High Times Greats: Michael Stipe

Inspired by the Beats, R.E.M. became a band in 1984.
High Times Greats: Michael Stipe
Michael Stipe by RETNA/Andy Earl

In Steve Bloom’s October, 1998 story, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe talked about his affection for Beat Generation legends Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, as he prepared for R.E.M.’s appearance at the Tibet Freedom Concert. On the occasion of Stipe’s birthday January 4, we’re republishing the story below, followed by another short sidebar interview about Tibet, recorded and transcribed by John Bitzer.

Michael Stipe is full of surprises. For the first R.E.M. performance since drummer Bill Berry quit the band in 1997, at the Tibet Freedom Concert in Washington, DC on June 14, the bald singer wore a sarong and a midriff top. Clearly, Stipe has come to terms, at least publicly, with his bisexuality. For this interview, which was arranged to publicize Stipe’s book of photography, Two Times Intro: On the Road with Patti Smith, he spent a good deal of time lavishing praise upon two of his other heroes, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, both of whom were very openly gay. Stipe’s interest in High Times seemed not to stem from the marijuana content of the magazine, but the countercultural milieu we sprang from. R.E.M. haven’t released a new album since 1994’s Monster, but a new one is in the works and should be out sometime before the end of the year. This interview was conducted one month before the Tibet Freedom Concert at approximately 4:20 in the afternoon from the R.E.M. office in Athens, GA.

This will be your first performance with R.EM. since…

Michael Stipe: November of ’95.

The Tibet show will also be your first show since Bill Berry left the band. How are you going to deal with that?

We’re a little anxious about it, but I’m sure we’ll do fine. Even when we suck, we really suck terribly. Although I’d rather be really bad than mediocre. We’re figuring out how to program drums. There’ll be some master musicians to back us. We’ll certainly have a lot of support from our peers.

But there won’t be a drummer?

Yeah, there will be a drummer. We haven’t figured that out yet. Probably a drummer, probably a couple of multi-instrumentalists just for the event. If we decide to tour, we’ll figure out if we need to keep those people on.

Is there still a strong music scene in Athens?

There’s a really cool thing going on here with Elephant 6 Collective and Elf Power.

I was just in Athens for “Spread Nik’’—Widespread Panic’s free concert.

That was fun, wasn’t it? They’re really good guys [Widespread].

What else have you been listening to?

I’ve been not listening a lot because I’ve been writing this record.

Are you familiar with High Times?

Yeah, I am. I don’t read it regularly. I’ve seen a couple of articles that were really good that weren’t particularly drug-related.

In your book, Thurston Moore recounts the time you and Sonic Youth visited William Burroughs at his home in Kansas in 1995.

He was a piece of work, that William S. Burroughs. He was a sweet man.

Thurston explains a previous visit when Burroughs only spoke of knife and gun collecting. About the time he visited with you, he writes, “Burroughs really liked Michael and they chatted quite a bit. I pretty much sat munching the tea sandwiches made available.”

People will tend to tell the stories they know are crowd-pleasers, especially if they’re visited by strangers. I’m speaking from experience. I can easily fall into the same thing, although William had a good fifty years on me. When people know a lot about you and you don’t know a lot about them, it’s a little awkward. You just tend to launch into the same stories. I nor Thurston, nor Kim [Gordon], nor any of the other guys in Sonic Youth have much interest in knives and guns. I kind of expected that might happen. Whenever I saw he was going there I would just kind of redirect the conversation or raise another topic that I thought he might want to expound on. We had a great afternoon. He was a very, very intelligent man. He had a lot of knowledge and a lot of very funny stories, insight into all kinds of things. Octopus, for instance. The conversation that was particularly inspiring to me was the conversation I had with him about octopus. About its intelligence. In terms of marine life, octopus seems like king of the hill. Short lives, very smart. That was great to befriend him.

Was that the only time you met him?

I was there twice, I think. Yeah, twice. And I talked to him on the phone several times. Once I called by accident [laughs]. I was calling for someone else and he answered. I said, “Who is this?” He said if was William. I was like, Holy shit, I just dialed the wrong number and there was William Burroughs. That was kind of fun.

What’s the fascination with Burroughs among rock ‘n’ rollers?

He was very self-deprecating and very funny. I kind of hated him for a while because I had friends who looked up to him and then became junkies. I kind of despised Hunter Thompson for a while for the same reason. Their audience takes it and runs with it. What’s really being said, what’s really being discussed or written about is something much greater. We don’t really know whether they’re writing from experience or whether they’ve created, as William did I think a lot of the times, a persona from which he could kind of pronounce things.

The movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is coming out. Are you paying particular attention to that?

Um, well, no. I’ve never met Hunter Thompson. I’m not a great fan of his. He was a part of a documentary that I took part in called Anthem. A pretty big part. These two filmmakers went around the country asking people what the American Dream was. They wound up at Hunter’s place on the day that Jerry Garcia passed away. They interviewed me for the same documentary. So I saw it. It’s actually quite quite good. He’s very smart, but very scattered.

Another legendary figure who appears in your book is Allen Ginsberg. Was he on the Patti tour?

He came to a couple of shows. He adored Patti. I was always around him at benefit things.

How did you feel about Allen?

He was a funny guy [laughs]. All these guys have great senses of humor. There was a lightness about Allen. I was explaining last week to someone because those two images [in the book, of Ginsberg] made it into the photo show at the Robert Hiller Gallery [in New York]—the one of him taking the picture of me and the one with the camera down looking at me. There was a wonderment about him. He carried that to his death, a curiosity I guess. We should all have that kind of a curiosity in our mellow years. Allen just had it all. That was maybe the key to his being so good, so appreciative.

Did you feel a particular kinship with him?

He found me irresistible. He was very open with his affections, which kind of made him very special to me.

Are you fascinated with the Beat Generation?

Yeah, my band essentially started because Peter Buck, the guitar player, and I had read On the Road. I just kind of wanted to do that. We had to have some purpose to band together. We fucking did it. We did it for years and years. It was great. And it was very different from the America those guys explored. Their account of it was somewhat fictionalized. It’s a different America today.

What other books have inspired you?

I’m not much of a reader. I don’t really have time for it. Although I’m reading a book now. I’m very proud of myself. It’s called The Page Turner, [pauses] And it is one. On the Road was one of the few books I read more than once.

Have you read other Kerouac books?

Yeah, I have, but I can’t remember the names of them. Desolation Angels and the one that sounds like “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

The Subterraneans.

Yeah, that’s it. Thank you.

The Beats were very influential to me as well in my passage coming out of college.

I guess it is a rite of passage.

You did it with rock ‘n’ roll.

Yeah. Music is a great passion of mine. I’d wanted to be in band since I was fifteen. I had a good fifteenth year. That was the year I discovered photography and music.

Was this also around the time you discovered pot?

I was a total pothead in school. I smoked pot several times a day. The first time I smoked pot was out of a bong. And then I drank the bongwater, which was Jack Daniel’s. I got really high. I ate anchovies and mustard sauce ’cause I got the munchies. I had no idea what was going on. It was on a camping trip. That was kind of an interesting introduction to pot. For maybe three years I smoked pretty much every day. Then one day I just woke up and decided, I don’t want to do that anymore. I didn’t like it anymore, so I didn’t smoke pot for years and years.

Did you start again?

Not really. Every now and then I’ll try it. But I’m not really interested. What is this 4:20 joke?

4:20 is stoner slang for getting high. Often I’ll suggest bands do interviews at 4:20, like I did with you. Potheads have their own language to disguise what they do.

As does everyone. What do those billboards say about pot? The yellow ones? “Are you waiting for your kids to talk to YOU about pot?” These cropped up in the ten days that I was gone to New, York. They’re all over town. I kinda wanna go and cross out pot with SEX.

That’s the Partnership for a Drug Free America’s “Cannabis Stupida” campaign. Did you see the Frontline show, “America’s War on Marijuana”? It reported that 17% of federal prisoners are there for marijuana.

That’s kind of nutty. That’s a lot of money. I think pot’s a lot stronger now than when I was a teenager.

It is if you’re either growing it yourself or getting it from someone who’s doing that.

Hybidizing or whatever. It seems kind of inane, you know? I think it’s a relatively harmless activity.

What other drugs have you experimented with?

Pretty much anything up to 1984. I just went through a phase where I was experimenting, trying stuff out and enjoying it a great deal, and then it was over and that was it.

That corresponds with the rise of R.E.M.

It’s not like you have to quit drugs to be in a successful rock band or anything like that. Don’t read into that. It just happened that way for me.

Are you familiar with the medical use of marijuana?

