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.

50 Responses to “I Remember California”

  1. […] which in turn provides a nice touch of contrast on the record as it falls between two of the most tightly composed tracks in the band’s discography. The approach also adds to the sense of intimacy in […]

  2. Ben Says:

    To me, this song is about the dichotomy between our expectations or hopes of what something is or will be and what that thing actually turns out to be when we finally get it. More often than not it turns out that the place we imagined with sunny, hopeful expectations of endless sunshine and girls with tans is every bit as boring and mundane as the place we came from. I especially like the song’s characterization of California as the ultimate fantasy ideal coupled with the monotonous realization that since it exists at “the end of the continent” there’s nowhere to go from there.

    What a depressing, yet strangely cool song.

  3. adam Says:

    For some reason, and I know it is totally juvenile, I always want to sing: “At the edge of incontinence.” With the boys getting along in age it might make more sense. I know that is stupid but hey – why not smile?

  4. Kirsten Says:

    “What a depressing, yet strangely cool song.” – That could describe so many of their songs!

    I love this song too. I think the music is kind of creepy. It’s very well done. I also have to mention the version on “Tourfilm”. The harmonies at the end are absolutely beautiful, yet haunting at the same time.

  5. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I love the lyrical and musical tone of this song and both MP and Ben hit the nail on the head. It has such emotional power and while it sounds big, its message is ultimately hollow. Makes me think of Death Cab For Cutie’s “Why You’d Want To Live Here”. BTW, if you only know DCFC from Soul Meets Body and I Will Follow You Into The Dark then you are missing out on one of the greatest beands of recent years. Everyone should own a copy on their “Transatlanticism” CD.

  6. ScottMalobisky Says:

    this song has taken it’s share of turns in my #1 REM song slot , only to have Binky kick it out or Undertow snuff it or perhaps Orange Crush came waltzing in. but it always sneaks back in to the top spot for another stint.

    the best way that I can describe California to someone who has never been here is to say that all the cliches one may hear about it are SO TRUE and then some , a land of indescribable ,off the scale ,and truly haunting physical beauty…. incredible wealth and staggering diversity and contrasts. It really gets under one’s skin and if one isn’t grounded well enough one is probably headed for trouble…….

    This song blew me away when I first heard it. Those drums , for starters.

  7. Bert Echo Says:

    Love the vocal harmonizing towards the end of the song when played live during the Green Tour.

  8. Figgy Says:

    Thanks for bringing me some new ideas on this song, Matthew. For years I only heard it as something that might be sung the day after L.A. is destroyed by a massive earthquake.

  9. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I have this hard-backed book, ‘California The Beautiful’ , a collection of magnificent , extra extraordinary landscape photographs –almost all of them taken more inland ,off the beaten track , …just stunningly beautiful, some strike me as being not of this planet, the sky hues and rock shapes and wild flora and such are dizzying.

    And then there is the attitude out here, it’s like the America of America , as America is to the world , so is California to the rest of the country..The Can Do Attitude Thing/Land Of Opportunity .Many people venture here to chase there dreams , some find them , some head back home lucky to be alive , some become park bench mutations , some remain lost in crystal canyons in search of their companions , never to be found , or maybe physically found but with their eyes bleached insane. ………..(and that’s not including Hollywood)

  10. Mr Cup Says:

    The crushing of memory (under the applied pressure of reality).
    That’s pretty much how I’ve read it.

    Great song. I wish he’d find this voice again.
    All the parts are great: drums, bass and great riff from PB.

    I imitated the Tourfilm ‘sleeve rolling’ moves to a friend one time. She hadn’t seen the film but she found it very creepy and totally cringed everytime she saw Stipe do it. It was a very ‘fingernails down the blackboard’ response. I wish I could share it with you all.

  11. milesy Says:

    Once again I’m encouraged and relieved that a song I have always loved, but which rarely gets a mention as a standout REM song seems so universally admired by some discerning people! Great review on this one.

    Do I remember reading somewhere that JMS got some lyrical inspiration from Lex Luther’s dastardly plan in Superman 1 to sink California by causing massive earthquakes and thus create the Nevada coastline. Or did I dream that?

