Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Certain Songs #1737: R.E.M. – “Man on the Moon” | Medialoper

Album: Automatic for the People
Year: 1992

. . .

File Under Andy

“Man on the Moon” just might be my favorite R.E.M song.

Andy Kaufman was only on this planet for 35 years, but he made a helluva impression, to the point where there are people who firmly believe that he’s actually been on this planet for 71 years, having faked his 1984 death.

Whatever the truth — and somewhere in the multiverse, he’s definitely alive — he was one of the most unique comedic performers who ever existed, bringing chaos, puzzlement and anarchy to late-night variety & chat shows — to the point where SNL viewers voted to “Dump Andy” in 1984 — the network sitcom Taxi, and of course, professional wrestling, to which his ability to blur fiction and reality was well-suited.

So it totally makes sense that he would be a fascinating figure to Michael Stipe, and the subject of which just might be their greatest song, “Man on the Moon.”

Mott the Hoople and the Game of Life
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Andy Kaufman in the wrestling match
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Monopoly, Twenty-one, Checkers, and Chess
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Mister Fred Blassie in a breakfast mess
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
See you in heaven if you make the list
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Opening with a big rumbly Mike Mills bass guitar and supported by Peter Buck’s acoustic guitar and Bill Berry — who wrote the music — playing a near-samba, and underscored by “ooooooooooooooooohh” backing vocals, “Man on the Moon” starts out almost sad and resigned, but also utterly gorgeous.

And it almost didn’t happen at all. Because while Berry, Buck and Mills had the music all finished, it took Stipe wandering around Seattle listening to the music on a walkman to finally come up with the lyrics. Perhaps the spirit of Andy Kaufman — or at least his alter-ego, Tony Clifton — inspired him to write the sublime pre-chorus.

Now, Andy, did you hear about this one?
Tell me, are you locked in the punch?
Andy, are you goofing on Elvis? Hey, baby
Are we losing touch?

Any song that opens by name-checking Mott The Hoople — one of the most meta bands in rock history — is going to have references within references within references, and perhaps my favorite is Michael Stipe goofing on Andy Kaufman goofing on Elvis Presley while asking kind of a sad, serious question.

Also helping on the pre-chorus: Mike Mills, who is singing perfect harmony right up until Michael’s goofing on Andy goofing on Elvis. In fact, it’s absence of the harmony that makes that moment pop, leading straight into the first chorus, Berry switching into a straight beat.

If you believed they put a man on the moon
(Man on the moooooooooooooooooon)
If you believed there’s nothing up his sleeve
Then nothing is cool

I mean, this is so wonderful. To this day, there are people who believe that the Moon landing was the greatest hoax of all — and in fact, I’ve joked that the recent Apple TV show by Ronald D. Moore, For All Mankind, used the same sets as the original landing — and I’d love to see the venn diagram between those people and the people who believe Andy Kaufman is still alive, but instead I’ll setting for the second verse.

Moses went walking with the staff of wood
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Newton got beaned by the apple good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Egypt was troubled by the horrible asp
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Mister Charles Darwin had the gall to ask
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Oh, and all of the “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” was also a reference, or a troll, really, to his buddy Kurt Cobain, who put a lot of “yeah yeah yeah yeah” in his own songs, and Stipe though it would be fun to try and outdo him.

Speaking of outdoing, Peter Buck outdoes himself with a lovely slide guitar solo after the second chorus, which sets up the third verse, which starts with just Stipe and an acoustic guitar.

Here’s a little agit for the never-believer
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Here’s a little ghost for the offering
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Mister Andy Kaufman’s gone wrestling
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

And then, and then, somehow they take one of the greatest choruses they’ve ever written and make it even better, once again utilizing all three singers, but singing around each other in a way they really hadn’t since the final chorus of “Fall on Me.”

Stipe: “If you believe they put a man on the moon”
Mills & Stipe: “Man on the mooooooooooon”
Berry: “Man on the man on the moo-hoooon”
Stipe: “If you believed there’s nothing up his sleeve”
Mills: “Nothinnnnnnnn”
Stipe: “Then nothing is cool”

It’s Berry’s totally unexpected “man on the man on the moo-hooon” that totally and utterly devastates me. I remember the sleepless night in June of 1994 — I was getting up in the morning to drive up to the Bay Area to start a new job, i.e. life — when I had Automatic For The People on repeat, cos I used to fall asleep to a CD on repeat, and Berry’s vocal sounded as lonely as anything as I’d ever heard in my life.

And after a reprise of Buck’s guitar solo, they finish “Man on The Moon” with what seems like a dozen repetitions of that chorus, really driving it home.

Like “Everybody Hurts,” “Man on the Moon” stiffed as a single in the U.S., but it’s a perennial favorite among the fanbase, and one of those songs they pretty much always played in concert until they broke up.

Oh, and in 2003, Tim & Rox & I went to see R.E.M. at the Hollywood Bowl — it was the last time I would ever see R.E.M. — on their In Time tour, and when they got to “Man on the Moon,” at the end of their set, Michael Stipe invited Tony Clifton onstage to sing it with them. Now, it was probably Bob Zmuda, but somewhere in the multiverse, it was definitely Andy Kaufman, as in our universe, Clifton shoved Stipe to the ground, poured water on the band and got dragged offstage by security.

As both a Kaufman fan and an R.E.M. fan, this was all I could have possibly wanted.

“Man on the Moon”

“Man on the Moon” official music video

“Man on the Moon” live in 1995

“Man on the Moon” live acoustic at the Bridge School Show, 1998

“Man on the Moon” live on French TV, 1999

“Man on the Moon” live in Germany, 2003

“Man on the Moon” w/Bruce Springsteen, Washington DC, 2004

“Man on the Moon” at Live 8, London, 2005

“Man on the Moon (w/ Eddie Vedder) R&R HOF, 2007

“Man on the Moon” live in Austin, 2008

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