Little America

March 27, 2007

I bought Reckoning when I was fourteen years old, and even then I had trouble relating to the opening line of this song: “I can’t see myself at thirty.” I mean, half of my problem is probably that it’s always been too easy for me to imagine that my life would be sorted out by that age, and figuring that I can just put off lots of fun things til then. When I hear “Little America” at the advanced (though maybe not “lacquered”) age of 27, I feel a strange mix of nostalgia for the fun I have experienced, and envy for even the most unremarkable joys of other people’s lives.

Like most early R.E.M. compositions, the lyrics of “Little America” are nonlinear, obscure, and impressionistic, and only come close to making sense when you hear them in the context of the music and Michael Stipe’s voice. It’s impossible for me to hear the guitar in this song without thinking of blues skies on hot days, and driving around in cars without air conditioning. It sometimes seems as though we’re missing half the words because we’re stuck in the backseat, and we can’t make out everything Michael is saying on account of the windows being rolled down and the radio on full blast.

The words seem much more cynical in print than they do on record, and some of that is surely a result of the irrepressible humanity of Stipe’s voice, but it’s mainly a side-effect of the arrangement, which can’t help but sound totally exciting. This is one of my favorite performances by Bill Berry — his percussion is nimble and dynamic, lending Peter Buck’s riffs an incredible sense of forward momentum, like a car zooming off into the unknown. When Michael sings “another Greenville, another Magic Mart,” it could’ve just seemed bratty, but in context, it comes off like another detail in their sorta-mundane road trip adventure. They might be noticing the increasing homogeneity of the United States, but the thrill of exploration is still there.

11 Responses to “Little America”

  1. Kurt Says:

    I recently downloaded some rehearsal tapes from I-Tunes, recorded prior to the last tour.

    Tellingly, the line “Jefferson, I think we’re lost” now says “Washington, I think we’re lost”.

    Clever dodge there.

  2. Arkmay Says:

    Interesting. Changing that line like that not only dodges that whole issue but serves the double purpose of making the song an incredibly political comment on the state of the US. Stipe is such a clever lyricist that I doubt this was unintentional.

  3. ozon Says:

    Yeah, he sung it that way when they played it at Glastonbury in 2003. I’m not sure if I like it.

  4. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I have mentioned this on some other posts, but as much as I love REM the band never were convincing “rockers” for me prior to “Begin The Begin” and this song for me has always suffered from the same problem as “Auctioneer” and a few other early REM “rock” songs, in that even though the songs are okay, they don’t really work for me as they lack the power that they need. “Little America” screams out for the larger arena sound of Document or Green. I’ve never heard “Little America” live but I’m guessing it is much more powerful song.

  5. Oblique Strategy Says:

    This is my favorite REM song (on my favorite album.) I am approaching 40 (in 2 months) but I still related to the “can’t see myself at thirty” line a great deal.
    I am one of those fans that has never left. I know so many people who loved early REM but don’t listen to them anymore. Too bad for them.

    Often when I’m out on my bicycle some 30 miles from home I sing to myself, “Jefferson, I think we’re lost.”

  6. Scott Malobisky Says:

    for the longest time Reckoning for me was a sorta EP–the quadruple kick and outrageous ingenuity of the first four tracks plus the languid with a sense of humor (what a great college beer drinking song, too bad I wasn’t into REM when I was in college , would have been better off) country twanged Millzy classic DGBTR pulling up the rear but lately with much credit given to this blog I am appreciating the rest of it more…….::Stupid Question: that’s Jefferson Holt , right ?… How different might my life have been if I had gotten into the early stuff first , like when it was happening? Inquiring minds don’t want to know.

  7. Grant Parcher Says:

    Yeah, Scott, the Jefferson referred to in the song is Jefferson Holt, former co-manager, along with Burtis Downs, fired after some “unpleasantness” at REM HQ (for legal reasons, neither party can talk about the firing — rumour has it that it may have been over sexual harrassment in the office).

    Hearing the song again as part of the Dublin Rehearsals it makes me kinda sad that Holt has been virtually “erased” from the band’s history. He may have done something shitty but he was there from the beginning and helped the band get where they are today.

    Michael — leave Jefferson in the song!

  8. Grant Parcher Says:

    God, what a stupid comment! I take it all back.

    The band should be able to do whatever they want with their songs — I mean, they wrote them! And basing a comment on rumour/gossip is equally stupid. Who knows what really happened and why decisions were made. Besides which, it’s really none of our business, anyway.

    I guess as a fan of the band for 24 of their 27 years, I feel a kind of ownership over records and songs I’ve listened to thousands of times. As a teenager at the time, R.E.M. were an all consuming obsession, their music one of the few bright spots in an otherwise unhappy growing up. Still have the t-shirt with the “Little America” scrawl and accompanying map on the back from the first time I saw them in 1984. Wore that shirt almost every day for a year!.

    Anyway, feels good to get that off my chest. The new songs sound great! Michael, Peter and Mike are still my boys! Please forgive an old geezer who should have known better …

  9. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Poor Little America

  10. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I’ll bring her up to ten

  11. DC Says:

    one of the more profound and essential closers from the catalog, up there with find the river. great summary =)

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