With the swathe of celebrity deaths in 2016, it’s not gone unnoticed the amount of tributes and compliments that famous artists receive in a posthumous light. We think this does a great disservice to the musical heroes of our world. Therefore, Hooting And Howling proudly presents ‘In Living Celebration’, a serious of columns championing some underrated, overlooked, and inspirational artists that have improved the world we live in, and deserve recognition for that. This week, we celebrate former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe.

Picture a band that has sold nearly 90 million records around the world, once signed the most expensive record deal in the world for $80 million, and spent three decades touring the planet over – You’re probably thinking of some washed-up, drug-addled has-beens, but for R.E.M., and their singer Michael Stipe, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Forming in 1980 in Athens, Georgia thanks to an appreciation punk rock that Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck shared (Buck worked in the record shop that Stipe would frequently peruse, often saving records for himself so that no one else could buy them), the pair joined up with bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry for the sheer purpose of creating songs to play at their friends’ birthday parties.

Such innocent beginnings were a huge factor in Stipe’s development as a soon-to-be-rockstar – the frontman has claimed that he didn’t know what a bass guitar actually sounded like until the recording of their first demo – and his evolution from floppy-haired college-rocker to socio-politically active lyrical genius all took place in a very public manner, much to his chagrin.

Aged 20 upon the release of debut album ‘Murmur’, Stipe’s obscure and cryptic words were shrouded in an introversion of sound that made helped make R.E.M. one of the most mysterious and intriguing bands of their day.

“Dreams of Elysian, you assume are gone when we die // Tell now what is dreaming, when we try to listen to your eyes, when we die” – ‘West of the Fields‘ (Murmur, 1983)

There’s a prolonged sense of Stipe becoming a perhaps begrudging spokesman over the course of R.E.M.’s 15 studio albums, travelling through an aptly grief-stricken journey of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance within the role he finds himself in.

“Empty prayer, empty mouths // Talk about the passion // Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.” – ‘Talk About The Passion’ (Murmur, 1983)

“I think I’ll sing it in rhyme, I’ll give it one more time // I’ll show the kids how to do it fine, fine, fine.” – ‘All The Best’ (Collapse Into Now, 2011)

As early into their career as 1984’s sophomore record ‘Reckoning’ saw the enigmatic figure decrying the trappings that fame brought.

“It’s been pretty simple so far, vacation in Athens is calling me // and knock, knock, knock on wood, I thought I’d left you behind // Heaven is yours, heaven is yours, heaven is yours where I live.” – ‘Letter Never Sent’ (Reckoning, 1984)

One constant that remained during the highs and lows of Stipe’s ascension to indie pop poster boy was the voice that carried the music of R.E.M. For every part of him that was the eccentric performance artist, there were two parts deeply resonating vocalist, complete with a comforting, warm and oaky tone that conveyed some sort of meaning in a way that only the best melodies can.

Perhaps such melodic prowess was to make up for lyrics that some found to be nonsensical or random. It’s no secret that Stipe’s stream-of-consciousness style of writing is often indecipherable, though a man who describes himself as “often lost for words” is hardly going to make it easy for the listener to decipher him. The ascension to the mainstream that befell itself to R.E.M. resulted in a lot of the meaning poured into their craft being lost to over-interpretation anyway; they were not my band now so much as they were our band. The artists might have suffered, but the art certainly didn’t.

“I had to grapple with a lot of contradictions back in the 80s. I would look out from the stage at the Reagan youth. That was when R.E.M. went beyond the freaks, the fags, the fat girls, the art students and the indie music fanatics. Suddenly we had an audience that included people who would have sooner kicked me on the street than let me walk by unperturbed. I’m exaggerating to make a point but it was certainly an audience that, in the main, did not share my political leanings or affiliations, and did not like how flamboyant I was as a performer or indeed a sexual creature. They probably held lots of my world views in great disregard, and I had to look out on that and think, well, what do I do with this?”

Rarely can a band’s greatest hits be pointed toward for an indication of their best work, but songs like ‘The Great Beyond’, ‘Man on the Moon’, and ‘Imitation of Life’ still stand up today, due in large part to the vocal ideas explored in each. Whether it’s the tender whispers of ‘Everybody Hurts’ or the rallying battle-cries of ‘Orange Crush’, it’s a testament to the songs when even overexposure and mainstream radio can’t detract from their greatness – not that Stipe would agree.

“You’re seeing me really reaching, in some cases really over- or under-reaching, to try and find a melody, to work out a lyric to see if it’s working or not with the music.” – Stipe on seventh album ‘Out of Time’, which includes 1991 megahit ‘Losing My Religion’.

Raised Methodist, Stipe was a military brat who spent his childhood frequently moving between homes, before finally settling in Athens. He would go on to enrol at the University of Georgia studying photography and painting, two loves that always went hand in hand with R.E.M.’s music and their overall art form.

To this day, Stipe maintains a Tumblr of images, videos and sounds he finds appealing or inspiring. His non-musical pursuits have included acting in independent 1983 film ‘Just Like a Movie’, running the production company behind Spike Jonze’s ‘Being John Malkovich’, compiling and releasing a photobook chronicling his time spent on tour with Patti Smith, contributing haiku for a 1998 book of poetry, plus various sculptures, galleries and exhibitions. He even once designed a polo shirt in collaboration with Lacoste.

