Sitting Still

October 23, 2007

Most of the lyrics in “Sitting Still” are either incoherent or extremely inscrutable, but two lines ring out with the utmost clarity: “I can hear,” and “Can you hear me?” At its core, the song is expressing an anxiety about communication that carries over to next track on the album, “9-9.”  Michael Stipe makes a point of noting that he’s aware that the person he’s addressing is capable of reading and hearing, but he’s afraid that he’s not being understood. If you fast-forward eight years, a similar dilemma comes up in “Losing My Religion,” though that song offers more in the way of context. “Sitting Still” sounds fantastic (thanks in large part to Peter Buck’s crisp arpeggios and Mike Mills and Bill Berry’s typically clever harmony vocals), but aside from a few key lines and its chorus, the lyrics give very little away, and largely convey a sense of hearing someone without understanding them at all. I like to think that effect was deliberate, but really, it’s just as well either way.


34 Responses to “Sitting Still”

  1. AA Says:


    Wasting time sitting still…

  2. Kirsten Says:

    Oh, I love this one. I read that Michael wrote it about some deaf children that his sister was working with at the time. The Conversation Fear is also very evident as it is in most of Murmur. Full of great individual lines.

    The line “Waste of time, sitting still” I always took in the same context of Get Up.

    Note to Michael:
    I can hear you. Can you hear me?

  3. Mr Cup Says:

    >>and largely convey a sense of hearing someone without understanding them at all.

    The plight of the REM fan!

    I thought I read some time ago it was ‘set a trap for love making’, the lyric annotations over on the right suggest its for ‘the big kill’.
    Is it the same thing?
    So many questions.

  4. jim jos Says:

    I like my version better!

    “wasting time, sitting still” (something that I am pretty good at)

    “I like it here, I like it here, I like it here”

    can you hear me?

    One of my favorites from Murmur.

  5. For years — YEARS — I thought Michael was singing “we can gather through our fear,” which really changes the song a lot.

  6. Drew Says:

    In retrospect, or from where I stand now, “eight years” doesn’t seem long enough to measure the distance between the two. But then that probably says more about me and the time since “Out of Time” (which clearly we weren’t), than it does about “Sitting Still,” “Losing My Religion.” or the connections between the two.

  7. Paul Alferink Says:

    Firstly, I think the lyrics on the lyric page are all wrong. I think the lyric is “Up to par, Katie bar the kitchen door but not me in.”
    I also think it “bind it in the sieve” not scythe. Sieve rhymes way better.

    How can you not like this song?

  8. ScottMalobisky Says:

    a song for the hunters and gatherers
    anthropologially speaking

    MR. Stipe introduced this song as “this is for my sister” when I saw them

  9. Kirsten Says:

    Wow Paul, that is UNBELIEVABLE! That is word for word what I thought that line was – “Up to par, Katie bar the kitchen door but not me in”. But the word door never really did sound like what he said so I thought it was wrong, but wasn’t sure what word to replace it with.

    I also thought it was “sit on top of the big hill, waste of time sitting still”. Yet to decided if I’ll change the way I sing it or not.

  10. ScottMalobisky Says:

    remember , jimjos , in Atlanta ? the second encore
    And Katie is his sisters name , right?

  11. Dark Bob Says:

    I have to agree that the lyrics to this one on the lyric archive page are incorrect. It is almost impossible to decipher the lyrics to many of the early songs. “Katie bar the door” is an old Southern expression, I believe. Not sure of it’s meaning or origin. A really good song from a great album.

  12. Kirsten Says:

    To the best of my knowledge, Michael’s sisters names are Linda and Cindy.

  13. Kirsten Says:

    This song is fantastic live. Especially in those really early 80’s shows – it has that real punk feel about it.

  14. I really don’t think there is anything like a definitive lyric source for this song. Every transcription is unique, like a snowflake.

  15. regularguycolumn Says:


    A few years ago, Michael Stipe claimed in a Rolling Stone interview that
    the chorus begins “Up to par, Katie bar the kitchen door but not me in.”
    Careful listening, however, leaves some listeners dubious about “door” at
    least. In the album version of the song, it sounds more like “signs” (which
    makes a certain amount of sense given the song was reportedly inspired by
    Stipe’s sister’s teaching deaf children.)

    In an AOL posting regarding this song Stipe said:

    “Sit. still — come on now, that is an embarrassing collection of
    vowels that i strung together some 400 yrs ago! Basically
    nonsense… ‘Katie bar the kitchen door’ is a southern term that
    meant you better watch out.”

    The second line of the chorus has been confirmed by a friend of the band as
    being, “Setting trap for love, making a waste of time, sitting still” which
    careful listening confirms. In this author’s opinion, therefore, the
    entire chorus is, “Up to par Katie bars the kitchen signs but not me in,
    setting trap for love making a waste of time, sitting still.” You may,
    however, hear it differently.

    I remember reading that interview and think he gave more clues. Maybe someone will find it somewhere.

  16. 2fs Says:

    I can’t get either of the lyrics links to function – but I’ve seen them before, and I agree they’re dubious. My version of the chorus? “Up to par, Katie bars the kitchen ties but knot me in / Sit and try for the big kill, waste of time, sitting still”

    Also: I thought it *was* “we can gather through our fears” (although Stipe said once that a fan thought it was “we can gather throw up beer,” and sung it that way for a while…)

  17. milesy Says:

    I’ve always assumed that the lyrics are indecipherable and it’s no accident. All that melodic murmuring followed by ‘I can hear (you?), can you hear me?’ That naughty Mr Stipe is already toying with his audience (if memory serves, this is one of the very earliest REM songs to have been included on an official release- along with Just a Touch).

    Nevertheless, along with everyone else, I have my own version- ‘Sitting time for the big yin’- no idea where that came from, guess I must have been watching Billy Connolly (does that translate Stateside..?).

    One of the very best. Top ten.

  18. Clive Says:

    This is a perfect example of Stipe’s early tendency to repeat a series of nonsense lines for each verse, on this song adding confusion to the already obscure words by altering the occasional word ever so slightly. The ‘up to bar katie bar the kitchen sign but not me in’ part becomes like a mantra; listen to the last time he sings this line in the song, they are no longer words, just a series of gutteral sounds. You have to remember that this is the man who threw up listening to Patti Smith in 1975.

    Played live around 1985 Michael played yet further with the obscure lyrics, he seemed to be singing something odd as an extension to ‘we could bind it in the cyst’ that I can’t even begin to type out! Do a search for Sitting Still + Rockpalast 1985 on YouTube.

  19. Mr Cup Says:

    “Sit in traffic on big hill, waisting time, sitting still”

    I have sung that at a few lights.

  20. Dark Bob Says:

    “Sit on top of the big hill, wasting time. Sitting still.”

  21. Eclipse Says:

    “up to par and katie bar the kitchen side but not me in / silly time for love making / waste of time, sitting still”


    “we could bind it in the sieve / we could gather throw a fit”

    that’s how i sing along to this song 🙂

  22. Kirsten Says:

    The trick is to sing it so obscure and muffled yourself that no one knows if you know the words or not!

  23. Michael Black Ph.D. Says:

    I talked to Michael about some of these responses, to which he replied…

    “You can gather when I talk, talk until you’re blue
    You could get away from me. Get away from me.”

    Oh, and it’s definitely, “Setting trap for the big kill, wasting time sitting still.”

  24. ScottMalobisky Says:

    you mean the Michael without the Ph.D I reckon ? they say those smart ones are borderline bonkers 🙂

  25. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    This is certainly a very fun song to listen to as it has a lot of energy and as somebody else mentioned a real sense of punk energy, and while REM’s attitude was CERTAINLY inspired by punk rock, very few of the songs have that connection is a strong or obvious way (which is why they are both unique and genius) but this song does and it makes it standout on Murmur. The lyrics have always driven me nuts as I am a lyric person and I’ve never satisfatorily found any set of lyrics I liked on a webpage, interview, or my own head. I once was trying to find the Sitting Still lyrics and search FIVE different lyrics sites and found that NONE of them agreed on the lyrics of the song. Can you hear me, indeed?

  26. Michael Black Ph.D. Says:

    No doubt about it, Scott.

    And habitual liars to boot!

  27. ScottMalobisky Says:

    readying my shoulder-fired anti-aircraft RPG launcher weapon …..eyes on the sky…….

  28. rodhutch Says:

    we could bind it in the cyst.

    Thats what I’ve always heard. I’ve never questioned it much because Stipe lyrics back then aren’t really supposed to make sense in a literal way, so whatever you hear that sounds right to you is good enough for rock’n’roll, I figure.

    As far as lyric transcriptions are concerned, I’ve always found that guitar tablature sites tend to be the closest and most accurate-sounding. If you’re really stuck, check them out.

  29. Ignis Sol Says:

    It has always been a dream of mine to cover “Sitting Still” with some musician friends at a bar. I envision the hipsters being so enthralled with my performance that instead of cooly bobbing their hands that start dancing around the room, no longer being still.

    I agree with BWD that this song has energy like (sonic) booming youth bursting onto the scene! It is fun to listen to, but it just has to be fun singing live on in a club on an autumn night with my breath smelling of cheap, hipsteresque beer (PBR, anyone?) and (if people could still smoke inside in Washington state) a smokey room.

  30. Ignis Sol Says:

    LOL Instead of hands, they would stop bobbing their HEADS, the hipsters can bob their hands later….much later.

  31. The Effort Says:

    Matthew, you’re not the only one who thought the lyric was “we could gather through our fear”. I sure heard that, and I remember an interview with M.S., when he was in the middle of his “my lyrics are a blank slate” phase, in which he talked about someone else telling him that he/she had heard “we could gather through our fear”. And he said he thought it was a much better phrase than “we could gather, throw a fit,” or “we could gather throne of hair” or whatever he actually sings. So, in conclusion, Michael Stipe thinks that you and I and everyone else who heard that are better lyricists than he is.

  32. Susan Says:

    Somebody mentioned a mention in an interview of the line after “not me in.” I think they must be thinking of the Out of Time-era interview in Rolling Stone, in which the interviewer asked Michael if the line was “silly to try for the big kill” or “silly trifle, the big hill,” and he said, “I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t think it’s either of those.”

  33. Jack Snipe Says:

    One of my favorite R.E.M. songs to “make up lyrics” to:

    “We combine it in a cyst/We can gather, throw a fist”…

    “Up to barter/Katie visor/kitchen seismic/not me in”

    “Silly trifle/the big key/wasted time, sitting still”

    I can hear you.
    Can you hear me?

  34. RFEpilgrimage Says:

    This is definitely a song about communication, frustration and deafness. Just look at the posts above and scan through all the misheard and confusing lyrics and the song’s point is clearly driven home. I always thought the unsettling quick strums and arpeggios felt anxious and frustrating — like a deaf person trying to communicate or hear even a few tones.

    Stipe has referred to this song as “vowels strung together, etc.” Might that be what speech would sound like to an individual who is profoundly but not completely deaf?

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