Michael Stipe Biography

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Genres: Alternative/Indie, Electronica/Dance, Pop, Rock


Born John Michael Stipe in Decatur, GA on Jan. 4, 1960, his childhood was frequently uprooted due to his father's career in the military. They eventually settled in Illinois, where Stipe attended high school. A shy, quiet teenager, he broke out of his shell thanks in part to his discovery of punk/alternative forefathers like Patti Smith and Wire, and soon formed his own band. After high school, he attended the University of Georgia in Athens, where he met aspiring guitarist Peter Buck at a local record store. Their mutual interest in music soon forged a friendship and the foundation for a band. The group launched in earnest with the addition of Mike Mills on bass and Bill Berry on drums, and after randomly selecting a name from a dictionary, R.E.M. began performing at Athens-era clubs in 1980. They immediately set themselves apart from the rest of the city's burgeoning music scene by blending propulsive, punk-influenced rhythms with elements of classic country and psychedelic rock. Lurking within the sonic mix were Stipe's obtuse, often surreal lyrics, which he delivered in a voice that could swoop from a half-heard mutter to a keening wail.

In 1981, R.E.M. released their debut single, "Radio Free Europe," which immediately captured the attention of college radio listeners and critics. Its success generated an EP, Chronic Town, for IRS Records in 1982, which was followed by a full album, Murmur in 1983. By then, the band members were full-fledged heroes of the growing independent/alternative music scene, with much of the attention focused on Stipe's cryptic lyrics and eccentric stage presence. When Murmur bested Michael Jackson's Thriller as Album of the Year in Rolling Stone's Critics Poll, the band was soon the focus of international attention. They soon generated a second album, 1984's Reckoning, which featured some of the band's most enduring songs, including "Don't Go Back to Rockville," "Pretty Persuasion" and "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)." The following year, R.E.M. traveled to England to record their third album, Fables of the Reconstruction (1985). By this point, the band had begun to buckle under a punishing schedule of writing, recording and touring; the rail-thin, curly-tressed Stipe responded by gaining a noticeable amount of weight and shaving his hair in a monk's tonsure. The resulting album was another classic thanks to the danceable "Cant Get There From Here," "Driver 8" and "Green Grow the Rushes," but it also marked the band's growing dislike for the pressures of the music business.

Their 1986 LP Lifes Rich Pageant saw both the band and Stipe truly blossom as creative entities. He had grown more confident in his singing voice, and producer Don Gehman responded by pushing his vocals to the forefront of the songs. He had also matured as a songwriter who was unafraid to tackle issues like ecology in the mournful "Fall On Me" and "Cuyahoga" and politics on "Flowers of Guatemala." The strength of "Fall On Me," which featured Stipe's debut as a music video director, propelled R.E.M. into the Top 20 in the U.S. and earned them their first gold record. They would top this feat with their sixth album, Document (1987), which featured "The One I Love," a churning song about possessive love that broke the Top 10, the blitzkrieg pop culture chant "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," and a deepened interest in instrumental experimentation. The album was their first to reach platinum status in sales, and their last for IRS.

In 1988, R.E.M. made the leap to Warner Bros. with Green, which balanced explicitly political material in "World Leader Pretend" with the buoyant hit single "Stand," that deflated growing concerns that the band was losing the irreverent humor of its early songs. The album was supported by the group's first arena tour, which took them well into 1989, after which the group decided to take a year off to recharge and focus on their next two albums. In the meantime, Stipe delved into production for other Southern music acts, as well as a mixed-media company, C00 Films. He also briefly flirted with acting through a recurring role as a dissolute ice cream vendor on the surreal kids' series "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" (Nickelodeon, 1989-1996).