Away from the arts, Stipe has used his platform with R.E.M. to help raise funds for a variety of causes; Environmental, feminist, human rights, natural disasters, and charities local to Athens. Politically, he’s regularly campaigned in favour of the Democratic Party, and though he’s been on the losing side of a few too many elections (having publically endorsed Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004), he did also get host an inauguration party in 2009 for Barack Obama featuring the absolutely banging lineup of De La Soul, Santogold and Moby, while recently he has been scathing towards both Donald Trump and the media’s coverage of the man.

“Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you–you sad, attention grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.” – In response to the Republican using ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ at a rally in 2015.

“Donald Trump shouldn’t have made it through the third week of the Republican clown car of candidates.” – In the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential election.

At the 1991 MTV VMAs, R.E.M. won an impressive six awards out of ten nominations, and for each award Stipe stripped off his slogan-bearing T-shirt to reveal another equally poignant one underneath – messages including “Wear EAR A CONDOM”, “CHOICE”, “ALTERNATIVE ENERGY NOW”, “THE RIGHT TO VOTE”, “RAINFOREST”, “LOVE KNOWS NO COLOUR”, and “HANDGUN CONTROL”. As grand, controversial and abrasive as it might have been on mainstream television at the time, here we are some 26 years later and we could still use a voice like Michael Stipe’s.

That platform, in the most literal sense, is where many know the man best. The dancing, the crowd manipulation, and that alien-like blue stripe surrounding his bald head cut an iconic, if unconventional figure on stages around the world. Captivating audiences wherever they went, it was the bounding, shaking, violently flailing dancer in Stipe that brought the R.E.M. circus to life. Looking at any one of his performances in the second half of their tenure, and you’ll see a man so bound to his audience and so devoted to his craft that it’s hard not to be infected with his playful enthusiasm from every angle.

“Once I reached my forties, I thought to myself that if I’m going to play live now, I need to really mean this. I can’t go out and be a little bit, for one moment slovenly in my choices as a performer.”

If the persona he was creating onstage was becoming more in demand, then it was dwarfed by the attention his offstage life was getting. Losing his hair coincided with the band’s six-year touring exile in the early ’90s, while constant speculation over Stipe’s sexuality lead many tabloids to disgracefully publish rumours of the singer’s ill-health – namely, that he had contracted HIV/AIDS. As we’ve seen so recently with the likes of George Michael, the press are quick to mourn a ‘troubled’ life, but never acknowledge that it is they that caused that trouble in the first place. For what it’s worth, Stipe never let his identity as a queer man dominate the conversation or set any agenda for either his public persona or his musical endeavours, thus rendering it obsolete for the media to do the same.

“I am made by my times, I am a creation of now // Shaken with the cracks and crevices, I’m not giving up easy, I will not fold // I don’t have much, but what I have is gold.” – ‘Blue’ (Collapse Into Now, 2011)

Fortunately, Stipe was never seriously ill and still stands today, having built an empire of a back catalogue, and a legend of a character that remains quite unlike anyone seen since. Everyone from Kurt Cobain to Chris Martin, Eddie Vedder to Thom Yorke has claimed influence from the music, lyrics, melodies and performances of Michael Stipe, with Cobain even saying, “I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.” The Nirvana frontman was due to collaborate with Stipe in 1994, before his tragic death. Stipe would go on to pen ‘Let Me In’, off of 1994’s ‘Monster‘, in tribute to Cobain.

Many have commented on how David Bowie turned his own death into an art form. Though much less tragic, R.E.M. took the same approach to their break-up in 2011. The band reportedly decided during the recording of 2008’s return to form ‘Accelerate’ that they were to amicably part ways, having reached the peak of a late creative renaissance in their third decade together. Their last couple of records even resembled an effective Best Of collection of material that had never been released before.

Everything seems so obvious now; their final record is titled ‘Collapse into Now’, and the lyrics present themes of learnings and experience of the past being juxtaposed with the present day. The band appeared on the front cover, with Stipe waving to the viewer (having never appeared on any of their album artwork before). Even the decision to not tour the record so as not to have to experience the finality of each performance – something Stipe himself instilled due to a desire to “get away for a while” – seems so bittersweet for us as selfish fans, but so romantic for a band who had it all and were able to call it a day on an upswing. Make no mistake, the split seemed completely out of the blue (I was in an Indian restaurant when I found out; That’s me in the Korma), but looking back it couldn’t have been more perfect. Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened, and all that.

Since then, the man has become the myth by maintaining a relatively low profile, appearing on the odd talk show, performing on the odd stage, promoting the odd reissue, and generally taking the elder statesman approach to life. It might have been a bumpy road there, but Michael Stipe lives life on his own terms, having contributed more to the world in 31 all-too-short years than most people do in a lifetime. At one point he was the singer in the biggest band in the world, and at another point he was a scrawny kid from a little town that nobody had heard of. That contrast has resonated with so many – the freaks, the geeks, the outcasts, the lonely, the gay, the queer, the ignored, the bullied, and the confused – and the world is a significantly better, weirder, funnier, and more melodic place for Michael Stipe’s existence.

“This is my time and I am thrilled to be alive. Living. Blessed. I understand. Twentieth century collapse into now.” ‘Blue’ (Collapse Into Now, 2011)

About The Author

Mark Riley

Always pick the Fire starter-Pokemon.