For My Sister

Dead Letter Office is perhaps one of the best album titles in the history of rock and roll, but it is also one of the least ambitious. A room full of tunes going nowhere? Undelivered melodies? There is none of the epic grandeur of ‘Meat is Murder,’ ‘Nebraska’ or ‘The Boatman Calls’ here. R.E.M.’s 1987 album of B sides and covers is an anti-album, full of blind alleys, instrumental parodies (one track, ‘White Tornado,’ is referred to on the liner notes as ‘Generic Surf’) and some accomplished early discards by Stipe, Buck and co. It’s a fan’s album, and as a disillusioned fan of R.E.M., I don’t often stop by to check this miscellany of musical postcards, love letters and junk mail. But Dead Letter Office yields a number of ‘seldom pleasures’ even to the non-afficionado. 

‘Ages of You’ is one R.E.M. tune that sounds like it would be a perfect fit on Murmur or Reckoning, and it’s a reminder that it isn’t necessary to know what Stipe is singing about in his early songs: the blurred feeling is exactly why they work. Someone is lost to him. We know little about them; only the ache of losing them persists and the time spent with the lover runs through the song’s fingers. You don’t need much more from a love song than this. Stipe’s words slip past and absence looms.

But more important still are the three Velvet Underground tracks that punctuate this dusty, joke-filled mailroom. ‘There She Goes,’ ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘Femme Fatale’ are three of the Velvets’  saddest. R.E.M. can do atrocious covers (think of their ‘First We Take Manhattan’ and you’ll have the idea) but here they Nina Simone these Velvets songs completely. All three take Warhol’s New York a long way south and make that world-weary sexual decadence (‘There she goes again/she’s have you down on your knees my friend/you’ll never ask her ‘please’ again’; ‘she’s a femme fatale/the things she does to please’) into spare, bluegrass lullabies.

Yet this Office is more than a collection of fine Velvets covers. The sound of the record holds in place the early-to-mid eighties and all its musical hangovers. Buck’s Rickenbacker cleanly tracks the ‘jingle jangle’ of The Byrds; Stipe’s camerashake lyrics look up and back to Patti Smith’s Horses. The tongue-in-cheek version of ‘Toys in the Attic’ defines the band as The Anti-Aerosmith; this is not an album with big hair and skintight leopardskin trousers. But neither does it dress in black and sport Lou Reed shades. Dead Letter Office is a missive addressed to a deeper South, an inner America. R.E.M. were a very fine band indeed when they still knew how to find that slow and tender place.


And The Boys Next Door begat The Birthday Party; The Birthday Party begat Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; The Bad Seeds begat Grinderman…(1)

With some embarrassment, I realise I am about to write yet another public love letter to Cave–my ‘erotographomania’ appears to know no bounds. Like Mr Sandman in ‘Today’s Lesson,’ Cave appears to be stalking my thoughts, even my dreams. Here’s the latest dream I’ve had which he steals and conducts.


I can’t help but think of Nick Cave’s musical history in terms of some kind of biblical genealogy, a geneaology of the kind found in Genesis (1) and some of the Gospels. In these long lists of who begat whom, the writer weaves together generations, each generation being part of one giant organism; protean and yet always retaining its distinctive identity. What’s impressive about Cave’s genealogy is his ability to turn himself inside out, riding time like a river. He hasn’t, like Orpheus or Lot’s wife, turned back to try and recapture what has been lost. Instead his music remains strong because he wrestles with what is.

Most rock stars struggle with the present tense once they’ve hit forty. Rock, as any damn fool can tell you, is about youth. Once that ‘fair flower’ is gone, the rock musician’s raison d’etre easily withers and dies unless that musician’s talent is exceptional. Take R.E.M., for example. I was once the most passionate of R.E.M. fans: I was in the fan club; I read ‘Remarks,’ a band biography, about 15 times; I bought every album, every dodgy bootleg I could find. I can still tell you the name of the street (Oconee Street) in Athens GA where they played their first gig in a derelict church–such was my pathological adoration. Then, finally, after an epiphany over ‘Crush with Eyeliner’ some years ago, I realised with huge sadness that everything after Green (1989) was merely a competent travesty. Now, each time they release a record, I hear reporters reiterate that terrible kiss-of-death phrase, ‘return to form.’ In fact, it is ‘returning’ that is really R.E.M.’s problem. 

Stipe and co always seem to be trying to return to what they once were, as if they don’t want to evolve but retreat. They haven’t realised that they can’t ‘get back’ because they’ve blanded themselves into stadium-rock nonentities. The wellspring that fed great albums like Murmur and Reckoning has run dry. They are chained to the lovesong (a genre in which Stipe becomes horribly saccharine; he can’t write decent lovesongs to save his life). They make political statements (off and sometimes on record) but they have stopped being political storytellers, connected to everyday America (can you imagine Stipe being able to write anything as good or as lucidly particular as ‘Old Man Kensey’ or ‘Driver 8’ now?)(2). Their money and fame grease everything they do. In interviews Stipe reeks of self-importance and the once fine flick-knife wit of Peter Buck seems addled and hopelessly jaded.

Perhaps someone is now going to write and tell me that I’m wrong and I haven’t done my research, as Geoff Barradale did over my Hawley piece some months back. If this is the case, I’d be glad to be convinced that I’m mistaken, such was my love for the band. But I doubt anyone can provide the evidence I need: for a start, I can hardly bear to listen to recent R.E.M. interviews or new tracks these days because to me everything they do rings hollow. They’ve long since ceased to create their own system, but instead are ‘enslav’d’ by Time Warner’s. Their moral independence is zero.

The fate of R.E.M. should act as a warning to all artists (musicians, poets, painters etc). Their descent into the anodyne demonstrates what happens to those who don’t know how to be true to their gift. Think of The Arctic Monkeys as a test case. They have such a distinctive sound: breakneck yet sometimes tender, it’s a tremendous thing: so few artists escape pastiche. But this very blessing becomes a curse if they remain trapped in that sound, if they don’t at once know themselves and know to burn, break and bend themselves into something new. Alex Turner has already attempted this with his latest project The Last Shadow Puppets,(3) where the sound is genetically related to The Arctic Monkeys’ but yet changed–utterly.  I hope Turner ignores any flak he gets for this or any other act of creative daring, because if he can eventually navigate his way out of the young dude rapids in which he currently finds himself, very interesting and even greater things will emerge.

But if the fate of R.E.M. helps us to think about gifted people like the Arctic Monkeys, it also holds up a mirror to something else that’s important about Cave’s gift. R.E.M.’s failings emphasise how rare is the genius for change. Cave is extraordinary because he won’t solidify; he refuses to cool to room temperature. How beautiful to burn as he so defiantly does. Perhaps at some point he will fizzle out,  relishing, as few have the courage to do, his infirmity and disintegration. Or perhaps he will continue to burn until the end: as the cold stars burn, as burns the ineffable rose.

(1) See Genesis 4:18: ‘And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and
           Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech.’

(2) Compare these two clips, ‘Old Man Kensey'(1985) vs ‘Supernatural Superserious’ (2008).  I rest my case.

(3) a small but delicious sample: