Michael Stipe talks about his history with bulimia, addiction & Kurt Cobain

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I used to be a huge REM fan, and I was convinced that one day, Michael Stipe would find me and marry me. This was before my gaydar was finely honed, mind you. While it’s not like I’m “over” REM at this point, I don’t have any of their songs on my iPod, and it just feels like I’ve outgrown them. Still, the affection remains, and I still enjoy hearing about or from Michael Stipe. He’s got a long interview in the new issue of Interview Magazine (full piece here, it includes some old photos of him too!). He talks about his battle with an eating disorder, Kurt Cobain and more. Here are some highlights:

Stipe: Yeah, well, [The Village Voice] was how I found out about the punk world going on in New York. Because of what I read, at the age of 15, I hounded the local record store to order a copy of Horses [1975] for me by Patti Smith. This was in a town outside of East St. Louis, in Illinois, where I was living at the time. To them it was laughable. They ordered it, but they couldn’t have cared less.

Bollen: What happened when you brought Horses home?

Stipe: I sat up all night with my headphones on, listening to it over and over again, while eating a giant bowl of cherries. In the morning I threw up and went to school.

Bollen: [laughs] So Horses led you to bulimia.

Stipe: [laughs] Actually, that was several years later. But I knew right then at age 15 what I wanted to do with my life.

****

On ending his addiction to drugs in 1983: I stopped taking drugs. There were a lot of things that led up to it. One thing was that a lover died. An ex of mine died in a car wreck and I was really trashed when I found out about it and I couldn’t cry. I woke up the next morning and I said, “That’s it,” so I quit then. It was horrible. A bunch of people died around that time and she was one of them. I wrote a song about her-that was when I still did pull from autobiographical material. I didn’t really have my voice until after that. Also, AIDS had landed and I was terrified. I was very scared, just as everyone was in the ’80s. It was really hard to be sexually active and to sleep with men and with women and not feel you had a responsibility in terms of having safe sex. And this was the Reagan years, where they were talking about internment camps for HIV-positive people and people with AIDS. The straight community was freaking out because, in their minds, this was a “gay” disease, and bisexual people were passing AIDS from the gay community to the straight community.

On AIDS in 1980s: I’m afraid of everything. I’m not a naturally courageous person, but AIDS really brought it home. I mean, it was right when I was 21 years old and came to New York and saw the first billboard about AIDS. It was like, “Holy sh-t. This is for real.” It was scary. It was right at the time when I was in a band. Suddenly there were all these people who were available to me-men and women-and I was really having fun. But then there came responsibility and feeling afraid and being afraid to get tested, because you couldn’t get tested anonymously. It was so f-cked up. It was [a witch hunt]. And I think people have forgotten that. Angels in America [Tony Kushner's 1991 play] is the only thing that I’ve seen in the creative arts that really addressed that feeling. There’s a voice from that era that I believe still needs to be heard. I don’t think it’s my voice, but I did live through it. For example, by the time your generation was coming of age sexually, there was already this idea of safe sex. But that didn’t exist for me. I came out of the free-swinging ’60s and ’70s. It was free love, baby. That was it. We had very liberal sex-ed classes in 1973, a yearlong environmental science class, and then Women’s Lib and Gay Liberation. So it’s insane to go from that to Reagan and AIDS. It was like, “What happened? Where’s my future?” Our generation was supposed to be about trying to deal with nuclear concerns and environmental disasters. Suddenly, Reagan is in office, I’m 21 years old, and you can die from f-cking. It was like, “I just started. I’m just hitting my stride. Are you kidding me? I don’t want to die.”

****

Bollen: You say you’re afraid of everything. Were you afraid of success once R.E.M. started to become so popular? Was there a moment of complete panic?

