Lifes Rich Pageant, by R.E.M.
1986, I.R.S. Records. Producer: Don Gehman
In My Collection: Duped Cassette, 1987; CD, 1995.
(5 minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: Lifes Rich Pageant, the 1986 album from R.E.M., is a record that epitomizes the R.E.M. sound. It starts with Peter Buck’s ringing, arpeggiated guitar, but it’s the rhythm section of Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry (drums) that really drives the songs. The pair also supply the stunning backing vocals that wind around Michael Stipe’s confident lines. Stipe is the star of this record, his voice finding new wrinkles yet always returning to his distinct, resonant baritone. I can’t forget to mention Mills’ bass lines, as well. His countermelodies underpin most of their best songs, and this record contains many of them.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20.
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I’ve been lucky enough to have many, many friends throughout my life and no enemies1. I’m in my mid-50s now, and over those decades I’ve lived many years in each of three main areas (hometown, San Francisco, Boston). I still remember names and details of friends going all the way back to those first neighborhood friends I had before I started kindergarten. (Steve and Richie – great at sports; Jon, Mark and Deaner – brothers who fist-fought regularly.) I’ve had school friends, and college friends, work friends from about a dozen different companies, not to mention neighborhood/parent/UU friends. Then throw in the music communities and acting troupes and improv groups, and two different stand-up comedy scenes, and it turns out I’ve known and befriended lots of different people.
But the truth is I rarely stay in touch with any of them, except my current crew of regularly-seen people, the ones I go to dinner parties and cookouts with. There are a handful (Dr. Dave, Dan2) I’ve known for more than thirty years who I keep in touch with regularly. There’s a larger handful who I’m in touch with maybe a couple times a year, and who remain important links in my life’s chain. And then there’s a huge group of people, any friend from any era3 who I feel like I could call tomorrow and start a conversation that would be fun and refreshing. But between the memories and catching-up there would definitely be awkward instances where we both try to remember each others’ kids’ names, job situations, and other important details.
And then there is the person I’ve known the longest, Josh. When I discussed one of my favorite high school albums (that I’m still a bit embarrassed to like so much, even now), I related a story in which Josh predicted that the “new Led Zeppelin” record I expected would probably be crap. Josh and I have an interesting friendship in that we regularly go years without speaking or communicating (he’s not much of an emailer), yet whenever we do it’s as though the conversation picked up right where it left off two, three, five years prior. We generally discuss books, TV shows, movies and (of course) music. We’ll reminisce a bit about old times (we met in 7th grade) and catch each other up on any family news. It’s a nice friendship.
The first big lapse in communication was after high school. I think it may have been well into our junior year of college before we reconnected by phone. My theory is that we were both eager to discover ourselves at college without any input or pressure from our hometown, so we didn’t really make an effort to keep in touch with people. (We haven’t discussed this – I’m just assuming.) When we finally did catch up, I recall one of the biggest revelations was that we were both big R.E.M. fans. When we saw each other in person again, he gave me a cassette with Lifes Rich Pageant on one side and Document, R.E.M.’s 1987 release, on the other. (I had Murmur, Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction, but for some reason stopped there.) I immediately loved both. It was the beginning of the music-sharing phase of our friendship, a phase that lasted well into the CD era.
Two R.E.M. albums landed on my 100 Favorite Album list, Reckoning and Automatic for the People. I gave the backstory of my R.E.M. love there, but basically I saw the band on Late Night with David Letterman in 1983 and was hooked. I can’t say for certain that Lives Rich Pageant is my 3rd favorite R.E.M. record, I just know I love it. It kicks off with “Begin the Begin,” and one of the greatest album-opening songs ever.
I love how Peter Buck’s simple, clean lick morphs into sustained feedback while Michael Stipe’s baritone enters ominously. Bill Berry’s drumming is wild but precise – he’s such an underrated drummer. If you listen closely you notice he’s doing lots of cool little beats and fills, all while joining bassist Mike Mills on backing vocals! It’s a very aggressive song for R.E.M., and it displays my favorite aspects of the band. First is the melodic bass guitar. At the end of each verse (0:15) Mills plays a syncopated, ascending line that sits beautifully against the guitar and vocals. Next is Stipe’s voice, one of the most versatile in rock. At 1:03 he ups the energy (“Silence means security!”), and he builds it throughout the song. As usual, his lyrics are rather obtuse (Myles Standish proud?), but that’s just one more thing I love about the band. (By the way, they played an excellent version of this one at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.)