The year 1991 saw R.E.M. hit its greatest heights with Out of Time, its first album to reach the top of the U.S. and U.K. charts. It generated a massive single with the elegiac "Losing My Religion," which swept the MTV Video Awards and earned two Grammys in 1992. It also solidified the band's status as international superstars, with the same level of influence and drawing power as established acts like U2 and the Rolling Stones. The increased exposure generated by the success of the album and its 1992 follow-up, Automatic for the People, which featured the hits "Man on the Moon" and "Everybody Hurts," led to increased scrutiny of the lives of the band members, with Stipe, as its most expressive member, receiving the lion's share of the press inquiries. In the years between Fables of the Reconstruction and Out of Time, his physical appearance had changed dramatically, and rumors soon swirled that the gaunt, bald-pated Stipe was HIV-positive. Comments he made to the press about his sexuality, which he described as polysexual, only served to underscore the rumors, which required vehement dismissal by the band.

Stipe also generated headlines for his relationship with Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain and his wife, controversial musician Courtney Love, with whom he maintained a close relationship after Cobain's suicide, in addition to serving as godfather to their daughter, Frances Bean. He would remain a close confidante to Love in the tumultuous years following Cobain's death, as well as to singer-songwriter Tori Amos, with whom he recorded a duet in 1994 called "It Might Hurt a Bit." Stipe finally broke free of the tabloid coverage in 1994 with the release of R.E.M.'s Monster, which again topped the international charts and generated two Top 40 hits with the harder-rocking sounds of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" and "Bang and Blame." They would be the band's last Top 40 hits in America, and precede a lengthy and troubled period for the band.

In 1995, R.E.M. set out on their first world tour in six years. It was almost immediately beset with problems, starting with Bill Berry's onstage brain aneurysm in Switzerland and later with emergency abdominal surgery for Mike Mills and hernia surgery for Stipe. Despite the chaos that swirled around the "Monster" tour, the band managed to record another album's worth of material between dates, and after re-signing with Warner Bros. for a reported $80 million - the highest paying recording contract in history up to that point - they released Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), which saw significantly lower sales than its predecessor. In 1997, Bill Berry announced that his recent health issues had convinced him to leave the band. Now a three-piece outfit, R.E.M. struggled to pull together music for a new album, which resulted in chaos that nearly tore apart the group. They eventually managed to produce Up (1998), which was their first significant failure.

Stipe and his band mates shifted their attention to the instrumental score for "Man on the Moon" (1998), a biopic of the late comedian Andy Kaufman that drew its title from their song. It preceded a lengthy period of inactivity for the band, during which Stipe directed his focus towards a variety of different projects. He published Two Times Intro: On the Road with Patti Smith (1998), which complied photos of his rock idol on stage. He also launched a new film production company, Single Cell, which oversaw some of the top indie films of the late 1990s and early 2000s, including the Oscar-nominated "Being John Malkovich" (1999) and "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing" (2001). His sexuality continued to be the subject of considerable focus, most notably after the publication of Outline of My Lover, a 1999 novel by Douglas A. Martin that purported to be a thinly veiled memoir of his relationship with Stipe. In 2001, the singer himself confirmed that he had been in a relationship with a man for several years, but balked at describing himself as gay.

That same year, the band reunited for its twelfth album, Reveal (2001), which generated the same amount of sales as its predecessor, Up. R.E.M. remained a powerhouse group in England, where singles consistently broke the Top 10, but in America, its fortunes began a slow decline that was broken only by 2004's Around the Sun, which peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard charts. The band devoted considerable time to touring between 2004 and 2005, including a stint on the Vote for Change tour, which also featured Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam. In 2006, all four original members reunited for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A flurry of albums followed in its wake, with 2011's Collapse Into Now completing their contractual obligations to Warner Bros. Stipe himself kept extraordinarily busy with a vast array of solo projects, including benefit singles for Hurricane Katrina victims and songs for tribute records for Serge Gainsbourg and the New York Dolls, as well as his debut as a fashion designer with a polo shirt for Lacoste. In September of that year, R.E.M. announced that they were ending their 31-year career with a heartfelt message of thanks to their fans for decades of support.




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