Retrofitted: R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant

Retrofitted = A look (and listen) back at great albums of ‘yore.

For some time now, I have meant to discuss older records worth revisiting or, perhaps, for some a first listen to a new musical artifact of yesteryear. Thought has become action. In a strange way, it is fitting that the first installment of this (hopefully) recurring series is about the first band I ever fell in love with: R.E.M. What motivated this decision? The instigating cause was this little video clip/interview by Michael Stipe about what it is like now that he is no longer making music as part of the quartet, later turned trio, from Athens, Georgia (also the birthing ground of another equally influential and seminal late 70’s/80’s band: the B-52s). The video is short (3 minutes) and worth watching if only to see Stipe’s stylish eye-wear and curious new sculptural endeavors. But, why chose Lifes Rich Pageant? Well, it has always been my favorite of their records and is perhaps the best example of their Roots Rock (Revival) and College Radio aesthetic — also described by some as “Jangle Pop”, a term I’m just starting to understand. Not to discount the brilliance and power of their other records, but something about Lifes Rich Pageant has always inspired me, but I’ll get to that in a second.

First, let me take you back in time to explain a bit of how R.E.M. instigated my love of contemporary music. The story begins in Miami, Florida, circa the late 80s with a young, bookish, bespectacled boy who had little knowledge of or inclination towards music, except perhaps the Disney tunes on his Fischer Price turntable. Now, two things you need to know about Miami, Florida, are that (a) it is not South Beach, aesthetically or culturally, and (b) the music dominating the radio stations then (and likely still) consisted mostly of Steve Miller Band and their cohorts, Oldies Radio, and a unique form of proto-hip-hop known as Miami Bass. In other words, there wasn’t a whole lot of cutting edge independent radio on AM/FM dial. (I would later discover a college radio station at the University of Miami, WVUM, with a limited bandwidth, to whom I owe my acquaintance with Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies, English Brit Pop, and other “left of the dial” acts.) Fortunately, a good friend, in an effort to educate this rather un-hip and culturally un-educated boy, made him a mix tape entitled “Esoteric Tunes”, which contained the likes of Haircut 100, Aztec Camera, General Public, latter-day Pere Ubu, 10,000 Maniacs, the B-52s and, yes, R.E.M – aka New Wave and College Radio staples. Because of the aforementioned bookish inclination of this young boy, something about the lyrical ingenuity of the rather jangly, country sounding group with the funny abbreviation for a name really struck a chord. With curiosity and excitement, he ventured to the Peaches Record Store on US-1/South Dixie Highway1 to purchase his first CDs: R.E.M.’s Eponymous and the B-52’s Cosmic Thing. (Editorial Note: At the time, I was too novice to know and/or recognize that Eponymous was essentially a greatest hits collection, and, also the “Esoteric Tunes” mix contained the B-52s “Rock Lobster”, which amused the comic-book reading boy and led to the second purchase). With each song on Eponymous from “Radio Free Europe” to “Fall on Me” to “Driver 8” to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It“, I was struck by the intellectual, romantic, sarcastic, humorous, poetic, and infectious energy of the band. (Clearly the twelve-year-old didn’t necessarily have the foregoing vocabulary but it’s a rough translation of said twelve-year old’s thoughts.)  Soon thereafter, my oldest sister would introduce me to Bob Dylan and my mind (and universe) would be blown – a story for another day. But, I digress, slightly. Eponymous became a sort of musical Rosetta Stone for understanding and delving into the world of contemporary music. It opened my ears and my interest to a whole new artistic landscape. It was the first inkling that intelligent and eccentric people made art about nerdy, academic, and relevant subjects that were inspirational, meaningful, and comical. Although drawn to the foreign sound (to me) of the music, it was the poetry of Michael Stipe’s lyrics that cemented them in my mind and heart as a great band and my first “musical crush.”

Released in 1986, Lifes Reach Pageant was the fourth studio album by R.E.M. during their stint with I.R.S. records.  (They would later sign a “mega-deal” to join Warner Bros. that lead to indictments of “sell outs”.  For the record, years later they would turn down a lucrative offer from Microsoft to license “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” for their launch of Windows 95.  Microsoft then went with the Stones “Start Me Up.”) All of the bands original members, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry, are credited with writing the “songs” on Lifes Rich Pageant but the lyrics are generally regarded as the work of the raspy-voiced, demure and dour-sounding Michael Stipe. Although almost every R.E.M. album contained songs of political satire or critique, Lifes Rich Pageant always resonated as their most vicious attack.

