It was around noon. I was wheeling my hot dog cart back from near the UGA stadium where I had been haplessly attempting to vend hot dogs since 8am. There was no football game on this day; just an average Wednesday in the fall. I ran into my boss. “Hey man, I gotta say, I’m a little confused about the schedule. You have me working from eight until noon, and, really, no one’s buying a lot of hot dogs during those hours. In fact, people seem to start wanting them right around when I start packing up.” He looked at me and sort of shrugged, and said, “You never know.”
Athens, Georgia in the fall of 1988 was full of these disjointed moments. You truly did not ever know. You never knew when, for instance, you’d be at some club and a duo from Atlanta you’d never heard of might be playing a nice set of folk songs, and from the crowd (yeah, he’d been standing there all along) would emerge Michael Stipe to jump up on stage and sing “Campfire Song,” proclaiming this folk duo — the Indigo Girls, of course — his favorite band.
For good reason had R.E.M. instructed us to file their breakthrough record, Document, “Under Fire.” The album’s unlikeliest of “love” songs (because, as everyone will tell you, “The One I Love” is not a love song) ignited what had been steadily growing more combustible since the band’s first single, “Radio Free Europe.” The smoke serpentined, like one of Howard Finster’s snakes, from Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, Fables, and on through Lifes Rich Pageant, intoxicating anyone willing to inhale and forget their preconceived notions about what a rock band was supposed to sound like.
Perhaps Document ignited in the way it did because it had moments of what rock bands do sound like, but still maintained the smoky haze of R.E.M. You never know.
You never knew when you might see Peter Buck cruise by in his hearse, or run into the 40 Watt (the old, small one) and return holding a six-pack of beer.
The success of Document and the release of the great documentary, Athens, GA Inside Out had changed the band and the town. The band left IRS, the indie label they had been with since Chronic Town, for the greener (in the monetary sense of the word) pastures of Warner Bros. This move was not inconsistent with the times — Hüsker Dü and the Replacements also jumped from indies to majors — and yet it was still a big deal. R.E.M. was our band, and now, given the amount of green thrown at them to sign to a major, it was pretty obvious the intent was that they become everyone’s band.
Athens too was no longer a secret. It was visible, and being watched; A&R people and other interlopers pulled back the kudzu and looked for clues. And with this scrutiny, this lack of being able to create in a vacuum, self-consciousness and the changes it brings, became inevitable. Would R.E.M.’s post-Document record succumb to this, or could they, as they always seemed to be able to do, continue to adhere to their own iconoclasm? You never know.
You never knew when Michael Stipe might stop by your hot dog stand, and ask if you’d give out some fliers he made encouraging voters not to get “Bushwacked” and to vote Dukakis.
Tellingly, given the times, MTV gave us the first glimpse. “Orange Crush” began airing on MTV prior to the release of Green. The song — all suspended E-major power chords, and militaristic snare fills — seemed like a continuation of the propulsion of the Document song “Finest Worksong.” The video, however — black and white and shadows, vaguely (or not) homoerotic, and containing elements found in prior R.E.M. videos — a little kid (“It’s the End of the World As we Know It [And I Feel Fine]”); boxes (“Radio Free Europe”) — was and still is captivating and mysterious, just like the band. Did it foretell something consistent, or something new…something green. You never know.
But, in this case, we found out.
Green is a deeply strange record. Not strange in the way that Fables is. Fables, and really the records up to and including Lifes Rich Pageant, aren’t so much strange as they are eccentric. The eccentricities include not only the lyrical content, but also the general songwriting approach. That’s not so much the case on Document, and certainly not on Green.
Green is strange because it truly does seem to be the first record that emerged from a band who knew it was being watched. Watched not only by an ever-growing fan base that now included casual fans pulled in via “The One I Love” or “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” but also by a record company that had invested millions of dollars; radio station and MTV programmers who had championed the band and had grown with them into positions of power; and an increasing number of people within the R.E.M. organization whose livelihood depended upon the band’s ongoing upward trajectory.
