R.E.M. vs Interpretation

Anybody who loves REM needs to be aware of Matthew Perpetua’s remarkable labour of love, Pop Songs 07–08. It’s a commentary on every song REM ever recorded (up until 2008), and all kudos to Matthew for following it through with such dedication. He even got Michael Stipe in for a series of Q&As, which are an invaluable resource for anyone who’s followed the career of this endlessly lovable yet perplexing band. Go check it out. Now. I’m serious. Then, if you like, come back and read about my problems with it.

I am older than Matthew Perpetua, who I think is in his very early 30s, and I go back a little further than him with this band, but not all that much further. I first encountered them flukily early, in 1983-84, when I was about 13. RTE, the Irish national television network, was looking to expand its overseas coverage and it seized on the output of the then all-new MTV. For three hours every Saturday morning, RTE would broadcast a programme called MT-USA, a selection of videos then on rotation on MTV, selected by an Irish DJ named Vincent Hanley, known to listeners (or at least he liked to think he was known to listeners) as ‘Fab Vinnie’, now sadly dead. Hanley would present the show to Irish viewers, more often than not from some pavement in New York in order to give us the impression that he was where the action truly was. In practice, what we got was a lot of videos of songs we knew anyway, as well as videos by bands who had no following in Ireland at all; I can remember sitting patiently through songs by the likes of REO Speedwagon, Dennis de Young (‘Desert Moon’) and Steve Perry, hoping that something cool might come along in a minute, which is of course the state of mind that everyone watched MTV in, back in the day that we had to wait for the good stuff to happen. And once in a while, something cool did come on; MT-USA was probably the first time Irish TV audiences encountered ZZ Top, for example, in the form of their splendidly sly videos for Eliminator.

But there were also stranger and darker and odder things to be seen on MT-USA, and one of the strangest and darkest was a blurry, enigmatic video by a band calling itself REM. The song was ‘Radio Free Europe’, and the video – we know now – was the recut version that IRS insisted on, with inserted footage of the band in concert, instead of the original Arthur Pierson cut of the band ambling around Howard Finster’s place and all meeting up at the end, to see Rev. Finster release a small doll that tumbled arse-over-tip down an inclined plane.

REM and their song stayed with me, though I never found out much about them – at the time I was coming out of a phase of liking 60s rock and moving into liking Talking Heads and Television. Then, a few years later, I was watching some actual rock program some night and REM came along again. This time, it was the video for ‘The One I Love’, and I was hooked.

I went out and acquired their entire back catalogue (with some difficulty in the case of Chronic Town, which I could only get on cassette). I am, therefore, of the generation that discovered REM via Document. I was happy when they signed to Warner Bros. I looked forward to hearing Green, and I was elated when it sounded like a masterpiece. I went to see them in Dublin, on the Green tour, at the RDS Simmonscourt Pavilion in 1989, the gig which was notoriously attended by U2, at which REM, fully conscious of who was in the audience, basically staked their claim to be best band in the world, and was acclaimed as such by at least one UK newspaper (the Observer) shortly afterwards.

And so, unlike Matthew Perpetua, I got to hear Stipe sing ‘Harpers’ and ‘We Live As We Dream Alone’, and I fondly remember the cheeky final encore of ‘Afterhours’, with Stipe strolling up and down the lip of the stage and giving cheesy Vegas winks and nods to imaginary friends in the audience. (Now I think about it, he may have been giving them to U2.) I had a perfect moment to ‘Perfect Circle’. I swear to this day that Peter Buck was looking directly at me during ‘King of Birds’.

I bought the albums as they came out…and then, only a year or so later, realised to my dismay that I didn’t really like Out Of Time. Automatic For The People struck me as only slightly better. I loved Monster, and much but not all of New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Then Bill Berry left, and the inexorable law kicked in that no rock band can stay creative without a permanent drummer. I have a difficulty with Up, the last REM album that I bought. I love it the way you love somebody that you had a painful breakup with.

