Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Certain Songs #1766: R.E.M. – “Blue” | Medialoper

Album: Collapse Into Now
Year: 2011

. . .

File Under Collapse

Of course it was right there on the album cover. Michael Stipe is waving goodbye on the only R.E.M. album cover to feature more than a single member of the band — Bill Berry was on Lifes Rich Pageant and Stipe is in triplicate on Around The Sun — which was probably a hint.

As one of the people that he was waving to, it went right past me when Collapse Into Now was released in March, 2011, though some fans sussed it out: on the RU Talking To Me? Re: R.E.M. famous superfan Adam Scott — who was at the beginning of his Parks & Recreation run — told the story of how he posted about it on an R.E.M. message board.

Yellow circus left the stakes of broken ropes, useless mud
The ties that bind, ha ha
I can be bad poet
Street poet, shit poet
Kind poet too
Subway, almost 4AM
Halloween night
Had enough to drink to make my own party
All my fellow riders in half costume, half asleep
Half silly, gone to seed
I don’t mark my time with dates, holidays, fate, wisdom, luck, karma, or whatever’s
Convenient. I am made by my times
I am a creation of now
Shaken with the cracks and crevices
I’m not giving up easy
I will not fold
I don’t have much
But what I have is gold

But not me. So when they announced their breakup in Sept 2011, it caught me by surprise. On some levels, I’m still surprised, I guess. And a maybe a little sad, even though as a rule, I don’t get verklempt when pop culture things I love end, because that just means there’s room for a new pop culture thing to love. But, of course, if the past three months have shown anything, I guess R.E.M. was my all-time favorite, so maybe a little sadness, even though we have all of the reissues and The Baseball Project and Peter Buck’s solo albums and ongoing bands and maybe some day Mike Mills and Michael Stipe might even make full albums, but none of them have to do anything ever again, they’ve all had lifetime passes since 1983.

(I saw your face)
I sing in platinum, I dress in brass (Good, lifting snow)
I eat a zinc. Let it pass
Compare a toast. I like that
I understand courage (Ever lifting smoke)
I still roll with the shout of a cab driver’s attitude today
I try to see outside myself
I understand the eyes
Excuse all the highs
Sorry, I am sorry. Ha ha

And so here we are, the final song on the final R.E.M. album — though they recorded three more songs for the amazing compilation Part Lies, Part Truth, Part Heart, Part Garbage, this is where we’re stopping, and I’m sitting here marveling at how they decided to go out: weirdly, combining both Patti Smith and The Velvet Underground. So, you know, the same.

“Blue” is the combination of an jam-session instrumental that Peter Buck called “a really fucked up thing” with Scott McCaughey channeling Neil Young over a “Country Feedback” slow acoustic strum, with a spoken word piece that Stipe had previously recorded. You know, like “The Gift” by the Velvets. Somehow, Jacknife Lee not only stitched it together, he got Lenny Kaye to add even more weird guitar and Patti Smith to add additional vocals.

(Boy of the moon)
I like you, love you, every coast of you (I’m not your face)
I’ve seen your eddies and tides and hurricanes and cyclones
Low ebb tide and high, full moon
Up close and distant, I read you
Like the sky, the sea, the ocean, the sun, the moon
Blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue
Naked and blue (Naked and blue)
Breathing with you. Touch. Change. Shift. Allow air. Window open. Drift. Drift away. Into now (Revenge you)
I want Whitman proud. Patti Lee proud. My brothers proud
My sisters proud. I want me. I want it all. I want sensational. Irresistible
This is my time and I am thrilled to be alive
Living. Blessed. I understand
Twentieth century, collapse, into now

And at that point, all of the noise disappears, leaving only Patti to intone over a sad, echo-y Mike Mills while the noise slowly comes back.

(Cinderella boy, you’ve lost your shoe
Cinderella boy, your coach awaits
A sun makes shadows all over your face
As you sit naked and blue into me)

But just as you think Patti got the last word at the fade. there’s a reprise of Collapse Into Now’s opening song, the roiling, chiming “Discoverer,” — which Stipe said was one of his truly autobiographical songs, about being young and going to New York City — so the last thing you hear an any R.E.M. album are Michael Stipe and Mike Mills singing “discoverer!!!” over a classic Peter Buck guitar riff.

Thinking about it now, it’s very much the equivalent of the ending of yet another pop culture thing that meant everything to me in my youth: Calvin and Hobbes.

It’s been nearly a decade since they broke up, and R.E.M. have so far managed their posthumous career with the same intelligence, integrity and grace that they managed the vast majority of their prehumous career. I’m sure they miss it. Maybe not like I miss looking forward to their new music, but they all seem to be friends and have come to terms with their legacy in their own ways: Buck the workhorse musician, Stipe the arty eccentric, Mills the tweeting dunker and Berry the reclusive farmer.

I doubt they’ll ever get back together — the only reason I could see would be at Bill Berry’s request — and that’s OK, because when they were around they gave us as much as any band ever did or ever will.

And so when I first started evangelizing about R.E.M., nearly two decades before the 20th century collapsed, I never imagined that two decades after it collapsed, I’d still be evangelizing about them, but I’ll bet you that of out all of the things about life now that would have surprised 20-year-old Jim, writing tens of thousands of words about R.E.M. would have been the least of them.

“Blue” official music video

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