Michael Stipe opens up . . . a little -- The musician talks about his life, fame, and his latest project, Single Cell

By David Browne
Updated July 14, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

God — or the Pope — knows what they make of him. On a winter morning in Rome’s upscale business district, maitre d’s and waiters are straightening tablecloths and preparing for lunch. And suddenly there he is — a wiry stick figure, his sweatshirt hood pulled down tightly over his shaved head, a scraggly tuft of goatee on his chin, Converse sneakers on his feet. He could be a dissident monk emerging from a lengthy hunger strike.

”Are you open?” he asks each of them calmly. Most are caught off guard or puzzled, and as soon as they respond no, he vanishes as quickly as he appeared.

Michael Stipe knows exactly what he wants — some food and his beloved coffee, preferably strong and bitter. He continues his quest, his lean, straight-backed body zipping in and out of several bistros and in between parked cars. Keeping up with him is itself a workout.

”I had great dreams last night,” he had said upon darting out of his hotel, firmly but politely declining autographs to the half-dozen Italian girls camped outside this temporary stop on the first leg of R.E.M.’s Monster tour. Finally settled into a coffee shop, he continues talking about other types of rapid eye movement. ”As long as I can remember, the place the dreams happen is the same, and this was before the Road Warrior movies, before any influence through movies or television. It’s postapocalyptic. Destruction everywhere. Burned-out cities, and everyone wandering around through this maze of destruction.”

The voice is parched and dry, yet also as soft and gentle as a priest giving absolution. ”But in the dreams, it’s not at all scary. It’s perfectly normal.”

His breakfast arrives, and it is anything but normal — pizza, with coffee. And yet Stipe — mysterioso rock star, fledgling movie producer, a 35-year-old with a question mark tattooed onto his right palm — acts perfectly at ease, unaware of the odd figure he cuts. It’s the rest of us who keep running to catch up, trying to figure him out.

Understanding him has never been a simple task, and Stipe doesn’t make it any easier. In 1991, just as ”Losing My Religion” was making R.E.M. as close to a household name as it would ever become, Stipe guested on Nickelodeon’s kids show The Adventures of Pete &amp Pete. In it, he played Captain Scrummy, an offbeat ice cream man scrutinized by his young customers.

”At one point, Captain Scrummy says to the kids, ‘We just sell you the ice cream — why do you have to know us?”’ recalls coexecutive producer Will McRobb. ”It wasn’t intended to be a double entendre, but there was an intensity to how Michael delivered that line that made one think he was aware of fame, privacy, and what was going on around him.”

The taping coincided with Stipe’s retreat from the public spotlight. Never one to revel in media confessionals, he clammed up altogether, leaving his bandmates to explain his cryptic lyrics about love, identity, mortality, and Central American death squads. It must have been a challenge. Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry may be R.E.M.’s musical backbone, but Stipe is its haunted soul. He not only redefined the concept of rock lead singer (introspective and low-key, not loudmouthed and extroverted) but also became the embodiment of alternative culture going mainstream while retaining its idiosyncrasies. Stipe’s absence also fostered a slew of rumors, chief among them that he was HIV-positive, which he has denied. ”He took his two years off, and there were rumors, and he didn’t respond,” says drummer Berry. ”And I really respect that.”