The story behind the naming of Lifes Rich Pageant

In the 1964 Pink Panther film, A Shot in the Dark, there’s a scene in which Inspector Clouseau opens up a car door and immediately falls into a fountain.

“You should get out of these clothes immediately,” says the heroine.  “You'll catch your death of pneumonia, you will.”

“Yes, I probably will,” Clouseau replies.  “But it's all part of life's rich pageant, you know?”

The film was a favorite of the members of R. E. M.  And that particular line became a favorite catchphrase as they were working on their newest album in Indiana.  Whenever something would go awry, they would merely deliver those words by way of explanation.  And the phrase came up so often, it seemed natural to use it to name the new record:  Lifes Rich Pageant.  

 

A story to lead into "Fall on Me"

It’s the usual deal with the devil.  Do you want to have your fans think you’re cool and keep making your music in relative obscurity?  Or do you want to get your music out to as many people as possible?  

With Lifes Rich Pageant, R. E. M. started to reach for the golden ring.  They relocated to southern Indiana to work in John Mellencamp’s studio with Don Gehman, the producer who helped make Mellencamp’s Scarecrow album such a success.  Which is what R. E. M. was looking for:  someone with expertise in making hits.   

Gehman gave Bill Berry a bigger drum sound.  He challenged Peter Buck to question why he plays at certain places...with the end result being less layers in favor of a single clear guitar line.  And he told Michael Stipe to sing more clearly and think about his lyrics.  Because, as Gehman told him, “I’m going to turn you up louder.  You’re going to be up more in the mix.  If you have things to say, now’s the time to say it.”

And do you know what?  It worked!

 

The story behind "Swan Swan H"

November 1985.  Elk’s Bow, Wyoming.  R. E. M. are touring the U. S. to promote their album Fables of the Reconstruction.  But their bus has broken down.  And for the moment, they’re stranded in the middle of nowhere.  
Peter Buck and Michael Stipe use the occasion to put together the song “Swan Swan H” in about 20 minutes.  It’s a tune about what Michael describes as “a war our country inflicted on itself.  It’s...a period of our American history that was very, very ugly.”  Consider the lyric about “bone chains and toothpicks.”  Those are references to the gruesome souvenirs made from the bones of battlefield casualties.  

Can you imagine this country in an era so divisive?  When the lines that separated Billy Yank from Johnny Reb were so clearly drawn?  And no one could envision a way to bridge the gulf that yawned between them?   

Michael has said that the title should be pronounced as though the person speaking were cut short on the final word.  His suggestion is to call it “Swan Swan Hu—”.

 

Bloomington fans remember the time R. E. M. came to town to record an album

R. E. M. traveled to Bloomington, Indiana, in 1986 to record the music that became Lifes Rich Pageant.  For rock fans in that college town, it was major cultural event to have their heroes sharing the same sidewalks with them.  Last year, some of them were happy to reminisce about it for an article published online by Indiana Public Media.

“Those were dark years on the radio, as far as I was concerned,” said Jeanne-Marie Grenier, an Indiana University fine-arts major at the time. “It was the Huey Lewis era.  R.E.M. was intellectual, referential and romantic.”

“In Reagan’s America, R.E.M. were alternative before alternative was born, and for closeted art students, anti-jocks, upper middle class white kids who couldn’t get into metal..., and other outsiders, R.E.M. somehow seemed to open a door to a new way to be,” says Lawrence Wells, another fine-arts student of that era.

. . . .

Adapted from "Talk About The Pageant: When R.E.M. Came To Bloomington in 1986" by David Johnson, IndianaPublicMedia.org.

The story behind the album Document

I love Matthew Perpetua’s blog PopSongs, the blog he has devoted to his ruminations on R. E. M.  And I’m not alone.  Michael Stipe is enough of a fan that he’s made several guest appearances there, answering questions from fans and conversing directly with the blogger.  

Matthew makes a great argument for seeing
Lifes Rich Pageant, Document, and Green as three albums that define an evolution for R. E. M.  Namely, it reveals R. E. M. working out how to integrate politics into their music.  

According to Matthew, Lifes Rich Pageant demonstrates an “earnest hopefulness” hidden by “obscure language,” a “holdover of the shyness that characterized the group’s earliest work.”

