The year that I graduated from junior high to high school was 1986, that traumatic leap from small pond to large, from small semblance of popularity to absolute obscurity. As most will confess, the vast majority of learning going on in the early teen years is from “the street.” During my previous formative years, various pop acts had acted as the primers and textbooks I always wished I had instead of the moldy old hand-me-downs printed in the early ’60s. Prince and the Time taught me more about sex education than health class (and much to my disappointment, my mother confiscated my cassette copy of Ice Cream Castles due to sexual content). As far as history, there were always whispers of the atrocities perpetrated on Native Americans, the fact that no one really “discovers” another country with indigenous people, and the various conspiracy theories revolving around nearly ever aspect of American history, but it was never taught. R.E.M.‘s Life’s Rich Pageant was the social studies book I always wanted, political, historical and rocking.
Life’s Rich Answer Key:
1. Cole Porter / Myles Standish
“Begin the Beguine” already contained a reference in the title to Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” but it’s the mention of Myles Standish that brings us back to our grade school American History lessons. Standish was the military leader for the pilgrims, both on the Mayflower and after they landed. When Stipe sings, “Myles Standish proud, congratulate me,” one can sense the vitriol. Producer Don Gehman, who had famously worked with John Mellencamp, had Stipe finally enunciate and bring his vocals to the forefront, which caused the singer to think that if he was finally going to be understood, he should really speak his mind. And so, as Stipe “begins in the begin,” he tells us right away, “Life’s rich demand creates supply in the hand of the powers, the only vote that matters.”
2. Order & Hope
“These Days,” another fast-paced track, finding Stipe at some of his manic best, previewing in a sort of what was to come with their next album and tracks like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” is the second song on the album, yet the album art erroneously and famously places “Hyena” next. In fact, the tracklisting on the album cover is completely out of order other than “Begin the Begin.” Completely left out of the tracklist are songs “Underneath the Bunker” and “Superman.” Is this a comment on social or political order? “These Days,” a protest song, says about politically minded youth, “We are young despite the years, we are concern, we are hope despite the times.”
Both “Fall on Me,” one of the group’s best songs ever written, and one of Stipe’s favorites, is essentially about acid rain, while “Cuyahoga” name checks the river in Ohio that was so polluted it famously burned on its surface. Not only were Stipe’s lyrics and voice now clear, but Mike Mills also stepped up to the plate, singing some of the best backup vocals in rock history. There’s almost no surpassing his backgrounds for “It’s the End of the World” as he sings the repeated line, “It’s time I had some time alone,” but on “Fall on Me,” Mills sings an almost entire other song, coming to the forefront with “Well I could keep it above, but then there wouldn’t be sky anymore, so if I send it to you, you’ve got to promise to keep it whole.”
4. Amanita / Guatemala
I once had a friend say that every time he heard R.E.M. play “The Flowers of Guatemala” live, he would break down in tears. This was, of course, back when the album was released and R.E.M. was still playing the song at shows. This absolutely beautiful, and subtly tragic song hints at atrocities the United States has committed in Guatemala, whether in 1954, or at the time the song was written during the morally bankrupt foreign relations years of the Reagan Administration. Amanita is the name of a poisonous mushroom, which, according to the song, is either called a flower, grows among the flowers, or is confused for a flower which covers over everything, including the atrocities and graves of the people, who Stipe calls friendly, content, colorful and bright.
5. Johnny Reb / Greenback
One of my all-time favorite R.E.M. songs is “Swan Swan H,” a song so dense in imagery, with one following another in quick succession, that it seems almost written in a kind of code. The inclusion of the name “Johnny Reb” (a slang term for a Confederate soldier) and the term “Greenback” (a term for the US dollar around the time of the Civil War) leads one to believe it is a Civil War era song, and I believe Stipe has admitted as much. The rest sounds like “Radio Free America” jargon as heard in films like Red Dawn, i.e. “the chair is against the wall.” Still, even without the implicit understanding of every line, though some have claimed particular lines to be about war souvenirs made from the bones of casualties, the evils of slavery, or simple imagery from that time, it is hauntingly beautiful. “What noisy cats are we” indeed.
One of my friends once asked me to name the best R.E.M. album, saying that he would give his answer at the same time to see if we agreed. At the count of three, we both said, Life’s Rich Pageant, and instantly bonded. I’ve heard some strange (read: ridiculous) people say that either “Fall on Me” or “Superman,” the only two single releases from the album, are the only good songs on Life’s Rich Pageant, which makes me alternately want to pass out from shock and passionately correct the poor misguided fool. That being said, “Superman,” the last uncredited song on the album (at least on the cover), is a cover of a song by The Clique, and is one of the few R.E.M. songs with lead vocals by Mike Mills. Compared to the rest of the album, it doesn’t quite seem to fit, being a tongue-in-cheek song about jealousy using the Man of Steel as a guide. Just like “A Day in the Life” doesn’t quite seem to fit on Sgt. Pepper’s, yet is a brilliant track. It became one of the more popular songs from the album, fun to sing along with, yet not nearly revelatory of the genius inherent in Life’s Rich Pageant, a turning point album that would begin a new era for one of the most relevant bands in rock.