Just A Touch

April 2, 2007

Somewhere on this planet (most likely in Missouri), there is a video cassette titled It Takes a Nation of Midgets to Hold Us Back. I filmed the majority of its contents on a camcorder in 1996, and it was intended to be a gift for an acquaintance of my friend Todd, who filmed everything else, and appears in most of the scenes. The idea was to show her around the Hudson Valley and (hopefully) to make her laugh. It’s a weird tape, full of goofy tangents and jokes that were probably only really funny to the two of us at that moment in time. She never actually received the tape. I held on to it for the longest time, and now Todd has it. He and I are not currently in touch, and I’ll probably never watch it again.

I mention all of this because “Just A Touch” is very prominently featured at the beginning of the tape. We kick off the movie in the same way that we began all our little adventures — riding in Todd’s Suzuki Swift down Main Street in my home town. Normally, this part of Cold Spring is very quaint and bustling with tourists from the city shopping for antiques and whatnot, but on this particular winter day, the town looks miserable, grey, empty, and nearly inhabitable. “Just A Touch” plays over the car stereo — my selection, my tape — and the contrast between its wild, cheerful tone and the bleak imagery is (unintentionally) hilarious.

“Just A Touch” is one of the rowdiest, most joyful numbers in the entire R.E.M. discography, and though it appears on 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, it actually dates back to their pre-Chronic Town period as a party band in Athens, Georgia. If I recall correctly, it’s got something to do with Michael Stipe’s confused recollection of the day Elvis Presley died, but the lyrics are besides the point — it’s all about the spirit of the performance, and the reckless enthusiasm expressed in every moment of the recording. Stipe sounds especially unhinged, particularly toward the end when he’s totally flipping out before seeming to fall over with his final shout: “I’m so goddamn young!!!” Few songs sound as fully alive as “Just A Touch,” and if the Presley thing is true, the King couldn’t have asked for a more fitting tribute.

20 Responses to “Just A Touch”

  1. dan Says:

    this song is magical, though it’s all about stipe’s delivery on the album version — absolutely perfect. there’s that “live in studio” take floating about that just doesn’t do it for me.

  2. Kurt Says:

    Makes you wish that they’d become unhinged more often. One thing you don’t equate with latter day REM is abandon. Much like Windout, they cut loose, and discard their manners. I was hoping Monster would sound this good – not even close!


  3. Tor André Roland Says:

    The “I’m so goddamn young!!!” shout, I believe, is a reference to Patti Smith. On my version of Horses, there is a bonus track of The Who’s “My Generation”, where she shouts the same words in roughly the same manner.

    Nice little project you’ve got going on here, by the way…

  4. James Says:

    It’s a song inspired by Orion, the Elvis imitator who was later passed off as the real thing in a publicity stunt. Supposedly, Stipe was working in a St. Louis club, where Orion happened to be playing the day Elvis died. Orion was overwhelmed by the response from grieving audience members (the story goes). Orion would sometimes advertise his shows with the slogan “Is it really Elvis? Or just a touch?”

    Interesting that Stipe has written two songs about Elvis impersonators.

    The “I’m so goddamned young” line comes from Patti Smith (her b-side version of “My Generation.”)

  5. I knew the bit was a Patti Smith reference, but I’m really fascinated by the Elvis impersonator angle!

    A lot of my memories on R.E.M. trivia are very vague recollections of reading a couple R.E.M. books about ten years ago. I’m not looking to provide an R.E.M. guide — that’s redundant — but rather to relate impressions and memories, and sometimes my memories are going to be vague or incorrect.

    Kurt, I think maybe part of the problem with how some people respond to Monster is that they expect old school rocking R.E.M., but instead got a whole different sort of thing. I love Monster because it rocks in a way that pretty much no one else has tried.

  6. Courtney Says:

    This new project of yours is making me very happy.

    Life’s Rich Pageant is one of those albums, at least for me, that you always have to have around. The pinacle of what 80s alternative rock was really about.

  7. bryan charles Says:

    There are a couple of R.E.M. albums I can hardly listen to anymore and Life’s Rich Pageant is one of them. Not in a bady way or anything. I had it on a tape with Dead Letter Office and Chronic Town and I went to this arts camp one summer, 89, and I played the tape in my Walkman every night and something about sleeping to that music at that time in my life–I was 15–and waking up dazed at some point in the tape, as I always did, in the middle of one of those songs, something it about it all screwed with my consciousness. In the best way, obviously, since R.E.M. was my favorite band, but still. As for Monster, I never actually thought it rocked that hard. It was like they had the distortion pedals but were still playing the instruments too gingerly, like they were acoustic. This is a great blog.

  8. satisfied75 Says:

    a fine rem dance number!

  9. tylerw Says:

    funny that you’re from Cold Spring–a band I used to be in recorded an album in a Cold Spring basement in the long-past summer of 1999. ah, memories. love the blog–a cool idea and so far nicely executed. Glad you’re not “coming down from on high” with the meaning of the songs, but rather just talking about what comes to mind when you hear them.

  10. DW. Says:

    > The “I’m so goddamned young” line comes from Patti Smith (her b-side version of “My Generation.”)

    Doesn’t it also recur on “Privilege” (from Easter) or am I imagining things?

  11. Beth Says:

    I love “Just a Touch” because I danced to it so many times in the very early 1980s; I feel young again. Somewhere, in some box under a box, is an R.E.M. demo cassette from 1982 — the kind they’d give to club managers for dates — with this song on it. Some wonderfully stupid songs from those days; definitely worth investing in some early boots.

  12. anney Says:

    I always thought of this as rem’s version of punk… and think of regina spektor’s end to her song “poor little rich boy,” and wonder if she was maybe biting off jms biting off patti?

  13. Justin Says:

    I love this song, and when I made the Patti Smith connection it thoroughly excited me. But the really stunning thing about that line’s inclusion is the mood Stipe was in at the studio. He’s stated producer Don Gehman pushed him in ways he wasn’t prepared for. While good for him in the long run by his own admission, at the time of making Lifes Rich Pageant it was a profoundly frustrating challenge. Stipe vented this frustration on “Just a Touch” by attacking the vocal in the booth in one glorious take. He nailed it, and evoking Patti Smith’s bratty arrogance at the end appears to be an overt “Fuck you” to Gehman. In this context I enjoy it even more. It’s hard to associate R.E.M. with punk rock based on their output, but they clearly took those ideals to heart and have exercised them much more purely than a lot of bands the general populace considers to be genuinely “punk rock”.

  14. robo Says:

    If you buy a copy of “LRP” with the bonus cuts on it, it has an “alternate” version of “Just A Touch”…it is much slower, almost a groove track. Stipe is much more subdued. I can’t remember which one came first, the punk version or this one, but I’ll stick to the faster one anyday. “LRP” is hands down my favorite REM album…keep up the good work.

  15. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I am the voice of dissent here, maybe because I prefer the darker toned REM songs, but I have never really loved “Just A Touch”. Always seemed too bright too me, and as a fan of punk rock, a weak attmept to recreate that sound and feel within the parameters of REM’s sound). I think the issue for me may be that this song does have a punk rock feel musically, but the words seems out of sync with the angry spirit of punk. One of my least favorites of LRP.

  16. Elliot H. Says:

    Ah, a fellow Hudson-valley dweller. I personally live in Rockland.

    Anyway, I can totally see this song at the beginning of a roadtrip in the soundtrack of life. It’s just so intense in its euphoria and Hyper-activity. It almost seems strange for R.E.M., as I’ve never really heard them like this before. Problem is, I don’t think it was a very good set up for the remorseful, acoustic ballad that is Swan Swan H in any way.

  17. transformerdog Says:

    a drunken raucous ode to Patti Smith’s pituitary gland
    a fleeting moment of unhinged bliss before the verdict

  18. Carrie Doyle Says:

    Hi, this is Carrie (Todd’s longtime ex-girlfriend). I have been thinking a lot lately about that song, on a CD you made for Todd, a mix. The song was by a woman singer, called “Pancakes”, jazzy-like. I loved it. And I think about it whenever I make pancakes.

    I play music, guitar and sing, some piano, starting on violin. I’ve been thinking about coverng that song-but I can’t find it anywhere on the internet. Do you know who it’s by? I’d love to get a copy of it.

    I hope all is well with you.


  19. R.E.M. Fan Says:

    Ther played “Just a touch” tonight in Oberhausen. As Michael said the first time sine 1989.

  20. ChampionOfTheWorld Says:

    a striking similiarity to the Butthole Surfers ‘Gary Floyd’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: