The Flowers Of Guatemala

July 24, 2007

There isn’t much in the lyrics of “The Flowers Of Guatemala” to indicate that Michael Stipe is singing about the disappearance of dissidents in Guatemala, or that the flowers in question are covering mass graves. I would never have known that this was the subject of the song if I hadn’t read quotes from Stipe and Peter Buck explaining its context.

Here’s an example from Marcus Gray’s It Crawled From The South:

“Forty people a week disappear in Guatemala,” said Peter, following the album’s release. “Why? Where do they go? Why do we support that?” Of the song itself, he said, “It doesn’t mention political oppression or the death squads, but I think it gets across.”

Hmm. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that I read about this right around the time I bought Lifes Rich Pageant, so I have no way of knowing what I’d get out of it, though Michael sounds rather troubled when he sings “there’s something here I find hard to ignore.”

Musically, “The Flowers Of Guatemala” is a key song in the band’s catalog, at least in the sense that its combination of gentle, sentimental arpeggiation and ambient distortion make it an ancestor of “Everybody Hurts” and “Strange Currencies.” It’s a gorgeous, graceful tune full of little details that give it a strange, spectral glow — the feedback hum is understated and mournful, the metallic percussive accents add a certain sparkle to the piece, and Mike Mills’ backing vocals seem pass through the chords like a pained apparition.

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42 Responses to “The Flowers Of Guatemala”

  1. Kirsten Says:

    What a beautiful song. I love the line “the flowers often bloom at night” and “Don’t look into the sun” leading into Peter’s amazing guitar solo which just creates such imagery. The music in this song mixed with the words just takes you there. You can see this field of endless flowers and the bright sun beating down. Just beautiful. I don’t think there will be anyone who doesn’t like this one.

  2. Paul Alferink Says:

    Really beautiful. I really can’t say enough good things about this album. Spot on lyrics. Definitely political, but really subtle. It’s not like Exhuming McCarthy, or Turn you inside out. Very low-key, Mournful, and yet a celebration.

    Stolen wholesale from http://www.flim.com/remlafaq/lrp/fog.html

    In a nutshell, the CIA overthrew a democratically-elected government because it was restricting U.S. corporate interests (The United Fruit Company) there. That happened in the 1950s under Eisenhower. Since then, the CIA has supported and planted a succession of military dictators in power. Those dictators and the military machines they upheld have slaughtered a total of 110,000 Guatemalan peasants over the years. All documented by human rights groups, though not (surprise, surprise) by the U.S. press. [bery]

  3. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Wow! It’s funny how different songs can evoke such different views. First, to me this song ALWAYS makes me think of the virtues of a simpler pace of life, of some northern hemisphere American going down to Guatemala and falling in love with a beautiful local girl, and loving her both for her beauty, but also for what she represents, the ease and simplicity of her life. Too me there has always been a bit of melancholy to the song that I equated with the American realizing he has to return to his busy world and leave her behind; yet, he has a new understanding of life – hence “The flowers cover everything”. He sees beauty where he did not see it before. However, your reading makes sense as well, although I do not think the meaning is as obvious as the band seems to think it is.

    Second, although I have listened to this song 1000 times, and it is obvious to me now that it has been mentioned, I NEVER associated the tune/melody with Everybody Hurts or Strange Currencies. Something about it was just different for me and I never made the connection.

    By the way, Guatemala is a lovely place and is worth visiting.

  4. 2fs Says:

    I can’t recall whether I made the connection between the song and its politics at the time – but I always thought the way “the flowers cover everything” was repeated was in some vague way threatening…so there’s that. Also that “amanita” is toxic – I remember looking that one up.

  5. Mr Cup Says:

    This is one of the most beautiful, yet horrific songs. I remember thinking it was a bit too melancholy the first time I heard it, but that it absolutely soared with ‘dont’t look into the sun’ followed by the solo. The weight of the song is lifted and you feel like flying.

    The atmospherics are goreous. The backing track of ‘amanita’ makes me feel like I’m sitting in an empty water tank with vocals swirling around.Quite intoxicating.

