Following the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, musicians all over the world paid tribute to a man who had become something of an icon in his own lifetime. In life, Cobain was the perfect embodiment of a genre that had captured the disaffection of an entire generation of young people. In death, however, Cobain pointed to the dark reality of this disillusionment, one that went far beyond the societal alienation so many grunge fans wore as a sort of badge of honour. Because, while Nirvana’s maudlin angst was being marketed and sold around the world, Cobain was struggling with the reality of an incredibly unforgiving mental illness.
In an interview back in 2019, Michael Stipe revealed that one of the songs from R.E.M’s Monster LP was written as a plea to Cobain to accept help – both from friends and professionals. Explaining the origins of the song, Stipe said: “There were a lot of phone calls before that imagined one… [I was] really trying to pull him out of a very, very dark place. We all knew it, and we were doing everything we could to help – but it wasn’t enough. I wrote the lyrics in five minutes and recorded it in as much time. It was our – my – plea to Kurt. Too bad.”
Those lyrics remained in Stipes back pocket until 1994, when news of Cobain’s death reached the R.E.M. members in the Atlanta studio where they were working on Monster. “Kurt’s death shook us to our core and froze the recording in a moment,” recalled bassist Mike Mills. “At some point not long after that, I was sitting with a guitar. I guess I was ‘angrily melancholic’ and I started writing these chords. They kind of just came out. I didn’t really even play it more than three or four times before it was done. We threw it down and Michael heard it and was inspired.”
After modifying the original lyrics he’d written only slightly, Stipe and the rest of the and band quickly went about recording ‘Let Me In’. “It just completely embodied at that moment the feeling of helplessness and grief and sadness and darkness,” Stipe began.
“We sat down for a good ten days at least – we were not able to do much. But that [song] broke the spell.” Performing the song live acted as a way for Stipe to overcome this grief, describing the moment they played it for the first time as “incredibly cathartic” Stipe went on to remember how the track resonated with the public: “Live, it took on a different feeling. It was quite clear what that song was doing to people.”
Although R.E.M disbanded a number of years now, ‘Let Me In’ stands as a memorial to Kurt Cobain, a man who despite his tragic end, had a life filled with friendship. “I think of this song and I think of all the great music that Kurt made and what a really cool guy he was. So when I hear it it makes me smile, rather than makes me sad,” Stipe concluded.