Interview with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain
By Jeff Giles
What can you tell me about "Let Me In"?
That's a song that I wrote to Kurt Cobain after he killed himself. [Pause.] I, um...I should be able to do this without getting emotional. [Pause.] I lost a friend in October -- River Phoenix was a very, very close friend of mine. And I've never suffered such a profound loss. I couldn't write for five months. We had started the record in September. I'd written two songs and then River died. And, having written "Automatic for the People," I was not about to write another record about death and loss. So it took me five months to sit down and write again. Then, halfway through making "Monster," Kurt died. At that point, I just threw my hands up and wrote "Let Me In."
So when you sing "Hey, let me in" -- that's you talking to Cobain?
That was me on the phone to him, desperately trying to get him out of the frame of mind he was in....In the most big- brotherly way -- God, I hate that term -- in the most genuine way, I wanted him to know that he didn't need to pay attention to all this, that he was going to make it through. If R.E.M. had sold 5 million copies of "Murmur," none of us would be alive to tell the tale. I really believe that. I'd have died with Quaaludes in my blood and a lot of Jack Daniels.
What else did you and Cobain have in common?
One of the things I think I've done successfully as a media figure is avoid a lot of the cliches, like the macho posing. I've tried really hard to blur the lines, and a lot of that does have to do with sexuality. I like fucking around with gender. I like writing songs that aren't gender-specific. And I really felt an alliance with both Kurt and River in that both of those guys, in their respective fields, were doing the same thing.
The cliched take on your career is that, when you started out, you were very shy.
It's not a cliche. It's the dead truth. I was unbearably shy. And that's part of what drew me to River. I recognized that in him. The first time I met him, his hair was completely covering his face. And I was like, "God, that was me at 22." There's an incredible vulnerability at the core of what River, Kurt and I do -- or did.
Just before his death, Cobain said all he wanted to do was record with you. Do you know what sort of music he had in mind?
Yeah, he talked a lot about what direction he was heading in. I mean, I know what the next Nirvana recording was going to sound like. It was going to be very quiet and acoustic, with lots of stringed instruments. It was going to be an amazing fucking record, and I'm a little bit angry at him for killing himself. He and I were going to record a trial run of the album, a demo tape. It was all set up. He had a plane ticket. He had a car picking him up. And at the last minute he called and said, "I can't come."