I was a teenager, we were pretty much fully indoctrinated, thanks to sexual scare tactics. I remember so many public-health commercials with a B-actor in a fake alley background warning us to use protection or telling us the only real safe choice was abstinence. We were highly frightened of sex from day one. There was no free-swinging '90s.
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I came to New York for the first time with Peter Buck at age 19. We spent a week living out of a van on the street in front of a club in the West 60s called Hurrah. It's where Pylon played. I saw Klaus Nomi play there. And Michael Gira's band before he did Swans-they all wore cowboy boots and were so cool and had great hair. I was so jealous.
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I was vegetarian, trying to eat from fast-food restaurants without meat. I didn't know how to eat properly and I was starving. I was adrenalized to the eyeballs from performing. I was afraid that I was sick with AIDS. We were playing five shows a week. I even went through a period of abstinence where I didn't drink and stopped having sex. Which is crazy. Maybe I'm answering too many questions at once here, but this is where my mind was at the age of 25.
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I knew [Kurt Cobain] and his daughter. And Courtney [Love] came and stayed at my house. R.E.M. worked on two records in Seattle and Peter Buck lived next door to Kurt and Courtney. So we all knew each other. I reached out to him with that project as an attempt to prevent what was going to happen.
It was '86. We were a big enough name and we had enough cache that MTV wanted to play us, so, along with Michael Jackson and Madonna, they played our upside-down, black-and-white, backward, single unedited footage of a rock quarry with orange letters over the top of it and called it art.
I had to get a driver's license and drive to St. Louis to find the punk-rock scene that was happening there. And there was a punk-rock scene. It was sweet. It was real. It was like everywhere else in the county. It was a handful of people who were feeling the same pull, and, of course, it was like the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer . Just the freaks, the fags, the fat girls, the unbelievable eccentrics .
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When we signed with Warner Bros., they knew what they were getting. They knew they weren't going to get some easily manipulated prepackaged pop group. That was not going to happen. What they wanted, I think, was the integrity that we had to offer. What they wanted was the kind of street cred or cache that R.E.M. could bring to them and the chance that we would give them a hit or two. What happened was we gave them a bunch of hits. And we became huge.
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By the time [of modern] generation was coming of age sexually, there was already this idea of safe sex. But that didn't exist for me. I came out of the free-swinging '60s and '70s. It was free love, baby. That was it. We had very liberal sex-ed classes in 1973, a yearlong environmental science class, and then Women's Lib and Gay Liberation. So it's insane to go from that to Reagan and AIDS. It was like, "What happened? Where's my future?"
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I distinctly remember a conversation with my band in the van where I was having a complete meltdown. It was 1984, I think, and I was huddled in the back corner of our van and saying, "I can't do this. I can't do this. I can't do this." I didn't want to play any more shows. I just wanted to stop.
I've never written a song that's hopeless. I'm not a hopeless person. I'm crazily optimistic. I crazily see the good in people. I crazily see the way out of a terrible situation. I crazily try to be the diplomat. If there are two warring factions in my life, I want them to agree to disagree at the very least.
There tend to be two different drives that lead young people toward music. One is that music provides an escape; it takes you away from the unhappiness or torture of where you are and makes you feel less alienated-you believe there is a place you fit in somewhere else. The other is a sort of transcendent, spiritual feeling in the purity of music.