance pretty much in 1979, I think, and had not really been on stage with a full band in about 17 years -- 16 years. So, she accepted.

And she's -- she was wildly influenced by Dylan and really appreciates and admires him a great deal. So, it was a compliment for him to ask her. And I had never really seen her perform live and it was something I'd wanted to do. And so, I jumped on the bus.

GROSS: You had said at one point that Dylan didn't have the effect on you that he had on a lot of other people. I don't know how well you knew his music, but did you feel a responsibility to kind of bone up on Dylan music before joining the tour?

STIPE: Well, I had felt that responsibility before. We wrote a song called "It's the End of the World As We Know It, and I Feel Fine" and I didn't realize that I was kind of lifting a vocal thing from Dylan, from a very famous song of his called "Subterranean Homesick Blues" -- is that it?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STIPE: Yeah. And Peter Buck said: "you should probably listen to this record." And so I did, 'cause I think he knew that as soon as the record came out -- as soon as our record came out -- people were going to say: "oh, you lifted this from Dylan." I know that I knew that song and I know that I had heard it, but it wasn't a conscious lift.

GROSS: Right.

STIPE: So I had -- I had been exposed to his music. I just wasn't one of those die-hard fans that had every record.

GROSS: Your photos of Patti Smith are really in a way the opposite of Robert Mapplethorpe's photos of her on her album jackets, particularly different from that first very mythic cover on "Horses," in which she is dressed so androgynously and looks so mysterious.

I find your photos of her very -- very casual and in the moment. I mean, it could almost be like anybody's friend. Do you know what I mean? She doesn't look like a hero. She doesn't look mythic in it. And is that something that you were going after -- just a very kind of casual side of her?

STIPE: Not really. I mean, in the two weeks -- I carry my camera all the time. I take pictures constantly. And I didn't -- I didn't have the idea to put out a book of pictures until much later, but I was just snapping my friends and I think Patti felt really relaxed with me taking pictures, and so she smiled a lot.

Well, about a month before -- OK, fast forward three years -- about a month before the book came out, about a month and a half ago, a friend remarked that every picture of her in the book, she's smiling. And I had to go back and look at it and I had not realized that every single photograph that I chose to go into the book, she's smiling or grinning or -- and that's a Patti Smith that we haven't really seen before.

GROSS: Right.

STIPE: Or it's an image of her that we haven't really seen before.

GROSS: Michael Stipe is my guest and his new book is called Two Times Intro: On the Road with Patti Smith.

Well, I think it's time to listen to some more of your music. And I thought we'd start pretty close to the beginning and hear something from the first EP that R.E.M. released called "Chronic Town." I think it was recorded in '81 and released in '82. And the song I thought we could hear from it is "Wolves Lower" (ph). Would you say something about the song -- about writing it or about this moment in your life when it was recorded?

STIPE: I don't really remember much about that. I was kind of nervous to be in the recording studio and I had not -- at that point, I hadn't really learned how to write words. So I'm not sure how many actual real words there are in the song, but it's got a nice vibe.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Well, let's hear it.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "CHRONIC TOWN")

STIPE, SINGING: (Unintelligible) yourself (Unintelligible) yourself
Don't get caught
(Unintelligible) yourself
(Unintelligible) yourself
Let us out
(Unintelligible)
Here's a house (Unintelligible)
Am I gonna die?
(Unintelligible)
House in order
Aye-aye
House in order
Aye-aye
House in order
Aye-aye
(Unintelligible) yourself (Unintelligible) yourself

GROSS: That's R.E.M. My guest is singer Michael Stipe -- singer and songwriter. So let's get back to when you were a teenager, when you just started singing. You were telling us that you didn't really think seriously about music 'til you were 15 and discovered Patti Smith.

So when you started thinking that you were serious about music, what happened next? Did you start singing more?

STIPE: Well, when I was 17 I guess, I answered an ad and joined a band. It was I guess kind of like a punk rock cover band, pretty much. And we had a real good time. We never really played out in public very much. It was mostly just kind of a garage band. And then when I moved to Athens at the age of 18, I really, really wanted to find somebody that I could (unintelligible) with. And...

GROSS: This is Athens, Georgia that you moved to.

STIPE: Athens, Georgia, yeah, and that -- that's when I met Peter Buck and he was very resistant to the idea of forming a band 'cause he felt like people in bands were assholes and he didn't want to be that. And he also didn't feel like he was a very good guitar player, which at the time he wasn't. But I didn't know how to sing and had never written a song in my life.

LAUGHTER

So after -- after months of urging, he finally caved in and we started R.E.M.

GROSS: Michael Stipe -- his new book of photos is called Two Times Intro: On the Road with Patti Smith. Michael Stipe will be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with more of our interview with Michael Stipe, lead singer and songwriter with the band R.E.M. He has a new book of photos that he took of Patti Smith while he accompanied her on her 1995 tour with Bob Dylan.

Before we continue the interview, let's hear R.E.M.'s first recording, made in 1981, "Radio Free Europe."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "RADIO FREE EUROPE")

STIPE, SINGING: Keep me out of country in the wood
Deal of (Unintelligible) absurd
(Unintelligible)
That they're pushing for us to fall

Straight off the boat
Where to go?

Calling out in the transit
Calling out in the transit
Radio Free Europe
Radio

Beside defying media

GROSS: Now, in some of the R.E.M. recordings over the years, your voice is mixed -- kind of deepened to the music.

STIPE: Yeah.

GROSS: As opposed to being up-front -- in front of the music.

STIPE: Yeah.

GROSS: And I -- you know, me personally...

STIPE: That was -- that's my insecurity coming out again, you know.

GROSS: Is it?

STIPE: Well, yeah, and we -- I didn't -- I -- you know, at the time, in the early '80s, everyone was mixing the drums louder than the vocal. And I just thought that was really embarrassing. We didn't want to be a disco band and I -- I was somewhat reacting to the music of the day.

But I was also just kind of embarrassed 'cause I never really -- you know, the thought process of being a singer, being in a band, putting on a record. And then it's like, oh, woops, well, I've got to write words 'cause people expect words. And then, oh well, the words should make sense.

I mean, if you listen to our records starting with Wolves Lower, which we just heard, and progressing -- the first really three or four records, including Chronic Town, you're basically watching four guys learn how to write songs and you're watching me learn how to write a lyric. And I find that kind of fascinating. You know, those records mean a whole lot to a lot of people. Sometimes they're a little hard for me to listen to, but I do appreciate them for what they are.

GROSS: Right. I'm wondering if you were influenced by any soul singers too?

STIPE: I think I must have been, but I can't think of anybody right on. My -- my, you know, growing up as a child, my friends were not huge music fans. It was like a lot of Gershwin and Mancini and the "1812 Overture" with real cannons and...

LAUGHTER

... what else? "The Sound of Music."

GROSS: Well, your father was in the military, I...

STIPE: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, oh.

STIPE: But we lived in Texas for a stint and there was country radio, and that was bubble-gum -- when bubble-gum pop radio was really big. And so, that was certainly an influence. I wasn't -- I didn't really have an older brother or sister that turned me onto the "Beatles" and turned me onto "The Who" and turned me onto all the music of the '60s. And so, you know, I kind of discovered stuff via radio as a child, and then really up until -- up until I found that magazine article and heard Horses, I was just kind of coasting along.

I mean, I think before that, the only one musical artist that I -- that I thought was really interesting was Elton John, when "Benny and the Jets" came out. I thought that was one of the most amazing -- and I still do. For me, Benny and the Jets and "Rock On" by David Essex (ph) are two of the most amazing -- they'd be in my top 10 of best pop songs ever.

GROSS: Now I know because your father was in military, you moved around a lot as a kid, as he got transferred to different military bases. What impact did it have on you to always be the new kid in the neighborhood?

STIPE: Well, the positive aspects are that my family and I are very close and when -- when you're forced to make new friends fairly regularly, it kind of brings you together as a unit. I hate that word.

LAUGHTER

Well, anyway, we were a great loving family and very close and we still are. And that's -- that's about the greatest gift that could ever be given to me, is to have my two sisters, my mom and dad, be very supportive and to unconditionally, you know, love me the way that they have all along. And of course, that's returned.

