Michael Stipe and R.E.M. were definitive of a particular decade –the allegedly ‘caring 90’s’- even though, as those who are a little older with pretensions of being true musos will remember, the band had already gained a following for its acclaimed releases by the late 1980’s. R.E.M. was one of the shining examples for the burgeoning American independent scene. It was also something of an item of proof for those who believed in the strange Bermuda Triangle phenomenon at work in Georgia: a place from which disproportionate numbers of talented and original music acts appeared without easy rational explanation.
Stipe’s persona was perfect for a front man of an indie band at the time: enigmatic and disjointed; quirky unearthly looks with a slightly androgynous bent; vacillating between reclusive timidity and outspoken opinion. Only fuelling the speculation about his sexuality and alleged affairs with rising stars of the day, speculations as to whether he was suffering from depression or was addicted to hard drugs – the youth of today may not remember the return of ‘heroin chic’ at the time- Stipe clearly had a tough journey at times and yet, there was also something of an ambivalent relationship with all of his and R.E.M.’s international superstardom. Clearly he is a man that is intelligent enough to realise that if you become the spokesperson for a whole generation of idealistic students – accidentally or on purpose- it’s not like one can simply draw the boundaries around the personal aspects of one’s life.
Now on the dark side of 50, Michael Stipe and R.E.M. are releasing a new album ‘Collapse Into Now’, their fifteenth, in fact. Whether this turns out to be the most innovative and significant albums that the band has produced in years, as the early reports from the trenches suggest, is only part of the equation. One can hardly imagine that it will be ignored by a whole generation of fans who are, only now, heading for an age in which reflection on the past becomes something to look forward to. And in the case of R.E.M. that particular 90’s generation have R.E.M. to thank for some serious quality reflection; the music playing in some backpackers’ hostel bar in a city like Prague or east Berlin opening up to a whole new generation of western visitors for the first time in half a century; the track in the background in some watering hole for a new generation of hippies and hedonists arriving in Thailand or Goa; a song played on a CD-Walkman on some long bus journey; a strategy for turning pre-millennial tension into melancholic euphoria or even simply just the perennial sing-along anthem on campuses around the world. R.E.M. were there when the generation reaching adulthood at the turn of the millennium were learning to live in the big bad world.
Given all this, it’s only fitting that Christopher Bollen’s interview/article with Michael Stipe in the new issue of Interview sees him in something of a reflective mood. To say ‘nostalgic’ would probably be an inaccurate description, a quality more attributable to the audience than Michael himself. Helped along by archival photos and Mario Sorrenti’s suitably dramatic photos, it paints a timely portrait of the elder statesmen of American indie pop.