“It’s a song about River Phoenix, wanting to share an experience with him that I couldn't because he had died”: R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe on the song he wrote for his late friend River Phoenix

R.E.M. in 1994
(Image credit: Getty Images)

R.E.M.’s 1996 album New Adventures In Hi-Fi marked the end of an era for the 90s alt-rock titans. Written and partially-recorded whilst the Athens, Georgia quartet trekked around the globe on the ginormous Monster tour, it would prove to be the last LP featuring the group’s original line-up. After its release, drummer Bill Berry, who had suffered a brain aneurysm midway through the tour and recovered to continue, left the band, but not before completing one final record with Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck. 

As Stipe told Classic Rock writer Niall Doherty in 2021, Berry, Buck and Mills put in the hard yards on tour to start building up material for New Adventures In Hi-Fi, with the majority of Stipe’s input on vocals and lyrics coming once they were off the road. There was one key track that was written and completed as they were on the move, though, and Stipe revealed it was about his late friend, the actor River Phoenix. Phoenix died from a drug overdose at LA club The Viper Room in 1993.

The song, which the band soon incorporated into their live sets, was called Departure and Stipe detailed the moment when he wrote the lyrics.

“It's one of the only songs for me that is truly based in autobiographical realness, it's my expressing immense anger through grief,” he said. “The song was written about River Phoenix, and wanting to share an experience with him that I couldn't share with him because he had died. I was at that point in grieving where I was just angry. I was just upset that I couldn't call him on the phone and share this thing that I knew he would have loved. So that's what that song is. I wrote it in San Sebastian, Spain. I wrote that song for River. It was after this 26-hour trip from Singapore through another airport onto San Sebastian, Spain and then landing in the hotel room. I had basically written lyrics on the back of my plane ticket.”

Stipe went on to say that the same month, he picked up the phone and called his hero Patti Smith, who would go on to guest on the New Adventures In Hi-Fi standout E-Bow The Letter.

“I think I was at a creative peak myself and an audacious peak,” he explained. “I would have never prior to that felt enough courage to call Patti Smith and say ‘hello, my name is Michael Stipe, I'm the singer from R.E.M. and I'm a great admirer of your work.’ But that was the first time we had spoken.”

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.