Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Certain Songs #1709: R.E.M. – “Life and How To Live It” | Medialoper

Album: Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables
Year: 1985

. . .

File Under Carpenter

“Live and How To Live It” just might be my favorite R.E.M. song.

For sure, it’s the greatest song I’ve ever seen them play live, the absolute highlight of the second time I saw them; at the Warnors Theatre in Fresno on July 19, 1985.

“Life and How to Live It” starts of with a little Peter Buck guitar jangle, incredibly sad and lonely until it turns in one of the greatest riffs that Buck ever wrote, a series of notes that are continually climbing on top of each other. Then the rest of the band kicks in: Bill Berry playing almost more of a train beat, Mike Mills throwing out bass hooks right and left, and Michael Stipe inhabiting one of the several colorful characters he sings about in Fables of Reconstruction of the Fables.

Burn bright through the night, two pockets lead the way
Two doors to go between the walls were raised today
Two door to name before the others and your own
Keep these books well stocked away and take your happy home

As Stipe would often explain prior to singing, it was about a guy who split his house into two different apartments, and he would alternate living between the apartments until he died, after which they discovered that he’d also written a book and had several copies published. That book was called Life: How To Live.

The fact that R.E.M. played the 500-seat Star Palace in June, 1984 and much-larger (2000-seat) Warnors only a year later said everything about how their fanbase was growing. Well maybe not everything, as they didn’t actually sell it out. I don’t remember that, but that might have been because I had the best seats in the house: front row, just to the right of the ramp that came down from the stage.

While for the Star Palace show, I relied on being on the KFSR guest list, the Warnors show was reserved seating — and was fully sponsored by KKDJ, because I guess the promoter thought they didn’t need the radio station that had nurtured Fresno’s R.E.M. fanbase — so I didn’t want to take any chances on getting a shitty seat, so I went down to the Warnors Box Office at the exact moment those tickets went on sale. I remember being surprised that I was the only person who was there, but that was fine by me, so I bought a pair of tickets: one for me and one for Tim, who hadn’t even come home from London Semester. I’m sure one of the first things I said to him when I picked him up at the airport the week before the show was “hey, you wanna go see R.E.M.?”

Contrast that with a decade later, when Rox & I waited in line at the Tower Records in Emeryville (I think) in order to buy tickets for the Aneurysm ’95 tour at the fucking Shoreline. Which was, I think, just about the last time I ever waited in line for tickets, because the next time I wanted to go to a show that big, I could order tickets on the internet.

The great thing about “Life and How to Live It” is that as it moves forward, it’s continually topping itself: Buck’s initial riff is topped by the power of the first verse, and then the verse is topped by the chorus.

My carpenter’s out and running about and talking to the street
My pockets are out and running about and barking in the street
To tell what I have hidden there

Not only are there some fantastic “ooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhh” backing vocals drenching that chorus, there’s some great instrumental , Buck, Mills and Berry adding near-anthemic crashes after nearly every line, adding even more momentum for the second verse and chorus.

Burn bright through the night, two pockets lead the way
Two doors to go between the wall was raised today
Raise the walls to time its flaws the carpenter should rest
So when you tire of one side the other serves you best

And its after the second verse where “Life and How to Live It” totally kills me, as they go instantly into the verse, and Michael Stipe is seized by the ghost of the guy in the song, and basically ends up speaking in tongues.

The hills are ringing hear the words in time
Listen to the hoolllllllllllllooooooowwwhooooooowooooloooooo
Listen to my wall to my tongue
Can’t you see you made my ears go tin?

And before Stipe finishes that last line, everybody but Peter Buck drops out, and he’s playing that amazing riff, digging the whole song back out into the street. It’s one of my all-time favorite R.E.M. musical moments, completely dynamic, always unexpected and unbelievably lovely.

Needless to say, out of all of the songs on Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables, “Life And How To Live It” was my most favorite one, and it was the one I was looking forward to seeing them play most at the Warnors. Normally, of course, that’s a recipe for disaster: the best rule of thumb of any show is to never assume that they are going to play your favorite song, and if they do, it’s not going to be better than any of the other ones.

Anyways, here’s what I wrote about that live performance of “Life and How to Live It” back in 1991, when it was all much fresher in my mind:

We did get to see their speed-drenched version of “Life and How to Live it” with Michael Stipe dragging the mike stand back and forth across stage as he and Mike Mills scream the whatchamacallit words of the chorus while Peter Buck, with a shit-eating grin, leapt and twirled while he forcibly yanked the amazing riff from the body of his Rickenbacker and Bill Berry powered the whole thing with the full knowledge that he was the engine of a runaway mutant train song.

But of course, even runaway mutant train songs have to end, and “Life and How To Live” was sadly no exception. After it powered back up again, there was a third verse and final chorus, which features Stipe’s voice breaking on “carpenter” more than one, and a supercharged outro:

Listen, listen to the the hooooooolllllllllllwwhoooooooooaaaaaaaayyyyy
Gonna write a book that will be called “Life and How To Live It”

At which point “Life and How to Live It” crashes to its end, leaving me to once marvel at how they somehow transcended space and time to get from the lonely opening to the fully-charged ending.

There was an after party at upstairs The Star Palace that night. Nobody expected R.E.M. to show up, of course, but they did, much to the surprise and delight of pretty much everyone there. They were hanging out, drinking, chatting, just regular guys who happened to be making some of the best music on the planet. If you weren’t shy, or just drunk enough, you could ask them questions! And so because he was credited as “J.M. Stipe” in the credits of Fables of The Reconstruction of The Fables, I asked him what the “J” stood for (obviously hoping that the answer was “James”), but was utterly delighted when he said “Johanna.”

Meanwhile, someone else asked Peter Buck — who leapt around the stage playing a Rickenbacker guitar — about The Who, and Buck said that he’d never much liked them, which still seems a bit dodgy to me. And then the DJ played a Chaka Khan song, probably “I Feel For You” and Stipe exclaimed “Chaka Khan! I love this song, and asked Suzi to dance, which of course became one of the most instantly legendary moments of the 1980s Fresno music scene.

There would be no more moments like that: apparently R.E.M.’s management was unhappy with the promoter’s handling of the show, and they never played Fresno again, which meant that if I ever wanted to see them play live, I’d have to take a road trip. Which I did for the rest of the decade, starting, er, the very next day.

Oh, and I spent years and years looking for a proper bootleg of their 1985 rendition of “Life and How to Live It,” but was stymied by the fact that the best-recorded show from that tour didn’t actually feature it. Finally though, they stuck a ferocious 1987 version — with Stipe telling the story, natch — on both their 2006 I.R.S. best-of and the 25th anniversary edition of Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables.

“Life And How To Live It”

“Life and How To Live It” video

“Life and How To Live It” live in Germany, 1985

“Life and How to Live It” live in Madrid, 2003

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