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Music

How R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe saved Thom Yorke from insanity

@SamWKemp

When Radiohead released their debut single, Creep’ in 1992, Thom Yorke was 24 years old and probably entirely unaware of just how famous he was about to become. That song, which began life while Yorke was studying at Exeter University, was, in a way, a vehicle for Yorke to interrogate his own masculinity: “I have a real problem being a man in the ’90s… Any man with any sensitivity or conscience toward the opposite sex would have a problem,” he later said. “To actually assert yourself in a masculine way without looking like you’re in a hard-rock band is a very difficult thing to do… It comes back to the music we write, which is not effeminate, but it’s not brutal in its arrogance. It is one of the things I’m always trying: To assert a sexual persona and, on the other hand, trying desperately to negate it.”

Of course, it was this enigmatic sad-boy charisma that made Yorke and the rest of Radiohead so strangely mesmeric, and which, as the 1990s rolled along, continued to earn Radiohead more and more fans, first in the UK and Europe, and then, with the arrival of OK Computer, in the US. It was at this point that Yorke began to struggle.

Suddenly, the Radiohead frontman, who had always shrunk from the limelight and appeared so unnerved in talk-show interviews, was hot property. He quickly gained the attention of every label vulture from London to L.A., all of whom, it seemed, wanted to cash in on Radiohead’s surprise success.

During a celebratory night out in LA following the release of OK Computer, Yorke suddenly found himself surrounded on all sides by scene stalkers and music-biz sycophants. “The people I saw that night were just like demons from another planet,” he began. “Everyone was trying to get something out of me. I felt like my own self was collapsing in the presence of it, but I also felt completely, utterly part of it, like it was all going to come crashing down any minute.”

As Yorke would go on to recall during his interview on Desert Island Discs, there was one artist who helped him stay sane during this strangely isolating period. Having chosen R.E.M.’s ‘Talk About Passion’ as one of the seven tracks he would take with him to a desert island, Yorke spoke of how Michael Stipe, the Atlanta band’s frontman, was something of a hero before he became a friend and confidant: “When I was a kid, they were the link for me between the art student part of me and the musician part of me,” he explained, adding, “Michael Stipe, the singer of R.E.M., was my hero, and now I’m friends with him, you know?”

That friendship gave Yorke someone to turn to in times of need. As the clamouring of Radiohead’s rapidly expanding fanbase grew louder and louder, Stipe offered him advice on how to stay grounded and, perhaps more importantly, how to stay sane. “He helped me through the end of that period when things just went crazy, and people started talking to me like I was Jesus in the street. I would call him and say, ‘I just can’t handle it’.”