    Can’t recall when I first learned of the songs actual meaning, but it is a bit gut wrenching.
    There is a sense of erasure through this album, which belies it’s many joys.


  6. Anyone ever hear the hidden “Amanita” in the last chorus? Tough to hear, but easier than the “wrestling bears” that Michael claims is in MOTM (I THINK I hear it).

  7. Jerad Says:

    Isn’t this also the first R.E.M. song in which Peter lets loose with a real “guitar solo”?

  8. cribnote Says:

    there’s also an entheogen in the Amanita family, Amanita muscaria.

  9. transformerdog Says:

    there’s things going on that you don’t know

    a typical exchange in my day, “Hi Scott . What’s going on?” “Oh, many things, corruption in high places for one.” Or, “Hi Scott . How are you ?” “Oh ,uh ,I’m a mixed bag of emotions ….” Both responses sum up this song and both responses inevitably get me not laid.

  10. transformerdog Says:

    and now we build our $592 million dollar embassy compound in Baghdad, that will surely help the situation

  11. Ignis Sol Says:

    How awesome is R.E.M. to have their Latin American trilogy (Green Grow the Rushes – which my mom now loves) and Welcome to the Occupation included in three successive albums.

    I love this song. Yeah, Kirsten Peter’s soaring guitar swelling into the final chorus is pure ecstasy. The tiny, sweet musical touches hidden throughout this song (I don’t think I heard the “Amanita”) make this a perfect composition. The subject is as touching as it is horrifying as Cup accounts. In this subtlety, there is beauty, hope and a call to action. Quintessential R.E.M.

  12. transformerdog Says:

    “spectral glow”,”pained apparition”….cool…. It must have been so wild back in the day to be an REM fan waiting for this album to come out , and then to get it and put it on and be blown away by the beginning of the anthemic Begin The Begin, and then to hear the rest of it , have it sink in, digest it….

    Paul, I dont think Turn You Inside Out is all that political….unless they are addressing a specific person/party , are they ? (not counting Exxon Tourfilm bit ), I mean it’s a very vitriolic tune but is it meant for someone/something in particular? ….Kirsten ,I don’t think the war-mongers and corporate greed machine likes this one unless the flowers are beings sold to Wal-Mart , a package deal with the vases made in China.

  13. Paul Alferink Says:

    Of Course, the first time I heard that song was 4 years after Green was released, and then it was the live version. I never put together that the song predated the Valdez spill.
    Oh well. Learn something new everyday. I still thing its a cult of personality type thing the song is going for, whether it be President or Pop Star. I think the political tone is still there.

  14. maclure Says:

    Great track and great write up so don’t really have much to add there…

    Over the last couple of weeks as I’ve gone back to old REM thanks to y’all on this here blog I’ve begun to think that LRP is a sort of dry run for Green. Very similar lyrical themes (Politics/the environment) and I think they both have more in common musically than Document which sort of sidesteps towards big drums and saxaphones. Hell even the album covers for LRP and Green have a similar colour/style. As an example of what I mean, I’ve always thought These Days sounded ahead of its time, and I think its because it has a (musically) similar structure, pace and feel to Orange Crush. Both albums mix stripped down acoustic-y numbers (Swan Swan H/Wrong Child) and up-beat energetic pop tunes (Just a Touch/Get Up)… still, somebody will probably point out you get this correlation when you place any two REM albums side by side. Still, you get my general point.

  15. transformerdog Says:

    interesting maclure what just happened .just leafing back thru the back pages of this blog…..and I was at I’ve Been High and looking at your comment where you were saying that you don’t see any Christianity connotations in that song but wait until Find The River , and I remember thinking at the time of that posting , “How do you figure?”..but now I get it cuz’ I know you better..You ARE a Christian, You FOUND THE RIVER !:)– cool (though somewhat irrelevant)

  16. maclure Says:

    Hey, yeah, you got it in one, but theres more to it than that transformerdog. As in, yes – I am a Christian, but I have SOOO much to say about that song but I’m waiting on Matthew to post it in his own time and enlighten us with his succinct and precise commentary first.

