Michael Stipe and R.E.M. helped form an entire genre of music. Yet his heart-sleeve lyrics and melodious tenor only begin to describe the man.
This photo shoot is different. It might be because of the low-key setting — a 700-plus-square-foot loft in the Industrial Building on 28th Street in Manhattan. It might be because the photographer, a sharpshooting veteran, has photographed R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe before, so the two have a cordial if not familiar relationship. It might be because Stipe has an encyclopedic knowledge about, among myriad other subjects, fashion, so he elected to bring his own wardrobe. Or this photo shoot might be different because of me.
This was the moment that I’ve been waiting for since I was 12 years old. My personal and professional lives each have their own mental soundtrack. The playlists are selected very carefully because how I write my stories and how I conduct my affairs with peers are set to musical scores that I compile in my head. Stipe’s lyrics, buttressed by guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Rieflin (and a special place is reserved in the annals of R.E.M. history for former drummer Bill Berry, who had a brain aneurysm in 1995 and left the band in 1997), have shaped my life. And as 15 albums that have sold 80 million copies worldwide over a 31-year career will attest, I am by no means unique in my love for Stipe’s music.
But this photo shoot is different. Realizing that the musician I’ve listened to since the early ’80s is in the same 700-square-foot studio as the man I’ve always wanted to meet — and that they’re one and the same — is a symbolic tying together of two ends of time.
Stipe maneuvers around the cramped studio in a very deliberate manner. He sets his stare on a section of the room — say, where the clothes steamer is — and thinks about making a motion toward it before actually walking. Beyond being a tactician with his words and moves, I notice throughout the photo shoot that Stipe is extraordinarily observant. He notices qualities about objects and people that even the most seasoned investigator would overlook. For instance, as the shoot draws to a close, he fixes his pale blue eyes on the right forearm of first assistant Josh Freiwald.
“You’re a chef, aren’t you?” Stipe asks rather matter-of-factly.
“Yes, I am,” Freiwald replies. “How did you know?”
“Because you have multiple circular burn marks on your right arm. Your pot-stirring arm.”
The whole room notices this exchange and doesn’t break character. Among Stipe’s inner circle, his observations are just a part of the day. I, however, am smiling over in a corner, avowing to myself that the 51-year-old musician has an acute eye for detail. I’ve met people over time with similar observational skills; those people work primarily in science and medicine. But Stipe exhibits another trait that is quite novel in the entertainment world, especially among celebrities who have reached the same height of success as this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. It’s a trait I witnessed firsthand when we were in the rickety chain-suspended elevator heading up to the 16th floor for the photo shoot.