Michael Stipe

When R.E.M. first entered the pop music scene in the early '80s, lead singer Michael

Stipe became instantly known for his distinctive, mumbled vocals.

On early R.E.M. efforts, such as the 1982 EP Chronic Town and the band's classic

debut LP, Murmur, Stipe's vocals were barely decipherable on such tracks as

"Wolves, Lower," "Gardening At Night" and "Perfect Circle."

As confounding as his singing could be, Stipe (along with the rest of the band) was

clearly an exciting new force to be reckoned with in the rock world.

John Michael Stipe was born 39 years ago today in Decatur, Ga. He was an Army brat,

always traveling with his family, until the Stipe clan returned to Georgia in 1978. While

living in various cities before then, Stipe formed few friendships and withdrew into

himself. When he discovered punk rock sometime during this period, it was a thrilling

experience that made him want to be a musician.

Stipe told the U.K.'s New Musical Express that his introduction to punk-poet Patti

Smith's Horses was a seminal event in his life. "It killed. It was so completely

liberating," he said. "I had my parents' crappy headphones, and I sat up all night with a

huge bowl of cherries listening to Patti Smith. ... And going 'Oh My God! Holy Shit! ...

Fuck!' Then I was sick."

Stipe was hooked. He soon found the perfect musical partner in guitarist Peter Buck, with

whom he later formed R.E.M. (with bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry). Buck also

found inspiration in early punk, particularly the Velvet Underground, another Stipe

favorite.

Speaking of his meeting with Stipe in Athens, Ga., Buck said, "Michael's got this great

ability: If he doesn't know something, he'll latch on to people and learn from them. He

was new to town and he was learning things and meeting people."

As soon as R.E.M. got together in 1980, all of Stipe's musical influences were mixed

together and expressed in his distinctive singing. The mumbling that was to become so

evident on R.E.M.'s early albums was immediately apparent in their first single, "Radio

Free Europe."

Reckoning (1984) was more radio-friendly than its predecessors, but found Stipe

continuing with his peculiar phrasing on tracks such as "Harborcoat."

By 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M. had become a force on the college

music scene, and people knew what to expect from Stipe. They got his style in the form

of such mysterious tracks as "Can't Get There From Here" and "Feeling Gravity's Pull."

R.E.M. got their first limited exposure on mainstream rock radio with the ballad "Fall On

Me" from the following year's Life's Rich Pageant. But the band hit it big with

1987's Document, in which Stipe took jumbled lyric-writing to new heights with

the super-fast sing-talk of "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."

Now superstars, R.E.M. and Stipe, nevertheless, remained enigmatic on 1988's

Green. On tracks such as "Pop Song '89," the band was riveting, blending its

trademark sound with Stipe's obscure lyrics.

By 1991's Out of Time, their biggest-selling LP to date, R.E.M. were now at the top

of the rock world. Stipe's lyrics were much more upfront than in the past, on songs such

as the hugely popular "Losing My Religion." This trend continued on the group's next

album, Automatic for the People.

When R.E.M. went metal on Monster (1994), Stipe's vocals were secondary to the

band's new sound. On 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Stipe brought in his idol

Smith to sing on "E-Bow The Letter."

R.E.M.'s new album, Up -- the band's first without drummer Berry, who departed in

1997 -- is less tied to the band's traditional sound. Stipe took advantage of this new

ambience and offered a more straightforward vocal approach on such richly melodic

tracks as "At My Most Beautiful" (RealAudio

excerpt).

Stipe ventured into photo journalism this year with "Two Times Intro," his photo book that

chronicles Smith on the road.

Other birthdays: Nels Cline (The Geraldine Fibbers), 43; Bernard Sumner (Joy

Division/New Order), 43; Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins), 37; Beth Gibbons (Portishead),

34; and David Glasper (Breathe), 34.