Stipe: I distinctly remember a conversation with my band in the van where I was having a complete meltdown. It was 1984, I think, and I was huddled in the back corner of our van and saying, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.” I didn’t want to play any more shows. I just wanted to stop. I went through this difficult time when we were making our third record where I kind of lost my mind. That’s when the bulimia kicked in. And that’s when I got really freaky…. It was like that thing that happens in prison. People can’t control anything in their environment so they start manipulating their body with tattoos and pumping up. [It went on for] about a year. It was rough. We were playing 2-, 3-, 4-, 5,000-seat halls. We were headlining. We had moved out of opening for the Gang of Four or The English Beat. At that point we were playing our own shows and people liked us, but I was unraveling on the inside. I was also vegetarian, trying to eat from fast-food restaurants without meat. I didn’t know how to eat properly and I was starving. I was adrenalized to the eyeballs from performing. I was afraid that I was sick with AIDS. We were playing five shows a week. I even went through a period of abstinence where I didn’t drink and stopped having sex. Which is crazy. Maybe I’m answering too many questions at once here, but this is where my mind was at the age of 25.

****

Bollen: You’ve collaborated with so many musicians over the years. There was one collaboration with Kurt Cobain that never came to fruition.

Stipe: I was doing that to try to save his life. The collaboration was me calling up as an excuse to reach out to this guy. He was in a really bad place.

Bollen: You knew Kurt Cobain well?

Stipe: Absolutely. I knew him and his daughter. And Courtney [Love] came and stayed at my house. R.E.M. worked on two records in Seattle and Peter Buck lived next door to Kurt and Courtney. So we all knew each other. I reached out to him with that project as an attempt to prevent what was going to happen.

Bollen: The project was an album between you and Kurt?

Stipe: No, it wasn’t. That’s where it’s become part of mythology. I simply constructed a project to try to snap Kurt out of a frame of mind. I sent him a plane ticket and a driver, and he tacked the plane ticket to the wall in the bedroom and the driver sat outside the house for 10 hours. Kurt wouldn’t come out and wouldn’t answer the phone. I was in Miami making a record, and I didn’t feel like I could fly across the country for someone who I really admired, who was a friend, a good friend, but not my best friend, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t feel like it was my place to get on a plane myself and go to Seattle. I was doing what I thought was the best thing to do at the time. And, you know, frankly I’m not great with heroin addicts. I tried heroin, but it was by accident. I’m not great with that level of substance abuse.

[From Interview Magazine]

Sigh… I love Michael Stipe. When is he going to come find me and marry me? Not that he needs a beard or anything. But I would love to be in his orbit. It’s so nice that America produced an interesting rock band that is still going strong into their fourth decade. YAY!

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Photos courtesy of Interview Magazine.

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28 Responses to “Michael Stipe talks about his history with bulimia, addiction & Kurt Cobain”

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  1. Amanda G says:

    Loved REM in the 90′s! I would still love to see them live. So much talent there!

  2. sunshine says:

    Just WOW,what a life

  3. Trillion says:

    Never been an REM fan, but I’ve met Stipe a few times and was very impressed with how sweet and deep he was and am sure still is.

  4. melinda says:

    I love him. I also realized recently that I had a lack of REM on my Ipod so I downloaded Automatic for the People. It’s still so good. Glad I did. :)

  5. TQB says:

    Wow. That interview is epic. I remember those early days and being afraid he had AIDS because he just looked so ill. Wow.

  6. teehee says:

    Ahhhh my first love is finally talking!! Yes I wished michael was my man, too— I didnt have a gaydar then either LOL
    Boy was I crushed when I found out the news, though…
    Im so happy to see he is now comfortable enough to talk more openly. He has grown alot, you can tell. :)

  7. Ellie says:

    Love REM and the music. Always thought Stipe looked scarey.

  8. Wow. What a wonderful, sincere interview. Thanks for posting this excerpt, Kaiser.

  9. normades says:

    He refers to his ex as “she”. Bi?

  10. aenflex says:

    REM fuckin rocks. I never realized he was gay either, don’t care though. They were the shit.

  11. Roma says:

    I read a few Kurt Cobain biographies while I was on vacation last month (I like to read in themes) and was blown away by the accounts of how devoted Michael Stripe was towards him as a friend.