A year later comes Document, and the tone darkens considerably.  The attitude is far more cynical.  

And then there’s Green where the messages are powerful and direct.  

So what’s the story here?

Matthew writes that it’s just the stages that “anyone goes through when developing their political awareness.  You jump into things believing ‘Hey, we can do this!  We can change the world if we want to!  Let’s put our heads together and start a new government!’  

And then comes [an] inevitable moment of disillusionment, and suddenly all the world looks grim.” 

But then...the realization dawns that, “yes, corruption and despair are constants in this world, and even the best institutions are a rigged game,...but there’s ample opportunity to put something positive in the world if you manage your expectations,...get up,...and put in the work.”

. . . .

Adapted from the blog Popsongs by Michael Perpetua

 

The story behind "The One I Love"

R. E. M. were encouraged by what they’d accomplished with Life Rich Pageant.  They enjoyed making it.  They loved the way it turned out.  And they were pleased by its modest commercial success.  So they decided to return to Bloomington, Indiana, the next year to head back into the studio with producer Don Gehman to work on the music that would become Document.  

But it wasn’t to be.

Mike Mills explained that “The Bloomington session had gone well, but Don didn’t see us as wanting to have hit records.  We were more interested in making good records, good LPs.  He wanted a band that was really ambitious, a band that wanted to be on the Top 40.  That was not us, so he moved on to something else.”

Enter Scott Litt, the man whom the band chose to produce their follow up album.  It was a successful partnership for sure...because R. E. M. asked him back to help them create the next five albums that came after it.  And, oh, yeah,...on their first project together, Document, it turns out they did have a Top 40 hit, “The One I Love.”

. . . .

Adapted from "Talk About The Pageant: When R.E.M. Came To Bloomington in 1986" by David Johnson, IndianaPublicMedia.org.

The story behind "Oddfellows Local 151"

The Mooses.  The Shriners.  The Independent Order of Oddfellows.  Fraternal organizations dedicated to doing good in their communities.

Peter Buck has said that R. E. M.’s song “Oddfellows Local 15” is actually about “these winos who used to live down the street from us.  They used to live in cars.  We called them the Motor Club.  These old guys would sleep in the cars and drink all the time.”  

Peter says, “Michael knew them because he lived right next door to them.  Every once in a while you’d give them five bucks or drop off a bottle.”

Peter Buck went on to mention an article he’d read in The New Yorker or The Atlantic.  “One of those things that my mom subscribes to,” he said.  “I read this essay [that said] the sign of a society falling apart is when it’s okay for certain segments of [that] society not to be comfortable.”

“A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.”
—Samuel Johnson

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”
—Mahatma Ghandi

“A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones”
― Nelson Mandela

It seems that the world agrees.

. . . .

Adapted from R.E.M.: Inside Out: The Stories Behind Every Song by Craig Rosen

An exit interview with Michael Stipe

In 2011, R. E. M. announced they were finally calling it quits.  And just for fun, a journalist with TheQuietus.com cornered Michael Stipe for an exit interview.

What was the most satisfying thing about your job, Mr. Stipe?

MICHAEL:  [pauses and thinks]  God, everything.

What was the least satisfying part of your job? The travel?

MICHAEL:  Well, I love forward motion and velocity so I don't really mind travel.  Least satisfying?  [thinks]  Yeah, anything you do as a group is fraught with compromise.  But everyone’s got to do that, right?  It's part of being a good parent, or a good boyfriend, whatever.

Did you receive sufficient feedback as an employee of R.E.M.?

MICHAEL:  The answer's yes!  Too much!

What's the best bit of advice you received?

MICHAEL:  [From Patti Smith.]  Be yourself. Follow your heart.  [shrugs]  I know it sounds obvious, but it's the best advice for anyone ever.

Mr. Stipe, thank you for your loyal years of service.  It's time for me to let you go.  But tell me honestly, does it feel liberating?

MICHAEL: That was the big surprise.  Mike Mills and I got together few days after the announcement in New York, and he said exactly that.  “This feels liberating.”  And I was actually relieved.  Because that was exactly the word inside me.  And we've said bittersweet a lot too.  But it is bittersweet.  It's hard to walk away from what we've done since we were teenagers.  But I'm so proud, too.  We're all so proud of what we did.

. . . .

Adapted from TheQuietus.com.