Lisa Borders is the author of the novel Cloud Cuckoo Land and a contributor to Don’t You Forget About Me: Contemporary Authors on the Films of John Hughes.
Thanks, Lisa, for letting us know that JAN. 4, 2010 is Michael Stipe‘s 50th Birthday.
Distiple: An Obsession in Ten Albums by Lisa Borders
It’s early 1983 and a friend lends you a cassette of an E.P. called Chronic Town by a band from Athens, Georgia called R.E.M. The sound quality of this tape is already slightly shot – it has been passed around a lot — but you like it: jangly guitars, mysterious lyrics, energetic drumming. It sounds nothing like the synthesizer-heavy dreck on the radio, nothing even like the punk rock your college station plays. The black-and-white photo of the band on the back of the cassette is hard to make out, but the singer has long curly bangs that nearly cover his face. He looks interesting.
R.E.M.’s first full-length album comes out while you are home from college for summer break. You feel lucky to find it at the crappy record store in the mall near your South Jersey hometown. The songs on Murmur don’t merely speak to you; they cry out. Listening through the album from “Radio Free Europe” through “West of the Fields” is like surfing an elegant mood wave with a Rickenbacker. You bring Murmur back to college and you and your closest friend fall into a habit of listening to it late at night, after the bars have closed or the parties are over.
In October R.E.M. appears on the David Letterman show. You settle cross-legged on the floor of your student apartment in front of an ancient television that requires a pair of needle-nosed pliers to change the channels, a bowl of popcorn by your side. The band launches into “Radio Free Europe”; as soon as you see the lead singer, Michael Stipe, you stop eating the popcorn. His eyes are large and blue; his cheekbones distinct; his lips a perfect cupid’s bow. Ringlets of curly brown hair frame his face and hang in his eyes. He looks as if he stepped out of a Renaissance painting; a DaVinci, perhaps, or a Botticelli. You barely register the other guys in the band. From that point on, you are not just a fan of R.E.M; you are now instantly, hopefully in love with Michael Stipe. Hopefully because you are twenty years old and you think that surely there is a way to meet this man, and that once you meet, he will fall as instantly in love with you as you have with him. You are soul mates. You know all this from watching him perform two songs on Letterman.
The next album comes out just before your college graduation. You study the liner notes more thoroughly than you ever studied for parasitology or biochem, which is perhaps one reason you are not going to veterinary school as planned. You miss seeing R.E.M. for the first time at a small club in Boston that spring because you really, truly have to cram for a vertebrate physiology exam, a poor decision that will haunt you for the rest of your Stipe-loving life. But the following fall, when you have graduated and are back in South Jersey working on your hometown newspaper and unsure of what to do with your life, you see your favorite band for the first time at the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia. The show is shortly before the 1984 presidential election; “Let’s get us a new President,” is the only thing Stipe says to the crowd for the entire show. Mostly he hides behind his hair. You are even more in love with him now. He hates Reagan, just as you do! And he’s shy – no rock star attitude! And oh, the richness of that voice. The sound he creates feels like the exact frequency of your deepest longing.
Fables of the Reconstruction
At the newspaper where you work you become friends with another reporter who loves R.E.M. too and understands, though doesn’t share, your crush on Stipe. Her boyfriend lives in New York and is a music fanatic and turns you on to the kind of obscure indie magazines that have interviews with Stipe. You start going to the East Village on weekends and collecting these publications, plus any R.E.M. b-sides you can find. During this period you learn much about Mr. John Michael Stipe (or J.M. Stipe, as he is often referred to in early liner notes). Patti Smith made him want to play music, so you immediately buy Wave and Easter. You seek out the artwork of Howard Finster, who illustrated the cover of Reckoning. Stipe loves Walker Percy, so you read Lost in the Cosmos. The man of your dreams is smart and well-read! And he’s a vegetarian and animal lover, just like you are! You imagine the farm where you and Michael will live, on the outskirts of Athens, Georgia. It will have a crazy shrub-and-found-artwork maze, just like the one in the video for “Radio Free Europe.” The cats and dogs and horses you have both rescued will have room to roam. You will sometimes play Henry Mancini and Hüsker Dü at the same time, because Stipe said in an interview that he did that once.
The new album, Fables of the Reconstruction, is a little harder to get into than their earlier albums; but after listening to it eight times you decide it’s their best yet. You go see them at the Tower Theatre again, dancing so ferociously you feel like you leave your body and float above the stage. You can almost touch Stipe’s beautiful face, the delicate lashes. When you tell your friend at work this story, she smiles. When you tell your friend from college, she says, “Michael Stipe is gay, you know.” You refuse to believe this.
