Rick from IndianaThere is a really good episode of the podcast Song Exploder where they discuss how this song was written and recorded. Michael Stipe said in the episode that it was written about his grandmother who was dying.
Mike from Berkeley, CaAn interesting story in diffuser.fm mentions the inception of the song. Peter Buck was recording in the studio, and the engineer said the he could hear his breath on the mic. "I'll try not to breathe," he said--which Michael Stipe heard and thought would be a good name for a song.
Later, Stipe admitted that he was thinking about what might be going through his grandmother's head as she lay dying.
Mike Mills felt that it was one of his favorite backing vocals, and that he felt like John Lennon when he came up with it.
Ambrose from AustraliaHey Dennis from Seattle, I just heard Michael Stipe confirm your theory. He says exactly that on Song Exploder: http://songexploder.net/rem
Phil from YeppoonHas been covered by Australian band Dappled Cities.
Dennis from Seattle, WaInterestingly, this song was released in 1992, the 10th anniversary of the movie Blade Runner. When I hear it I always remember the climatic scene when Roy (Rutger Hauer), the lead replicant, is at the end of his predetermined lifespan and is fighting with Deckard (Harrison Ford). Before he finally dies he is crouched, shivering in the cold rain, telling Deckard the amazing things the replicants have seen and done and says "I have seen things that you will never see." I can't help but wonder if Michael Stipe was influenced by this powerful movie when he penned the words to this song.
John from Port Washington, WiStipe has said on more than one occasion that this is a song about assisted suicide.
Who writes a song about a name they found in a phone book? That's just one of the everyday things these guys find to sing about. Anything in their field of vision or general scope of knowledge is fair game. If you cross paths with them, so are you.