None of this places me as a special kind of REM fan, and I don’t claim to be one. I know someone who is such a Morrissey fan that if he tours Scotland she will go to every gig, and when she first got to meet him backstage, she asked him to sign her arm, which he did, and she had his signature tattooed into her flesh. There was never a time when I would have wanted to do something like that with REM, even at the point of my maximum fandom, in 1990 or so. I happen to have a tattoo, but it’s Black Flag‘s logo, not Michael Stipe’s signature. That erotic thing that’s the mark of a certain kind of intense fandom? I did have that with Stipe, sure, but in 1989-1990, years before he had outed himself as an ‘equal opportunity lech’ and at a time when I myself was notably unsuccessful in the business of getting girls interested in me.

They played in Ireland after that, and I didn’t go and see them. Hell, they had a residency in the Olympia Theatre in 2007, which was literally five doors down the street from where I worked at the time, and I knew that they were playing there and even trying out new songs for a freaking live album, and I still didn’t go and see them.

And then they made a couple more albums and then broke up, and I would never be able to see them again – one of maybe three rock bands/pop groups that I’ve really been a passionate fan of, at one stage or other, as opposed to really loving the music. (The other two are the Beatles, whose fascination endures for me, and Talking Heads, whose music I still love but whose story no longer obsesses me the way it once did.)

That’s the story so far of my life as an REM fan, and I suspect it’s not all that untypical. Maybe I got into them a little earlier than some people, and maybe I stopped loving everything they did a little sooner than some of their later fans, but that’s just an accident of chronology; I didn’t stop liking them because they became popular. I would have loved it if my favourite band were also the world’s favourite band. (What am I talking about? That’s one of the pleasures of loving the Beatles. It’s nice to feel uncomplicatedly part of a community.) I stopped liking them because I stopped enjoying their music. Nobody could convince me that Out Of Time was as coherent and powerful an album as Green, even if ‘Losing My Religion’ was a Big Hit Single. Automatic For The People had its moments, but songs like Nightswimming and Everybody Hurts sounded banal to me. After Green, every REM album that I could bring myself to listen to would strike me as having roughly half an album’s worth of great songs, and the rest would be filler. The strange thing was that I would disagree with the consensus about what was filler and what wasn’t. And after a while, I just stopped listening. I haven’t listened to Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate or Collapse Into Now at all, bar the odd single.

So, to bring it all back to Pop Song 07–08. What Matthew Perpetua’s done here is, in my view, something immensely enjoyable; it’s really fun to dip and and out of, and his writing style is lucid, clear and sensible. In fact, that’s kind of the problem. MP, as I’ll call him (hope he doesn’t mind), is an eminently sensible commentator. But the best REM songs, and even some of the less good ones, resist this sort of treatment.

What MP does is this: he listens to the song and offers an interpretation of it, based on what he can make the lyrics out to be, and how, to his ears, the musical setting does or doesn’t support that. He seems to have checked out lyric sheets where they were available. But his method is at least grounded in a definite effort to determine what the song is ‘about’.

My problem with this is that REM, foremost among every band in the history of rock & roll, made the most undeniably successful efforts to frustrate attempts to determine what their songs are ‘about’; and yet, not only does this not diminish their appeal, it actually enhances it. Eddie Vedder put it beautifully when he inducted the band into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007:

There are a couple of things I need to address, the hardest one being Michael Stipe. How do you explain the dialogue between Michael and the listener? A dialogue that grew up, and we grew up with it. Such wisdom in the feelings of his songs that, I, I think — that they helped us find things that we knew were inside us, and I think he helped us find things that we didn’t know we had inside us, and I can say that personally, there are things that I hold and feel very deeply about inside here [pointing to heart], that Michael Stipe put in there himself. This all happens without ever being able to understand a f***ing thing he was saying.

Vedder added, as any fan would, that this of course referred to REM’s early years. It was, of course, a conscious move on the band’s part. Anyone who’s listened to bootlegs of their earliest rehearsal tapes (or the officially released ‘All The Right Friends’, a characteristic example of their early stuff) knows that REM began as a fairly meat’n’taters retro guitar band, playing jangly garage-rock songs about nasty girlfriends and permanent vacations, and then at some point early on they realised that there was much more to be gained by veiling themselves in mystery and obfuscation. The leap from the earliest tapes to ‘Radio Free Europe’ is a quantum leap. What made all the difference was that Stipe went from singing simple lyrics clearly to singing oblique and enigmatic lyrics in a voice that you couldn’t decipher.