    Ben, Kirsten- ‘What a depressing yet strangely cool song’; ‘that could describe so many of their songs.’ Yes- the previous one we were discussing being a classic example.

    Bill Berry on fire here- he’s had a lot of finest hours on this blog- but I go for this one.

    Classic Michael Stipe changing the meaning of his lyrics with a couple of extra words: ‘History is made… to seem unfair’; then ‘I recall it wasn’t fair… outside.’ Genius.

    Sorry for the really long post. I love this song.

  12. milesy Says:

    Did I mention that I like this song a lot..?

  13. They really ought to bring this one back when they tour this year. I don’t think this song has been performed by the band since 1989!

  14. ScottMalobisky Says:

    MP , with all due respect I must admit that I don’t really care for your review (not that I could do any better..) . the last line is particularly dark, like talking to my friend with her constant visions of the coming cataclysm and the end of the world..? 2012 ? anybody familiar with all that speculation fueled by the year 2012 being the end of the Mayan calendar ?

    Figgy ,am kinda amused by your comment, never thought of it that way before, like , “oh yeah , I remember California, this place that used to exist..” Makes me think of the Enya album ‘The Memory Of Trees’,–GREAT TITLE, can be interpreted as , the trees themselves are remembering ,or as , remembering trees that are no longer here . I like the first one.

    And I always thought the lyric was “a simple wave I must confide ” ,not ” a symbol wave..” .I think “simple” is actually MUCH better here …You know that feeling you get when sitting by the ocean , the steady pulse of wave on beach ?? how it just seems to encapsulate everything in a profound way,” a simple wave I must confide” like, Damn..It’s only a freakin wave so why is it affecting me so ?. and you drift away inside your head and think very deep and wistful nostalgic thoughts,…that is if your mind is still in one piece, not ripped asunder by the parade of fifteen year old bikini clad nymphs that are strolling by torturing your loins …..”So ,pardon me while I burst into flames”_____Incubus

    come to know me as consummated
    through my life’s ,blade

    and Congrats to the New York football Giants >>>>>>>>

  15. narcizo Says:

    I ‘ve never been to California.
    The vision of M. Stipe’s lyrics reminds me of the same vision you can find into the works of P.K. Dick or Kim Stanley Robinson; sci-fi writers describing a dystopia that is actually and already there.
    For some strange reason, there is a mental image that comes and goes almost every time at the end of the track: California separated from the mainland, either because of the San Andreas Fault or because of the tidal waves described above.
    I think that this song is their best performance not only on Green, but in many years’ work. Every music part in there (drums, bass line, guitar riffs, vocals, instrumentation in general) is totally standout.

  16. ScottMalobisky Says:

    hey Adam , LOL !! ,that’s really off the left field wall, droll very droll.and hilarious . I can relate being just a couple of months behind Stipe 🙂

  17. ScottMalobisky Says:

    love the “oceans Trident submarines” line , the image of this huge silent monster capable of dispensing nuclear annihilation at the push of a button (well, two buttons..isn’t it true that in order to launch a missile TWO PEOPLE must coordinate it, push two different buttons at the same time as to eliminate the chance of one lone psycho starting WW3..?..)moving undetected beneath the deep still expanse of sea as one stands on the cliffs of utterly surreal Big Sur gazing out to the horizon line with no idea that it’s lurking out there.

    hey narcizo, with a name like narcizo you might fit right in out here…

    hmmmn , I wonder what the “other song” might be that MP referred to above ??????

  18. It’s not too hard to guess. It’s a song about Los Angeles, sorta.

  19. adam Says:

    always seemed much more personal than discussed here.. and just before Michael actually moved to LA I think. funny thing is that Michael was already spending a lot of time in LA when the song was written I think

  20. ryan Says:

    My guess (for the other “California” song yet to be reviewed) would be Electrolite – Mulholland Drive, Hollywood and the various Film Stars referenced are all very California-centric…

    I Remember California always seemed like the flipside to the innocence generally associated with 50s/60s/Gidget/Beach Boys/Surf culture…

    Finally, speaking of Death Cab For Cutie (as B.W.D. does above) – I always think of I Remember California whenever I hear Summer Skin from their Plans album. They seems to share some themes – loss of innocence, etc.

