R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe’s Radical Vulnerability
WSJ. Magazine, 2021
The musician talks about the elusive nature of fame and masculinity while sharing some of his favorite mementos.
As an artist, Michael Stipe is, in his words, “uncategorizable”: He’s a photographer, a musician, a stage designer and a film producer, among other things. When discussing his art in all its forms, Stipe speaks with reverence of the women who have influenced it, from his mother and his multiple goddaughters to Patti Smith, Liza Minnelli and Greta Thunberg. His own name is synonymous with R.E.M., the now-dissolved rock band from Athens, Georgia, that Stipe helmed until 2011. Their top-selling single “Losing My Religion” became an unlikely, mandolin-led anthem of angst for an entire generation in the early ’90s, catapulting the group onto the global stage.
But for Stipe, the turning point for R.E.M. happened in front of a relatively smaller audience a few years prior. “When I played the Saenger Theatre [in New Orleans] with my former band, my Nana was so thrilled—that was the moment we had arrived—because she went there as a flapper and danced the Black Bottom and the Barnyard Shuffle,” he recalls over Zoom from his New York City home.
Recently, Stipe has mostly stepped away from the stage and out of the spotlight. His latest photography book, the third in his series of five with the Bologna, Italy–based publisher Damiani, began as a sequence of portraits featuring the friends, creators and acquaintances whose fearlessness and vulnerability Stipe says has shaped him in ways both big and small. But when the pandemic hit and access to his subjects was restricted, he had to rely instead on pulling archival images, shooting them from a distance or simply listing their names in graphic fonts. Some of the people featured he knows intimately—his goddaughters Lucille Reback and Charlotte Shaifer, for example—while others, like the late Belgian singer Jacques Brel, he’d never even met.
Stipe has pieced together what he calls a self-portrait through the prism of those he admires. He appears only once in the book, and as a shadowy silhouette. “It’s untitled. I just put my name on the spine because it’s my book, but that’s not the title at all. I worked really hard to remove myself from [it],” he says. It’s a weird book, he says, that is best explained as his visual take on the song “Funky Side Of Town” by James Brown. “My best friend said, ‘This book is your James Brown song; it’s your shout-out song.’ That’s a good description of what it is. It’s me doing shout-outs.”
Your book is accompanied by recorded audio captions in which you describe it as a self- portrait, despite there being few visual traces of you in its pages.
Well, it feels like it is because these are all the people that moved me or came to me, approached me through media, or through reading, or through news and politics, or through my normal life throughout 2020. And it became, rather than the book of portraits that I set out to do initially, somewhat of a self-portrait of someone going batshit crazy during lockdown. I mean, we all went a little crazy I think. We all discovered different parts of ourselves that may have been either very uncomfortable or not altogether appealing aspects of ourselves and had to work through that. I certainly did.
Last year, you released the song “No Time For Love Like Now,” a collaboration with Big Red Machine, featuring The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Were the lyrics inspired by that experience of being in lockdown?
I finished the lyric [“There’s no time in the bardo / No time in the in-between”] after [poet and performance artist] John Giorno passed away months before Covid. The lyric includes this in-between place where we don’t know where we came from or where we’re going, and [the rest of the song] included the lyric[s] “lockdown” and included “freefall,” which are two words that came up for obvious reasons over and over again during lockdown. It was eerie to me…. It was a little bit freaking me out. I love the song and I stand by the lyric[s] absolutely, and I don’t think we need to be in lockdown for that sentiment to resonate deeply. We need to acknowledge and look at love as the powerful force that it is in each of our lives and be able to hopefully share that, if not in every action and in every thought, then in most of the ones that we can broadcast into the world. The song…is so deeply sad and beautiful, but it’s really about change and how that’s the one part of human experience that we know is absolutely something that we cannot control and yet it’s the one thing that we’re most deeply afraid of.
That desire to confront your fears seems to inform so much of what you create…
Well thank you, that’s very generous, but I don’t think of [my own work] as such except for performing on live TV—that’s f—ing scary. The rest of it is a walk in the park. I don’t know if it’s an astrological characteristic or being born as an Army brat, but I’ve carried fear my whole life, so I’m attracted and drawn to people who I consider to be courageous and I try to embrace that fearlessness myself. So that’s really what the entire book is about, truthfully: courage and vulnerability. Allowing vulnerability as a superpower. This is an idea that I lifted and transformed slightly from Greta Thunberg, who referred to being autistic as a superpower…. I realized my own particular superpower is my ability to be vulnerable in my work and in the way that I present myself as a public figure, and I was doing that a long time before it was particularly acceptable from men. I’m happy to have been there, and I’m happy to be here.
