Patti Smith has been a guiding light for R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe throughout his career. Her inspiration has been on both a professional level as Smith helped Stipe carve out his sound and, additionally, a personal one too, thanks to their friendship which blossomed in the 1990s. That said, it is one R.E.M. song that sees both these facets of life collide.
The friendship between the two creative behemoths began thanks to the great mutual respect shared between the iconic duo of Patti Smith and R.E.M. for several decades. They’ve shared the stage on countless occasions and Smith even featuring on the band’s 1996 track ‘E-Bow The Letter’, which appeared on their album New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
Speaking about their 1996 collaboration, Mike Mills explained that it wasn’t the first time they asked Patti to collaborate: “She came to see us when we were touring, and we’re all big fans of hers. She came up and did one of her songs – ‘Dancing Barefoot’ – with us a few times. And so when we made the new record, we asked if she’d like to sing on this song and she said ‘yes’.
“We’re very glad she did. We actually wanted her to sing on ‘Everybody Hurts ‘from the Automatic for the People album, but she was busy with her family, and she was working, and being a mother and a wife.”
For their next album, the influence from Smith grew further, even if her presence wasn’t physically on the record, unlike its predecessor. Her paw prints are all over Up, but one track in particular, ‘Walk Unafraid’, is straight from the Patti Smith school of music.
“Its quite literal inspiration was something Patti Smith told me,” Michael Stipe admitted. “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 mythologizing but trying to push it further out into the world of collective experience.”
In another interview with Addicted to Noise, Stipe commented: “I wanted the song to be more universal than just me having to embark on the writing of an album. There’s a little too specific and not that interesting, so I wrote this song. And hopefully, I succeeded. I wrote this song in the same voice I tried to write ‘Losing My Religion’ and ‘Everybody Hurts,’ so there’s a kind of universality to it.”
Adding: “Specific enough that it doesn’t seem like a bundle of clichés tied together. But unspecific enough that pretty much anyone could listen to the song and apply it to themselves and to their own situation and their own life and take from it what they need to. That was pretty much the idea of the song.”
The friendship between Patti Smith and R.E.M. is a beautiful sight to behold, one which pushed each other to further greatness. Their relationship has never been anything apart from pure, and their alliance has been going strong for decades now.
The chemistry is there for all to see whenever they’ve shared the stage, and it’s clear that they hold each other in the very highest regard. Hence, when Patti Smith offered Stipe words of encouragement while he was in the midst of writer’s block, they had such a profound effect on him, and suddenly he learned to ‘Walk Unafraid’.