Half A World Away

It’s September of 1984. And Deirdre is head over heels for a fast-rising quartet from Athens, Georgia called R.E.M. In just a few years, the band’s music will be inescapable on commercial and college radio alike — and their massive success will mark a turning point for the American musical underground.

“There were moments when R.E.M., my former band, were hugely popular,” says ex-singer Michael Stipe. “And we were able to really push the boundaries of what's acceptable within mainstream culture. KCRW and Deirdre and ‘SNAP!’ were doing the same thing.”

Stipe was a close friend of Deirdre’s, and of the countless bands who passed through their orbit. He gave Concrete Blonde their name; produced Vic Chesnutt’s first two albums; and introduced Deirdre to Hugo Largo, which led to their signing with Brian Eno’s record label. In this episode, Stipe reflects on his life in LA in the mid-’80s, at a time when he and Deirdre were kindred spirits.

Half A World Away
R.E.M. in 1984. L-R: Mike Mills, Michael Stipe (back), Bill Berry (lying in front), and Peter Buck backstage in their dressing room at the Palladium. Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns.

Michael Stipe: Los Angeles became a fascinating place to me sometime in the '80s. New York was my second home, and New York was feeling very sad and very tired at the time. LA, and the American West in general, felt a little fresher. And so, at the same time, my best friend Tom Gilroy, had moved to Los Angeles to become an actor. I spent a lot of time there with him. And at the same time, Michael Meister is someone who I met through Natalie Merchant. And we started hanging out together, and then we started really hanging out together. And he introduced me to Deirdre.

Michael liked her and trusted her, and so she was instantly in the family. She was inner-circle instantly for me, because, through him, I would trust his take or his instinct about anyone. And so there was an automatic kind of trust and intimacy there. So we spent a lot of time together. Michael [Meister] lived in Santa Monica. Tom lived somewhere on Lincoln and had this banged-up old car. And Michael offered to Tom that there was an old 1930s beach house — one of the last ones remaining — in Santa Monica that was available for rent. And Tom moved in. 

Michael Stipe (left) with Natalie Merchant and Billie Bragg in 1990. Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns.

So then I was tired of New York. I had to get out of Athens from time to time ... a lot. And I spent all my time in Los Angeles. And I established this whole family of people there. And we would all just hang out on the porch and drink tons of coffee and talk about music and art and ... You know, it really was that salon environment that Deirdre created that really was my life then. It all felt very bohemian and kind of ragtag, but it worked, and it worked beautifully for that time. It was exactly what I needed as an artist, and it really impacted the work that I did for several years.

Deirdre O’Donoghue: Michael Meister and Deirdre O'Donoghue here doing "SNAP!" 621 together.
Engineer: Want to talk to him?
O’Donoghue: Yeah. Hellllooo…
Michael Stipe: Hey.
O’Donoghue: Michael!
Stipe: Hey, butthead.
O’Donoghue: Hey, how are you?
Stipe: I'm good.
O’Donoghue: Where you calling from?
Stipe: I'm in Athens.
O’Donoghue: You're in Athens?

More: Listen to Michael Stipe & Michael Meister on "SNAP!" #621 (2/12/88)

...I mean, I would like to remind our listeners that this is before "Beavis and Butthead." That was a term of endearment. I called everyone that… everyone that I liked. College radio were big supporters of my former band, R.E.M. And so I had experience with independent radio. And I guess I felt free to use a term like "butthead" with someone who was, of course, a revered and storied public radio personality.

O’Donoghue: You want to tell people why you're calling tonight during the KCRW fund drive, Michael?
Stipe: Uh... why I'm calling?
O’Donoghue: Yeah. 
Stipe: Well, I wanted to drop some names.
O’Donoghue: Yeah? Okay, drop some names.
Stipe: Yeah. We're on a wood floor here.
O’Donoghue: OK. 
Stipe: There's about 150 people and nobody's talking.
O’Donoghue: Michael, you've been here on "SNAP!" You were a great guest DJ one time.
Stipe: Yeah, it was great. Well, you know, four turntables is something you don't run across very often.
O’Donoghue: Well, you know how we got those too, Michael? It's because our listeners support this station. And what we're trying to do is …
Stipe: Deirdre, you've been doing this too long. You sound like a commercial.
O’Donoghue: You're right, Michael, help me.
Stipe: You need to get off the air, baby. You need a bagel or something.
Michael Meister: Let's play "Hurry Up" for him!
O’Donoghue: This is one time of the year, Michael, that unfortunately we're forced to approximate commercial radio. But I'll tell you, the whole rest of the year, Michael, we get to play things like R.E.M., years ago. Like Hugo Largo, that Brian Eno was saying last night that he's real fond of at the lecture he gave here. And you were the one who introduced me. You produced the Hugo Largo…
Stipe: Yeah, they came through town last week. We had the three greatest female voices in America right here.

