Getting The Words Right


Thank God for the Internet.

Not for enabling me to bank online or re-live Springsteen’s Darkness Tour or Google-map every house I’ve ever lived in. Those are all in a day’s work, but not the reason for my gratitude.

No, I’m thankful for the Internet because it made the impossible possible: getting the lyrics to R.E.M. songs right.

In the prehistoric pre-Internet days, a copywriter friend once said to me, “I’m sick of hearing about R.E.M.’s tone poems. The words are nonsense.” I got his point. The band’s first single “Radio Free Europe” had a great vibe, but what the hell were they saying? Even Michael Stipe, R.E.M.’s front man and lyricist, referred to the song as “complete babbling.”

The words to R.E.M. songs could make parts of Ulysses read like Fun with Dick and Jane. 

*        *        *

But Automatic For The People was different. Thanks to a preponderance of ballads, the album’s lyrics were more intelligible, presenting a somber meditation on life and death and the passage of time. The songs resonated with me, and for good reason. At age 34, I found myself in the middle of the life-death continuum, with two young sons at one end and a recently deceased father at the other.

I was grateful for my boys. Amid my grief, there were meals to make, playgrounds to explore, bedtime stories to tell, foreheads to kiss. The boys kept pulling me back to the present.

Or, as Stipe sings in “Nightswimming“:

     These things they go away,

     Replaced by every day

I didn’t have to wait for the Internet to get those words right.

And I knew how true they were.

With thanks to Evan Walsh for singing two lines from his favorite R.E.M. song during our recent rendezvous.

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