On the March 29, 2016 episode of THE TONIGHT SHOW, Jimmy Fallon hosted musical guest Michael Stipe, the frontman of R.E.M., who performed a beautiful rendition of David Bowie‘s “The Man Who Sold the World” in promotion of the upcoming tribute shows to the legendary artist at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall.
While Stipe’s homage to Bowie can be described with any positive adjective you can think of, I found it fascinating how the song choice alluded to Kurt Cobain, with the stellar capture of the “The Man Who Sold the World” at Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged taping, and the relationship between the two singers.
Presumably, the last music Cobain was listening to before his death was R.E.M.’s AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE album. The vinyl was sitting on his record player. The LP allegedly inspired Cobain so much that he wanted to create an acoustic solo album in the pared down spirit of the release.
Cobain had once said of R.E.M., “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.” Stipe is godfather to Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean. A collaboration between the two was planned, with Stipe reaching out to Cobain, who was growing increasingly concerned over his mental health, but it never materialized.
In this context, certain lines of Stipe’s version of “The Man Who Sold the World” speaks to the return of feelings of loss through mourning a figure of immense gravity in popular music. When I hear “I thought you died a long, long time ago,” for instance, I imagine a conflation between Bowie and Cobain in remembrance of the previous experience. It also makes “I never lost control” all the more powerful when compared with Cobain over Bowie, who recovered from his falls.
The lead-up to “I laughed and shook his hand” has Stipe extend a flat palm outwards before slowly curling the fingers up to grasp air, a magnificent use of body language to enhance the song, message, and Cobain connection. No part of the song feels more powerful than the pause as he breaks up Bowie’s line to emphasize “We must… have died alone.” I think back to that record player with Stipe in the room accompanying Cobain, despite being absent. As the song reaches its final moments, Stipe once again raises his hand, evoking the earlier passages.
It’s a haunting cover of a fantastic Bowie track, but Stipe’s a consummate artist and diffuses the meaning while simultaneously enhancing it.