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The latest entry in our Adolescence series asks what would Michael Stipe do?
Adolescence For The People
by Will Hubbard
No one ever likes my music collection.
It has taken me until my 25th year to realize that if you are going to tell everyone that there’s a late-night dance party at your house, there better be some good music waiting. A couple of Outkast albums and Rumours gathering dust on the record player is not enough to make a dance party.
Also, I think I finally realize that it’s not cute or attractive or mysterious to be the guy who puts on sad music at a party. As cheerful as Will Oldham can make me when alone I hear “maybe it’s not in me/ to make you a happy wife of mine,” people don’t want think about that shit late at night. People want to hear euphemisms for sex, and later maybe have it for themselves, and for that you need a fucking decent and varied playlist.
Why this should have taken me so long to understand I can only attribute to my initiation into ‘adult’ music.
It was 1995. I was sitting happily in the far-back seat of my mother’s first Caravan when it happened: I had been given a portable CD player for my birthday, and along with it the soundtrack to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!.
It was not the form of torture you might take it to be—I honest-to-god liked and still remember the words to most of those songs. Anyway, I distinctly remember my brother tossing a yellow-colored CD back at me, (he thought it was “stupid”), and clicking it into the player for a listen.
The volume must have been all the way up because I actually heard Peter Buck (or is it Bill Berry?) say “One, Two, One Two Three Four” at the beginning of the first track. There is no real way to describe the power, indeed the “driving” power of the first track on R.E.M.‘s Automatic For The People –I was twelve years old and I was shaken up.
Michael Stipe‘s voice was so low and sinister, and yet you could trust it with your life. By the second track you know this band is not fucking around. I mean, “Baby don’t shiver, now; why do you shiver?” I didn’t have any idea what irony was back then, but I do now and it strikes me that R.E.M. does not deal in it.
Will didn’t grasp irony for quite awhile, unfortunately
The third track, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”, with its silly-ass jumbled chorus (“callmeandI’lltrytowakeup”?, “callmeChetBaker”?) troubled me for some time. It wasn’t until years later, when I was maybe 16, and some girlfriend gave me a copy of this album for my birthday (“like I don’t already worship this CD!”), that I started actually listening to that song rather than skipping right to THE BEST GODDAMN SONG EVER WRITTEN.
I don’t think I ever considered committing suicide in high school, but I thought about the concept a whole lot, and however deep into this or that punk band I got later on, “Everybody Hurts” still made me want to cry and call someone. The video could be the best of the genre, and many were the times when stopped dead on a sweltering Florida highway I just wanted to get out and walk. We all did.
So it’s clear now that I am trumpeting the sincerity of this music. There follows on this album, R.E.M.’s eight, an instrumental track entitled “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.” For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why you would make a song with no words. It was another pill I took, that song, and years of listening to it taught me how intimate and unassuming music could be.
“Sweetness Follows” is the appropriate follow-up, in that it is a lyrical masterpiece: “Readying to bury your father and your mother,/ What did you think when you lost another?/ I used to wonder why did you bother,/ Distanced from one, blind to the other?”
Will in golfier days
The artist Philip Guston always insisted that he wanted to make images that would “mystify him for some time”, they would “stay tacked up on the wall.”
The element of mystification, of the enigmatic quality of good art, is what Michael Stipe’s lyrics became for me. They were probably even my first real instruction in this element of the uncanny.
I still have no idea what he is talking about when he begins “Monty Got A Raw Deal” with “Monty this seems strange to me./ The movies had that movie thing,/ But nonsense has a welcome ring/ And heroes don’t come easy.” Perhaps dear Michael’s allusions are just nonsense imbued with an unmistakably welcomed ring. It doesn’t seem to matter.
The next song is fast and fun, but never really got me. It is called “Ignoreland” so I have always kinda ignored it. “Star Me Kitten” is foreplay for the incredible sex of the last three tracks. In tenth grade someone asked me to change that song when I played it in my car while we were making out. I think she found it too grotesque. I said the song was not about bestiality but she wasn’t buying it. More and more as I get older, I see her point.
“Star Me Kitten” — William S. Burroughs & R.E.M. (mp3)
I remember liking Milos Forman’s movie about Andy Kaufman, but sort of begrudged his co-opting of the title of Automatic For The People‘s tenth and best track, “Man on the Moon.”
In the great liner notes to R.E.M.’s 2003 greatest hits album In Time, Peter Buck recalls that Stipe was having a hard time coming up with lyrics for the song. The music was all recorded, and the band agreed it could be a very good song.
The pressure sent Stipe to a local rent-a-car office, where he set off on a two-day drive with only the instrumental version of the eventual “Man on the Moon” on a cassette tape. When he returned to the studio, he walked immediately into the booth and recorded those strange lyrics in one take.
Stipe and Gwyneth
You can imagine the shock of hearing the man rattle off: “Here’s a little agit for the never-believer./ Here’s a little ghost for the offering./ Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s./ Mister Andy Kaufman’s gone wrestling.”
There are bunch of yeah, yeah, yeah, yeahs in there too, and Stipe actually claimed later that they were an attempt to out-do Kurt Cobain in terms of yeah-frequency in one song.
I almost don’t even feel like writing about the last two songs on the album, because I don’t want to profane them. Both presents a sort of heaven for me which I will probably never enter.
As a teenager I lived near the beach and went swimming many times in the light of only the moon. But the image I get in “Nightswimming” doesn’t have any of the beer or frustrating salt-friction that characterized my real-life experience of the phenomenon. I picture this song taking place by and in a lake of no great size. There are two people but no one is horny. “Nieeet-swimming….deserves a quiet night.”
There is a measure of acceptance in the voice of Michael Stipe on the “Find the River” of which I can still only get the slightest sense. He has gotten lost in obscure and dangerous places throughout the album, and somehow ends up standing, and at home.
The piano phrases in this song are like the most pleasurable beating you could ever get. The water images of “Nightswimming” continue, but the lake has become a river and yea, we all gotta move on from the quiet, beautiful moment of our intuitive glory—”the river to the ocean goes, a fortune for the undertow.”
“Nightswimming (live on MTV2)” — Dashboard Confessional & R.E.M. (mp3)
“Nightswimming” — You Say Party, We Say Die! (mp3)
I’ve never really concealed my devotion to R.E.M., for better or for worse. I think somewhere along the line the kids started to think R.E.M. was too serious, too earnest, which is really close to sucking. But, once, it was truly cool (c.f. early R.E.M. band photos by Anton Corbijn) to be utterly, rawly sincere in your rock songs. I know, you reach for your Springsteen, but I will always just pop in that yellow disc my brother gave me.
Will Hubbard, the editor-in-chief of CapGun Magazine, is the senior contributor to This Recording. He lives in Williamsburg.
WH in the costume of the times
“Man on the Moon” — Ferraby Lionheart (mp3)
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
Molly mourned humankind on a Sunday with jams.
Gossip Girl is ours.
We reconcile the public and the private.
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