Arts Desk

“Stipe-Syndrome” Considered

I really like Murmur. REM's 1983 debut full-length is no less than a stone classic–the band's single untouchable statement and it still stands up perfectly even after 25-years. Now that the album has been reissued as a double CD "Deluxe Edition" I own no fewer than three copies of it.

But I also recognize that Murmur is accountable for a great deal sorrow in all of our lives. This is the album that, in a very real way, gave birth to some of the most insidious singers of the 1990s. Whenever a shirtless dude with a Hare Krishna hairdo and scads of eyeliner climbs on stage and proceeds to weep openly in front of a plain-jane hard rock band, it's all kind of Michael Stipe's fault.

REM's stroke of genius was that they were arty, but never too arty. They looked and sounded relatively benign, but seemed mysterious because they had a modestly freaky and pretentious front man, that being Stipe.

In 1983 bassist Mike Mills looked like a high school math teacher. Stipe, on the other hand, was all brooding, deep, and poetic. He mumbled incoherently and cavorted around the stage. He wrote lyrics on the inside of matchbooks and, later on at least, started to dress kind of like an alien. All of this, in addition to the band's fresh and jangly sound, made REM seem really deep.

This excerpt from REM's 1990 concert movie Tourfilm illustrates what I'm trying to explain.
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Here Stipe is sporting a mohawk and eyeliner. He mutters some terrible poetry before commencing to flail madly about the stage with his rat-tail whipping to-and-fro. All the while he's taking himself super duper seriously. Meanwhile, guitarist Peter Buck could easily pass for a lesser member of NRBQ.

Arguably, there were a few good bands that followed this lead into their own thing. You know, Radiohead, and possibly Grant Lee Buffalo. But many more would tragically blunder. For a while it seemed like any group of mandolin strumming chuckleheads could get on MTV so long as some dude was willing to stand up front and add a dash of "alternative" spirit to the proceedings. And their ranks grew irritatingly thicker as the '90s stretched onward.

Let's examine a few of the worst offenders:

Blind Melon
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Gonzo lead singer Shannon Hoon was basically all that Blind Melon had to differentiate the band from say, The New Bohemians. See him here hamming it up on David Letterman. I can't help but wonder what the question mark on his forehead is supposed to signify? The nature of entertainment? The ponderous depths of a cranium unspooled? Maybe he had seen Eddie Vedder scrawl "pro-choice" on his arm during Pearl Jam's Unplugged appearance and felt the need to do something, anything, similar. Jeez, he even calls out Kurt Cobain at the end.

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As far as Stipe-syndrome goes, Ed Kowalczyk is basically public enemy No.1. Watch him close his eyes and snap his fingers and then gesticulate toward the sky. He has the eyeliner covered. He even has the rat-tail. If any body ever stole a lock of Michael Stipe's hair and placed it in an improvised bedroom relicary, it was probably this dude in 1990.

Toad the Wet Sprocket
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Worst band name ever. Even worse than Buffalo Tom, which was pretty bad. I guess Toad aren't the worst offenders, but Glen Phillips has a certain folk-diva squirreliness about him.

The Tragically Hip
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It really kills me to put these guys up here, because I really love The Tragically Hip. But Gordon Downie–with his mid-song poetry slams, oblique lyrics, tucked-in-shirt, and hip swiveling–is about a perfect example as I could ask for. You have to hand it to The Tragically Hip though, they really sold this steez, at least to their fellow Canadians. Gordon Downie is the Rimbaud of the hockey rink and Dan Akroyd agrees with me.

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  • ned

    I hate to get all "do your research" on you, but, do your research before calling Shannon Hoon one of the worst offenders. Blind Melon played on the Letterman show the day Cobain's body was discovered. The question mark was in reference to the questions Hoon - and the world had. Why did Cobain do it?

  • Aaron Leitko

    Hey Ned,

    I'm not sure that information alters my larger point about Hoon's role in Blind Melon. It might even reinforce that point--Hoon playing the edgy contemporary personality in front of a largely benign set of musicians.

    Furthermore, isn't that--the drawing of the question mark--kind of a hairbrained way to comment on Cobain's suicide? Is that gesture not tantamount to a giant shrug of the shoulders in the face of a tragedy? Is writing something on your forehead ever an elegant or powerful way to make any kind of point? I argue that is not.

    Stipe himself would later make a giant public Cobain gesture by writing "Let Me In" on "Monster." Sick song though.

  • sam

    "Let Me In" was always a favorite of mine from "Monster". Great guitar and organ. I had no idea it was about Kurt Cobain.