I know that it’s good for people with glaucoma, and people who are suffering from cancer, AIDS and degenerative diseases. That’s about as much as I know about it. We did our record in San Francisco and there was a place we walked by that was the legal pot place. I never actually went over to the window and looked in. My friends who went there said you get a prescription and you go in there and you smoke bud.

You can’t deny the amazing powers of this plant.

Right. I was out there [in LA.] with Woody Harrelson and some of his buddies. It just seems again inane that people can’t separate the growing of hemp from the growing of pot for recreation. It’s not legal here, right? Although people can make things somewhere else and bring them here—is that right?

You can buy the hemp from different parts of the world, import it and turn it into what ever product you want. Like clothes. There are a lot of hempseed products too, like shampoos and soaps.

Maybe by our dumbness we’re helping other countries that don’t have as much wealth as we do to have cash crops.

Things are changing in Europe faster than here. Obviously, there is the Amsterdam model.

I don’t know that reference.

The coffeeshops. What they’ve done in Amsterdam is a kind of de facto legalization. It’s the only place in the world where that exists. Germany and Belgium have both decriminalized, and Spain is very tolerant. Where do you like to travel?

I always like going someplace where I haven’t been to. I’ve been to Western Europe a whole lot. I’m that guy who’s happy wherever he is. I pretty much enjoy everywhere. There’s places I’d love to go to that I haven’t been to yet.

What’s at the top of your list?

India, although they’re going to have to stop setting off nuclear weapons [laughs]. And parts of Asia. I was in Hong Kong and that was really cool.

Have you ever been to Tibet?

No. And I guess if I play this concert in June in Washington. I’m not welcome there.

Talkin’ ‘Bout Tibet

It was a strange time for R.E.M. at June’s Tibet Freedom Concerts. With Day One canceled after a lightning storm invaded RFK Stadium, their much-anticipated first concert appearance in more than two years had to wait another day. The June 14 show packed about as much music into nine hours as was humanly possible. Preceding R.E.M were Buffalo Daughter, Sean Lennon, Pulp, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, Wyclef Jean, Blues Traveler, the Wallflowers and Luscious Jackson.

R.E.M.’s 5pm set began with “Losing My Religion” and included several songs from 1995’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi (with the help of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke) as well a few new somber works in progress. Overall, they seemed meditative, which suited the Asian flavor of the day, but wasn’t much of a turn-on to the crowd who might have wanted to groove to “Stand” or “Shiny Happy People.” The concert ended with sets by A Tribe Called Quest, the Beastie Boys, Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Backstage, during the Beasties’ performance, Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills spoke to the press.

On their set—

Stipe: “We’re like dinner theatre now.”

Mills: “Easy…”

Stipe: “OK, I’m dinner theatre…. No, we’re excited about the songs we’re working on right now in the studio and wanted to perform them. We don’t want to be an oldies act.”

On whether the Tibet cause will somehow seep into their songwriting—

Stipe: “I don’t think anybody really knows it, but Tiananmen Square was the catalyst for writing the song ‘Belong.’ Sometimes something like that can enter into a piece of creative work in a rather obtuse way. And let’s face it, you’re dealing with R.E.M. here. It’s going to be a little abstract.’’

On China being the new enemy—

Mills: “I don’t think we need to politicize the issue to that extent. The whole point of this is helping a race of people who are being genocidally wiped out and tortured and oppressed. And we don’t want to allow this to become a political football and demonize China and make them the big new bad guys. There are evil people all over the world. This is just one situation with a very specific problem we can all address and hopefully bring to a resolution.”

On Stipe’s outfit—

Stipe: “I had a sarong and a very tight shirt on. I just felt like being foxy.”

On the concert being a success—

Mills: “It will only be a success if we achieve a resolution between the Tibetan government in exile and the Chinese government. In terms of doing specifically what this was intended to do, which was to bring a whole lot of people together and deliver a message, then yes, I think it’s very much a success.”

On sending a message to President Clinton—

Mills: “Get off your ass, Bill. That’s what we’re saying.”

On R.E.M’s involvement in different issues—

Mills: “You have a whole lot of ideas, and people have to pick one and become committed to it. Given the choices people have to apply their energies to a specific cause, they’re doing very well. You have this many people working this hard to put this together. That shows that the apathy you think is out there is not as bad as you think it is.”

Stipe: “Apathy is something that is very easily foisted upon young people. And very often, I think, unfairly. People are willing and interested in educating themselves about the world around them. And it’s up to us to make that easy for them.”

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