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R.E.M.’s Death Murmurs

When Eric Clapton lost a son in a freak high-rise fall, he was so broken up he hired a songwriter to help him write a tune about it. He sold the resulting “Tears in Heaven” as sound track fodder for a dumb, exploitative movie about drugs (Rush). A year later he inserted it into his Unplugged album, which used an eight-piece band to do low-key “acoustic” renditions of old blues numbers and his own “Layla.” All of this–the heartbroken interviews about his son, the two separate “Tears in Heaven” vids, the MTV show, the emetic “Layla”–combined for a quadruple-platinum album (it’s still in the top five) and a half dozen Grammys for a historic sweep.

Contrast this circus with R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, an explicit and mournful song cycle on death. Michael Stipe, who on the band’s first few albums displayed a notoriously self-conscious unintelligibility, is now wrenchingly decipherable. Revealed on the new record are a set of naked funereal essays united by a spare, almost laconic lyrical artistry and moving, ragged song settings courtesy of the brilliant arrangers and musicians in the rest of the band. “Sweetness Follows” is about how mourning sometimes manufactures a unity that was lacking in life (“Yeah, we were all together / Lost in our little lives”), “Try Not to Breathe” refuses to rage against the dying of the light, “Man on the Moon” finds heaven populated with forgotten 70s rock bands and board games, and “Find the River” is a deathbed farewell. Anchoring it all is “Nightswimming,” which pits memory against fame, love against regret. It includes what is perhaps Stipe’s most distinguished vocal track, which I think is saying something, and a lovely piano part played, ironically enough, on, the same instrument that produced the coda in the original “Layla.”

I’m not the only one who feels this way about the record: the reviews have been adulatory. Yet there doesn’t seem to be in the public consciousness a common “read” on it, as there was with Clapton’s lachrymose “Tears in Heaven.” Why not? Probably because Michael Stipe hasn’t been posing for the cameras and wiping tears out of his eyes to explain himself. Guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills, both quite skilled at saying nothing much in particular, were in the press loop this time; Stipe refused to do interviews, and the band passed on touring again as well. For their trouble, R.E.M. got zero in the way of major feature coverage in the entertainment magazines. Is this just a slight to a critic’s favorite band? Hardly: 1991’s Out of Time did worldwide sales of nearly ten million, putting the group in U2, Def Leppard, and Madonna territory. The difference is that the band isn’t providing the media with the seasonings it needs to digest the album for the public. This puts R.E.M. in a strange position, because the situation is most definitely not like the tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it. The album is platinum and steady in the top 20 after only two singles. But it is like a tree falling in the midst of a crowd and everyone paying it no mind because it doesn’t have a PR person.

Automatic is so explicitly about death that it’s surprising to find a significant subtext. “Hey, kids, rock and roll / Nobody tells you where to go” are the taunting words of the dirgelike “Drive, which starts the record. Stipe continues, his voice dripping with sarcasm and rockstar echo, “What if I ride, what if you walk / What if you rock around the clock?” I think he’s saying, what are you going to do about this ridiculous stardom business? For Michael Stipe, the stakes have changed. “I’m not sure all these people understand / It’s not like years ago,” he rasps on the breathtaking envoi of “Nightswimming.” His response has been to refuse to participate in the trivializing of the key artistic triumph of his career.


Last year I wrote an article about Scott Burns, who with director Mark Fenske had conceived Van Halen’s “Right Now” video, which went on to win the big prize on the MTV video awards. The piece comprises about 50 short bits of film, each tied to a piece of text: “Right Now Is Not the Fault of the Japanese” or “Right Now Youth Is King.” As I noted at the time, it attempted and accomplished the Herculean task of making Van Halen look smart. Now it’s a Pepsi commercial, and Van Halen looks dumb again….Another update: Last week I noted a Trib story on cable restructuring that wildly plugged the Tribune Company’s new cable channel, CLTV. I’m grateful to the reader who passed along a February 7 business piece on high-definition TV by Jon Van, which included- reference to another Trib-owned institution: “Thus the same baseball game seen on channel 9 on a regular TV set might also be seen in high clarity on a wider screen on an HDTV set tuned to channel 47.”…Social notes from all over: Former Sun-Times music free-lancer Michael Corcoran, now a writer on country ensconced at the Dallas Morning News, married art dealer Victoria Gaumer February 13, ten days after their first date. The impulsive but talented Corcoran, who slipped through the Sun-Times’s fingers last year, regularly riles Dallasites with his disrespectful treatment of C and W sacred cows and pulls stunts like reviewing an Ice-T concert under his “country music critic” byline. Nevertheless the paper seems to love him: It sent him to LA for a week to write a Super Bowl diary in January and just nominated him for a Pulitzer. The happy couple will attend SXSW and then honeymoon in Rome.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anton Corbijn.