Click here to listen to Lifes Rich Pageant in its entirety (as you continue to read).

Starting with the aptly titled “Begin the Begin“, Stipe waxes poetic about the (American) populace running around like a tiger chasing its tail, silently watching TV, a silence that begets approval of the powers that be (not unlikely directed against the Regan Administration, the subject of many other musical polemics, e.g. “Disturbance at the Heron House”, “Exhuming McCarthy“, and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”). The song has the feeling of a wake-up call, a demand to question the present, and to return to “first principles”, with its invocation of Martin Luther, attacking an American Orthodoxy gone array. The record proceeds full throttle into “These Days” with its call to action for those who desire a better tomorrow: “We are young despite the years, We are concerned, We are hope despite the times.” The group then slows the tempo and turns contemplative and philosophical on “Fall On Me” (easily the album’s best known track), which always evokes a sense of the alienation of modern life: “There’s a problem, we have found a way to talk around the problem, building towers, foresight isn’t anything at all“, and “Cuyahoga“, which imagines a utopia, a new country devoid of the problems of the past. From here on in, the record becomes lyrically opaque, but musically engrossing from the cacophonous, adrenaline rock of “Hyena” to the Southwestern-infused “Underneath the Bunker” (with Stipe’s muffled vocals) to the plodding, ornate lullaby “The Flower’s of Guatemala” with a euphoric guitar solo starting at 2:17. The flight of fancy comes to end with “I Believe“, a collection of aphoristic sayings along with a self-reckoning of the need for change, both personal and on a grander scale. The album concludes with the diametrically opposed “Swan Swan Hummingbird” and the hidden track “Superman”. The former is a melancholic chamber ballad depicting a fallen South with an outright interrogation of the Confederate soldier who appears to walk around lost and in a daze in the new world order (i.e., the Reconstructed South): “Johnny Reb, what’s the price of heroes?“. (It is interesting to juxtapose this seeming indictment of the South by a Southerner against the beautiful and mournful ode (and possibly one of the greatest songs in the canon of Rock) to the fallen south in The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down“, written by Robbie Robertson, a Canadian.) “Superman” with its comical super-hero imagery is a quirky jangle pop declaration of unrelenting (and, possibly, obsessive) love to a young lady: “If you go a million miles away, I’ll track you down young girl, trust me when I say I know the pathway to your heart.” (Now juxtapose this to a song written a decade later by the Flaming Lips, “Waitin’ for A Superman“, about the superhero’s ineffectiveness at carrying the weight of other people’s burdens.  Perhaps, we now live in a world where even imaginary super heroes are powerless?  I sure hope not.)

Lifes Rich Pageant feels as raw, raucous, and impassioned today as it did when I first heard (and fell for) it over twenty years ago. Is it the finest (work) record of R.E.M.’s oeuvre? Probably and perhaps not, if I were to step back “critically”, I would say that either Out of Time or Automatic For The People are more precise and cohesive records and the songwriting is more grandiloquent and universal. But, Lifes Rich Pageant still resonates as a collection of songs about wanting and demanding not only more of the world surrounding you but of yourself: “Believe in your calling, making sure your calling’s true.”

What noisy cats are we… indeed,


1 A road that runs the length of the Eastern Seaboard from Key West to Maine and curiously ran just past the college town the writer attended.

P.S.   Other early R.E.M. records worth revisiting (because I assume people are familiar with the early 90s albums):

  • Murmur — their first full record with the classic “Radio Free Europe” and overlooked gems like “Shaking Through”, “Pilgrimage”, “Catapult”, and “West of the Fields.”
  • Reckoning — second record with “So. Central Rain”, “Pretty Persuasion” and “Rockville.”

Also, for those that stopped paying attention to the band some time ago, their last record Collapse Into Now is no slouch of a swan song.  At the very least, listen to the gorgeous “Uberlin“.

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