During downtime at work you write a story called “A Fable,” which makes copious use of R.E.M. lyrics to tell a tale of the creation of a god among men, one Michael Stipe. “Send it to him,” says your friend at work, who by now has completely bought into the deliciousness of your obsession. “How could he not answer that? It’s so well-written.” So you send it. You hear nothing back. Years later, you will feel retrospectively lucky that Stipe did not take out a restraining order against you, and you will also realize that your friend’s enthusiasm had more to do with her belief in your writing ability than with any chance she thought you really had of meeting Michael Stipe.
Life’s Rich Pageant
The newspaper you are working for in New Jersey has been acquired by a national chain, and when you see that the chain owns a paper in a small town in Georgia not far from Athens, you seriously consider applying. You’ll move there, and on your first trip into Athens for supplies – paper towels, light bulbs, the most mundane things — you’ll run into Michael Stipe. Your eyes will meet. It will be fate. He’ll carry your light bulbs home for you.
“On the other hand,” says your friend from work, who is getting ready to accept a job offer in Florida, “if you move down there and you never meet Michael Stipe, you’ll be stuck covering zoning board meetings in some crappy little town in Georgia.”
You take a job on a newspaper in Massachusetts instead.
The week Life’s Rich Pageant is released you and your friend from college go to T.T. the Bear’s in Cambridge to see Miracle Legion, a band that sounds vaguely like R.E.M. You find a kitten outside the club and decide to take it home with you. You want to name the kitten Michael, for the love of your life; but you settle on Matthew instead. Because what if you met Michael Stipe, and he came to your apartment, and you had to explain why you’d named your cat Michael? It would be embarrassing. On the ride home that night the kitten climbs up the back of the driver’s seat and perches near the headrest, purring in your ear, while you hear “Fall on Me,” the single from the new album, on the radio for the first time. Years later, the cat will gently touch his paw to the speaker when that song comes on your stereo, and you will wonder if he remembers that moment in the car, too.
A few months later R.E.M. comes to Boston. You go to the show with a guy you’ve just started seeing, several co-workers from your new job and your friend from college. Michael Stipe is no longer shy onstage; he’s becoming something of a showman. You ditch your boyfriend so you can get closer to the stage, closer to Stipe. He shimmies his slender hips to “Begin the Begin”; he pounds his chest during “Just a Touch,” then pulls his t-shirt up, exposing his hairy chest. You scream like one of those bespectacled girls at the Shea Stadium Beatles show in 1965. Seriously: you scream. You just can’t help it. Your friends from the newspaper, all male and ten years older than you, find your crush amusing. “He might be bi,” your college friend offers, gesturing toward Stipe. Your boyfriend sulks.
You now have enough friends scattered around the country to plan trips around R.E.M. shows, and you go to see the band in Miami, Philly and New York. But the show you are waiting for is the one in Providence, the one where you got eighth row seats by hauling your ass out of bed at 6 a.m. and waiting at the box office. You look forward to this show until a conflict arises: the town meeting for the Southeastern Massachusetts municipality you cover – the biggest event of the year in your boring local news beat – is scheduled for the same night as the R.E.M. concert. You fret. You ask your music-loving editor friend what you should do. “I guess you have to figure out where your priorities are,” he says, and you thank him for the clarity. Your priority is Michael Stipe!
The concert is in a beautiful old theater the night of the 1987 stock market crash, and the band never sounded better. Michael Stipe’s hair is very long now, pulled into a thick ponytail. He radiates beauty, a beauty beyond the physical. The entire crowd seems to be made up of megafans; between songs it’s as quiet as a religious service. Though you will spend the rest of that weekend worrying that someone from work might have seen you at the concert, you will always remember that show, and you will never regret missing the Wareham town meeting.
After the concert you and your friend go to an after-party. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck is there, and you work up the nerve to tell him how much you love the band. He smiles a genuine smile, and thanks you. You are equal parts disappointed and relieved that Stipe isn’t there. Disappointed, for the obvious reasons; relieved, because what could you say in this context that would be at all meaningful to him? You are now old enough that you no longer believe Stipe would fall, on first sight, as madly in love with you as you are with him. But that doesn’t make you desire him any less.
“Now him,” your college friend says, motioning to Buck after the two of you have moved away, “he’s definitely straight.”