The record opens with an affirmation of that keenly felt gaze. “Hello, how are you, I know you I knew you / I think I can remember your name,” sings Michael Stipe on the frustratingly titled “Pop Song ’89.” Clearly a rumination on the inherent awkwardness of the backstage schmoozefests that lead singers of successful bands must endure, it can be contrasted against the other R.E.M. “road songs”: “Good Advices” and “Little America.” Both of those songs are eccentric. “Good Advices” — its very title an eccentricity — implores us to “Keep our memories in our shoes” when we meet a stranger. “Little America” refers to turtles as “green shell backs,” and describes them as “lighted in an amber yard.” Eccentric. The music on these songs too is completely sui generis. It just doesn’t sound like anything else ever really did (or has). “Pop Song ‘89,” on the other hand, is strange. The lyrics — clearly decipherable — don’t require or benefit from poetic interpretation. The music is about as straightforward as a rock song can get.
Song two, “Get Up,” does little to disabuse us of the fact that the band is continuing down a fairly straightforward rock direction. Yes, the symphony of music boxes in the middle add…something. This musique concrete approach isn’t new to the band. It appears at the beginning of the deeply eccentric (and, when I use that word, please know it’s meant as praise) “Exhuming McCarthy” via the typewriter intro. Here, again, it just sounds sort of strange.
But, you never know.
The third songs on R.E.M. albums are often the most interesting. Murmur had “Laughing”; Reckoning: “So. Central Rain”; Fables: “Driver 8”; Lifes Rich Pageant: “Fall on Me”; Document: (the aforementioned) “Exhuming McCarthy.” Green continues this pattern. “You Are the Everything” is the most enduring song on Green — as evidenced by the recent cover by the Decemberists featuring Ben Gibbard…and Peter Buck. “You Are the Everything” isn’t strange, it’s eccentric in the best possible way. It’s one of R.E.M.’s more cinematic songs, and yet, it’s deeply poetic. Lines about falling asleep with your teeth in your mouth combine with the mandolin/accordion accompaniment to sum up R.E.M.’s virtues perfectly. The song is in some ways the bookend to R.E.M.’s other perfect cinematic song: “Nightswimming,” from Automatic for the People.
This song changes Green. It re-contextualizes the prior two songs, and for those who have been along for the R.E.M. ride from the beginning, there is relief and hope. But you never know.
There’s really not much I can say about the next song, “Stand,” that the song doesn’t say for itself. It’s a pop confection, a trifle. Nothing strange about that, except for the fact that R.E.M. doesn’t do pop confections or trifles. And they sure as fuck don’t do wah-wah guitar solos. Except…they did, and to this day it’s deeply strange.
And so goes the rest of the record. “The Wrong Child” is one of the few R.E.M. songs that just doesn’t work at all — lyrically or musically. “Turn You Inside and Out,” which, while great, is very close to being “Finest Worksong Part II.” “I Remember California” foretells Stipe’s lyrical collage approach, but sort of isn’t a song. “World Leader Pretend,” notable largely because the lyrics, for the first time, were printed in the packaging for this (and only this) song (hey, you never know) fulfills certain requirements, but is a bit stiff.
For me, personally, the most interesting songs on the record are also the most eccentric: “Hairshirt” and “Untitled.” “Hairshirt” is, like R.E.M.s finest moments, a puzzle without an answer that rewards continual scrutiny. Baffling music and lyrics, and yet it seems to sum up so much of something. “Untitled” is one of their most beautiful love songs…a true love song, and the music does what earlier R.E.M. songs like “7 Chinese Bros.” or “Green Grow the Rushes” do: finds an incredibly simple, but beautiful, guitar riff and builds an entire song over it.
It was late on an afternoon, and, having convinced my boss that more people wanted hot dogs after noon than before, I pushed my hot dog cart down the main drag in Athens. Dusk was setting. On the other side of the street the four R.E.M. guys came walking by. They were clearly dressed for some event; maybe a photo shoot. Were they coming or going? I wondered. I waved and they waved back. I wasn’t sure if they were fixing to leave or just getting back. You never know.