Recently I’ve been working on two projects at the same time, Gnawing on the Bone and Soy Aqui. I usually don’t do this but have found that there is an upside to it that reminds me of the story behind the REM song Life and How to Live It. The song is about a resident of Athens GA named Bevis Menkins who divided his house with a wall down the middle, furnishing each half as a self-sufficient dwelling. The song explains the purpose behind this as follows: “So that when you tire of one side, the other serves you best.” That’s what I’ve been doing with these two albums – when I get stuck on one, I move over to the other. Then the process starts over again. I’m not sure which one will be finished first, I only hope that neither of them suffer the fate of Menkins’ book Life and How to Live It, after which the song is named. Every copy was found stacked in the closets of his two houses after he died. Michael Stipe can be heard telling this story before the song begins in the following live clip. I heard him tell it in pretty much the same words on the same tour supporting Life’s Rich Pageant back in 1987 when I was a sophomore in high school.
I googled the topic while writing this post this afternoon and saw an Amazon customer comment about the book that read as follows: “A horribly racist book with ramblings from a demented Southerner. But the book is rare and is a highly collectible piece or R.E.M. memorabilia because of the song, “Life and How to Live It.”” It made we wonder whether Stipe had read the book and knew that it was a racist text. The reason I wondered is because I find the choice of the album title Fables of the Reconstruction/Reconstruction of the Fables to be an odd choice in retrospect. Like Bob Dylan, Michael Stipe in those days seemed to be invested in uncovering the “old weird America” that lay hidden beneath bombastic myths about the United States, but with a particular focus on his native Southeastern part of the country. Unlike Dylan, race didn’t play much of a role in the tapestry of what he created, at least not that I could make out. Even a later song like Lightning Hopkins off Document offered little in the way of actual commentary on racism. In mid high school that song title made me wince because I thought its reference to the blues singer wasn’t up to task of addressing the subject, though I would have been hard pressed to say why.
REM were often criticized for writing mumbling lyrics that didn’t really say anything at that time. Stipe advocated that the voice was a musical instrument that should not be seen as a mere conveyor of “meaning” in a traditional sense. When I listen to the first few records today, I like the way that pairs of lines from the song stand out as fragments that you can piece together – or not – yourself. You don’t have to swallow a precut meaning whole that is overdetermined for you. This swirls in and out of the emotional impressions left by the music in a non linear way that I still enjoy.
What I don’t like so much is the romanticization of eccentric (and I now learn racist) characters like Mekis from the South in the context of an album called Fables of the Reconstruction that says nothing about race. I wouldn’t want to suggest that the part of the country I’m from – the Northeast – is not as indebted to a history of white supremacy as Georgia is.
A book came out last year called Ebony and Ivory (by Craig Stevens) which showed that much of the the money that founded Harvard University, the main industry of my hometown of Cambridge MA, and Brown University, my alma mater, came from the slave traders who shipped slaves to the plantations of Georgia and other places in the Southern US and Latin America.
Along similar lines, the documentary Traces of Trade, shows a New England family working to come to terms with the roots of their wealth in the days when their family were the biggest slave traders in the history of this country. They used the capital to become one of the most prominent families in Rhode Island, branching into fields like architecture, academia, and the US Senate. One of the people who appears in the film, Elizabeth Sturges Llerena was a year ahead of me in high school. (See http://elizabethsturgesllerena.blogspot.com/.) In her work as an artist created a dress called “What’s Hidden Underneath” whose white exterior shows the kind of images of 18th century shipping glory that you can find in museums all over New England from Gloucester to Portland to Bristol. But sewn in to the pleats of the dress are red sections that show the repressed scenes of the blood and violence of the slave trade that the shipping museums fail to address.
That’s why Neil Young’s Southern Man falls short: no part of the country can be singled out and blamed for the racist history of how this country was built and became “great.”
But Georgia is a state that did not convict one white man for the murder of a black man for 100 years, and the network of railroads that featured so prominently in REM songs like Driver 8 and the railroad bridge on the back cover of Murmur were the major arteries for commerce based on the slave trade.
In his book Slavery By Another Name, Douglass Blackmon also writes that railroads were the main arteries of the system that reinstated a new kind of slavery after the failure of Reconstruction, the convict leasing system of the chain gangs. Under this regime, blacks could be arrested under almost any pretext, often on railroad transit lines. They were then leased to all kinds of industries in the South as unpaid and forced labor, reinstating the economic structure of slavery to which the area’s economy was addicted. My great granduncle, Edward H. Harriman, was President of the Southern Pacific Railroad from 1901 to 1909. Southern Pacific was one of the major railroad lines that ran through the South in that period. Many of the chain gang arrests took place on their routes, which were also used to transport the new kind of forced laborers. Southern Pacific also bought many many tons of steel that were made using unpaid labor of leased convicts, a topic I write about in a book I have been working on. Because of this part of my background, I don’t associate railroads with a romanticized pastural period of history. In my mind, the film The Wild Bunch does a better job of representing what really happened on the railroads than Driver 8 does.
I suppose it’s possible that Stipe wanted to tell tales of whimsical characters from the Reconstruction era to reconnect the South to an era of its past when it began down the road that was unfortunately not taken when Reconstruction was abandoned. I’m pretty sure that the network of indie rock clubs and cultural outposts REM strengthened across the south in their heyday were and are less racist than their surrounding environs. Maybe Stipe wanted to help southern hipsters imagine how to love the local landscape in a way that defined itself as eccentric in relation to mainstream notions of Dixie in a way that had an implicit political value. Or maybe his drawing a gauze of impressionistic lyrics over the southern landscape was intended in part as a comment on the way the basis of the region on a structure of institutionalized racial terror and subordination is covered over. But now that I live and teach in the South that doesn’t seem so convincing. Many or even most of the books that were given to me to teach when I came here are designed to educate children about the struggle to overcome the era of Jim Crow segregation in this country. It is certainly a more prominent part of the school curriculum in my district than it was in the elementary school I attended back in liberal Cambridge Massachusetts.
That’s why it seems weird to me that REM didn’t really deal with that past, even though they went on to write about political turmoil in places like Guatemala on records like Life’s Rich Pageant and Document.
I stopped listening to their stuff after Green came out, so maybe they did do so later, I don’t know. But I’ve never read anyone comment about their IRS period, which is the basis of their critical reputation, in a way that references the absence of race as a topic in the eccentric vision they conveyed of the south. Perhaps this a comment on the white blinders of indie music culture of those days – and today? – as much as it is on REM themselves. Lots of undie critics like Byron Coley and fans of their contemporaries and rivals Husker Du and The Replacements dismissed them for being soft and pretentious. Folks like that made fun of me for loving Murmur and Reckoning as much as I did in high school. But no one criticized them because of anything having to do with race and their vision of the South.
When REM first came out, they seemed to break with a musical tradition based on the blues and its appropriation by white artists because of the raga and folk influenced arpeggiations of Peter Buck. That’s what caused Tom Petty to comment that “those guys should learn to play guitar” after he heard Murmur and Reckoning. He couldn’t recognize something not as strictly based on the blues as guitar playing or rock and roll. But there’s a way in which REM continued to mine the same psychological pattern of Love and Theft of black musical culture that has always been at the heart the rock music tradition, and some like Eric Lott would say of American popular culture broadly speaking. Clearly, the south is an emotionally charged landscape in history because of antebellum slavery and its later (and current New Jim Crow style mass incarceration) avatars. In singing about the south and representing it in various ways through their cover art and album titles, early REM tapped into powerful cultural signifiers of the deepest seated racial conflicts and brutality of this country. But their byzantine maze of tales about “Little America” never really came out and told the truth about what really happened, not only before and during the Reconstruction, but also afterwards. I was hoping to find some interesting perspective on that choice when I did an internet search for REM and race, but it seems that the critics and fans don’t have much to say about it either.