The instant the questions get personal Michael Stipe gets up to leave the room. "I need a match," he says, waving a cigarette he's just rolled on his lap. "I'm not stalling." A year ago, he might not have come back. R.E.M.'s story is well known by now: since the Georgia band released their first album, "Murmur," in 1983, they've risen from college-radio underdogs to pop superstars with nary a ding or dent to their credibility, and become godfathers to a generation of alternative bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Their last two albums sold nearly 20 million copies combined, and they just took home the lion's share of trophies at the MTV Video Music Awards. All the while, however, Stipe, 34, has clung fast to his privacy. We know that the singer was an army brat as a kid. That he was an art student at the University of Georgia. That he rocks the vote, the environment and animal rights. Beyond that, though, his life is mostly uncharted territory -- as they wrote on Renaissance maps, Here there be dragons. There are few rock stars in the world about whom so little is known.

Next week, R.E.M. will release "Monster," and in the spring they'll embark on an arena tour, their first in five years. "Monster" is a gloriously raucous, risque album, full of jealousy, communication breakdowns, violence and violent crushes -- even the most moving tune, "Let Me In," is sung over a dense, roiling electric guitar. The album's a remarkable showing by guitarist Peter Buck and an abrupt about-face from 1992's lush, melancholy "Automatic for the People." Suddenly it looks as if the biggest record of the year might not be a soundtrack. While R.E.M. was in New York for the MTV Awards, Stipe gave Newsweek an uncharacteristically candid interview about sex and death and songwriting. He spoke in particular about the loss of two close friends: actor River Phoenix and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, one a drug casualty, the other a suicide. In person, Stipe seems gentle, solicitous and utterly unaffected. (On the second day of interviews, his version of a greeting was to approach with a dinosaur-shaped water gun, aim, and fire.) Still, there's no mistaking the fact that talking to the press isn't easy for the singer. Mind if he smokes?

I think "Automatic" was a punk record. I really do. It flew in the face of everything that was going down musically at the time. It was beautiful. It was quiet. It used acoustic instruments. Everything else was aggressive and in-your-face.

I'd lost a great number of people around me, family and friends. My grandmother died a beautiful death. Graceful is not the right term, but she was ready to go.

It was widely rumored that I had AIDS, or that I was HIV-positive. Which is not the case. I didn't answer those rumors for a long, long time because I felt like making a big deal out of saying no would stigmatize people who are HIV-positive.

I've always been thin and had bad skin, and I've always been sexually ambiguous.

I've always felt that sexuality is a really slippery thing. In this day and age, it tends to get categorized and labeled, and I think labels are for food. Canned food. I know that there are people who are very comfortable identifying themselves as homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, transsexual -- whatever it is. I don't really feel comfortable within any of those. . . . I usually avoid the subject, but the fact that this record is largely about sex makes it hard to avoid.

It was unbelievably hard. We have a great sense of humor about it, but it did break up the band for at least half an hour. Peter's idea of making a record is that you go in the studio, you put it down and it's done in three days. Mike's and my idea is that you go in and you toil for six months.

That's a song that I wrote to Kurt Cobain after he killed himself. [Pause.] I, um . . . I should be able to do this without getting emotional. [Pause.] I lost a friend in October -- River Phoenix was a very, very close friend of mine. And I've never suffered such a profound loss. I couldn't write for five months. We had started the record in September. I'd written two songs and then River died. And, having written "Automatic for the People," I was not about to write another record about death and loss. So it took me five months to sit down and write again. Then, halfway through making "Monster," Kurt died. At that point, I just threw my hands up and wrote "Let Me In."

That was me on the phone to him, desperately trying to get him out of the frame of mind he was in. . . . In the most big-brotherly way -- God, I hate that term -- in the most genuine way, I wanted him to know that he didn't need to pay attention to all this, that he was going to make it through. If R.E.M. had sold 5 million copies of "Murmur," none of us would be alive to tell the tale. I really believe that. I'd have died with Quaaludes in my blood and a lot of Jack Daniels.

One of the things I think I've done successfully as a media figure is avoid a lot of the cliches, like the macho posing. I've tried really hard to blur the lines, and a lot of that does have to do with sexuality. I like f---ing around with gender. I like writing songs that aren't gender-specific. And I really felt an alliance with both Kurt and River in that both of those guys, in their respective fields, were doing the same thing.

It's not a cliche. It's the dead truth. I was unbearably shy. And that's part of what drew me to River. I recognized that in him. The first time I met him, his hair was completely covering his face. And I was like, "God, that was me at 22." There's an incredible vulnerability at the core of what River, Kurt and I do -- or did.

Yeah, he talked a lot about what direction he was heading in. I mean, I know what the next Nirvana record was going to sound like. It was going to be very quiet and acoustic, with lots of stringed instruments. It was going to be an amazing f---ing record, and I'm a little bit angry at him for killing himself. He and I were going to record a trial run of the album, a demo tape. It was all set up. He had a plane ticket. He had a car picking him up. And at the last minute he called and said, "I can't come."