Michael Stipe: Man On The Moon

Listening to R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe discuss the comedian Andy Kaufman, one can’t help imagining that the singer is, at least in part, also describing himself. “I copped a lot of his moves,” Stipe concedes. Coming from a man who has been saddled since early in his career with the quasi-complimentary “eccentric” tag, that’s no small admission.

Andy Kaufman rose to fame through early “Saturday Night Live” performances, and reached an even larger, more mainstream audience playing the wide-eyed, munchkin-voiced Latka Gravas on TV’s “Taxi.” But he solidified his reputation as a barrier-breaking, otherworldly eccentric by wrestling women, reading entire novels onstage, and taking audiences out for milk and cookies.

Stipe and his bandmates, meanwhile, spent the balance of the last two decades pushing the boundaries of modern pop. As the fuzz-guitar blast of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” exploded the complacency of early ’90s radio, R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People” — and particularly the plaintive, addictively repetitive single “Man on the Moon” (“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”) — played an equally compelling counterpoint.

Now, seven years later, Stipe’s lyrical homage to Kaufman has become a major Hollywood vehicle. Helmed by acclaimed director Milos Forman (“Hair,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt”), the film has already garnered considerable Oscar buzz for Jim Carrey’s dramatic turn as Kaufman, and for R.E.M.’s lush, evocative soundtrack.

Stipe recently sat down with MTV News Online’s Benjamin Wagner to discuss the film, its namesake song, and the band’s new single, “The Great Beyond.” What emerged was not only a revealing portrait of both Stipe and Kaufman, but a searching discussion on the courage required to create groundbreaking art.

If you believe…

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MTV News: Was the “Man on the Moon” film project on your mind at all when R.E.M. released the song in 1992?

Michael Stipe: Did I have in mind that Milos Forman, or somebody, was going to take an idea of mine and make a movie out of it? Hell no! [laughs] I’m not that arrogant about my work. When I wrote “Man on the Moon,” I had no idea I was going to write a song about Andy Kaufman. It was actually a desperate and completely unconscious move on my part.

We were in the studio for months in Seattle, and had written and recorded and mixed every song on “Automatic for the People.” But there was one piece of music that the band kept pushing me to come up with some lyrics for, and I couldn’t. The last day of the mix, I had nothing, so I put on a Walkman, went walking around downtown Seattle and came up with this little lyric. I went back to the studio, put it down, sang it, mixed it that night, and the next morning we had to send the tape to the record company to be mastered. And that was “Man on the Moon.”

The only conscious element is that at the time I was spending a lot of time with Nirvana. I told Kurt [Cobain] that I was going to write a song that had more “yeahs” in it than anything he’d written. I certainly didn’t intend to present Andy Kaufman as a central character, almost a hero, in the song.

What the song is about, I think, is some crackpot theories of the 1970s, the most primary being that NASA and the U.S. military and the government conspired to fake the 1969 moon walk; that, in fact, what we were watching on television was a stage set in some secret place in the Arizona desert. Second, that Elvis Presley was still alive. And then, in 1984 when Andy Kaufman, Elvis impersonator and prankster extraordinaire, died, the rumor began that he had faked his own death. And that’s what “Man on the Moon” is about.

The record company liked the song and asked us to make a video. We made a beautiful video with the director Peter Care, and went to the Kaufman family and asked them if we could use footage of Andy. They were puzzled, but I think honored by the song. They gave us the footage, and the song and the video were a huge hit outside the U.S. Then there was a television documentary in 1994 using our song, footage from the video, conversations and interviews with people who knew Andy through his life, and select clips of his work. Some people saw it, and I think they thought “This is a brilliant, exciting idea to write a script around,” and they named the script “Man on the Moon.” When Danny DeVito got it, he handed it over to Milos Forman, who read it, called me on the phone right away, and said, “I’m going to make a movie about Andy Kaufman called ‘Man on the Moon,’ and I want your band to score it.” And, we did. That’s the whole story.

MTV: Do you remember your first exposure to Andy?

MS: I saw Andy on television in 1975 on “Saturday Night Live,” a new TV show that was really exciting, at the time, and what I didn’t know was that it was the first time he had ever been on TV. He sang along to the theme from “Mighty Mouse,” and I, at fifteen years old, inexperienced, naive as sh**, was like, “This guy is completely brilliant. This is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, ever.” And I followed his career until his death, and, obviously I guess, beyond his death.

He galvanized a nation, I think, in three-and-a-half minutes on live television. It was really something that I think had not been done in years and years and years. Kaufman, like Lenny Bruce, like Andy Warhol — the other Andy, as I like to refer to him — was easily fifteen years ahead of his time. He’s one of those people, to quote “Velvet Goldmine,” who are “strange messengers or strange people sent down to move things forward a little bit faster.” Andy was so ahead of the curve in terms of what he was doing, pulling these seemingly disparate elements together in performances that really would befuddle and puzzle and baffled and anger people, and he got exactly what he wanted, which was a reaction. A reaction of any kind.

It proves to me as a performer how courageous he was. I’m sure he had all the insecurities that you and I have, but he was courageous enough to allow an audience to hate him. Balls like church bells, to get up and do what he did over and over and over again. I had a lot of respect for him. I copped a lot of his moves.