You have left your reporting job to move to Philadelphia for graduate school in creative writing; one of the short stories you used for your applications was about a girl with a crush on the lead singer of a fictional band, a singer who resembles, more than a little, one Michael Stipe. In a few years it will be your first published story. In Philly you meet a gorgeous guy with long, curly brown hair. He is nothing if not Stipelike. You fall immediately in love with him. It takes a long time to work yourself into his world, but you manage it; and since he is an R.E.M. fan as well, the two of you decide, on hearing that the Green tour is opening in Gorgeous Guy’s hometown in the South, that you will go there for spring break and see the band.
Your heart gets broken on that trip, just before the concert. Instead of finding the music comforting, it feels alien to you. This is no longer a reverent R.E.M. crowd; there are teenage girls behind you, chattering about school. Stipe performs with a megaphone, working the stage; he’s become a different person entirely, just as Gorgeous Guy, this man you thought you loved, is not who he seemed to be. You look at Stipe and think, Yeah, I bet he’d break my heart like this, too. You start hearing the darkness in the love songs, a darkness you have until now blithely dismissed.
You’ll never really enjoy the Green album after that, and you’ll never be sure if it’s because the music started going in a poppier direction with that album, or if it’s because of the association with Gorgeous Guy.
Out of Time
You are living in Vermont, back in school to learn something more practical than creative writing but still drafting short stories late at night. You can’t say you like Out of Time the way you like the older albums, but you can’t completely dismiss it, either. It will be the album that wins R.E.M. several Grammys, and you actually tear up watching the awards show. You can’t help it; you’re proud of your boys, as proud as you’d be if you actually knew them.
You have been long-distance dating a guy who lives in Philly, and at a point near the end of the relationship you are riding in the car with him, feeling hurt, when “Losing My Religion” comes on the radio. You immerse yourself in the music. A certain lyric in this song – the part about saying too much, yet not saying enough — sums up this relationship you are now in. You softly sing along.
“Maybe I should leave the two of you alone,” your boyfriend, who knows of your once-intense crush on Stipe, says. And soon, he does.
Automatic for the People
This album has a song you love – “Nightswimming” – but it also has the first song R.E.M. has ever recorded that you truly hate: “Everybody Hurts.” It’s sappy and dull and just beneath them. You find yourself gravitating to new music with more of an edge – Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, the Red Hot Chili Peppers – but it is impossible to think that you might not still be an R.E.M. fan. True, you are no longer so in love with Stipe that you have a picture of him taped near your bed, no longer so in love that you sometimes allow yourself to gently touch your fingertips to his photographed lips as a way to say goodnight. You are almost thirty now, and much of your twenty-something identity was wrapped up in having a giant crush on Stipe, on being R.E.M.’s number one fan. If you no longer like R.E.M., if you no longer love Stipe, then who are you?
The first bad sign is when your now-elderly cat scrambles from the room on first listen. You try so hard: surely, there’s something in this noisy-yet-bland album to like, but damned if you can find it. You go to see the band at one of the large arenas they are playing these days, hoping to be proven wrong. But the magic is gone. Seeing Stipe onstage is like seeing your first love at a high school reunion. There’s fondness, but the longing isn’t there. There has been much speculation in the press about Stipe’s sexuality, and it hits you, finally, that he probably is gay, and that your mid-1980s fantasies of a life with him were not only far-fetched; they were impossible, even if you had met him.
So you take the energy you used to put into elaborate fantasies about your future life with Michael Stipe and channel it into this novel you’ve been thinking of writing. Freed of your Stipe obsession, it seems a large chunk of your brain is now available to sustain the characters and setting of an entire world, the world of your novel. The book will be about music, and R.E.M. will make a cameo, but they are now just minor players in your imaginative life.
You won’t like any of R.E.M.’s albums after Monster. You will be sustained by other bands, other albums – Counting Crows’ and Son Volt’s debuts, Wilco and Neko Case and Death Cab for Cutie and the Arcade Fire — but none of them will ever have the place in your heart that R.E.M. did. No lead singer, however appealing, will be to you what Michael Stipe was. You are simply too old now, your life too full. This is good, you suppose, but there’s something sad about it too.
Now, instead of longing for Stipe, you sometimes long for that girl who loved him so. Whatever happened to her?
But one day, in a new century and a new life, you will hear a radio interview with Stipe, hear him explain that he’s bisexual, even hear him quantify his desires: “I’m attracted to three women for every seven men,” Stipe says. And something in you stirs. You had a shot after all, you think – at least a 30 percent chance. The girl who once loved Stipe feels her heart quicken. What if you had taken that job on that little newspaper in Georgia, and you had met Stipe, and he had fallen for you? The Stipe-loving girl inside you — as real and as apart from you as the characters in your novels – lets out a little squeal. You smile. That silly girl will always love Michael. And so will you.
(photo: Google Images; jacksonvilleconfidential)