  17. Ignis Sol Says:

    I had a room mate back in college who got the Christian messages in these songs. He also got that message in 10,000 Maniacs’ Our Time in Eden (which is obvious). Another friend of mine, who was a Christian conservative, said that they were a very political band who hated conservatives. I met him years on and he told me he turned away from that political point of view (and I assume Christianity) and now as a liberal. He loves R.E.M. now and that I was “right.” Well, he was very drunk and I just smiled and acknowledged and respected his choice. Plus, the boy left for me a full bottle of the very illegal Everclear at the end of the semester. I graduated in style.

  18. transformerdog Says:

    You, Maclure , remind me of one my very best friends (as little as I know you across the cyberspaces); he’s a VERY intelligent and learned man, has a high level position at Carnegie Mellon University and is a Christian (a true Christian with all that entails) which from my understanding is a rare life form these days-I mean to be very , very intellectual AND a Christian–According to some figures given in “The God Delusion” by Dawkins (and also personal observation) only about 7% of high level academics even believe in God !!! I am like Rynn Jacobs in The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane when asked , “Do you believe in God?” And she replies with a shrug, “It would be nice.”..But then again maybe it won’t be so nice..WAY TOO MUCH too get into here …

  19. Clive Says:

    Just reading about this song revives my love for it. I also think of this song as one of the last time Stipe sings in that style – the soft, young sound, reminiscent of ‘Camera’ – in the middle of an album where he is really starting to find his ‘rock voice’ i.e. Begin The Begin, These Days, Hyena.
    His singing sounds strained yet articulate and then comes the lead up to the guitar solo where the song climbs out of itself and a feeling of relief and ‘we’ve finally arrived’ comes with the guitar solo. Those 20-30 seconds between the 2nd chorus and the 3rd chorus make the song worth listening to, without a doubt.
    On another musical note the chorus sounds like a slowed down version of the ‘Driver 8′ chorus, which is a slight flaw in this song as it falls only one year later than ‘Driver 8′.

  20. Bandwagon03 Says:

    Jerad: Im pretty sure your right, this is Buck’s first solo (a very nice one at that), I love everything about this song, the melodies, the solo, etc.

  21. ryan Says:

    Also currently playing The Flowers Of Guatemala as a result of your latest entry…

    As I do so, I’m looking at LRP’s beautiful artwork and I’m wondering if the alternate tracklisting on the inside was ever considered as the official running order?

    I suspect this topic was addressed in one of the many books on R.E.M. that I’ve consumed over the years, but honestly can’t remember. Anyone?

    If it was the original running order, it would hint at an another, earlier attempt at dividing the album into electric/acoustic, as they had toyed with on Green.

  22. kalka2 Says:

    Is that really Mike Mills in the background? When the main line in the chorus kicks in (“The flowers cover everything”), the voice sounds much more like Stipe or Berry to me.

  23. narcizo Says:

    …there’s actually a story about this song (I read it on one biobraphy of the band, sorry but I can’t remember which one): FOG (arguably one of their best compositions ever) was supposed to be cut as a single; Don Gehman asked Stipe to add a verse that could make more understandable to the average listener that this is a political song talking about the dead of Guatemala. Stipe denied.
    In fact, the feeling is that REM were very pleased by Gehman’s work, yet his choices of making the band more “commercial” (and that argue with Stipe can be considered as such) led to the end of their collaboration after only one LP.
    By the way, the ‘exotic’ percussion that Berry uses is consisted by a mere woodblock and one or more crystal glasses filled with water.
    One of the most underrated political songs ever, and it’s just beautiful.

  24. maclure Says:

    Just to pick up on the discussion qbove (<still using French keyboards) re: Christians who like REM. Interesting to hear your comments vis-a-vis Christians liking REM or not. And thanks for the complement TFD on being an intelligent Christian… although, if you actually knew me… I meet many Christians- some of whom have blistering intelligence and some who frankly do not. Have not had the time to read it yet but am putting The God Delusion on my Christmas list (is that ironic?).

    Generally, I’d sqy (<dqrn it) that Christians tend to be into U2 more thqn REM thanks to His Holiness Bono. I do think REM, with their leftist views (qnd corresponding lifestyles) are probably mainly ignored by Conservqtive Christiqns (<aargh this keyboqrd is killing me!) in the USA. Stipe is an acknowledged atheist I read recently.

    OK, for me, I think some REM songs skirt spiritual issues where it is possible to read into it what you will depending on your faith (Falls to Climb). So some Christians may treat these as sort of accidental modern hymns. Other REM songs have more than a hint of anti-Christian rhetoric (New Test Leper, possibly). Rather than run away from this sort of thing I find it interesting (and often agree)- it sharpens my own ideas about the faith I hold. I think REM are at their best (and are the best!) painting pictures of the human condition and the problems of the world, but (and I think REM would agree to an extent – “no solutions, spleen venting”) they don’t offer many concrete alternatives… at this point I look elsewhere.

    OK, too long now, I’ll shut up. I feel like I’ve just come “out” now… heh heh. Seriously, Im not here to preach so shant go on like this unless prompted. God Bless.

  25. Ignis Sol Says:

    It’s funny you mention U2, maclure. I was going to mention this in my previous post. Way back in my West Michigan days, another friend – who incidentally would fill in drums with a Christian band named Marzuki (back in Michigan) for one Sufian Stevens, once read and compared the lyrics to U2′s wretched Pop and the MXPX (from nearby Bremerton Washington) album at the time. He noted how U2′s lyrics were “more Christian” than the Christian rock band. More Christian?

  26. maclure Says:

    Ignis Sol, don’t get me started… I once wrote a paper on Evangelical Church Music. How many times does “Jesus” need to be mentioned before we have a Christian song? Criminy. Sufjan Stevens, now theres an interesting one. Many folk think he’s gay because he writes songs addressed to another man – when actually I think he’s just talking about his devotion to the big JC.

    ps. I actually quite like Pop and think Wake Up Dead Man rocks… but maybe thats just me.

  27. David T. Says:

    maclure-

    Just FYI, Wake Up Dead Man is easily my fave on Pop. And, sort of on topic, I remember reading an article a couple of years back by a minister (Episcopal priest, I think) who viewed the closing song of nearly every U2 record as a prayer, including WUDM.

  28. Eclipse Says:

    Agree with everyone here that this is a real gem of a song, and gorgeous. For me it seems sort of atypical for them; perhaps it was that when I first heard this album, it stood out as being unlike any other song on the album, and has always been notable that way for me since then.

    When I first heard this song, I noticed a loud squeak noise in the bridge, between the first “Don’t look into the sun,” and the second. I played this bit of my cassette over and over trying to figure out if it was in the song, or an artifact of my tape or my crappy stereo. I finally figured out it was part of the song, and for a while it always annoyed me, but then I became severely hard of hearing and lost my high-frequency sounds, and now I don’t really hear it anymore. :)

  29. Bruno Says:

    Eclipse,

    Just going by memory here but if If I do remember it correctly that’s a bit of feedback from Peter gearing up to his solo. Probably kept/added intentionally to notch up the energy to the musical release of the guitar passage to follow.

  30. Andy T Says:

    Good comments all. I have a story to relate regarding this song, but it’s one of those semi-stupid mis-interpretation stories. With the alternate running order of the songs on the back of the CD, when I got the CD in the early 90s, I got a bit confused at first. I didn’t figure it all out right way, with my CD in the player and me not taking it out to look at the tracklist there, at first I didn’t know what song was which. Also I copied it to cassette and had that with me in the car and at work, listening to it with no track list at all. Then, somewhere along the line I mis-read the song title as “The Followers of Guatemala” and associated it with “Underneath the Bunker”. I knew vaguely that Guatemala had had a rough history with a lot of military action, and to me, Michael’s unintelligable shoutings into a megaphone on “Bunker” sounded military to me, so I thought it was meant to be some Dictator type shouting instructions to his “Followers” I can’t remember how long I had those two songs mixed up, I know that once I did figure it out I went and wrote the correct track list on a piece of paper and inserted into the rear half of the jewel case next to the incorrect list. But to this day, I still think of both songs when I see the song title.