MTV: Speaking of balls, I particularly enjoyed your swapping the lyric “Mr. Charles Darwin had the gall to ask” to “Mr. Charles Darwin had the balls to ask” during your performance of “Man on the Moon” on “Saturday Night Live.”

MS: I started doing that years ago. It’s a good move.

MTV: It felt [Jim] Morrison-esque, leaning into the camera on Ed Sullivan. Also, you exclaimed “Cool!” after the choruses, as I’ve seen you do live before.

MS: It’s just how I perform it live. It’s a little different than the recorded version.

MTV: Different energy.

MS: Yeah, it’s way different. On live TV you kind of have to come out like a boxer. Patti Smith taught me that. There’s no room for subtlety on live television. Everything’s being funneled through this very small thing, and you can’t allow subtlety to get in the way.

MTV: Which is a point you guys addressed pretty succinctly in your video for “The Great Beyond,” the new single. How did that song come about?

MS: Milos wanted us to write a song that was like a sister piece to “Man on the Moon,” and feeling like I’d already written the ultimate Andy Kaufman/R.E.M. tribute song, it was a little difficult to go back and retread. Instead I kind of self-cannibalized “Man on the Moon.” I pulled lyrical elements into “The Great Beyond” so that it can be a companion piece without diminishing the original, and at the same time stand alone as a really good pop song. I took the third verse of “Man on the Moon” and made it a background vocal in the final choruses, just because those were my favorite lyrics from “Man on the Moon,” so I wanted to bring ’em back around. And there are other little easy references, like “having something up your sleeve,” which is “Rocky & Bullwinkle,” we all know that. “The Great Beyond,” in a way, is about someone who’s trying to achieve the impossible. Pushing the elephant up the stairs. Andy’s whole thing was breaking down the fourth wall to such a degree that the audience never really knew whether he was for real or not. And I wanted to capture a little bit of that in the song.

MTV: I would offer that what Andy Kaufman did for America’s concept of comedy — pushing the envelope, pushing the audience — you guys, R.E.M., have done for music.

MS: It’s not mine to say, that we’ve done that. But I feel like we do, you know, within the little universe of R.E.M. We’re limited in terms of our abilities, talents and our creativity, but we’ve never stopped pushing our limitations and trying to move outside of what we’re capable of and create something that’s different.

To me, death is stasis, to allow yourself to stop, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat, and not to move forward or even experiment or try different things. With that kind of stasis, you turn into plaster of Paris, you know? You no longer exist.

MTV: Did you spend a lot of time on the “Man on the Moon” set?

MS: I was there a lot, and it was always fun. You never knew what was going to happen.

MTV: I understand that Jim Carrey was consistently in character as Andy.

MS: Jim was always Andy. Jim Carrey was nowhere near that movie set. I didn’t know that. I was talking with this guy, and he was really nice and seemed rooted in 1999 and was dressed like Andy Kaufman. But what I found out months later when I actually met Jim Carrey in the recording studio to finish up the soundtrack was that the person I’d been talking to the whole time was Andy Kaufman impersonating Jim Carrey.

Carrey’s a brilliant comic actor, he’s got his own schtick, and I say that with all the love in my heart. I think it’s a brilliant schtick. But he’s a huge fan of Kaufman’s, and he had to completely leave himself behind.

What you’re seeing in this film, and I think it’s very brave on Milos’ part as a director and as a storyteller, what you’re seeing is all the detritus of a character and a personality. What you never see is that character. The people who were closest to him — Bob Zmuda, and Len, his girlfriend played by Courtney Love in the movie — all these people loved him to death, and none of them can really say who he was. He was really a mystery.

MTV: Did the movie turn out as you might have hoped, or expected?

MS: Yeah, I think the film is brilliant. I’m so honored to be involved in anything that Milos Forman worked on. Objectively, yes, I can stand back and not be a fan of Milos’ work and not be a fan of Andy and say this is a great film.

MTV: You touched on recording “This Friendly World” with Jim, or was it Andy…?

MS: It was Jim… finally. [laughs] Another thing, Jim Carrey is easily five inches taller than Andy Kaufman, and just watching this guy change his body, his physical body that much, was shocking. When Jim walked in it was like, “Sh**, he’s really tall, and he’s skinny.”

MTV: In the second verse of “This Friendly World,” the two of you switch off every second word. Is that live, or studio magic?

MS: No, we did it live. That was not easy.

MTV: How was Jim in the recording studio?

MS: As soon as tape started rolling, he became Andy, and I had to communicate with Andy, and Andy became Tony [Clifton, Andy’s nasty alter ego], which was a big surprise for everyone, and Tony was really insulting towards me, which I was frankly honored by. But Carrey, er, Andy, was throwing off this amazing stuff. I’d say, “Hi, you wanna sing a song?” And he says, “Is that why you pulled my ethereal ass out of the celestial heavens and saddled me with this cold and heavy human form?” This is coming off the top of this guy’s head, and he was tired, too! He was just whipping ’em out. I admire that.

This feature first appeared on MTVNews.com.

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