With Deirdre, there was this love of music and art. And so you would sit down and just say, "What are you listening to? What are you looking at? Who's exciting you right now? What's happening over there, what's happening in New York, what's happening in Georgia?" And that's how we created this friendship. She pulled creative people towards her, I think, and created this environment where there was a relaxed atmosphere, whether on-air or in person. And she had this deep and beautiful love of everything, and an enthusiasm about it.

O’Donoghue: That beautiful, beautiful piece is a new-to-me, at least, group called Hugo Largo, who are apparently from New York City. Although this tape was recorded at John Keane’s studio in Athens, Georgia, produced by Michael Stipe. Hugo Largo ... and we shall be hearing a great deal more of that. 

 I don't remember how I met Hugo Largo, but I think I saw them perform and introduced myself. It might have been through Tim Sommer, who was a member of the band and a huge R.E.M. fan. And they came to Athens, Georgia sometime in the mid '80s. I want to say it was around '86. I think I offered to produce and help them record their first recording. 

They came here and stayed in my home, which I had just bought with every penny I had. And I was paying a mortgage every month, but I couldn't afford toilet paper. We didn't have any furniture. I remember Mimi pulled up the carpet one day. I was gone, for some reason, for a day or two to do something, and she and the band decided that they were going to help renovate my home for me. So they borrowed a hammer and pulled up all this wall-to-wall carpeting and exposed these beautiful pine floors that are there to this day.

O’Donoghue: Michael, I won't keep you from your dinner. but I want to say thanks to you for calling, and we're looking forward to seeing you back out here. And as long as I got a show, you're always welcome on it.
Stipe: Do you still have a Volkswagen, Deirdre?
O’Donoghue: Yes, I do.
Stipe: I love you, Deirdre. I really do.
O’Donoghue: I love you, Michael. Thanks very much for calling.
Stipe: OK.
O’Donoghue: I appreciate that.
Stipe: All right.
O’Donoghue: You take care too. I'm gonna turn you back over to Mr. Meister here. You guys can chat.
Stipe: OK, Deirdre. I love you. I'll see you later.

O’Donoghue: I'm Deirdre O'Donoghue, it's "SNAP!" 1178 on this first night of our new year: Wednesday night, the 3rd of April 1991. And here on "SNAP!" tonight, as I've been promising you, the people who put together the other album: the album that has me spinning and dancing and is definitely holding me together right now. A surprise that I think you'll like. I told you I was gonna bring you some more Peter Holsapple tonight. But I have here with me tonight in the studio on "SNAP!": Bill Berry and Michael Stipe and Peter Buck and Mike Mills and Peter Holsapple for you, with songs about love and memory and time and whatever else they'd like.

There were moments when R.E.M., my former band, were hugely popular. And we were able, through MTV and through radio, to release as first singles these really insane songs that would never ever, ever get played on radio, on pop radio. And these videos that would never ever fit the format of what MTV had to offer. We knew we were in a power position, because whatever we released at that point, they had to play, whether they liked it or not. So we would kinda fuck with it. We knew that we could really push the boundaries of what's acceptable within mainstream culture. KCRW and Deirdre and "SNAP!" were doing the same thing. 

Michael Stipe performing with R.E.M. in the Netherlands in 1989. Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns.

And I felt, in the late '80s, like: This is an extension. This is like a grown-up version of punk rock, and what I consider to be a punk attitude, which is: We're taking over. This is us. If you're not on the page, if you don't get it, that's your problem, not my problem. This is what you're going to be doing in a few years' time, so listen in and enjoy. And here we are. And this is unregulated, it's unfettered. We're not holding back, we're going to do whatever we want. And I think that's what Deirdre really brought to the culture of Southern California at the time through the radio station. She was immensely powerful. And she knew that, and she could push the boundaries of what was acceptable.

