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The Story of When R.E.M. First Met David Bowie

Jo Hale/Nicholas Hunt, Getty Images

In March 1995, life suddenly became tense for R.E.M. The band’s drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm, on stage, while touring in Switzerland, leaving the rest of the band to wait and wonder what would happen next.

As it turned out, meeting David Bowie is what came next.

While waiting for Berry to “live or die” in Switzerland, the band spent time with Claude Nobs, founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival. They’d been invited to dinner at his house, where, according to frontman Michael Stipe‘s and bass player Mike Mills‘ interview with the Matt Everitt for the BBC‘s The First Time With…, Nobs had flown in a band and a chef for the evening’s festivities.

He told the band “a few people might be joining us tonight,” Stipes told Everitt. “Including David Bowie.”

Mills interjected, “He said, I think, ‘David might be joining us for dinner.’ We’re like, oh, David. Great. Who’s David?”

Michael Stipe, who like his bandmates was in awe of the iconic musician, performed last year at a Bowie tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, where he covered “Ashes to Ashes.”

Stipe immediately went upstairs for a nap before dinner, he said, and was later awakened by someone saying “Mr. Bowie has arrived and dinner is served.”

“It took me three espressos to walk down the stairs, look David Bowie in the eye and say ‘how do you do? It’s nice to meet you finally.'”

Mills said Bowie was fascinated by the upcoming millennium. “He had opinions on why there was so much body modification going on among young people. He felt that they were suffering millennial angst even though they weren’t aware of it. He was really convinced that people were getting all the tattoos and the piercings because of the upcoming century change. It was having some kind of psychological effect on them.”

Bowie talked non-stop for hours, Stipe said. “He was so engaging, so funny, and so smart,” Stipe said. “He had a book of his own original artwork with him, he had miniatures of sculptures that he had been working on, he had a photo of James Dean as a teenager – naked in a tree. He was just fascinating. Everything that you would expect from David Bowie, times ten. That was the first time we met him.”

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