It was Patti Smith actually who I was asking for advice about working on a record at a time when my former band was having a real problem, and she just said, “You need to walk unafraid,” and I was like, “Can I have that?” and she said, “Absolutely,” so I turned it into a song called “Walk Unafraid”…. As a queer man, thinking about being a man in the world and moving through the world is way different than for straight men, or for straight people. Being queer gives you a different perspective and one that I would not want to not have. I actually appreciate and enjoy a degree of outsider status. It makes me feel comfortable with a lot of my choices and decisions.
Has your perspective on fear changed due to the pandemic?
This is such an intensely, profoundly important moment, I think, because we are moving into a more precise recognition of who we are and what we need to do to survive. [This deeper understanding of ourselves] feels essential to our survival and also to the number of things, whether it’s other species or parts of the earth, that we’re going to take with us if we continue down the same path…. It’s wildly uncomfortable, but we expected that. We’re getting rid of, among other things, the alpha male and we’re calling forward—and this sounds reductive because I’m using gender to describe epochs—a more feminine epoch and one that allows for vulnerability and one that allows for more self-awareness and more compassion.
You’re referring to toxic masculinity?
I despise that term personally, but it does reference very clearly that barrel-chested, alpha male stupidity or bravado, whatever you want to call it, and reveals it as immense insecurity. I think that women, if I can generalize by gender, have recognized that forever and now, in the 21st century, men are beginning to realize that it’s not such a good look. It’s over with, fellas.
You’re best-known for being the frontman of one of the biggest rock bands of all time. How did you grapple with that fame at first, and do you think your experience with it would have been different today?
I had a conversation [about fame] at the Viper Room, probably in the mid ’90s with, of all people, Dennis Rodman, very late at night. I said that it’s not enough to just be famous for being famous and he said, “Yes it is.” I said, “You’re wrong,” and as things moved along with digital technology and the advent of social media, he was actually right and I was wrong. I just said you have to do something, you have to have a skill, the skill can’t just be that you’re good at being famous, that’s not enough. But the next generation of American fame-seekers has proven me wrong. I don’t know that I would be any more comfortable than I was then with approaching the idea of fame, but I did at some point embrace it and acknowledge that there was immense power in having that platform to put across ideas, whether they’re political or activist or just more humanist ideas.
What is it, then, that you want to be known for?
Well, I’ll always have those three little letters by my name for however long I’m remembered, and that’s fine. I’m very proud of what we did as a band, R.E.M. What do I want to be known for, though? Maybe that I was unafraid. That’s something to move towards perhaps. I’d like to be remembered as a compassionate and thoughtful person. And funny. I’d like to be remembered as funny.
And here, in his own words, a few of Stipe’s favorite things.
“In the front are two photos: The headshot is of my Nana, my mother’s mother, who was a flapper and a fiercely strong, incredible woman. The full-length photo is of my Grandma Stipe; you can tell that she was Cherokee. I’m the only person who holds those very dear images of my grandmothers as high school graduates. Behind them is a broken cup that’s been taped in preparation for kintsugi repair [the Japanese art of mending broken pottery pieces with gold lacquer]. It’s by Caroline Wallner, the ceramicist who did the vases for my book. I couldn’t let go of it when it broke. There’s a signed picture of Rudolf Nureyev in the window that I got on eBay. Nureyev is this almost mythical creature of such fearlessness and bravery. I put the picture there to illustrate the ballet slippers on the left [which belonged to him]. Above the slippers is a pair of Alexander McQueen shoes from the last show he did before he died. When I [first saw them], I burst into tears. I suddenly felt that the 21st century had arrived through those shoes.
The framed photograph in the back is of me with my parents and was a gift from Wolfgang Tillmans. They are both vibrating with this intensity and this beauty that is really rare. To the right is a life cast of William Blake. It was a gift from Patti Smith. She took a pencil and wrote Blake’s prose and poetry all over it, and then she included a bit of her own work. She has a song called “My Blakean Year,” which feels immensely prescient of what 2020 became for all of us. The macaque figurine is from Ting’s Gift Shop in New York City on Doyers Street. It’s really just a reminder to lighten up. And below it, that’s a marionette puppet from the collection of Jeremy Ayers, a dear friend who died unexpectedly. I met him when I was 19 and I really thought he was the first love of my life. He taught me how to dance, how to laugh at myself, how to eat vegetarian, how to dress.
In the bottom right is a subway token on top of “A Box of Smile” by Yoko Ono. They are both gifts for my 50th birthday from my boyfriend, Thomas Dozol, who’s an artist. The subway token [represents] a world of opportunity and possibility, which is what New York was to me. In the center is a Marlon Brando book, The Contender, and stapler; that’s essential. That became my lockdown-era iPhone stand, and there’s a thing that happens where you see [Brando’s face] with a line through it, and the reflection in the stapler kind of finishes his face for him. It’s incredible.”