R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain were not simply peers at the height of alternative music – first and foremost, they were friends. From the very moment they met, Stipe warmed to Cobain and quickly realised he was an even greater person than a musician.
Their friendship wasn’t born through debauched rock ‘n’ roll parties; instead, it was down to R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck upping sticks and moving to Seattle. Coincidentally, the couple who purchased the property next door was Cobain and Courtney Love, which led to them hanging out together regularly. It was also the location of Cobain’s first interaction with Stipe, which left a strong impression on the R.E.M. singer.
The respect was strong between the pair, with Cobain explaining to Rolling Stone in 1994 how he wanted to emulate R.E.M. on Nirvana’s fourth album. He said: “I know we’re gonna put out one more record, at least, and I have a pretty good idea what it’s going to sound like: pretty ethereal, acoustic, like Automatic for the People. If I could write just a couple of songs as good as what they’ve written… I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.”
Heartbreakingly, the album never came to fruition, and tragically, Cobain was dead a few months after he made that statement. Stipe later told Dazed: “I had forgotten that he’d said that. I really wished that he had lived. Kurt was a great songwriter and he was also in a steady transition. As an artist, he had reached the end of one thing and was ready to explore the next phase. But he didn’t make it, sadly.”
When Nirvana were accepted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2014, Stipe was handed the ultimate honour of inducting the legendary grunge band. During his speech, he passionately said from the heart: “Nirvana defined a moment, a movement for outsiders: for the fags; for the fat girls; for the broken toys; the shy nerds; the Goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky; for the rockers and the awkward; for the fed-up; the too-smart kids and the bullied. We were a community, a generation—in Nirvana’s case, several generations—in the echo chamber of that collective howl, and Allen Ginsberg would have been very proud, here.”
At another point during the ceremony, Stipe recalled the moment they first met in Seattle and the initial effect Cobain had on him. The singer told audience members: “That voice, that voice. Kurt, we miss you. I miss you. He was late. It was in Krist’s basement in Seattle — he and Courtney had moved into the house next door to my former guitar player Peter Buck… The first time I looked into his eyes, I just went, ‘I get it. He is all that. He is a very special person.’”
Not only did Cobain “define a moment” in time, as Stipe said in his speech, but he also inspired a generation, and not just through his music. The Nirvana frontman helped make compassion cool, and the kind words of those who knew him, such as Stipe, speak volumes.