The Story Behind R.E.M.’s Ode to a Post-9/11 City, “Leaving New York”

A few years after September 11, 2001, Michael Stipe was on a flight looking down on New York City. Captivated by the beauty of his second home, he eventually started writing a tribute to the city he loved. “What I will say about ‘Leaving New York’ is that it is a pretty literal song,” said Stipe. “I was sitting on a plane, looking out the window at New York, and I wanted to write a love song to the city.”

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‘Nothing Can Compare’

Written by Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills and released on R.E.M.’s 13th album Around the Sun in 2004, “Leaving New York” runs through bittersweet reminisces, grief, loss, and leaving something, someone, or someplace, behind.

It’s quiet now and what it brings is everything
Comes calling back, a brilliant night, I’m still awake
I looked ahead, I’m sure I saw you there
You don’t need me to tell you now that nothing can compare

You might have laughed if I told you
You might have hidden your frown
You might have succeeded in changing me
I might have been turned around
It’s easier to leave than to be left behind
Leaving was never my proud
Leaving New York, never easy
I saw the light fading out

The line Leaving was never my proud, was one Stipe—who splits his time between his hometown of Athens, Georgia, and New York City—was unsure of using in the lyrics. “It’s ungrammatical, and I had a discussion with Mike Mills about it,” said Stipe, “but the feeling was that the line said what I wanted it to say, so I stuck with it.”

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Deeper in are some semblance of regrets and uncertainty, about an unpredictable future, and seeing the city in one of its darkest moments.

“The song can be taken literally,” said Buck. “On one level, it’s just about leaving the city. For me, though, It’s hard to hear a song with New York in the title without thinking about September 2001.”

Now life is sweet, and what it brings I tried to take
But loneliness, it wears me out, it lies in wait
And all not lost, still in my eye
Shadow of necklace across your thigh
I might’ve lived my life in a dream, but I swear, this is real
Memory fuses and shatters like glass
Mercurial future, forget the past
It’s you, it’s what I feel


You might have laughed if I told you (it’s pulling me apart)
You might have hidden your frown (change)
You might have succeeded in changing me (it’s pulling me apart)
I might have been turned around (change)
It’s easier to leave than to be left behind (it’s pulling me apart)
Leaving was never my proud (change)
Leaving New York, never easy (it’s pulling me apart)
I saw the light fading out

[RELATED: American Songwriter 2022 Interview with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills]

Stipe insisted that no interpretation of “Leaving New York” is “wrong” and that he welcomes the different readings of the lyrics.

“It’s really about what the listener takes from it,” said Stipe. “As a music fan, that’s what I turn to music for. I don’t really want to hear what Björk‘s interpretation of her songs is. That’s interesting to me years after I’ve made them mine.”

“Leaving New York” went to No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Alternative Songs.

Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images

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