  21. pggtips Says:

    For me, this was a potentially very dangerous route to go down as I’ve always believed this was R.E.M. in its anti-Beach Boys guise.
    R.E.M. have on many occasions (especially post-AFTP), tried to drawback from their Beach Boys influences and this is a very public statement of their disdain for the carefree sentiments expressed by the Beach Boys.
    R.E.M. explore their cynical side far more subtly on tracks like Nightswimming but do so while also acknowledging their debt to Brian Wilson and co.

  22. jim jos Says:

    I remember going to California, and have been fortunate enough to see a fair amount of the state. Having friends that live out there, L.A. transplants, I was thrown into the “L.A. lifestyle” very quickly. It was something to behold, and very different from my background.
    Once, after a few days there, I found myself, alone, at a hotel well outside of L.A (stayed there as part of a wedding party). Without a car, not wanting to be confined to my room, I took off and wandered into the nearby foothills. Within a few minutes, I found myself out in land that I was sure had not changed one bit throughout time. I was amazed by it’s beauty and the quiet calmness of it.

    I thought about everything that I had seen in the past few days, much of what had made an impression on me, but all so different from what I knew, that I had found myself kind of on the outside of it, looking at it and evaluating and judging it.
    But of all the things that I had witnessed it was that night in the raw and quiet land that had the most impact on me.
    That all of this chaos and drama was going on in a very real eden.
    I do not know if this is what R.E.M. had in mind when they wrote the song, but I have connected this song with that night.
    I may have had Tupac’s “California Love” (California, knows how to party) on my mind for most of the trip, but that beautiful and dark moment connects entirely to this R.E.M. song for me.

  23. satisfied75 Says:

    it would be interesting to re-visit this entry after your first visit to CA; see if physically experiencing the state enhances, detracts, or remains status quo.

  24. Kirsten Says:

    I thought it was remembering California as it was before becoming to “Hollywood fake”.

    Glad someone mentioned the sleeves from Tourfilm too. Very, very cool.

  25. Ignis Sol Says:

    “I Remember California” is a hauntingly beautiful ballad of mourning – a critical eulogy of sorts. Peter’s guitar work enhances this mood as Michael wails with Californian imagery. I especially like he uses the motif of “girls with tans” as a scary idea compared to the image of the “California Girls” by the Beach Boys as something appealing and sexy. Irony? Or maybe it is representative of the real unknown cob-webby and scary inner-workings of Brian Wilson’s own hauntingly beautiful mind.

  26. jjjasper Says:

    Several years ago, my Dad got to see the Pacific Ocean in California for the first time. I was a little surprised to hear him tell me that it he didn’t like it very much, it sort of creeped him out. This was partly due to the time that he spent shipbound crossing the Atlantic while in the military in the early sixties, but it was also because of the dark bleakness of the Pacific, especially in the northern parts of the state.

    I do have to say that I understand what he is talking about. It is beautiful and amazing, yet at the same time dark and overwhelming. It feels like you are looking at the edge of the world.

    While I realize that’s probably not what Stipe was writing about here, that is the mood I think of when I hear this.

  27. milesy Says:

    I need to give a nod to the backing vocals on the final verse (‘I remember this defense…’). BVs are one the key elements that set REM apart from other bands that are merely good. This is Mills on top form.
    I really hope this is an element where REM rerurn to form on Accelerate.

  28. milesy Says:

    That would be ‘return’…

  29. Mr Cup Says:

    Not to mention the double tracking on Stipes vocal. Really nicely done on Green.

  30. Paul Alferink Says:

    FOUR things:

    This song is very underrated. This album is my second (after LRP) and is strong 1 – 11. Perhaps because of the strength of the album, this one gets over looked. But between Stipe’s trippy vague memories, and Buck’s riff, I can’t help falling for this song.

    When I was in high school, and such things seemed really important, I was going to go to California, and play “Going to California” by Zepplin on the way there, and this song on the way back. I remember it being very important to me.
    I went to California on my Honeymoon 3 years ago. (I did go briefly when my flight got redirected from Vegas 6 months earlier, but sitting in LAX hardly counts.) I never remembered to bring those CD to play. Never occured to me until now that I never did what I was so set on 10 years earlier. . .

