"Fall On Me" / R.E.M.
Mea culpa: I missed posting yesterday because I was juiced all day about going to the Tibet House benefit concert at Carnegie Hall. What a brilliant line-up: Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Philip Glass, Sigur Ros, Debbie Harry, Ray Davies, Michael Stipe, and Patti Smith (not to mention a glorious contingent of orange-robed Tibetan Buddhist monks). I adored Ray's a cappella version of the Kinks song "Days", and Lou Reed's extended version of his "Ecstasy" was electric. But one of the highlights of the evening was hearing Patti Smith duet with Michael Stipe on the R.E.M. hit "Everybody Hurts." Sitting in my seat, wrapped in the song, I felt seized with nostalgia, wondering why Michael Stipe had fallen so far out of my musical world.
Well, there are many answers. R.E.M. got so much airplay in the early 1990s that I gradually lost interest in them, especially as Michael Stipe became too ubiquitous a figure on the do-gooder circuit (I call this the Sting Effect). There's always a fine line, too, between a band that has a distinct recognizeable sound and a band whose songs all sound alike, and R.E.M. often teetered perilously on that line. It's an engaging blend -- folkie wistfulness married to a bashing garage-band beat -- but they could've borrowed more of a sense of humor from the punk movement; R.E.M. had a fatal tendency to build every song up to grandiose anthem level (I call this the Springsteen Effect).
And yet, during the long musical dry spell of the late 1980s and early 1990s -- years when I retreated into my old albums because very little contemporary music interested me -- R.E.M. was one of the few new bands that seemed to matter. I fell for the swelling majesty of those songs, their pensive minor-key poetry, those riddling lyrics -- and, of course, the slightly nasal earnest passion of Michael Stipe's vocals. Just think of the haunting loneliness throbbing through "The One I Love," or the punch-drunk alienation of "Losing My Religion," or the dazed jerky reflexes of "Stand." Yeah, maybe it was rock music for depressives (until Nirvana came along and made R.E.M. sound upbeat in contrast), but all that emotional sincerity was refreshing after the nihilism of punk.
This track from Life's Rich Pageant (1986) never got overplayed on the radio; in fact it never got near the attention it deserved. On this album, Stipe finally began pronouncing his words clearly, which made me realize at last that these lyrics were supposed to be baffling. "There’s a problem," he starts out, intriguingly, sucking me into the string of images that follow, in a hypnotic circling melody: "Feathers iron / Bargain buildings, weights and pulleys / Feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air." Hunh? I'm not sure why I picture Galileo here, dropping the feather and the weight off the Tower of Pisa, but apparently I'm meant to because the next verse mentions "progress" and "conscience" and "building towered foresight."
But I also think of Chicken Little on the refrain, "Buy the sky and sell the sky / And tell the sky and tell the sky / Don’t fall on me" (notice how each substituted verb signals a moody key shift). By the time Stipe's voice soars into "Don't fall on me," it's almost a relief. It took me ages to sort out what the background vocals were chanting, their own Chicken-Little-ish squawks of "(What is it up in the air for) (It’s gonna fall)" and "(It’s over it’s over me) (It’s gonna fall)."
Apocalyptic tremors run throughout this song, no question about it, with the echoing vocals and jangly guitar and sledgehammer drumbeat, but those elliptical lyrics leave me groping in the dark -- without an action plan, without a road map, without any sort of fallout shelter. Hmmm. Just like life.
The one factor that balances the equation is Michael Stipe's singing, a beacon of human passion shining through the tangled melody, the dense arrangement, the cryptic lyrics. There are moments in this song (and in most R.E.M. songs) where his clear boyish tenor scales a melodic line and simply seems to burst into fireworks. He lays it all on the line, vocally speaking. I call this the Van Morrison Effect -- and it gets me every time.
Last night at Tibet House I saw Michael Stipe tear into "Everybody Hurts" with that same gut-wrenching passion, and I realize I missed it. I went home and dug out my old R.E.M albums, and it was like a high school reunion. I may not want to spend the rest of my life listening to R.E.M., but every once in a while it's great to get that old feeling back again.