Tag Archives: R.E.M.

Letter Never Sent. Message Received.

REM_1984_96128665_213310bIn high school I had a compulsion to figure out the meaning of the lyrics of all of my favorite pop songs. I would read and re-read liner notes with great reverence (hey – if Pearl S. Buck, Shakespeare, and George Orwell were worthy of that attention – so were Sting, Simon LeBon and Larry Blackmon). The act and ability to decipher the vaguest, most surreal lines was empowering. Wrestle the meaning and make sense of the world.

So much has been written about Michael Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics, but it never mattered to me whether I could understand some (most) of the words he sang. I cared less about the meaning and more about the feeling the words, and the sound of the words, evoked.

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Heaven is Yours, Heaven is Yours

That may be the only line I’m completely certain of when I sing along. But I still ‘get’ the song.

Loss. . . Regret . . .

But, like so many R.E.M. songs, there’s also hope. That line from the chorus is the first of so many direct, uplifting declarations from the band (You are the everything, Everybody Hurts, No one can see you cry, Every Day is Yours to Win, You’ll be fine).

Who needs a life coach when you’re an R.E.M. fan.

Additional R.E.M. posts:

R.E.M – Pretty Persuasion

Screamer of the Week: Pretty Persuasion by R.E.M. This Week in 1984.

What type of blessed musical alchemy was being conjured in late May of 1984? During the third week of the month I heard Prince’s When Doves Cry for the first time and almost imploded with joy. And then, the very next week, I heard the song that would begin a 30 year relationship with what would become my favorite band of all time.

rem2Although R.E.M. released their debut album, Murmur, a year earlier – they were not at all on my radar. I think I had heard of the band and thought their name was clever, I knew they were from the South and I had possibly heard “Radio Free Europe,” but didn’t think much of it (I know – BLASPHEMY! It actually hurt me to write that last sentence. But have no fear – I have since come to my senses). I was happy listening to a steady diet of 30% Rap, 20% R&B, 35% British New Wave, and 15% American pop. I believed R.E.M. was a country band and I didn’t need any country music on my radio or in my cassette player.

I’m pretty sure that was my first thought when I heard the first few bars of “Pretty Persuasion”. The radio station WLIR was holding its weekly Screamer of the Week competition and one of the DJ’s entered “Pretty Persuasion,” from R.E.M.’s just released second album, Reckoning.

First the jangly guitar, followed by a harmonica, and then that twangy, sad vocal harmony.  Yep – this is country music. Country music, but . . . .

Country music, but . . . one of the prettiest harmonies I’ve heard all year. Country music, but . . . also rock n roll – and also pop. Country music, but . . . something else I can’t put my finger on – but I know it’s making a connection.

rem3Michael Stipe has recently shared the fact that Pretty Persuasion is about growing up queer. I’d love to be able to re-write history and talk about how I connected to the very subtle gay/queer narrative Stipe was telegraphing. But that wasn’t the case. Stipe wasn’t ready to directly speak or write or sing about being gay and I didn’t feel the particular need to seek out and enjoy gay overtones in my music (Bronski Beat and Frankie Goes to Hollywood would change that in a couple of months).

But I did connect to the song’s evocation of vulnerability. And although I didn’t understand all of the lyrics I knew it felt cathartic and empowering to sing along to lines like  “Goddamn your confusion,” and “It’s all wrong/it’s all wrong!”. Those lyrics seemed perfectly designed for this 16-year-old to sing along to while sitting alone in his bedroom. And the perfection of that song inspired this 16-year-old to put down his reservations about liking country music and pick up his phone to cast his vote for “Pretty Persuasion” to be Screamer of the Week.

rem1When I turned 40 I created a mix of my top 40 songs of all time. The list started changing almost as soon as I burned the CD (life before Spotify) but R.E.M.’s “Pretty Persuasion” has remained a constant. It’s a great song. A perfect song. And it’s a marker. It reminds me of a time when I cautiously (very cautiously) began to open up, receptive to the notion that I could be a slightly different person today, than I had been the day before.

 

Additional Screamer of the Week posts:

The Psychedelic Furs – Heaven

The Thompson Twins – You Take Me Up

Prince and the Revolution – When Doves Cry

Thompson Twins – Sister of Mercy

Welcome to 1984

This blog is dedicated to the irrefutable, undeniable fact that in the year of our lord, Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Four, the pop culture gods smiled down and bestowed upon us the single greatest year of pop music the world has ever known.

Why 1984?

Why not ‘83 or ’85 or ‘64 of ‘92 or any other year that contained a number of great singles and albums? Well, it’s my belief that in 1984 the pop world coalesced in a way it had never coalesced before (and most likely will never again). Call it Karma or call it blessed coincidence  – but this was a unique moment in time when musicians were creating masterpieces AND music labels were making the right decisions AND the general public was ready to hear and see and embrace it all. The result? 12 months of great (the greatest) pop music; from January when Michael Jackson’s Thriller  – THRILLER!!  – sat in the top 10; through December when Band Aid released “Do They Know Its Christmas?”

1984 brought ascension (RUN-D.M.C., Madonna, R.E.M.,), resurrection (Tina Turner, Chaka Khan) and evolution (Bruce Springsteen, Patti Labelle) for countless musicians (and listeners).

1984 also brought us the seminal song, soundtrack and film all sharing the two-word title:

Purple.

Rain!

(MUCH MUCH MUCH SO MUCH MORE on Prince and Wendy and Lisa and Doc Fink and Brown Mark and Bobby Z in future posts!)

I have to admit my love of 1984 has just as much to do with who I was during that year as it does with the great music I listened to. Does anyone love or connect to music as much as they do as a teenager?

At age 16 I was ready to tackle the radical political commentary of Frankie Goes to Hollywood‘s Two Tribes and the subtle sexual lyricism of Depeche Mode‘s Master and Servant.  I also believed that the analytical muscles I developed studying Lord of the Flies and Julius Caesar fully empowered me to decipher the deeper meaning of songs like New Moon on Monday, Pretty Persuasion, and Karma Chameleon.

In ’84 I also fell in with a group of friends who became my group. We came from all 5 boroughs of NYC and were black and white and Asian and Latino and biracial. That level of diversity seemed rare but it felt comfortable and it fit (People are People, indeed). So when I saw Mikey Craig in Culture Club or The System or General Public or Hall & Oates‘ live band or The Revolution – all of the decisions I was making (at the time I didn’t realize they were decisions) felt affirmed.

During this year I also noticed a number of music artists who were playing with gender and sexuality just enough to intrigue, but not freak out an adolescent who had recently become aware of some unexpected desires. Whether it was Annie Lennox or Boy George‘s gender bending or Bronski Beat‘s lyrics or Rockwell‘s eyeliner (and his alleged romantic relationship with Michael) – some of my favorite artists seemed to take their inner most desires and literally wear them on their sleeves. I was far from ready to do that, but felt grateful they were willing to do it for me.

So here’s to the music that entertained me, changed me, guided me, and inspired me to such an extent that 30 years later I’m compelled to return for a visit.