GROSS: How old were you when you left home?

STIPE: Seventeen or 18.

GROSS: Was that to go to college?

STIPE: Yeah. And then, my parents moved away and then I followed them 'cause I got really poor.

GROSS: Oh, oh, you -- so you were broke so you moved back in with your parents? Is that what you're saying?

STIPE: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And where was that?

STIPE: In Athens.

GROSS: Oh, oh, they were in Athens, too. I see.

STIPE: Well no, they moved to Athens from St. Louis, and I stayed in St. Louis 'cause I thought it was very urban and very, you know, punk rock, and I thought Athens was kind of a cow-town and a bunch of hippies eating cucumber sandwiches and I didn't want to have anything to do with that.

LAUGHTER

And I moved in with these guys that were in a band, in a punk band, and we ate spaghetti with butter for about three months, and I continued -- continued my schooling. And then I really, really ran out of money and finally -- finally drove to Georgia and joined my family. They were living in a trailer park at the time, trying to find a house that they could move into.

So, I moved into the house when they finally found it, and lived with my parents for about nine months, and then moved out and moved into the church where we started the band.

GROSS: Yeah, Athens had a storied reputation in alternative rock for a while, because of your group and the B-52s and a couple of other groups that came out of there. Did you think there was musically anything special about Athens, or that just coincidentally a few good musicians happened to be there?

STIPE: Well, it's a pretty creative community. It's a small town, fairly liberal, in a somewhat conservative state. And it's a university town, so there's a lot of people coming and going a lot. There's a -- there's -- it's got a great history of, you know, a lot of hippies were there in the '60s.

There was a lot of civil rights stuff going on in the '60s and there was always kind of a strong underground of people that would come out to see, you know, if someone had an exhibit or someone had some kind of performance or if a band played in a club or in a space, you know, there would always be an audience to kind of support them, however good or bad they were.

GROSS: When -- when you started performing, what were your -- what were your, like, rock values? You know, the things that you really loved about rock? The things that you never wanted to become that you'd seen other bands become?

STIPE: My band always -- I feel like a -- kind of like a broken record 'cause I say this so much, but it's really the truth. We've -- we always kind of operated by process of negation. We knew everything that we didn't want to be, and the things that were left were our options. And we were fortunate to -- fortunate enough to be a small band that had to work very, very hard to get to the place that we finally got to. And we also had no expectations, no goals.

So every time that we had a success, it was kind of a surprise and we were all kind of like thrown back by it. And it kind of took us to the top of the heap, which is a pretty cool place to be.

GROSS: What didn't you want to be?

STIPE: I didn't want to buy my own myth. I didn't want to be a cliche. I didn't want to be typical or mediocre.

GROSS: Let me play another R.E.M. track, and I think I'll choose one of your most famous recordings -- your big hit "Losing My Religion." Is there a story behind this song?

STIPE: Yeah. I had -- I was embarrassed about it at the time, but I finally 'fessed up to being a huge fan of the song "Every Breath You Take" by the "Police." And I thought that that song was like really kind of an intense -- it was a beautiful pop song. It was very lovely and and -- but you could take it more than one way. It seemed very kind of creepy and obsessive on one hand, and very kind of like intense and loving on the other hand. And I wanted to write a song that was like that.

So, I wrote Losing My Religion.

GROSS: OK. Well, this is it.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "LOSING MY RELIGION")

STIPE, SINGING: Oh, life
It's bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me

The things that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh, no I've said too much
I said it all

That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep a view
And I don't know if I can do it

Oh no, I've said too much
I haven't said enough
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

Every whisper...

GROSS: That's R.E.M. My guest is lead singer and songwriter Michael Stipe.

You know, I think a lot of people have a personal story to tell about that song, particularly about the lines "oh, no, I've said too much; I haven't said enough." I think a lot of people have stories about times when they really weren't sure about whether they've said too much or said enough. Do you have a story that matches with those lines?

