July 2, 2007

1) Ideally, the post for “Cuyahoga” would be a field trip. I’d gather you all up and we’d go someplace beautiful on the most gorgeous day of the year. The sky would be a perfect baby blue, and it would seem enormous above us. Puffs of white clouds would hang in the air, so perfect and vivid that it would almost seem unreal. We’d be surrounded by green leaves, and water, and plants and birds and rocks and things. Anyway, we’d be there, and not here with our computers, nowhere near each other or the natural world.

2) From my review of R.E.M.’s show at Madison Square Garden on the day after George W Bush was elected to a second term:

Stipe introduced “Cuyahoga” as a song taking place in Ohio, which resulted in loud booing from all over the arena. Still, there was loud applause every time he sang the line “let’s put our heads together and start a new country up,” which was more reassuring. On my way out of the arena, I overheard two guys who looked like ex-frat dudes talk about how great it was that Michael didn’t talk much because they can’t stand “liberal whining.” Sigh. A few minutes later, I saw a cute girl in a bright orange t-shirt with homemade lettering which read “I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my Orange Crush,” which kinda sorta cancelled out those goons.

3) “Cuyahoga” may be a lament, but it’s also one of the most optimistic politically themed songs in the R.E.M. songbook. Even better, its optimism is not cheap and facile. The lyrics make a point of acknowledging the fact that we need to collaborate and work hard for change, because without that effort and emphasis on community, we stand to lose so much. This song was released in 1986. Think about how much we’ve lost — in America, around the world — since then, and how much worse it could be in another 21 years if nothing really changes.


63 Responses to “Cuyahoga”

  1. Ignis Sol Says:

    This tune has a shining optimism that rings still today. The political and environmental tones come together with Stipe’s evocative lyrics and Buck’s chiming guitar. The lone call of “Cuyahoga” is a beckoning for all of us to listen and to act.

    Matthew, your review is insightful and spot on. I am enjoying this blog more and more…

  2. >and plants and birds and rocks and things.

    The ocean is indeed a desert with its life underground.

  3. drew Says:

    on my first and still favorite bootleg, a TDK tape casette of the second pageantry tour show at new york’s felt forum, michael introduced this one (following the album sleeve) as “michael, the ambassador.” an achingly beautiful song. michael, the philosopher, the poet, the prophet, the mourner. well done, matthew.

  4. drew. Says:

    matthew, best post yet. R.E.M. has always tried to be relevent to our world, to try and get people together, and this song nails the band’s philosophy perfectly.

  5. Paul Alferink Says:

    And now the important questions:

    Did you get Orange Crush’s digits?

    Can I have them? πŸ™‚

  6. Kirsten Says:

    I use to think the line “This is where we walked, swam, hunted danced and sang” was “This is where we walked & swam – a hundred dams the same”. I do like the real words better, but isn’t it sad that my words are so true, that this song could be written about so many dams or rivers anywhere in the world…

  7. Justin Says:

    And Mike’s bass intro. Sigh. Or is that actually Peter on guitar?

  8. Justin Says:

    Also: surely I’m not the only person who hears “weenie skin” even thought I know that’s not the lyric.

  9. maclure Says:

    They played this at Glastonbury 99 in the encore. Just to confirm Justin – it’s Mike on bass that kicks this one off – ooo, it was a joyous noise to behold…

    One of my musically minded friends always points out that the verse feels/sounds out of tune or somehow a bit off. I guess it’s that some of the guitar picking is a bit too loosely pegged to the bass and rhythm. I for one love the sound it creates – like the outdoors it describes, ordered but with it’s own wildness.

  10. Scott Malobisky Says:

    People People: Matthew is trying to challenge us and motivate us here–they’ll be no more talk of weenie skins :); Matthew does seem extra intense, idealistic , and political today (maybe it was The Bushwhacker’s latest crock of shit, hard to fathom that we still have more than a year and a half of this sorry excuse for a president, freaking scary really)…Now if I could think of something worthwhile to say to rise up to said challenge, I would……..Maybe I’ll just go out and DO something instead, something small for someone, within my budget, maybe I’ll just go out and shine my LOVE>FEAR bumper sticker..Make sure all the nimrods on the highway get a good look at it ..

  11. Scott Malobisky Says:

    and BTW , Kirsten , stop making me cry:(

  12. Kirsten Says:

    Sorry Scott, but don’t worry – we are concern, we are hope DESPITE the times…..

  13. jim jos Says:

    Cuyahoga, like much of LRP, is even more telling and rings even more true in this day and age. I think that LRP has aged very, very well. 21 years is a long time and much has been lost, but it speaks well of the song that REM were concerned about such things back then. I really like the line about “putting OUR heads together”
    and the whole message of much of LRP of environmental concern.

  14. jim jos Says:

    on a side note, I just watched some of the you tube bootlegs of the recent Dublin rehearsals. I wish I could be there! However, from what I have seen, the new songs seem to be very exciting, and I am starting to get really optimistic about cd 14.

    Hope that the songs do not become overproduced in the studio.

  15. BK Says:

    ‘Think about how much we’ve lost β€” in America, around the world β€” since then, and how much worse it could be in another 21 years if nothing really changes.’

    you whiny little beeyotch – think of how much the world has improved in 21 years. the world is more and more free (think South Africa, China, USSR), the world is more prosperous and people aren’t dying as much from a lack of food or water or basic health care (there was a reason for live aid), and bands as good as REM are much easier to find thanks to the internet. Sure, you can always find things to complain about if you really want to, but things are greatly improved since 1986. I know – I was there.

  16. Paul Alferink Says:

    LRP is probably my favorite album. It has my favorite song “Fall on Me”, a great cover in “Superman” One of the best opening track for an REM CD with Begin the Begin. Great silliness with “Underneath the Bunkers” and Beauty with Flowers of Guatamala

    And, if you are a college kid who sucks at playing the acoustic guitar he got as a graduation present, you have two great 3 or four chord songs with easy chords here in “I believe” and “Just a touch.” Just a touch is probably the second easist REM song to play if you suck, just after “Country Feedback” “Leave” comes in 3rd.
    Oh, and I Believe has a great opening, with the Banjo.

  17. Ignis Sol Says:

    Weenie skin? Really “weenie skin?” What a hoot, Justin!

    No matter what you hear, you hear sincerity and concern. The exquisiteness of the music alone makes LRP a landmark achievement. “The Flowers of Guatemala,” is (I agree with Paul A.) sheer beauty.

  18. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I was young when LRP came out and I bought the cassette because I liked “Fall On Me” which MTV actually aired on occasion. I remember during my teen years not really liking “Cuyahoga”. At that time I felt that it was too preachy in its message and too liberal (Always a political junkie, I loved President Reagan as I grew up in a VERY Republican home, and sort of felt this song was an indirect attack). As I got older and finished college and matured this song became increasingly powerful to me and I no longer find it cloying or preachy, but as has been said – a moving, sad, yet optimistic song. Definately a highlight of the backcatalogue. I often have wondered if I would like the song as much as I do now if my political views had not changed as I got older; if I was still a dyed in the wool Republican like my parents, would I love this song? I think so, but it is an intersting thought: Do politics sometimes cloud our artistic judgement?

    As to the comments on Pres. Bush, I fully agree that his entire second term has pretty much been one abysmal mess after another, but I do think we (including myself) sometimes forget his passionate and powerful leadership immediately after 9/11. I am sorry, but as much as I am bothered by the man today and am looking forward to next year’s elections I am glad it was Bush, and not Gore or even Clinton who was in charge in the days after 9/ll.

  19. Scott Malobisky Says:

    HEY HEY !! Enuff with the weenie skins already…:)…Paul,I can’t believe how you can state unequivocally that LRP is your favorite album and Fall On Me your fave song !!…I could never name ONE favorite REM song or album let on ONE fave album or song IN GENERAL……(that is what you meant , right?, your fave in general in all music ?..) You sound like a man in charge , a man who makes decisions, a man who sticks to a thought and doesn’t waver –in short — a manager or a boss……not a wishy-washy fickle peon dreamer like myself πŸ™‚

  20. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Hey, “Drive” is without a doubt my favorite REM song! No questions asked.

  21. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Some of you discussiong the title “Out Of Time” on the Endgame post string may want to check again as I posted some info on that discussion that may or may not be generally known.

  22. Scott Malobisky Says:

    I am very disturbed by the thought of Hillary in the Whitehouse , just give me someone in the middle, someone reasonable , a perfect combination of a conservative and a liberal like myself (there was a time when I thought Mccain was that guy, like 8 years ago before he lost his mind)….Was it Churchill that said, “Any man who is a conservative at 19 can’t feel and any man who is a liberal at 40 can’t think.” ?..I do think that people tend to become more conservative in their politics as they grow older. ‘Nuf said , thanx for listening….

  23. Scott Malobisky Says:

    Drive is in my top twenty-five, probably top fifteen.

  24. Kirsten Says:

    I can’t even name my favourite from each album.
    Drive, Turn You Inside-Out, Pilgrimage and Saturn Return (even though I know you all hate it) are the ones that immediately come to mind, but then I think “what about this one, or that, or….”
    Too many to count.

  25. Elliot H. Says:

    Oh, for me it’s easy to my favorite from each album. 1,000,000, Laughing, Camera, Feeling Gravitys Pull, Fall On Me, King of Birds, Pop Song 89, Texarkana, Monty Got a Raw Deal, You, Undertow, Lotus, The Lifting, Around the Sun. It’s how I digest an album. I start with one song I really connect with, and that lets me stick with the rest of the album and not ditch it after a few days.

    Anyway,There was something about the way Mike Mills sung on Cuyahoga that just stuck with me. It just had so much umph.

  26. Ignis Sol Says:

    I like “Saturn Return,” Kirsten.

  27. Scott Malobisky Says:

    that is very interesting , Elliot, blows me away that you would pick King Of Birds, really does Dude, and …some of those other choices , not what I would say at all……But that’s cool……..people are people and we rejoice in our diversity although some of us grovel in it , the ones who have an inside line to the one upstairs.this is interesting , had a feeling the conversation would eventually get round to folks actively listing their faves.

  28. Scott Malobisky Says:

    I love Saturn Return , too …especially the line , “You’ve found a ladder in the pattern of your wrist.” I got those ladders myself, blame it on Catholicism.

  29. Kirsten Says:

    Thanks for your support guys, I’m sick of defending Saturn Return on my own. My favourite line (probably amongst others like my favourite songs) is “I like your hands, they’re all full of glory” from Low. I should’ve added that one to my list too….

  30. nathan Says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but the way I read the phrase “start a new country up” is much more fraught with complexity, ambiguity, and ambivalence than your interpretation suggests. For me, that line’s “optimism” resonates not only with new beginnings, but also with Manifest Destiny and the destruction of Native Americans’ Western Confederation (another “new nation” of sorts) in the late 18th century.

    “Rewrite the book and rule the pages,” for example, could point optimistically towards a revolutionary sentiment, or it could point towards the ways that the American Revolution resulted in an imperial impulse contrary to the values in which it was (ostensibly) rooted. Similarly, “we are not your allies” and “we cannot defend” seem to speak at once from and to a Native position that, given that history is behind the speaker, is marked by loss and despair that undercut whatever optimism lies elsewhere in the song.

    (For whatever it’s worth, the establishment of the Cuyahoga River as a temporary western boundary of U.S. expansionism was effected by the Treaty of Greenville, which makes for a strange connection with another R.E.M. song, no?)

  31. maclure Says:

    great History from Nathan! And a good point well made too…

    What’s Scott been drinking today and can I have some? Keep it up! LRP is my favourite album and I can say that hand on heart and not be lying 90% of the time. To an extent, every REM is my favourite when I’m listening to it at the time… but LRP seems to be my favourite on most days, such energy coupled with a message neither glib nor out of date. I celebrated a birthday recently – “I am young despite the years, I am hope despite the times” was my motto. These Days my favourite from that album…

    New stuff posted on Youtube sounds great. I think something has to be said for Peter spending most of his non-REM time with Bill Rieflin and Scott McCaughey – more guitars and more connection with the rhythm section. Bring it on.

    (…but I still miss Bill Berry of course)

  32. David B Says:

    This is my favourite REM songs and, in 14 shows, I’ve never heard them play it live. I called out for it in Dublin on Sunday and somebody else picked up my call, but they still played ‘Electrolite’ for the second night running. One of these days…

  33. Mr Cup Says:

    weenie skin…I have never laughed so much in ages Justin.Thanks so much.

    I like to sing “Low” with ‘I like your pants, all full of chlorine……all full of chlorine’.

    weenie skin!

  34. Bandwagon03 Says:

    Nathan: Excellent points! Dont forget that of course the word “Cuyohoga” is a word with Native American origins.

  35. huub Says:

    Again a really nice song review. The good thing about R.E.M.s political activism is that whenever they seem to be politicians instead of musicians, they kinda feel that and move over to being musicians again. Often then they try to sing about current events & world problems more cryptic, less obviously. LRP obviously was a political album, but with beautiful songs, of which Cuyahoga is a real nice example, very intimate still uptempo. And like, someone else said, the great line “this is where we walked, swam, etc..”

    @Scott Malobisky: Not exactly. Churchill said it about (European) left & right, which is similar, but by no means the same as (American) conservative & liberal.

    @Beethoven Was Deaf:

    Off-course your political views interfere with your musical taste. Especially with an outspoken political band as R.E.M. is. But if you’re a die-hard republican, you can still love R.E.M (I remember a nice discussion on murmurs about this). It’s just harder for conservatives to love alt. music, because most of those are more liberal or left politically. Probably because conservative young people just work hard instead of waisting their time on making music πŸ˜‰

  36. Paul Alferink Says:

    Kristen- I used to thing you were the Bees Knees until the Saturn Returns thing. . . worst song before Around the Sun, which just lost me entirely, which is not entire REM’s fault as my listening habits changed greatly between Reveal, a forgotten gem, and ATS.
    Maybe my extreme distaste for astrology, which seems to inform that song somehow. Maybe it’s the atonal intro and outro. Maybe it’s the friggin whistle on the Drum Machine. Maybe it’s because it’s a the dissident guitar really doesn’t seem to fit. Maybe it’s the fact that the piano, instead of playing lush and Nightswimming-like, it mostly just hits kind of obvious chords, and Stipes melody follows pretty paint by numbers by his standards.

    Maybe it’s because I like Jupiter as a planet better cause it rhymes with stupider, which was hilarious when I was 7.

    As for being a boss, sorry. Unemployed bookkeeper, unless the guy calls back in the next hour or so. I probably also really dug the strong political vibe of
    album, being very political myself.

    Oh and the Patti Smith “I’m so young I’m so GODDAMN Young at the end of Just a Touch is great. The gospel vein that shows itself was refreshing also, with “Tired of Singing Troubles” as a cool B-side, and in concert around this time he started sing Mahlia (sp?) Jackson before Just a I Believe, that gorgeous “Hey man I’m making moves and I am so much stronger then you. Everybody thinks the way that we thought. We thought ahead and look what we got. I did not invent this world call my world a string of pearls and you will find that ??? loses all it’s luster.”
    The marriage of Gospel, rock and folk with the more out in front vocals which really worked hand in hand with the politcal protests in this album, really form kind of a perfect storm here.

  37. Scott Malobisky Says:

    Well, I love REM AND Rush Limbaugh…..Man, you talk about feeding your intellect !! (like I said I am the perfect combination of a liberal/conservative:)…);BTW, should mention that the review link included with this posting by Matthew was most intriguing , the idea that perhaps Stipe’s lyrical narrative has played itself , thought -provoking…REM’s most conservative moment? how about Finest Worksong ?

  38. Scott Malobisky Says:

    should say “played itself out” , thanx , not another peep from me this posting. make it a great day now and remember our fallen heroes

  39. Scott Malobisky Says:

    sorry I can’t help myself this morning…this is for Paul; surely you’ve seen Tourfilm , right? I mention this in reference to your speaking of the intro thing before ‘I Believe’….one of the high points of the video , ‘I Believe’…….I mean you talk about that as if it’s not really out there for all to have heard, I kinda hope you haven’t seen Tourfilm and thatI could be the one to turn you on to it, I’d love to turn you on, it’ll take you to a whole new level of REM appreciation, this footage of them in their live performance prime, Mr. Slinky at his most netherworldly slinkiest, Man , you gotta love Pop Song ’89 !!

  40. dumbek Says:

    I was also at that MSG show and wrote a very similar passage in my review:
    Incredibly different vibe from the DC show. Stipe didn’t have much to say at all. Introducing “Cuyahoga” by announcing that it was “from Ohio” resulted in a large round of booing. Except for the young republicans behind us who were shouting “Get the fuck over it!” and “Suck It!” Nice.

    I was at the DC show the night before the election as well. The mood was completely different. Very optimistic and upbeat. What a difference a day makes. The “Let’s put our heads together…” line got TONS of cheers in DC.

    This song is quintessential R.E.M. Nice post.

  41. Paul Alferink Says:

    I own tourfilm, although I haven’t seen it in probably 5 years. I totally forgot about the I believe intro being in that. I just have a Green Tour boot that has it on there, and my post was kind of a lament that the fantastic intro doesn’t make it anywhere else, like a B-Side live version or anything.

    I like Tourfilm a lot. I think I found it used somewhere when finding something like that was hard to do. I have Peter Hogan’s great little Song by Song REM guide “The Complete Guide to the Music of REM.” In there he says of “Tourfilm” “Essential viewing (there was a point while writing this book when I’d rather have jabbed needles in my eye than listen to another REM song; watching this renewed my enthusism.)” The aside sticks out in the book because it was atypical of the author. I saw Tourfilm shortly after, and while I can’t empathizes with his being burned out of REM, it’s certainly an excellent concert tape and shows REM in a different light then those people (Like me) who only experienced them through studio recording and post- OoT live. It is superior in every way to the Monster Tour Movie (Which I forget the name of and am too lazy to go downstairs and look) and Perfect Square.

    I think I may have to pop in Tourfilm after the baby goes to bed tonight. . .

  42. Scott Says:

    Scott M., I hope you’re not laboring under the delusion that Hillary Clinton is a liberal. Her brand of centrism is soulless and fork-tongued. And I say that as someone who’d vote for her husband again if I could.

    Kristen, you go right on liking “Saturn Return.” It includes the best vocal melody on “Reveal,” and it and “Beat a Drum” are the emotional center of the album.

  43. Scott Malobisky Says:

    NO SIR , I would brand Hillary a socialist :)..(which is unfortunate because she is very intelligent and does have some great ideas in some areas but her socialist tendencies in others ruin her in my eyes)…I will say this , hearing her railing against Bushwhacker’s commuting Libby’s jail sentence last night on the news made me want to puke considering some of the scum that her husband pardonned , which is why I do not care for any of the aforementioned bus stop rat bags.

  44. Kirsten Says:

    Nothing could ever sway me away from any REM song! If I only listened to what everyone else liked, it’d be Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue and Brittany Spears! Life wouldn’t be worth living…. I am hoping to be swayed a bit on some of the songs I don’t like as much and find a new love for them. Funny though, all the things Paul hates about the song, are the highlights for me. And the words are great. Great to hear you have a little baby Paul – a new generation of fans is born!!

    Anyway, back to Cuyahoga. I always took the line “Rewrite the book and rule the pages, saving face, secured in fate” as refering more to the cover-up of the slaughter of native americans. Rewriting history to make themselves look better. But I must confess, I know very little about American history and politics, not being an American myself.

  45. Scott Says:

    That’s OK, Kirsten. I don’t think Scott M. knows much about American history or politics, either. But on the eve of Independence Day, what better celebration is there than happily disagreeing about the state of the nation while listening to music that brings people together? (And Scott, all kidding aside, here’s a good primer on why even whiny liberals and American socialists like me won’t vote for Hillary:

  46. Kirsten Says:

    I was going to comment on what a great discussion to have on the 4th of July, but then I remembered that you guys are still in yesterday…….

  47. Scott Malobisky Says:

    that’s precisely what Cuyahoga’s about–the unfathomably sad and unfair history of what happened to the American Indian , crushed under the wheels of the rise of this great country; they were totally screwed in so many ways

  48. Scott Malobisky Says:

    if you don’t mind me asking , where are you at Kirsten ?

  49. Paul Alferink Says:

    Thanks Kristen! He’s suitably adorable.

    Vote Obama, by the by. And I’m not just saying that because I’m in IL.

    And vote for Springfield IL to host the Simpson’s premere! And I am just saying that because I live in Springfield, IL!

  50. Kirsten Says:

    I’m a bloody Aussie, mate.

  51. Ignis Sol Says:

    Weenie skin. I am sorry that is the funniest!

    I’m headin’ out to the streets of Seattle on this warm night, pre-dawn hour, liberty and honor are under the honor roll…

    Wolves, Lower, Shaking Through, Time After Time, Green Grow the Rushes, Flowers of Guatemala, King of Birds, Untitled, Me In Honey, Find the River, I Don’t Sleep I Dream, Be Mine, Falls to Climb, I’ve Been High and I Wanted to Be Wrong are lined up on my iPod ready to steam these steamy city streets, baby!


  52. maclure Says:

    Hey Ignis Sol, your best of each album ain’t far off mine… interesting that it’s album closers you like – it looks that way for much of REM’s 90s output. “I Wanted to Be Wrong”, though? Don’t see it myself… I’ve just stuck it on to see if I’m missing something. Nope, still thinks its a weaker one off ATS. Well, each to their own.

  53. Paul Alferink Says:

    Wolves, Lower, Perfect Circle, So. Central Rain, Feeling Gravities Pull, Fall On Me, Crazy, King of Birds, I Remember California, Country Feedback, Nightswimming, I Don’t Sleep, I Dream, Leave, Hope, The Lifting, And Leaving New York.

  54. Scott Malobisky Says:

    BTW, feel the need to say this , I think that Bill Clinton–all things considered –was an exceptional president ; just a shame that his accomplishments and compassion and dynamic people-uniting skills are so tainted by his glaring (some would say insidious) faux-pas……..(hey Paul, I Remember California..oh man , now we’re talking ,theres a top ten REM number for me personally……)

  55. ADB Says:

    Just one of my favourite REM songs ever and a fitting climax to what must be one of the best runs of songs on any REM album – Begin The Begin, These Days, Fall On Me, Cuyahoga. That’s how you open an album…

  56. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I have to add my two cents to the best song from each album:

    CT: Wolves, Lower
    Mur: Perfect Circle
    Rec: So. Central Rain
    FOTR: Old Man Kensey
    LRP: Superman (Begin The Begin if Superman doesn’t count)
    Doc: King Of Birds
    Green: Orange Crush
    DLO: Voice Of Harold
    OOT: Losing My Religion
    AFTP: Drive
    Mon: Circus Envy
    Hifi: How The West Was Won
    Up: Why Not Smile?
    Reveal: I’ve Been High
    ATS: Aftermath

  57. Kalka2 Says:

    I’ve been listening to this song for almost half my life, and it’s only today that – in light of your mention of the song’s optimism – I made connection in the lyrics:
    The father’s father’s father’s tribe
    Erased the parts they didn’t like
    Let’s try to put it in

    Connect that with starting a new country, and you have a plea for honesty and truth, even when the truth isn’t pretty.

  58. […] like “Cuyahoga,” “Finest Worksong” proposes both revolutionary action and reform.Β  Michael […]

  59. PJ Says:

    I just found this site and love it. I’m originally from Cleveland, living in West Virginia, and I must say this song is right on. I heard it the other night done by a friend in an R.E.M. tribute supporting Habitat for Humanity and it almost brought me to tears. Poetic and powerful. It is very symbolic of the ironic false romantic gesturing we subject native peoples to with industry, pollution and river-burning. Great song.

  60. […] is far more cynical, as if Michael Stipe had somehow suddenly lost the optimism apparent on “Cuyahoga,” “Begin The Begin,” and “I Believe.” And then, bam, the pendulum swings hard […]

  61. Susan Says:

    I played this song last semester as part of a presentation on political songs. It ended up being the perfect example of a song that’s really effective at creating a feeling, but that doesn’t make that much sense as a political song and doesn’t get across its specific message unless you take the time to look up information on the Cuyahoga River scandal or already knew all about it. I also found out from a classmate of mine, who’s from Ohio, that Stipe’s pronunciation in the song is incorrect and that that bugs a lot of Ohioans.

  62. Susan Says:

    I should probably also mention that I love this song a lot. It’s probably in my top 5 R.E.M. songs ever.

  63. profligateprofiterole Says:

    weenie skins

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