MICHAEL STIPE (2014)
As a kid I remember hearing R.E.M. tunes on the radio; songs like “The One I Love”, “It’s the End of the World As We Know it”, and “Orange Crush”. I never minded their music but I never imagined they’d be a band that I’d be “into”. I was a little metal head when I was young so I listened to bands like AC/DC, Iron Maiden, and Twisted Sister. But when I morphed into a teenager my musical tastes changed. Metal began to feel dated and out of touch. I simply couldn’t relate to Vince Neil and David Lee Roth. I was drawn into the grunge and alternative scene and began listening to bands like Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Radiohead. Along the way R.E.M. was always there in the background releasing radio-friendly hit after radio-friendly hit like “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”.
I took more notice of the band with the release of their 1992 album, Automatic for the People. It contained the hits “Man on the Moon”, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”, “Drive”, and “Everybody Hurts”; all good songs and there were some decent music videos to go along with them. The video for Drive is an all-time favorite of mine. Regardless, I still had a hard time seeing R.E.M. as “cool”.
That changed in 1994 with the release of the album Monster. I was watching MuchMusic (Canada’s MTV) as I did a lot as a teenager. Alternative music had officially become mainstream by then so the Pumpkins, Green Day, and Weezer were in heavy rotation. I vividly recall MuchMusic’s debut of the video for “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, the first single from Monster. The band is in a barn with frontman Michael Stipe standing in the foreground and the other 3 guys in the back. Stipe is so close to the camera that his head is out of frame. All you can see is his lean body wearing a plain T-shirt with a star in the center.
A signature REM twangy static guitar riff opens the track and Michael just stands there. Even when the vocals kick in we don’t get to see his face. It’s only when the chorus arrives that the camera zooms out to reveal he has shaved his head completely bald. I don’t know why but to me he was instantly cool. The combo of a great song, a cool shirt and the new look won me over. They did not look or sound like the Shiny Happy People band.
Once a band wins me over I remain loyal. I continued to buy R.E.M. albums until they broke up in 2011 (there were 6 after Monster) and I went back and collected their entire back catalogue too (there were 8 albums before Monster). Monster remains my favorite but the follow-up, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which features the songs “E-Bow the Letter” and “Leave” ranks highly as well.
The more I learned about Mr. Stipe the cooler I thought he was.
He’s been a producer on some films I really like and he’s collaborated with some of my favorite musicians like Placebo and Coutney Love (he’s even the godfather of Kurt and Courtney’s kid). But as much as I love Michael Stipe I never really felt the need to own an action figure of him. One of the reasons I got into alternative music is because the artists seemed like real people I could relate to. One downside to being so “normal” is that you’re not nearly as interesting to look at as someone like Marilyn Manson. No matter how good their music is Pearl Jam will never sell as many lunch boxes as KISS.
I promise I will eventually get around to talking about the action figure. Please continue on to Part 2.