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(Credit: Geffen Records / Michael Stipe)

Why R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe regrets missing Nirvana's MTV Unplugged

The friendship between REM singer Michael Stipe and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was one of the most genuine and heartwarming in all of music. To Cobain, Stipe was a mentor, an older brother, and an alt-rock peer all rolled into one: an example from which he could take lessons on how to handle fame, expectations, and artistic direction. “I don’t know how that band does what they do,” Cobain once gushed to Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke back in 1994. “God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.”

To Stipe, Cobain was a brother in arms, an almost mirrored reflection of his younger self: sensitive, shy, bursting with creativity but often put upon by factors beyond his control. Towards the end of Cobain’s life, Stipe could see the toll that notoriety, success, and increased visibility had taken on his younger friend, famously organising a recording session in an attempt to bring Cobain out of his spiral of depression and heroin use. The point wasn’t to record music, but rather to force Cobain out of his dark space by giving him a positive environment and a task to focus on. But it wasn’t to be: before the two could collaborate, Cobain took his own life in April of 1994.

On David Fricke’s SiriusXM show back in 2019, Stipe and fellow R.E.M. member Mike Mills reflected on how the grunge boom coincided with their own glam-rock reinvention on their ninth studio album, 1994’s Monster. “[Guitarist Peter Buck] moved to Seattle, to start a family, and bought a house, and Kurt and Courtney [Love] bought the house next door,” Stipe explained. “The birth of what that sound and that feeling and all that they did was their own thing,” Mills added. “And while we always admired that and did feel a kinship with it, I never felt like we were borrowing or taking from that in any way.”

Later in the interview, Stipe reflects on how Cobain and Nirvana were angling for a new approach to music, best represented by their MTV Unplugged performance, which contained elements that REM had embraced on their 1991 acoustic-folk record Out of Time. Cobain had wanted Stipe to be in New York for the performance. “I was invited, and I was supposed to be there, and for some stupid reason I didn’t go,” Stipe said. “It’s one of my great regrets, actually.”

After Cobain’s death, Stipe channelled the pain and remorse he felt into the lyrics of ‘Let Me In’. “The entire song is Kurt, it’s all about him,” Stipe reflected. “It’s all about wanting so desperately to help someone who’s in such a dark place and feeling completely helpless, and feeling that hopelessness of ‘No matter how much I can offer of myself, it’s not going to be enough.'”

See the interview, below.

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