    About the correct song – I never knew or would have guessed any of the politcal implications of it til I got some REM books over the last 5-10 years. To me it’s just an open, pretty song.
    -Andy

  31. transformerdog Says:

    great story ,Andy….Amanita is the genus of the most poisonous mushrooms in the world according to lyric annotations on right , some producing hallucinations…the “poison that in measures brings illuminating vision” ?? no , that would be simple alcohol

  32. Ignis Sol Says:

    maclure, re: Sufjan – I would say you are closer to right about him singing to/about Jesus Christ. The band he was a part of then, as I knew them, were from the very Christian town of Holland Michigan (home of Hope College) and a Christian Reformed Church stronghold. I just assumed they were Christian because of the tone of their music and its members, mainly my Christian friend.

    The times I saw Marzuki play in nearby Grand Rapids were to packed rooms of young adults quietly and politely sitting, applauding and munching on snacks. Very nice band members. They were quite popular.


  33. [...] The Flowers Of Guatemala There isn’t much in the lyrics of “The Flowers Of Guatemala” to indicate that Michael Stipe is […] [...]

  34. Ignis Sol Says:

    maclure: oh, yeah, I guess Pop isn’t that bad… but I love Zooropa!

    Andy, I have confused their songs, too!

    I knew a guy who wrote the Northwest Guide to Magical Mushrooms (Mushroom John!). I know he made references to amanita in that book. We had stacks and stacks of them at the foreign language materials company I worked at (he was a friend of the owner). Now and then, people would try to place an order for them on our website. Amanita!

  35. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    To add to the Christianity/U2 discussion, all of the band with the exception of Larry Mullen are proclaimed Christians and I find it amazing that Bono is still married to his high school sweetheart. That said, as others have mentioned, many U2 songs have Christian themes. One that often gets overlooked is “Until The End of the World” which is the story of Christ’s betrayal, suffering, and death told from the point of view of Judas Iscariot. For a long time I thought it was a twisted love song (and it certainly does work on that level) but reread the lyrics with the Christ/Judas story in mind and it is quite clear. Also, “Wake Up Dead Man”, and pretty much the entire October album, among many others.

    By the way, I am a Christian, teach at a university, and prefer REM to U2. There’s a few of us out here!

  36. David T. Says:

    > One that often gets overlooked is “Until The End of the World” which is the story of Christ’s betrayal, suffering, and death told from the point of view of Judas Iscariot. For a long time I thought it was a twisted love song (and it certainly does work on that level) but reread the lyrics with the Christ/Judas story in mind and it is quite clear.

    I, too, finally heard that song in the Judas/Christ context only recently…I now can’t listen to it without getting goosebumps.That said, I’m also a Christian, teach at a university on occasion, and greatly prefer REM.

    And “Flowers…” is one of the first of their songs that I connected with on an emotional level…not because I knew what the lyrics were “really” about, but just due to the sound of the voices and instruments, especially the big swell leading up to the guitar solo, when the organ comes to the fore. Heartbreaking!

  37. huub Says:

    this song is stll one of the finest reegarding Stipe/Mills dual vocals. And just nice..

  38. jim jos Says:

    B.Y.R.D.S (and I mean that in a very good way)

    I HAD to mention this.

  39. david williams Says:

    the guitar solo’s a dog though – banal, obvious and way too loud. knackers a beautiful song/arrangement/performance.

  40. The Dude Abides Says:

    Quintessential Christian song:

    Supper’s Ready, by Genesis. Pretty mind blowing, even if you’re an atheist. Sample lyric, in 9/8 beat:

    With the guards of Magog swarming around
    The pied piper leads his children underground
    Dragon’s coming out of the sea
    Shimmering silver head of wisdom looking at me
    He brings down the fire from the Skies
    You can tell he’s doing well by the look in human eyes
    Better not compromise it won’t be easy

  41. steve Says:

    its about tripping on mushrooms

  42. ScottMalobisky Says:

    just listened to Supper’s Ready for the first time…..what an epic adventure…..


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