July 31, 2007
The lyrics of “Lightnin’ Hopkins” effectively combine two of Michael Stipe’s major obsessions — the culture of the deep south, and the art of photography and cinema. It’s important to note that the rural scenery and the people described in the song are only presented in terms of how they are being filmed, which quietly suggests to the listener that it’s important to consider the way the place and its culture is represented to those outside of it, and by who, and how, and why. The words sketch out a set of distinct images and hint at something specific, but there’s not much in the way of context, and it’s unclear why the Texan blues guitarist Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins is being invoked at all, or why the song bears his name.
Bill Berry’s drumming on “Lightnin’ Hopkins” is undoubtedly his most busy and frenetic performance on any R.E.M. record. The beat sounds a bit like a dribbling basketball at the start of the track, and so it’s actually quite difficult for me to hear the song without thinking of the game. On top of that impression, I have a vague recollection of hearing the song in a basketball highlights reel on television a long time ago, but I’m not sure whether or not that actually happened.