September 16, 2007

When the party lulls, if we fall by the side
Will you be remembered? Will she be remembered?

I met a girl the other night at a party. It was a birthday party for two of my friends, and she wasn’t invited; she just happened to be at the bar that night. We talked for an hour or two, and it was great. I got pulled into other conversations later on, and then I noticed that she’d disappeared before I managed to get her number. I’ve been a bit heartbroken ever since because she was so awesome and interesting and cute, and I felt so comfortable talking to her that it makes me feel awful to think that I might never get to see her ever again.

Alone in a crowd, a bartered lantern borrowed
If I’m to be your camera, then who will be your face?

I’m already starting to lose my mental image of her.  I know the broad strokes, but the little specifics are starting to fade away. I’m sure I’d recognize her right away if I saw her, but there’s this nagging feeling of “what if I don’t?” I remember the hair and the glasses and the tiny equilateral triangle nose and the dimples, but it doesn’t always fit right when I try to put it all together in my mind’s eye.

I still like you, can you remember?

I keep wondering if she remembers me, if she’s thought of me since Thursday night. She left quite an impression on me, but maybe despite what I believe to be a pretty fun conversation, maybe I just wasn’t that memorable, or it wasn’t worth it to stick around and wait for me to get her number. I have no idea.

“Camera” is one of R.E.M.’s finest songs about social anxiety, mainly because it’s less about freaking about “conversation fear,” and more about being surprised by one’s own capacity to make a connection with another person. You talk yourself out of it, you worry and you get worked up about ridiculous things, but really, anyone can do it. You’re never really “alone in a crowd” unless you want to be. The chorus rises like an epiphany, but Michael Stipe undersings the words to great effect, making the song feel smaller and more unsure of itself. It’s dramatic, but everything, including Michael, is contained within the thin outline of Peter Buck’s fragile lead guitar lines.


33 Responses to “Camera”

  1. Your best entry yet. I’ll date you.

  2. Ignis Sol Says:

    I can’t help but feel melancholy and nostalgic (melanalgic?) when listening to “Camera.” Photography, film and capturing images and people seems to be a favored theme for Michael Stipe and R.E.M. (“You are the Everything,” “Country Feedback,” “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and etc.). Being a fan of this also, I can relate.

    I know this song is about the death of a close friend of the band (page 41 in Craig Rosen’s R.E.M. Inside Out). Even with that, I bring in my own experiences. It seems that every two years I have my “Camera” experience. Like you, Matthew I meet people and feel an unspoken fondness for them. It is like the person and I are in an isolated, stilted conversation being filmed rack-focus style. The background noise of wherever we are at is just part of the soundtrack. The eyes are films that capture an image and then play in my mind’s reel-to-reel on a maddening loop (to reference the aforementioned tunes). What would have happened if I have overcome my fear and speak? After all, life is not a silent film.

    The sound of this song is intoxicating. In the book Inside Out it says that Michael is “playing the wok, holding it against his chest, full of water…” The idea that the element of water is being used as part of instrument to portray his own deep melancholy and nostalgia is touching.

  3. Gary Smith Says:

    I would have this song sneak up in me in situations and I couldn’t figure out why. Why? Perhaps Camera was on a mental loop only to surface when I was in akward social situations which put me out of my comfort zone; and that is often.

    Many a friend would hear this song and not like it, I did instantly. Either it resonates and you get it or you don’t. My first fiance didn’t.

  4. kris Says:

    This post is poetry, Matthew. I think Michael himself would pause after reading this one.

  5. MM Says:

    I like this song. It is a heartbreaking song in part relating to loss.

    I disagree with Matthew that people choose to be “alone in a crowd.” Actually, a person’s personality can make them feel “alone in a crowd.”

  6. maclure Says:

    I think the back end of Reckoning (minus Rockville) is possibly my least listened to stretch of REM’s discography. Partly due to this blog, I sought to rectify that a while back. Camera struck me in a way it hadn’t before as such a simple but plaintive and melancholic track. Really beautiful. And its hard to add much to it that MP hasn’t already in his post. Lyrically (for me), it forms a link with Perfect Circle about being alone in a crowd, forming connections and feeling a mixture of emotional highs and lows about the relationships formed there…

  7. Justin Crouse Says:

    First of all: best entry yet. I like the personal anecdote. It’s pretty much legion concerning R.E.M. that their mystique and appeal – especially in the early days – is predicated on the ambiguous lyrics of Stipe, allowing multiple interpretations. These songs can and will be made one’s own, and no one can say what is right or wrong. Over 20 years on, I think it’s quite remarkable that a song can still be so potently relevant. That’s why this entry seems quite compelling.

  8. Elliot H. Says:

    I started listening to R.E.M. way after their popular years (it was a little before ATS came out). The way I did this was by going on the band’s iTunes page, and picking out the songs I really dug. They were; Feeling Gravitys Pull, King of Birds, Monty Got a Raw Deal, Sidewinder Sleeps, New Orleans 1, Losing My Religion, What’s The Frequency Kenneth?, and lastly…Camera. It was the former and latter that really resonated with me. But while Gravity draws on the surreal and angry tone of itself to deliver it’s message, I was easily able empathize with Camera’s somber anxiety. It’s possibly the perfect song for that kid who spends a party all freaked out and silent by him or her self, which I admit to have been before.

    Today, I own all of R.E.M.’s albums. I can’t help but think that without Camera, my love of the band wouldn’t have matured. At the risk of sounding cliche, Camera showed me that there is a band that “gets me”.

  9. Kirsten Says:

    MP – Maybe she thought that you walking away to join other conversations was due to a lack of interest in her. Maybe she left feeling rejected by you and embarrassed by herself. You should have asked for her number earlier. Great Opportunity Blinks.

    As for Camera, one of my all time favourites. The music is so simple, yet so haunting. Michael sings under his breath, adding to the general feeling of insecurity in this song. As another one who couldn’t hold a conversation with anyone to save myself, I find the uncertainty in this song rings true. It takes something as ugly as feeling uncofortable and makes it beautiful.
    Another brilliant REM song.

    MP – Also remember that Great Opportunity Awaits!

  10. Scott Says:

    I fell by your bed once
    I didn’t want to tell you
    I should keep myself in between the pages …

    Am I the only one who would fall to his knees and pray for someone’s love, pray at her very bedside as though the site of her slumber were an altar?

    From Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano”:

    “Shaken, M. Laruelle replaced the book on the table … he reached to the floor for a folded sheet of paper that had fluttered out of it. … For he saw now that it was indeed a letter of sorts, though one that the writer undoubtedly had little intention … of posting:

    … But oh, I pray for this now, that you will come. … for Christ Jesus sake Yvonne come back to me, hear me, it is a cry, come back to me, Yvonne, if only for a day….”

    Does desire spring first from memory? Does love?

    I want to tell you how your face is always in my mind, how it looks to me, how I love it. Can I tell you that?

  11. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I love this song. Easily my fave from Reckoning. This song, as has been mentioned, captures that feel of a special moment caught in time. I often think of this song when I lie in bed with my wife and she is asleep, and I just lay there looking at her, watching her breathe, feeling close to her. Those are special, quiet, private moments with her that even she doesn’t know about. This song often plays in my head at those times and I reflect on them later when I feel alone and need to think of her. It is a bit of a melancholy song to be associated in my mind with such a positive feeling and moment, but I think it has to do with truly understanding how fragile every moment with someone you love is as she had a heart transplant two years ago. She is doing perfect, but it was close for awhile and I always remember how close I came to being without her. Life is fleeting fellow REM friends, find someone to love and hold on.

  12. maclure Says:

    Nice thoughts BWD, am glad your wife is doing perfect. I can relate. I’m always in awe at the end of each day that my wife and I and our baby boy have made it through another day all together. I always pray a silent prayer of thanks in the quiet before I sleep…

  13. ScottMalobisky Says:

    yeah , this is a very touching song
    the sparseness of it is the center of it’s power
    you get this feeling that something –someone –is extremely missing

    my younger older sister (she is so young and old) bought me a digigal camera two Christmases ago and I just get so much enjoyment out of it–I was blown away by the technology , how detailed the pics are on one’s full computer screen !!!…….never really been into photography but I am now. So fantastic to try and capture some of the physical beauty around here and then to be able to transmit it back East to my family and friends, so fun and fulfilling. I guess it helps me express myself. Better than ranting and raving in the street at 3AM …….

    So Matthew, does she like REM? Did the conversation get that far? If she read your words here would she know that it was you ?

  14. ScottMalobisky Says:

    BTW, I always feel alone in a crowd despite my 6 foot 3 210 pound frame. Somebody mismatched my mind with my body……

  15. joejoe Says:

    i thought i heard once that the band wrote it in honor of a good friend who passed away. anyone know if this is true?

  16. Ignis Sol Says:

    Scott, ranting and raving in the street at 3AM?

    Yes, I did recognize the madman who is shouting in the streets!

  17. Ignis Sol Says:

    joejoe, that is true. It’s about their friend who was a photographer. She was killed in a car crash. There is a picture of her (and her name)in the book InsideOut – The Story Behind Every REM Song (up through NAIHF) by Craig Rosen.

    A truly touching and worthy tribute.

  18. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Carol Levy is her name , a friend of the group for many years, killed in a car crash in the spring of ’83……She took the rear cover photograph for the Hib-Tone single.

  19. Scott Says:

    I keep my raving to a tree-lined corner of the mind that’s lighted by a dull yellow lamp on an iron post. My face is on a missing poster taped to the post.

  20. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Michael : “In ‘The Year Of Living Dangerously’..there’s this character in it –I think his name is Billy-who keeps all these cabinets with files of everyone he knows in them. I really identify with that character…it’s just that the idea of the almost desperate need to document a piece of time or history–to get something down in some way–that’s intrinsic to the human spirit. And because of the technology we’ve brought about in the last 100 years or so it’s possible through film and recording to grab all these moments.” I saw this news story not too long ago where-in a guy is totally documenting his life in an obsessive way to say the least (!!!) ,got a tiny digital video camera around his neck filming continuously and an audio device continuously recording , every second of every day…….That’s a bit worse than me…….

    Anybody ever see that film where Stipe plays a character named Skeeter ? Was called ‘The Brisk And Leaping Day’, or something like that ??

  21. ScottMalobisky Says:

    except for when he’s sleeping …….I guess…..

  22. Brian Says:

    I love this blog. The internet needs more things like this.

    Feelings on the Pavement cover? I love Pavement but can’t listen to it.

  23. I love the Pavement version, but it’s kind of a different thing, it’s more or less re-written around the musical theme. I kinda wanted to write about it, but I think I’ll get to Pavement and their relationship with Reckoning later on.

    Similarly, though I do know that this song is written in memory of their friend, that really isn’t much more than a factoid to me, and it’s never had much of anything to do with how I’ve ever experienced the song, and so I didn’t think it was something to bring up. I like to think that this post got closer to why Michael wrote a song about her than simply saying that’s the case.

  24. ScottMalobisky Says:

    …..right on , MP……..
    ‘Color Of A Brisk And Leaping Day’ was the flick, from what I am seeing on the net , it was prety much borderline rubbish ???????????????

  25. Bert Echo Says:

    The three or four recordings of this song that I have heard live features Peter absolutely butchering the solo. Great song, though.

  26. jim jos Says:

    very good write up, very good song.

  27. […] 18th, 2007 For obvious reasons, I recently spent a bit of time looking at the “missed connections” ads on […]

  28. chinese brother Says:

    I got into REM backwards (and gradually so) after Green. Automatic was when REM first really clenched or claimed a part of my soul. Reckoning eventually became the album that perfectly spoke to me (in an unspoken way). It sounds way better on vinyl too and I am no vinyl freak, it just does. The cover needs to be big to make sense as well. Incidentally on the back cover Peter Buck looks fucken cool, man he must have just been in the zone. Camera is the centrepiece of the album I reckon. I never knew what it was about, but I knew that whatever it was, is exactly how I feel sometimes.
    Also from memory there’s an “Alone in the Crowd” scene in Brett Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero, which extends the Camera feeling… but I think you might have done it even better Matthew!

  29. chinese brother Says:

    Btw Brian,

    I love Pavement but can’t listen to their cover either. I am precious about the original version of Camera, I don’t want another. (And this is coming from someone who has a pc filled with great and not so great covers of other songs)

  30. […] Honey.” Through the verse, Malkmus seems awed by the songs, and so when I finally heard “Camera,”  “Harborcoat” and “Pretty Persuasion” for myself, I was acutely aware of […]

  31. SteveMF Says:

    Well said, Matthew. I was at a wedding last weekend, where I met a great girl, but got wrapped up in other conversations before I could engage her again. A lost opportunity I still am regretting.

    Speaking on Pavement, what do you think of their version of Camera? I like the added energy they bring to the song.

  32. Jason Gohlke Says:

    Great idea for a blog. Beautiful entry.

    I look forward to reading backwards and forwards from here.

  33. Kenda Says:

    Has any other girl or guy made you feel the way she did ever since? Different, beautiful lyrics. I mean, ALL your songs are different and amazing, but now that I know what this one means, this song is your cutest one. (Mabye not as good\cute as Why Not Smile or Rockville, but in your situation and why you wrote it, it’s the third best one. :] )


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