David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 220: REM (Cuyahoga)

January 23, 2023

I am not sure what science/logic goes into re-releasing a song years after its first release, often to become a hit. "Nights In White Satin" came back five years after its initial release and became a hit, mostly because The Moody Blues had beenĀ  having bigger hits in the interim. Of course, sometimes some external reason leads to the re-release, as with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (Wayne's World tie-in) or Elton John's "Candle In The Wind" (Princess Diana's death). All I know is that someone with R.E.M. or I.R.S. records needs to re-release "Cuyahoga" from 1986's Life's Rich Pageant. The song is as topically relevant now as it was then. And IMHO, it has always been REM's best song.

"Let's put our heads together and start a new country up," Michael Stipe sings at the beginning. It's a line I fear has been appropriated and proclaimed from both left and right: Freedom Caucus, Progressive Squad, or somewhere in the middle, all of us could make an argument that we need to blow this current country up. Hell, nowadays there are people actually trying to blow it up. Millions of people will stand at attention when that line comes on the radio.

Stipe goes on to sing, "our father's father's father tried to erase the parts they didn't like," a line accurate enough for 1986, but sadly antiquated for 2023. The events of January 6, 2021, got whitewashed within days, so we got no quarter to blame our forefathers. Upon a re-release of "Cuyahoga," Stipe would need to stop with one generation, "our fathers tried to erase the parts they didn't like." And we can't even blame just the men anymore, since the whitewashing is happening as much with many female politicians. Michael, make a note that the line will now be, "Our parents tried to erase the parts they didn't like."

I hate that we have to change too much of the lyrics. That doomed "Candle In The Wind" version two for me. Thankfully, in an age of selfies, REM's repetitive "take a picture here" will resonate, as well as the looting implied with "take a souvenir." Some idiots will do both at the same time, posting on FaceBook: "Looky here, I got Nancy Pelosi's gavel!"

The specifics of taking land from the native Americans or polluting the Cuyahoga river so badly that it caught fire are rapidly coming back as applicable, especially in the case of the environment. More significant than the specific examples here is REM's suggestion of "saving face, secured in faith, bury, burn the waste behind." We lost all our local recycling centers around Elkhart, so we ain't got many other options for our cases of Budweiser empties.

Ultimately there is something haunting in the idea that "we are not your allies, we cannot defend." Those words seem to speak directly to the "average American" that both parties say they cater to, but neither of whom seem to actually know an "average American." I would welcome a resurgence of people everywhere lamenting a lost past with the line "Cuyahoga gone."

Or, perhaps I just want R.E.M. to get the recognition they should have for this track. Never directly political, they surprised their audiences with a straight-up critical song about America. Stipe's and Mike Mills' vocals are pristine, with Stipe's sustained "Cuyahooooooooooga" guaranteed to bring chills. With Life's Rich Pageant, they were an album away from "The One I Love" and "It's The End of The World As I Know It," both of which would remove them from whatever fog of obscurity still hung over them. With Life's Rich Pageant's "Cuyahoga," "Fall On Me" and "Superman," it should have happened one album earlier.

Whether significant or not to the topicality of their songs, REM had left the comforts of Athens, Georgia, for Belmont, Indiana, to record Life's Rich Pageant, using John Mellencamp's studio. Given Belmont is not too far from Bloomington, Indiana, you could argue that the band didn't wander too far astray in terms of a cultural demography. Most reviews of the album cite the biggest difference, in terms of a step up from their previous three albums, was the production of Don Gehman, which allowed it to sound so crisp, not only in Stipe's singing, famous for its mumbling at the time, but also in Peter Buck's guitars.

Ultimately, despite the bleak lyrics, "Cuyahoga" is uplifting, dare we say, optimistic. I am not sure I understand how it does that so well, but it is appreciated. I will look for anything to be optimistic about in the current environment. Michael, Mike, Peter, even Bill, whomever needs to make it happen, re-release the Kraken that is the legend of the "Cuyahoga." America needs this monster (which, by the way, is another REM album worthy of rhapsody).

R.E.M. "Cuyahoga." Life's Rich Pageant. I.R.S. 1986. Link here.

Day 219: Paramore "Tell Me How"

Day 221: David Baerwald "Born For Love"

See complete list here.