STIPE: Well no, I didn't really -- I didn't really take it from any real life situation. I just think it was more about fear of rejection, you know, in -- when you're like really crazy about somebody and you want to tell them, but you're trying to give them hints, and they're maybe not getting it or they're saying something back to you, and you're taking it the wrong way. And that's really -- it's that kind of weird uneasy area, is what that song kind of covers.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STIPE: I think it's very successful. I really like the song a lot.

GROSS: Oh, me too. I'm glad you still like it. A lot of people get tired of their own hits, then they get angry with you if you play them.

LAUGHTER

STIPE: Yeah, I know. It's a good song.

GROSS: And you still play it in performances?

STIPE: We try to. Yeah, we do.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Stipe. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Michael Stipe, lead singer and songwriter of the band R.E.M. His new book, Two Times Intro collects the photos he took of Patti Smith when he accompanied her on her 1995 tour with Bob Dylan.

How do you think fame has affected the band? You know, you were talking about the values you didn't want to have, and I think there are some values that become almost difficult to avoid once the spotlight hits.

STIPE: Yeah. Yeah. The guys have always been really supportive of me being the front person, and the fact that I would get more attention and I would be the one that photographers wanted to take pictures of or wanted to push to the front of the picture. And then I'm the one that gets recognized in restaurants or, you know, when we walk down the street or whatever.

They've always been really, really supportive. I know that Bill, before he quit the band, our drummer, always said that he wouldn't trade places with me for anything in the world and sometimes really felt sorry for me, 'cause he would be able to say, you know, he'd be able to say, call a restaurant and say: "I'm in R.E.M." or call, you know, the baseball people and say "I'd like tickets, I'm in R.E.M." and they would give them to him.

Where he could go anonymously into that restaurant or into the baseball place, and I maybe couldn't. And especially after Losing My Religion, because that was really -- that was a song that really made us international, you know, pop stars, if you will. And at that point, you know, I really had to kind of terms with that, because I was being recognized just about everywhere that I went. And that can -- that can kind of throw you, you know.

GROSS: Well, the...

STIPE: But I'd -- I had had, you know, had had whatever -- 13 years of being in a band and of being a star in my own head to kind of build up to that.

LAUGHTER

So it wasn't that -- you know, it wasn't that horrible.

GROSS: Right. I'm sure, you know, like shaving your head also helped people recognize you.

STIPE: Yeah, it was easier when I could grow my hair different lengths, but my hair started to fall out, so I shaved it off.

GROSS: Right, right. When you started performing and you were much more insecure about yourself as a songwriter and a singer, I think your on-stage style was different, too. Would you talk about what you on-stage style was like early on?

STIPE: Well, people told me -- I remember there was a point where I decided I didn't want to move for an entire tour, so I stood at the microphone and I thought it would be very intense. And it was. It worked. But prior to that, I think I just flailed myself around the stage a lot. I know I whiplashed myself a couple of times between 1980 and 1983. I'm still suffering the consequences of that.

But I don't know -- I just had long -- I had really bad skin so I grew my hair as long as I could and wore it over my face. And I'd wear makeup to kind of like raccoon my eyes, or I'd wear glasses. But they would get steamed up, so I couldn't do that after a while. And I would just put a lot of clothes on 'cause somehow that felt, you know, like it was protecting me.

I'm still, you know, even this morning, I did "Regis and Kathy Lee" and they were so sunshine happy, you know, that...

LAUGHTER

GROSS: They were just glad to see you.

STIPE: And it kind -- they were very glad to see me. I was really, you know, I -- I was happy to go on the show, but they really -- they were like a gale force, and they made me blush, you know, 'cause they were kind of yelling nice things at me, about what I've done and what I've accomplished and it was -- it was really embarrassing. So, I kind of blushed on -- right there in front of the TV cameras.

I think that -- oh, I forgot the question.

GROSS: Well, we were talking about how your performance style has changed.

STIPE: Oh.

GROSS: You were talking about covering up your face with your hair when you were younger.

STIPE: Yeah, well, at -- yeah, at a point, you know, I didn't have hair to cover my face up so I kind of had to do something else. And you know, the audiences got bigger and bigger and bigger. And you tend to -- I wouldn't -- I got to the point where I didn't want to be the guy in the back row, 'cause it seemed like a really, you know, kind of crap seat to be watching a band from.

So your gestures get bigger or you know, you try to bring the lights up a little bit or you try to wear light-colored clothing so they can see you. And I don't know, whatever -- you know, you try to -- I was just trying to make everybody feel like they got their money's worth when they came to see us perform.

GROSS: Michael Stipe is my guest and he has a new book of photos that he took on the road with Patti Smith.

Often on the show when we have a performer on, I ask them to redeem or resurrect a song -- to choose a song that you really love that a lot of people might think of as just too square, really bad, but you think there's actually something really quite wonderful about it. Is there such a song for you that you would like to name that you could either, you know, just sing a few bars of or we could -- we could play a recording of?

STIPE: Well, the two songs that I mentioned earlier -- Rock On by David Essex and Benny and the Jets by Elton John I think are really amazing songs. Also, I mean, for me the song on Horses that really did it was Bird Land. And that was just -- that was musically some -- that took me to a place that I had never been to in my life.

GROSS: Well maybe we should -- yeah go ahead.

STIPE: And never -- I will -- yeah, I'll never forget the experience of hearing that for the first time. And I think, I mean I know that, you know, in my heart and I can speak for my band on this one, that, you know, when we make records, we want the same thing for whoever's out there listening to it.

I want someone to -- I want it to take them somewhere that they've never been before and I want them to like, have -- had some kind of experience that has some impact on them -- and hopefully a good one, you know. It's in a way kind of passing the baton.

GROSS: Well maybe this would be a good place to -- to play Bird Land, since your new book is a book of pictures of Patti Smith. So why don't we hear that?

STIPE: Great.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "BIRD LAND")

SMITH, SINGING: Well, nobody heard (Unintelligible) cry
Nobody there
'Cept for the birds
Round the New England farm
And they gather
In all directions
Like roses they scattered and
They were like (unintelligible) grass
Coming together into the head of shining bouquet
Splitting his nose
And all the others when shooting
And inside like a (unintelligible)
(unintelligible)
Grab the net, it's (unintelligible)
Take another's neck
All its limbs
Everything was twisted
And he said, I won't give up
Won't give up
Don't let me give up
I won't give up
(Unintelligible)
Let me go out (Unintelligible)
Take me up
Quick take me
Oh, I want to
(unintelligible)
And the shoeflies
Opening
I go inside
(unintelligible)
Well, I am not (Unintelligible)
Like (unintelligible) raving
And this movie...

GROSS: That's Patti Smith and my guest is Michael Stipe, whose new book is a book of photos of Patti Smith on tour.

Your new book is a new book of photographs of Patti Smith. You've been photographed a lot over the years. How do you feel when you're the one being photographed? Is that an uncomfortable situation for you? And what's it like for you to see pictures of yourself?

STIPE: If I like the photographer, then I'm really, really comfortable with it. If I don't know the photographer, then, you know, I have kind of like one kind of Andy Warhol face that I've used all along, and really didn't realize that I was doing that until about three years ago, but I -- I enjoy being photographed. I think it's really fun.

GROSS: I think the word that's most often used to describe you is the word "enigmatic."

STIPE: I hate that word.

GROSS: Yeah, what do you think of that?

STIPE: I think it's stupid. I hate that word. That word followed me for years and years and years. And you know, I did say early on and I did -- I did feel and I still do that, you know, an air of mystery around a -- certainly a public figure, but also just in life, is not altogether a bad thing; that you don't ever want to really give everything away. And at whatever point you do, you now, it might be too much.

GROSS: Michael Stipe, a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for spending some time with us.