The band keeps the energy rolling with “These Days,” which shares many features with the first song. Mike Mills is particularly strong, with a great bass line and terrific high harmonies. Berry’s drumming is again top-notch. Stipe will rearrange your scales on this one, but his lyrics can sometimes mean something big. Take, for example, my favorite song on the record, “Fall on Me.”
It’s a song about the environment and what humans are losing in its destruction. (In 1986, and well before, everyone knew this bullshit was coming.) Buck opens with a nice acoustic guitar figure, but it’s the vocals that give me chills. Stipe’s wide-ranging tune is lovely, and Mills and Berry sing two different melodies in the chorus. (You can really hear them on the terrific MTV Unplugged version.) In the bridge, at 1:28, Mills takes over the lead. Throughout, Buck’s cascading, chiming guitar echoes the song’s sentiments brilliantly. It’s a short song, but it packs so much into it. The band sticks with the environmental theme4 on “Cuyahoga.” It’s probably strange that I love the two notes that Buck rings throughout the song after Stipe’s phrases, but I do. More great drums, harmonies and bass!
After a couple mid-tempo numbers, R.E.M. picks it back up with the frenetic “Hyena.
In trying to write a little bit about each song, I’m realizing that all of my favorite R.E.M. songs have the same components: great drums, cool bass, excellent backing vocals. “Hyena” throws in weird noises and piano at the beginning, too. Then Berry’s drum starts driving things, and it really picks up. Mills and Berry sing a countermelody to Stipe’s scratchy growl. This one is also one of my favorites – that riff, the voices, the drums. It’s so good. “The only thing to fear is fearlessness,” Stipe sings, a clue that maybe these lyrics are about community standards and fears? Next up is a little mystery snippet called “Underneath the Bunker,” which has a nice, middle-eastern guitar thing, but is altogether eh. They keep things slow on the sweet “The Flowers of Guatemala,” a sleepy song perhaps about mushrooms? Possibly? At 2:19 Buck plays a simple, cool solo.
“I Believe” throws a banjo in at the beginning, then Buck’s patented arpeggiated chords enter.
It’s another song that drives forward, with R.E.M.’s rhythm section shining yet again. But this song – like much of the album – really belongs to Stipe’s voice. He is an assured vocalist with a unique sound and style. The lyrics are reflective of childhood, and fun to sing along. “What if We Give It Away?” is a bouncy number with a terrific theme of community, and a fun riff. Plus – as on all these songs – there are many guitar noises in the background that makes the song sound big and full. Then the band unleashes their early punk sound on the raucous, totally frantic “Just a Touch.” Mills’ bass is all up and down the neck, and Berry keeps things pumping along. Stipe’s voice again stands out, as does the brief organ solo around 1:45. I can’t understand any of the lyrics, but they seem to be about a rumor running amok? What else could “I can’t see where to worship Popeye, love Al Green” mean?
I don’t always love the R.E.M. slow-paced songs, but one exception is the lovely “Swan Swan H.”
It’s a spare, acoustic number calling to mind a folk song sung around a campfire. Again, it’s Stipe who makes the circular, looping melody work. It’s got nice accordion, too. The song mentions Johnny Reb and wooden greenbacks, and I’ve heard people say it’s about the US Civil War, but I can never tell what his lyrics are about. I do know I saw them sing this on MTV one summer and loved it ever since. The record closes with Mike Mills taking lead vocal duties, with solid support from Stipe, on a cover song “Superman.” It’s a fun number, even though the lyrics are a bit stalker-ish. However, they sounded even more so in the creepy original version.
Someday soon I’ll give Josh another call, and I’ll tell him I mentioned him in this. We’ll talk some about the band, I’m sure, and what books we’ve read recently. Maybe we’ll share a couple memories. Then we’ll go our separate ways and connect again in several months or years. But I think about him a lot because I listen to R.E.M. a lot, and I might not if it weren’t for him.