Okay, I admit it, I became a fan when the single "Stand" came out. Hey, I was 13. I didn't even buy an album until 1990, in fact I bought 2. Green and Eponymous at the urging of a friend and then shortly thereafter, I bought everything. For some reason, the music is right up my alley: cryptic lyrics and interesting guitar, but I'm not sure how primed I was as my favorite rock band had been Huey Lewis and the News--and that was pre-Back to the Future, however BTTF exploded my interest. I then moved into what I call my Janet Jackson phase (this phase never really ended), I had to perfect my dancing and rhythm skills before I got into Alt-Rock. When R.E.M. hit me, they hit hard, as a singer in bands I emulated Michael Stipe, as a guitar player, I emulated Peter Buck--one of the first songs I learned to play was "Endgame." I devoured everything the band put out including early bootlegs and video. I've spent many hours with these songs and these lyrics, honestly they've been the soundtrack to my life.
I consider myself similar to Peter Buck in the fact that I'm not a guitar player who is interested in technique, leads, and intricate licks. Just tell the story. Be inventive. Make it as easy as possible so that you can remember it. And don't become too competent at the guitar or you won't be able to see things in the same way, in other words, it's harder to think outside the box.
I want to briefly touch on Bill and Mike since this blog will mostly focus on the other band members. Bill Berry and Mike Mills are two of the best songwriters and perhaps the best rhythm section that came from the 80's. They are the balance in R.E.M. Because of the sparse guitar, the bass becomes more important and complimentary, and the beat is what drives the early albums--listen to how loud those cans are! Let's face it, R.E.M. was a glorified bar band, might as well give the drunk kids something they can dance to, and Berry was a freight train. Because of the partnership of Berry and Mills from well before the forming of R.E.M. the back beat of the band was extremely solid. What's most surprising about the combo is how Mike has to be melodic and still line up with Bill's rhythms, even when it doesn't quite line up--a key to how the band sounds very different from others crawling out of the 80's. I might add bass lines to these songs somewhere down the line, and I do add them when they are the only thing playing.
Now, to qualify my earlier statement about Peter Buck's guitar competence. I approached this project first because I found that a lot of the R.E.M. tab online was extremely intricate and largely unplayable, my reasoning then became, there's no way Buck was playing this as a novice guitarist. Okay, I fell for it. Buck was not, as widely reported, a novice. He definitely knew his way around a guitar. I can't tell you how long I spent dumbing down "Gardening at Night" before I realized I was on the wrong track. In fact, I will post a version of that song that you can play with one finger.
So if Buck was not a novice, why did he claim to be one? To add to the R.E.M. mystique? Because he considered his brother--a classically trained guitarist--to be an example of competence? Who knows. I like to think that Peter and Michael just like to fuck with people. The moment they realized the band was getting national attention, the more they enjoyed baiting the press. Hey, what could it hurt, there was no way that R.E.M. would ever be anything at that time than a blip on the music radar. I can't imagine Buck ever thinking, "Hey, someday R.E.M. will be the biggest rock band in the world, let's be forthcoming." In other words, when you're a small town record store clerk who has a band where nobody really understands what the lead singer is saying, or why you play constant riffs, and you know it doesn't even matter, that there is no deeper meaning; why NOT fuck with the media? In fact, the truly meaningful musicians had been doing it for years. To wrap up Buck for now, he is a great and thoughtful guitar player who constantly evolves to suit the needs of the band and the songs.
Since this blog will be tackling lyrics as well, I want to get this straight: No one has lyric sheets from 1982, not even Michael Stipe. (Well, maybe Peter.) The realization came to me in the live track from Dublin of West of the Fields where he says he hates the internet because they get his lyrics wrong. Okay, I'm a songwriter and I have every copy of what I've written on my computer and before word processing, I have a little book that has lyrics, I still have the first crappy song that I wrote. It's okay to be mystified because someone doesn't know what you were garbling 30 years ago when you can't pull out the real lyrics. But in going to other sources and relying on them is just asking for trouble in the first place. That said, there is no way Michael did not do that on purpose to point out there are discrepancies out there and there always will be. The band is not going to correct misconceptions, in fact, they thrive on them ...
I've been listening to Chronic Town over and over for two weeks and I get something new each time I listen. Each Time. That's the point. I will be trying to get as accurate as I can with the lyrics. A lot of what is online is close, but there are differences. A word or two here or there. But it doesn't matter. The lyrics evolve as well, Michael is not married to them. If he likes another lyric interpretation, he changes them. He's an artist, a photographer, and all of his lyrics are snapshots of his life and daily life. In that sense, I change lyrics to popular songs in my head all the time, why not? It's just a song. It's just entertainment. It's why I'm doing this blog. To be part of the discourse of this band, and believe me the band will be discussed in perpetuity.
I think it's important to understand the specificity of the situation. In this particular band, Michael has found himself extremely important. Not what he says per se, but where he puts it and how he sounds. His voice is more or less another instrument in the early days of R.E.M., it has to fit with the music. If you are going to throw phrases around that are untranslatable, they'd better at least fit the song. If you listen to some of their early, live recordings you can understand every word Michael says. It's only when R.E.M. have to decide who they are as a band that 'Mumbles' is born. I have no doubt that Stipe and co. toiled long and hard on lyrics. He is trying to challenge the convention of the pop song. I'm sure that R.E.M. also challenged every convention of songwriting by trying to approach a song from many angles. Some of the most interesting stuff happens when you push boundaries, but how much did they discard? There's no telling.
Well, I'm going to give it a try. That's all for introductions. There'll be much more to say as I shamble along ...