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How Michael Stipe discovered Patti Smith

Michael Stipe is one of the ultimate indie frontmen. He founded R.E.M. when he was just a student in 1980, and over the decade that followed, they laid the foundations that confirmed the band as something of an American equivalent to The Smiths, just with better longevity and more of a penchant for experimentation.

Even though their success in the ’80s was limited to the cultish status, by the time 1991’s Out of Time was released and the band blew up, they already had bags of experience that stood them in good stead to become a stadium-filling outfit.

Whilst R.E.M. was the sum of its brilliantly dynamic parts, you cannot deny Michael Stipe’s role in their meteoric rise. Possessing an unmistakable form of vocal delivery and a poetic lyrical style, these two critical facets of his artistry elevated the band’s sound. Through him, the band could appeal to the masses with tracks such as ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘Losing My Religion’. 

Noting Stipe’s poetic skill, it’s not a surprise that he is a lifelong fan of the ‘punk poet laureate’ herself, Patti Smith. In fact, there’s been a great deal of mutual respect shared between Smith and R.E.M. over the decades, and diehard fans of the band will be acutely aware that she featured on the track ‘E-Bow The Letter’ from 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

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Then for the band’s follow-up, 1998’s Up, Smith’s influence on the group was made even more apparent, with the track ‘Walk Unafraid’ directly inspired by her friendship with Stipe. 

“Its quite literal inspiration was something Patti Smith told me,” Stipe revealed. “Some great advice, the song title, she gave me as a lyricist and artist when I was really in hardcore writer’s block. But, I think it goes beyond me, and that’s not my self mythologising but trying to push it further out into the world of collective experience.”

Smith has been a lifelong role model for Stipe, and he credits her and her CBGB contemporaries with finding himself musically. Discussing the music that made him with Pitchfork, Stipe picked the Patti Smith fan favourite ‘Birdland’ as the first song of hers that he fell in love with and explained how it changed his life. 

He said: “At this point, my father moved to Illinois for his work, and we were living in a small town called Collinsville, outside of East St. Louis. I was in high school detention one day—not for anything bad, I wasn’t a bad kid—and someone had left a Creem magazine under the desk. I read this article about the CBGB scene and I felt like I found my people. I was not a popular kid. I was teased and bullied a great deal. But I started secretly identifying with the people in New York’s punk scene: New York Dolls, Television, Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads. That was my new hang. As an outsider, it provided me with a place where I felt a kinship.”

He continued: “There was a picture of Patti Smith in the article, so I bought her album Horses on the day that it came out and sat all night listening to it. ‘Birdland’ was the one that just completely lifted me. I had this epiphany and realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life: learn how to sing and start a band. All the punk rockers were saying, ‘We’re not special people,’ and ‘Anyone can do this,’ and I took that very literally as a 15-year-old. Of everything on this list, this is the most significant moment for me.”

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