O’Donoghue: There are some interesting things happening, and I certainly encourage you to be as vocal as possible in as many ways as possible. This station in particular: You have a great deal to do with the programming in many ways. But, in fact, you only get what you let the people who run those TV and radio stations think you want to hear or see, so ... Be about it. Let's stop this morning and do something, okay?

Like the best people in my life, I think she was deeply curious. And that curiosity expanded to her relationships. So those bonds would be created by finding out what is inspiring you, what's pushing you, what's driving your most creative thoughts and ideas right now. And Deirdre would take all that from all these different people. 

I remember going to KCRW to visit her, and I was with Michael Meister. And we're walking in the hallway and there was some old guy there. And we passed by the old guy, and then there was this other person in the hall. And she turned around, and it was Joni Mitchell in the hallway of KCRW. And I'm there with Deirdre and Michael, and I'm like ... [Chokes]... and she was very, very sweet. And we just said hello, you know, it was nothing to her, I'm sure. But I met Joni Mitchell and shook her hand through Deirdre at KCRW. That was one of my best moments ever. 

O’Donoghue: So Michael, why don't you do some witty repartee?
Stipe: I could talk about who I just met in the hallway.
O’Donoghue: And she's right here with us in the studio now.
Stipe: Oh, no. Hey, Joni. Well, I'm still…
O’Donoghue: This is turning out to be quite a night here on KCRW.
Stipe: If you want to sing backup vocals on anything, feel free to come in. I'm not putting you on the spot here, but... 
O’Donoghue: She can't hear you.
Stipe: Oh, OK.
O’Donoghue: I'll relay the information, though. He says if you want to sing backup vocals on anything, you're more than welcome to sit in. ... And we've lost Joni Mitchell to the other room, but we're gonna try and goose her into coming in. I'll do my best. I figure, you know... 
Stipe: I would sing a duet with Joni Mitchell, I guess.
O’Donoghue: Yeah. I think we should definitely try and work that out. 

My band knew, after the Green World Tour in '89 ended, that we didn't want to maybe ever tour again. And so we were just making studio albums, which afforded me a lot of time to take on other projects. What I wanted to do at the time, and what I wound up doing — and my friendship with Deirdre really helped this — was produce other bands, and to help the way that we were helped as a young band. I wanted to help other bands [and] push them into an audience of people that would admire and appreciate what they were doing. And so I was working with Magnapop, I was working with the Opal Foxx Quartet... and then, of course, our dear beloved Vic Chesnutt.

"She was the center of a community that might have never come together had she not been there...we owe her a lot."

Vic Chesnutt came from Athens, Georgia. He would do a show every week at a small club in Athens, and I would go down. There was nothing to do, it was summertime. Everyone would go and just hang out there, and he would write songs about people in the club that week, and then he'd write more songs about their reaction to the songs, and on it went. So I saw him perform one of these nights. I think it was a Wednesday night. And it was one of the most silly electrifying things I've ever, ever experienced. And we went in the studio the next day and recorded his first album, "Little." In one night, he recorded 21 songs. We set up the mic live and let him go. And that became "Little." "West of Rome" was his second album, and at that point, he had a relationship with Deirdre and he had traveled and had performed on the West Coast and outside of Athens.

Stipe [voicemail]: Hi Deirdre, it's Michael, I got your message, and it's Thursday night. It's about five o'clock your time. I'm going into the studio with Vic Chesnutt tomorrow, we're going to be in for two weeks. And this is not gossip, but it's just for your information, 'cause I know it'll be exciting to you. Ray Neil is going to come down from Connecticut and play guitar on it. And Peter Buck has offered to play some mandolin on a song. And Vic is bringing his 9- and 13-year-old nieces in who play, respectively, cello and viola. So I'm looking forward to a pretty wild session. But gimme a call at the house and I'll return it as soon as I can. Bye.

Deirdre became a bit of a hermit, and I moved from Los Angeles back to New York. And we didn't see each other much in the last years of her life. I remember hearing of her death, and how very sad I was to hear that. She was such a bright light, and such a brilliant, open, curious, energetic flashpoint. She was the center of a community of people that might have never come together had she not been there. And so we owe her a lot.