It was this sense of mystery that made early REM so powerfully attractive. All successful bands offer a certain amount of space for you to project yourself onto, but REM offered more than most, and they framed it with an unusually crisp and pretty musical backdrop that emphasised the mystery and the promise and the sweet uncertainty, and (unlike the music of most of their peers) didn’t force you to feel one way rather than another about it. This was exactly the kind of thing about them that pissed off punk purists who wanted music that endorsed their own rage; but it’s also the reason REM meant so damn much to shy and confused teenagers like me. I was confused enough that, in my angriest moments, Black Flag meant a lot to me too; but Black Flag wasn’t the kind of listening experience I could share with anyone else, especially since they had fragmented by the time I got to listen to them. REM, however, spoke to anyone who didn’t know what to think or who to be, because you could never figure out exactly who REM were or what they thought. That’s why ‘Murmur’ was the perfect title for their first album. To murmur is to say something so quietly that whatever you said is less significant than the fact that you said it so quietly.

But you can’t conduct your whole career like that. Sure enough, as time went by, Michael Stipe decided that he wanted to be understood. On Reckoning you could hear the words, but you couldn’t make sense of them. On Fables of the Reconstruction the words ducked back into the mix again. On Lifes Rich Pageant the words, at last, rang out — and Stipe defined himself, one way or the other, out of what later seemed like a hope that we might define ourselves along with him. And we did, I suppose. At the 1989 RDS gig he spoke out about the recent Exxon Valdez disaster and how we should all boycott Esso products, and of course we all cheered. On the way home in the car, the friend of mine who’d driven me to the concert needed to fill her petrol tank and we made a Big Thing out of not filling up at an Esso station.

Some of REM’s best-loved later songs are of course blazingly simple. ‘Everybody Hurts’ would be an example, and it’s a much-loved song. MP greatly admires it: ‘[…] there is absolutely no use for ambiguity if the object of your song is to console the depressed and talk them out of suicide.’

I don’t like that song. I was 21 when I first heard it and maybe not quite as in touch with my tortured adolescence as I’d been a couple of years earlier, but I was still fairly unhappy, and yet this song (by a band I’d loved and still loved) didn’t uplift or console me in any way. Instead, it just sounded preachy and insulting, as if the most popular guy in school had briefly broken away from his group of cool friends to offer the miserable nerd a condescending shoulder squeeze and a glib ‘Hey, chin up, kid, you’ve got friends, you know’. Bah! Fuck off! It’s easy to say consoling things, but there are depths of unhappiness that ‘Everybody Hurts’ can’t touch. You can’t ‘take comfort in your friends’ if you’ve come to believe that your friends don’t like you.

No, it sounded hollow. Especially when the same album had one of Stipe’s darkest and most self-punishing songs about his own relationship with his audience, ‘Drive’. ‘Drive’ really plumbs the depths, from its D minor harmony (Buck tunes the low E string on his guitar down to a D, here) to John Paul Jones’ inspired string arrangement, which gives the song a sense of cosmic weight. MP says ‘The song poses a very serious question: Are you obsolete and irrelevant, or are you just being told that you are by people who don’t have a clue, or are seeking to marginalize anyone old enough to know better than insecure, immature teenagers, but not quite old enough to be the establishment?’

But ‘Drive’ isn’t asking a coherent question like that, nor does it give the answer to one. It dramatises a mood, a mixture of fascination, seduction and contempt. The singer plays with the listener, lumping the individual into the mass of ‘kids’, mocking them with ‘Nobody tells you where to go’ and then luring them back to the singer’s side with that crooning ‘Bay-behhhh…’, as if Stipe were reassuring us, hey, kids, don’t take it personally, I do like you really. There is something profoundly creepy (and exciting) about this, and even when the wrath of the gods breaks out on that fuzz guitar interlude, as the stormclouds boil overhead (in the video, at this point, fire hoses are turned on band members and fans alike), the singer’s unruffled, slightly insolent cool is maintained on the old playground chant ‘Ollie, ollie in come free’. The video expanded on this mood by having Stipe held aloft by a crowd as if bodysurfing at a concert; he gets tossed this way and that, his shirt riding up his torso, as the crowd battles for who gets to hold him up. (Bodysurfing has its own terrors, quite apart from the comic risk of just falling to the floor. I read an interview once with Courtney Love in which she reported diving into a crowd at a festival and, in the ensuing chaos, feeling members of the audience tear off her underwear and stick fingers inside her.)

Now, I’m not trying to imply that Stipe himself harbours creepy, sleazy thoughts about his audience. What’s undeniable is that he’s using this mood to create a good song. It’s said that most REM songs began with Berry, Buck and/or Mills coming up with music which Stipe would then write words to, and if so, this further messes with MP’s picture of REM songs being personal messages from Stipe about himself, or his own feelings and fears. Stipe’s own rhetorical strategies would seem to confound that, which is why MP ignores them, wanting to make each song an argument or a question or a sermon or a plea. Elsewhere, even when a song seems to be extremely direct, MP often misjudges the tone: he describes the lyrics of ‘Star 69’ as ‘a bit goofy and friendly’ but how does that fit with ‘you don’t have to take the bar exam to see / what you’ve done is ignoramus 103 / what’ve I got to hang my hat on / you don’t have a pot to pee in / all this just to be your friend / I was there until the end / extortion and arson, petty larceny’? (Copyright © R.E.M./Athens Ltd., btw.) Moreover, Stipe, or Scott Litt, or someone, ups the tension and anxiety by feeding Stipe’s vocal through a delay unit with the level turned up very high, so that each line Stipe sings is echoed at the same volume exactly a beat later, as if the singer wants to drown out this pest with accusations.

In general, MP is fonder of talking about what the song makes him think about, than the song itself. His three paragraphs on ‘Oddfellows Local 151’ are mostly about disillusionment with the speed of social change, and try to imply that the song is about that too, which is pretty weird because this is actually an occasion where Stipe himself talked about what the song is about. In an 80s interview he described the song as being his effort to mess up and dismiss and generally be done with the approach he took on Fables of the Reconstruction, and this does seem to be borne out by the comic and rather foolish figure cut by Peewee, who sits on the wall at Oddfellows Local 151 and offers his ‘pearls of wisdom’ to the ‘boy and girl’. Here, Stipe is having fun with imagery from Southern literature; I’m thinking especially of Flannery O’Connor‘s tortured, wayward prophets who see reality more clearly than the half-assed liberal agnostic intellectuals, a trope O’Connor sometimes elevated to brilliant literature but which becomes a bit predictable if you read too much of her stuff in one go. This is hardly a controversial take on the song: Stipe even quotes O’Connor quoting Psalm II, in the line ‘Why do the heathens rage behind the firehouse’. But Peewee is no Hazel Motes. He’s a hapless drunk who falls over and has to have the blood and rum washed off him by the boy and girl he’s trying to instruct. We never learn what ‘proof’ Peewee is teaching. He’s a figure of fun. If this song does come from somewhere personal to Stipe, it’s perhaps an uneasiness with the slogan-shouting demagoguery that makes up much of the rest of the album (including such thrilling moments as ‘Finest Worksong’, ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ and the raucous ‘Fireplace’, which I think is one of REM’s best songs.) Peewee is how the narrator of ‘Life and How to Live It’ will end up. Fables is an album full of character studies, but if ‘Oddfellows’ is a character study it’s a very Beckettian one. (A further link from ‘Oddfellows’ to Fables is Buck’s angular guitar part, more reminiscent of ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’ or ‘Old Man Kensey’.)

Still, Matthew Perpetua wrote about every REM song. Well, not all of them. He had the good sense to leave off at Reveal. I admire his common sense, and I’m in awe of his stamina.

R.E.M. vs Interpretation