Michael Stipe just released his first single as a solo artist. You might remember when Stipe was the singer for R.E.M. — but Craig Franklin remembers when he wasn’t a singer at all.
“His hair was all curly, like Roger Daltrey. That was the main reason, when we needed a singer I asked him to sing,” said Franklin. “I stopped him in the hallway by the lockers, and I said, ‘Would you like to sing in our group? We’re going to do a talent show.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t sing,’ and I was a little confused. ‘You gotta sing! You look like a rock star.'”
Franklin’s memories of the mid-1970s have recently resurfaced in Robert Dean Lurie’s new book Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years. After I reviewed that title for The Current’s Rock and Roll Book Club, praising Lurie’s diligence in finding “characters” from the band’s history, Franklin wrote to me saying, “I just moved from Minneapolis (Bloomington) down to Georgia coincidentally. I’m one of the ‘characters’ you mentioned.” Shortly thereafter, Franklin and I spoke by phone about his musical history and his years in Minnesota.
For starters, I asked Franklin to set the scene in Collinsville, Illinois circa 1975, when he first met Michael Stipe. Although Stipe is the only member of the Georgia-based R.E.M. to actually have been born in that state (founding drummer Bill Berry, in fact, originally hails from Minnesota), he moved several times when he was young due to his father’s job in the army. By Stipe’s high school years, his family was living in the Land of Lincoln.
“When you look up Collinsville, you’ll see…they call it the ketchup bottle,” explained Franklin, who grew up there. “It’s a large water tower shaped like a ketchup bottle, because they used to have a factory there that processed tomatoes into ketchup.”
The two teens met because Stipe’s house was hard to miss: he lived next to the town’s only public swimming pool. They soon learned they shared an interest in music, although their tastes didn’t always coincide. “Punk was just coming out,” said Franklin, who remembers Stipe showing him Village Voice issues delivered in the mail. Stipe was famously drawn to Patti Smith, but Franklin says his own tastes ran more along the lines of mainstream rock. “He had bands like Television and Iggy Pop and the Stooges. One album I remember introducing him to was Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. He really got a big kick out of that.”
When Stipe agreed to sing in Franklin’s band, he brought a song suggestion. “When Michael came over to my house, he brought some sheet music of the Who and the Rolling Stones,” explained Franklin. “He suggested that we do ‘Gimme Shelter,’ which I had heard of, but I didn’t know how to play it well.” They ended up playing a Rush cover (“Working Man”), but ultimately lost out to a piano-and-singer duo.
Franklin has fond memories of hanging out with Stipe. “He got me my first beer! I was probably 15 years old or so. I didn’t even have my license then, and he drove around in a little Honda Civic. We went to the Horseshoe Lounge and got a six-pack of beer, and we drove the country roads and parked and talked about music.”
After high school, Stipe headed to the University of Georgia in Athens, where R.E.M. would come together. “A mutual friend told me, ‘Michael’s got a band down in Georgia.’ I was like, ‘That’s nice,’ because he was so shy. ‘This should help him get out of his shell.’ Then I saw him on the David Letterman show.”
Stipe stayed in touch with his old friend; during one backstage chat, Stipe encouraged Franklin to record some of the songs he’d been writing. Franklin — who by then was living in Austin, Texas — released Confessions of a Frequent Flier in 2005. His work in genetic engineering brought him to Minnesota for a couple of years starting in 2013, and Sunrise Again was released in 2015. Franklin has fond memories of recording with Minnesota musician Andy Lindquist and attending shows like Curtiss A’s John Lennon tribute at First Avenue. He says was excited to meet pianist Gregg Inhofer, who played on Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.
Franklin couldn’t be prouder of his early bandmate, who’s now been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for over a decade. “It couldn’t happen to a nicer person.”