    I think I’m going to go throw some REM on my itunes…

  12. Daphne says:

    This post brought me back. I used to love REM. I learned about them from Sassy Magazine (I am dating myself). I also had a crush on Michael Stipe. I didn’t realize he was Gay until years later. Back then, I didn’t have any gaydar either.

  13. Dagny says:

    I loved REM in high school in the ’90s and am still a big fan. My friends and I saw them in concert and competed to see who had memorized the most lyrics. I’m really happy to see this interview, thanks for posting it!

  14. The_Porscha says:

    He is bisexual, Kaiser, you still have plenty o’ chance, I’m guessing.

  15. TQB says:

    @normades – yes, he’s always identified as bi, not gay.

  16. Rhiley says:

    Their new album is actually really really good. It is the first one I have purchased since Automatic, which is one of my favorite albums of all time. Also, the new Decemberists’ album is extremely good and is influenced a lot by R.E.M It sounds a lot like Green, another one of those great albums of all time albums. Peter Buck makes some contributions to it as well (Title=The King is Dead). Anyway, I love Michael Stipe but one of the main reasons is that I think of him as a southern boy who has a lot of depth and soul. When you have very liberal ideas about love, the environment, sexuality, self expression, growing up in a small southern town, as I did, can be difficult. But R.E.M.’s music helped me, and my friends, to realize that we were not wrong for our liberal thoughts, and every chance we got, we would take a road trip to Athens hoping to run into Michael.

  17. Janna says:

    REM, Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, U2, ah, real bands, real talent.

  18. murmur says:

    The song he wrote about his ex who died is Camera. It’s on Reckoning, which is my favorite REM album.

    Yes, I said album.

  19. klimp says:

    im finding him kind of attractive in that old photo, had a google too, he was so pretty http://www.starzlife.com/wp-content/files/2010/01/1120blog_michael_stipe.jpg

  20. Becky says:

    Very interesting, thoughtful interview. Thanks for posting this, Kaiser. I also went through a huge REM phase in my teens and early twenties and still enjoy listening to them every now and then. REM, Pearl Jam, U2 and Nirvana-those bands were the “soundtrack” of my college years.

  21. tooey says:

    Albums! Yes! I don’t listen to a lot of REM anymore, especially the early stuff because it was so visceral for me just hearing stuff from the first album can yank me back in time. Which isn’t always good because things were f*ed up. I end up getting depressed, lol. But REM was and is a great, great band.

  22. OtherChris says:

    Michael Stipe is the reason I passed college algegbra. The shy, dorky guy who worked in the math lab looked just like him.

  23. GeekChic says:

    @Daphne, I loved Sassy magazine! It was the only one out there that I wasn’t embarrassed to be seen reading, as it was cool and funky.

    @Rhiley, I will check out both the new R.E.M and Decemberists albums (love, love the Decemberists). Thanks for the recommendation!

    Reading this article sure took me back. I was a freshman in high school when the “alternative/grunge” thing hit, and it really changed my view of music. I still enjoy the bands from that era, including R.E.M, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and others. Listening to it now is sort of like a time warp, though. The early 90s were really so different from today.

  24. Will says:

    At least he’s coming clean about bulimia…I remember this loony interview he did 10-15 years ago where he said he was a fat kid until he learned to “inhale the molecules of thin people,” swear to God.

  25. Mitchelle says:

    The “She” Ex he referred to was Carol Levy. A young photographer from Athens. The songs “Camera” and “So. Central Rain” are about her.

  26. mia girl says:

    Fall on Me was one of those songs that change the trajectory of my life. While friends were going the way of Bon Jovi, REM put me on a much better musical path!

  27. aggielena says:

    oh and how about “Hold On”? I played that song over and over and over again after my best friend took her life. It seemed to kill me, but yet gave me solace.

  28. alicewondering says:

    hugh crush on him back in the day, knew he was bi. smart men are sexy, period. REM are still the best band this country ever produced and they are still rockin it. admire his honesty and guts to live is life on his own terms in this country that loves to hate.