STIPE: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Michael Stipe -- his new book of photos is called Two Times Intro: On The Road With Patti Smith.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Michael Stipe
High: Singer Michael Stipe with the band R.E.M. He has a new book of photographs "Two Times Intro: On the Road with Patti Smith."
Spec: Music Industry; Photography; REM; Michael Stipe
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Two Times Intro
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 11, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051101np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: A Widow for One Year
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Ever since the 1978 publication of "The World According to Garp," the balancing of the catastrophic and the comic has become novelist John Irving's narrative trademark. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that in his latest novel called "A Widow for One Year," Irving's long-running balancing act is as audacious and breathtaking as ever.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: It's hard to imagine how a novel that includes the accidental deaths of two teenage boys, the abandonment of a child, a divorce, a rape, a suicide, and a murder could, at its conclusion, cause a reader to recall Robert Browning's famously reassuring lines: "God's in his heaven; all's right with the world."

But John Irving's latest wayward wonder of a book does just that. Although bad things happen to good people in A Widow for One Year, the novel ultimately affirms a cosmic symmetry in which good and evil eternally see-saw back and forth. Like the great Victorians whose works his own sprawling books consciously resemble -- Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray -- Irving is an author-God whose grand fictional designs encompass the whole of life.

A Widow for One Year opens in a death-haunted house and ends four decades later with a wedding in that very same house. In between, characters and story-lines intersect, collide, and split apart with the kind of antic grace that makes an awestruck reader fall down and worship.

Irving has divided A Widow for One Year into three parts. Part one takes place in the summer of 1958, in a house in the Hamptons inhabited by Ted Cole (ph), a writer of scary books for children, and his beautiful wife Marion (ph).

Since the death of their teenage son several years before, the couple has drifted apart. Marion has become obsessed with the hundreds of photographs of her son's that she's hung around the house. Ted has applied himself to the serial seduction of young mothers whose children adore his books.

Lost in the emotional gulf between the Coles is their 4-year-old daughter Ruth, who will grow up to become the novel's compelling main character and a renowned Irving-like novelist in her own right. Our ruefully omniscient narrator tells us that "a likely source of Ruth's imagination was that she grew up in a house where the photographs of her dead brother's were a stronger presence than any presence she detected in either her mother or her father."

Rounding out this uneasy company is a 16-year-old Exeter student named Eddie O'Hare (ph). Crafty Ted has hired Eddie ostensibly to be his assistant, but really to become Marion's lover and thus ease the way for a divorce. The fact that Eddie looks like one of the Cole's dead sons does, indeed, make him irresistible to Marion and the couple enjoys weeks of record-breaking sex until Marion, with good cause, vanishes. For almost 40 years, Eddie will carry a torch for her.

Part one of A Widow for One Year is so marvelous, moving on requires an act of readerly fortitude. After all, what can possibly top the bittersweet silliness of the scene where Marion first seduces Eddie under the Exeter motto: "Come Hither Boys and Become Men." And the insertion of the full texts of Ted's creepy children's books are as transfixing as any Edward Gorey tale.

But as Eddie will learn, one can dwell in the past for only so long, and forging ahead into part two, which takes place in the fall of 1990, and part three, the fall of 1995, offers tremendous rewards. We come to know the adult Ruth, and tag along with her as she conducts first-hand research for her next novel in Amsterdam's red light district. Best of all, we get to watch as Irving wraps up about a zillion loose plot ends in a conclusion that affords all of the characters we care about some of their just desserts.

If only real life would resolve itself into such satisfying order. That's the other similarity between Irving and his Victorian mentors. Like Dickens and company, Irving upholds a sturdy utopianism in his novels. Life, as his characters experience it, may not always be fair or kind, but it's full of variety and surprise, as well as a divine assurance that what goes around eventually comes around.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed John Irving's new novel A Widow for One Year.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "A Widow for One Year," the new novel by John Irving, the author of "The World According to Garp."
Spec: Books; Authors; John Irving; Family; Adultery
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: A Widow for One Year
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Did COVID-19 Leak From A Lab? A Reporter Investigates — And Finds Roadblocks

President Biden has asked the intelligence community to investigate whether or not the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. Vanity Fair reporter Katherine Eban shares her findings.

41:50

'Forget The Alamo' Author Says We Have The Texas Origin Story All Wrong

In their new book, Forget the Alamo, Bryan Burrough and co-writers Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford challenge common misconceptions surrounding the conflict — including the notion that Davy Crockett was a martyr who fought to the death rather than surrender.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue