I Remember California
January 20, 2008
I fully intended to visit California before I wrote about this song and one other, but that just won’t be happening in the time I’ve given myself to finish this project. It’s not a big problem though, mainly because in a way, I don’t actually need to go to California to have memories of the place. Much like the version of California that exists in my mind, the place described in “I Remember California” is a collection of visual and cultural fragments — some distinct, some generic — that fall together naturally, but never seem to connect. It’s all images and concepts taken from books and photographs and films, a vast landmass flattened and abstracted into a rainbow-colored Rorschach inkblot mess.
Michael Stipe’s California is gorgeous and ominous, an epic coastline that marks the westernmost boundary of the United States and the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny. There’s a suggestion in the song that the state’s culture is inextricably linked to its frontier roots — the land may be conquered, claimed, and developed into oblivion, but the spirit of the pioneer exists in every person attempting to reinvent themselves, or their culture. There’s another more disturbing subtext to the piece: Once the United States ran out of viable land to conquer and annex on our continent, the country was unable to contain its collective urge for expansion and took a greater interest in exerting its influence abroad.
“I Remember California” is a stadium-sized dirge, a mournful lament writ large on huge, rumbling drums that mimic the ocean tides described in the lyrics of the chorus. It feels huge, but the arrangement is quite nuanced, with evocative turns from every player and instrumental element. As the song moves toward its conclusion, Peter Buck’s grim lead guitar motif gives way to a resigned, dead-eyed march through desert sand, clouds of smog, and wildfire flames into the ocean, and the end credits of history.