22 January 2007

Music of the '80s that Matters: R.E.M.

Preface: (Simul-post)
Before George W. "Shrub" Bush has a chance to finishing beginning the end of the world as we know it, let me get this on record.


Michael Stipe, a military brat known for his surrealistic lyrics (protest or otherwise), saw the broken Viet Nam veterans around him. He saw them leave, and he saw them come back.

Follow me, don't follow me
I've got my spine, I've got my Orange Crush
Collar me, don't collar me
I've got my spine, I've got my Orange Crush
We are agents of the free
I've had my fun and now its time to

Serve your conscience overseas (over me, not over me)
Coming in fast, over me


[The following is spoken, Viet Nam-era, U.S. Military radio exchanges,
barely understandable over the din of deafening, whirling chopper blades.]

High on the roof,
thin the blood,
another one climbs on the waves tonight,

comin' in, you're home
We'd circle and we'd circle and we'd circle
to stop and consider
centered on the pavement stacked up all the trucks jacked up
our wheels in slush and orange crush in pocket
and all this here county
hell any county
it's just like heaven here and
I was remembering and I
was just in a different county
and all then this whirlybird that I
headed for
I had my goggles pulled off I knew it all
I knew every back
road and every truck stop

Follow me, don't follow me
I've got my spine, I've got my Orange Crush
Collar me, don't collar me
I've got my spine, I've got my Orange Crush
We are agents of the free
I've had my fun and now its time to

Serve your conscience overseas (over me, not over me)
Coming in fast, over me

(Orange Crush from the 1988 R.E.M. album Green)

Orange Crush, aka Napalm (i.e. gasoline jelly) defoliating the triple-canopy rain forest of Viet Nam -- all so that the "agents of the free" can kill Victor Charlie before the communist dominoes fall in Southeast Asia. Go on man, check the label on that shirt you're wearing -- says made in China, don't it. Agents of the free my ass.

I've listened to the song "Orange Crush" hundreds of times and could never dig those lyrics out. It was the anger in Michael's vocal, buried in a mix of crashing power chords, driving military -march rhythm, and chopper blades that started me on my quest to find out what exactly, other than orange soda, "Orange Crush" was.

And that's just one 4 minute track from Green.

The album blasts out of the starting gates with track one, "Pop Song 89", a rocker that, I think, is a surrealistic commentary on the break down in inter-personal communication that Michael Stipe saw rising. While nobody could have seen a modern phenomena such as "hooking up" back in the late Eighties, "Pop Song 89", listened to today, is an indictment of "Generation Next" social interaction.

In a word, timeless.

Before I rave on, let's introduce the band. With Stipe are drummer
Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, and multi-instrumentalist/bass-player Mike Mills, each providing post-punk texture to the fabric R.E.M. weaves.

And before I move away from Green, I've got to mention a diversely-instrumented, acoustic song that, in Michael's lyrics, captures a struggle that I (and a lot of my friends, you know who you are) deal with every day we draw breath. That never-played-on-commercial radio (now or then) masterpiece is "World Leader Pretend":

I sit at my table and wage war on myself
It seems like it’s all, it’s all for nothing
I know the barricades, and
I know the mortar in the wall breaks
I recognize the weapons, I used them well

This is my mistake. let me make it good
I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down

I’ve a rich understanding of my finest defenses
I proclaim that claims are left unstated,
I demand a rematch
I decree a stalemate
I divine my deeper motives
I recognize the weapons
I’ve practiced them well. I fitted them myself
This is my world

And I am world leader pretend
This is my life
And this is my time
I have been given the freedom
To do as I see fit
It’s high time I’ve razed the walls
That I’ve constructed

Other than saying this roots rock, alternative folk record contains the stellar, metaphorical train song "Driver 8", the hypnotic lyrics-buried-in-the-mix song that made a college-legend out of the meteor "Kohoutec", and the truly reconstructed, oral-tradition fable "Wendell Gee", I'll let Albert Massa, writing for Amazon.com, take over here:
R.E.M.'s third full-length recording, Fables of the Reconstruction delivers the purest distillation of the band's early sound. With the exception of the horn-laden, radio-friendly "Can't Get There from Here," the songs form a connected soundscape. Nearly transparent production highlights the glittering guitar arpeggios, active bass, and the disciplined, patterned drum lines, with organ and spare string arrangements adding texture to several pieces. And then there are the vocals: dense harmonies of voices calling out to each other, a rich humming and howling around Michael Stipe's central mumble. A careful listener can discern most of the lyrics, though what exactly they signify remains unclear. The album is best contemplated in its entirety, and the songs reward careful, repeated listening. This is a seminal alternative album, its material evocative, its ultimate meanings elusive. If your CD collection has room for only a few R.E.M. albums, Fables should be one of them.
Since I don't have an editor handy, let me wrap this up. Another of the "few R.E.M. albums" you should own is Life's Rich Pageant. To mention just 3 of its gems, "Cuyahoga" blasts you with an environmental catastrophe:
Let's put our heads together, start a new country up,
Underneath the river bed we burned the river down.
This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang,
Take a picture here, take a souvenir
Cuyahoga, gone
.... (Emphasis Added)

To comprehend "The Flowers of Guatemala", you have to know what was happening there in the early 1980's -- it's a mystical, genocide-chronicle song set in an Eden of flowers:

I took a picture that I’ll have to send
People here are friendly and content
People here are colorful and bright
The flowers often bloom at night

Amanita is the name
The flowers cover everything
The flowers cover everything

There’s something here I find hard to ignore
There’s something that I’ve never seen before
Amanita is the name they cover over everything

Contra pose this with the cover version of "Superman"-- it will have you dancing and feeling 8 years old again -- and you have a rock & roll roller-coaster of an album.

Bottom line: The music R.E.M created in the 1980's -- Rapid Eye Movement dream-sleep that is truly poetic, eclectic rock -- still matters today, just as much as it did to me and my friends on a road trip where there was nothing on the radio until we entered NYC airspace -- then "Radio Free Europe" came on the box and we were dancin' in on our seats.


Paco Malo said...

The link "Shrub" in the 1st paragraph of this post is to a book by the late Molly Ivins. May she rest in peace.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paco Malo said...

Anonymous, this is a family friendly apolitical blog. As such, please clean up your language. I do appreciate your comment that you disagree with my post.

sexy said...
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