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File Under Laocoön
Of course, one of the most famous things about Murmur has always been Michael Stipe’s slurry, hazy vocals, which often it nearly impossible to determine what he was singing. Obviously — most certainly in retrospect — this was an affectation, but it was also a brilliant affectation.
Of course in some cases, it was to obscure lyrics that were either underwritten or — in the case of “Radio Free Europe” — hardly existed at all. And then when you added in Mike Mills and Bill Berry singing countermelodies or harmonies, it would get even tougher. But, of course, those of us who had fallen very deeply in love with Murmur over the summer of 1983 wanted to know exactly what he was singing — not because we thought there were deep meanings, but because we wanted to be able to properly sing along in our cars and in our rooms.
Thus, the R.E.M. lyric-deciphering party, one of the early apexes of the type of fandom that R.E.M. inspired.
I don’t remember who came up with the concept, but the original idea was to get a bunch of people together, listen to Chronic Town and Murmur, during which everybody would write down what they thought the lyrics were. Then, at the end, we’d all compare notes and discern what the “real” lyrics were. This sort of thing is exactly why R.E.M. was the biggest college radio band ever. They attracted a bunch of reasonably intelligent people who had a lot of ideas that sounded great on paper, but were actually quite impractical.
Remember, it wasn’t like we could cue up an .mp3 file or even a CD to an exact spot, listen to the words, and then everybody take a shot. We were doing this with vinyl records at (I think) Tim’s apartment. So, it almost instantly became apparent that it was a dumb idea. So it was probably mine.
That said, I coulda used some help with deciphering the lyrics to “Laughing,” the third song on side one of Murmur, and one that I got oh so very very wrong for a very very long time. Which is even funnier, because “Laughing” was actually kinda about something, so the fact that I heard the opening line — coming after a big open bass burble from Mike Mills and accompanied by a twinkly acoustic Peter Buck guitar — as “rock and roll had two sons.”
When in fact “Laughing” is based on an old Greco-Roman myth of Laocoön, who along with their two sons, got devoured by sea serpents. As you do. And had nothing whatsoever to do with rock and roll, outside of being an insanely gorgeous example of the form, especially on the chorus, which is ancient and eternal — like it might have been around back when Laocoön was getting eaten by the sea serpents — and they were able to somehow pluck it from the cosmos and place it in the middle of this gorgeous folk-rock tune. I mean, “Laughing” is like my 6th or 7th favorite song on Murmur, and yet its chorus is nearly beyond compare.
In a room
Laughing in twos
Laughing in twos
During the chorus, Buck switches the acoustic guitars from jangle to full-out strum, Mills does one of his long, hooky bass runs, and the backing vocals are meandering and ruminative, only truly joining in on the “laughing in twos” part.
As I remember, about halfway through “Gardening at Night” (the second song on Chronic Town), we determined that the R.E.M. listening party wasn’t going to work, so we just decided to drink beer and listen to the records. Like pretty much every other night, in other words. But what other band in the tangled history of Rock n’ Roll could inspire a party specifically designed to figure out what they were saying? Even other great bands with mushmouthed lead singers couldn’t inspire the combination of intensity, devotion, and just plain weirdness that R.E.M. inspired in otherwise cynical people from the start.
“Laughing” live in Raleigh, 1982
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