Patti Smith's Fellow Traveller
By Lisa Robinson
AS songwriter and lead singer of R.E.M., Michael Stipe is one of rock's biggest stars. But when he tagged along on his friend Patti Smith's two-week tour opening for Bob Dylan in 1995, Stipe was a self-described fan, roadie and photographer.
The results of that trek can now be seen in Stipe's just-published
Stipe, who's currently recording the next R.E.M. album (minus original drummer Bill Berry, who quit the band last fall), will exhibit the photos, along with drawings by Smith and Polaroids by Smith's guitarist Oliver Ray, at the Robert Miller Gallery, 41 E. 57th St., from May 6 through June 5.
Lisa Robinson: How did you happen to go along on Patti's tour?
Michael Stipe: I literally got on the tour bus in Manhattan and just stayed for the two weeks. I had been off tour myself for only two or three weeks, and I remember that a friend of mine asked me what kind of person would come off touring for a year and then go on someone else's tour? (Laughs) I said, "A very lucky one." I just felt so fortunate to be there.
LR: You've said you were a fan since the '70s; had you ever seen her perform?
MS: She had done a show in Detroit when my band played there a few years ago, but this was really the first time that she was together with her own band - and rehearsed and performing in front of a large audience that had expectations.
LR: Did she live up to your expectations?
MS: Oh, my God, I was completely blown away. I already liked her as a person, and I'd kind of gotten over the weirdness of befriending someone who'd had such abstract influence on me for so long; but when I saw her perform, it was like it all made sense. Patti possesses something as a performer that is very rare. A lot of people work their entire lives to reach that kind of intensity; she's the real thing. Also, I'm a sap at heart, and it was really something to see her and Bob Dylan singing together - to recognize the influence he had on her, and then the influence she had on me. I'm just one of a whole lot of people who really owe a great deal to her for her body of work, but I have the added benefit of being a real good friend, and I'm very honored by that.
LR: Did you plan to do a book?
MS: I always take pictures; I had no intention of doing a book. But when we got the contact sheets back, they were really beautiful, and Oliver Ray had taken a lot of incredible Polaroids, and at some point I mentioned that I wanted to do a book of photographs. I just wanted it to be a documentary kind of book of that 10- or 12-day tour. The air was just bristling with excitement the whole time - it was so exciting every night. And it was great for me to be in the audience and be such a fan. Nobody knew I was there, nobody expected to see me there, so I just pulled my cap down and went out and stood in the 12th or 13th row and rocked and cried and beat my chest and all the stuff that you do when you love music.
LR: You've said that taking photos is easy, but music isn't natural to you. True?
MS: Well, taking photos and putting the book together just felt effortless, whereas music is like pulling chunks of flesh out of myself. (Laughs) But the creation of it the music is in itself glorious, and when it's finally done and you've done something that's real good, it's worth all the effort. But we're smack in the middle of writing and recording a new record now, and it takes a lot to pull those songs out.
LR: How's it going this time without Bill (drummer Bill Berry)?
MS: Well, we all miss him a whole lot, but it's kind of forced us to make some steps that I think it probably would have taken us a couple of records to make. Just in terms of really pushing our own boundaries out a little bit further.
LR: Who's playing drums?
MS: A drum machine. (Laughs)
LR: In the introduction to the book, you describe yourself as a "nerd." But you travel in a very sophisticated, high-profile, celebrity circle of models, musicians and film stars.
MS: Well, I still feel like a geek, and even though a lot of those people are known to the world as pretty glamorous people, when it comes down to it, we're all geeks, each in our own way. Also, I've tried to demystify that celebrity thing a little bit. Maybe it's more like a work ethic; there's this group of people that just travel a great deal all the time and tend to bump into each other a lot.
Copyright © N.Y.P. Holdings, Inc. 1998