    I also wrote this on every scratch paper, trapper keeper, folder, and on a paper I put on my bedroom door, for about two years:

    The Pacific Coast:
    The closer I get
    the further away
    I feel

    And I really don’t get the REM ran away from the Beach Boys comment. Reveal just sits in a big, fat Beach Boys Tub (Sandbox would probably be a better metaphor) and soaks in it. “At my most Beautiful” should really just stop halfway through and start into the chorus of “Sloop John B” If REM embraced the Beach Boys anymore, post NAIHF, they’d have to lie in bed for 7 years, get overweight, and spawn children to sing with the children of some other band. And those children would be horrible, but be inexplicably on the radio, mewling every time you turned it on for like, six months.

    Hold on for one more day, indeed . . .

  31. pggtips Says:

    Paul Alferink

    I agree, to a point. ‘These days’, R.E.M. force their Beach Boys influence whence before it came both effortlessly and subtly. Mike and Bill particularly, could slip into BB mode, just as they could into country, folk and punk which is what made them such a fantastic band.

  32. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    “The parade of fifteen year old bikini clad nymphs that are strolling by torturing your loins …”

    Aaah, thanks for the beautiful image Scott . . .

  33. ScottMalobisky Says:

    the very best part of the song is the beginning of the third verse , right at “I remember this defense” and right after it into the next line, something barely discernible seems to come to a head there, the instrumental lines seem to be even more hypnotic than they already are for about for about three to five seconds there……as if something was slightly adjusted in the mix.

  34. Paul Alferink Says:

    Best Lyric:
    I remember Traffic Jams
    Motor Boys and Girls with Tans
    Nearly was and also rans;
    I remember this . . .

  35. Mr Cup Says:

    the strings are incredibly ominous

  36. ScottMalobisky Says:

    CNN talkin about the Guliani campaign today , “there’s an old saying in Florida, ‘the further south you go the more north you get'” , made me think of this song

  37. jim jos Says:

    That is very true, scott, the further south you go in Florida, the more northern (esp. NY and NE transplants) you come across in most cases. Rudy is certainly counting on the NY vote moved south.

    Stipe never has written about my state, but, I can’t say that I blame him.

    Lyrics to I remember California changed to
    I remember Florida by jimjos.

    I remember old age homes, hurricanes and methadone
    the hanging chad voting zones
    Oranges, Limes and sub prime loans
    I remember this

    I remember housing booms
    older boys and girls assume
    they’re next in line at God’s waiting room
    I remember this
    History was made
    History was made by those nearby.

    I recall the blue haired dye
    Grampa’s all with roving eyes
    I recall the ration lines
    recollect the ration lines
    Remembering the ration lines outside

    no socks, on Vice
    Crockett wore no socks on Vice
    A style I stole I must confide
    Back in 1985.
    I guess I was a poser.

    I remember this defense
    drivers on A1 lack sense
    all those drunken accidents
    you have to curse in Spanglish.

    I remember housing booms
    older boys and girls assume
    they’re next in line God’s waiting room
    I remember this

    no socks, on Vice
    Crockett wore no socks on Vice
    I style we stole we must confide
    I guess we all are posers

    they all move here for retirement
    or to escape Castro government
    they all move here for retirement
    or to escape Castro government

  38. Kirsten Says:

    LOL! Well done jimjos.
    And I thought I had too much time on my hands….

  39. milesy Says:

    That is great! Now I just want to hear you sing it…

  40. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    You could almost make a whole album of songs that put down L.A. or California:

    I Remember California – REM
    Californication – Chili Peppers
    Why You’d Want To Live Here – Death Cab For Cutie
    Aenema – Tool
    Goodnight L.A. – Counting Crows

    And that is just a few I could think of off of the top of my head! With time I am sure I could do a whole CD’s worth.

  41. ryan Says:

    How about L.A. by Elliott Smith – although that could just as easily read as a love song to the city…

    also, A House Is Not A Motel by Love…

    Losing California by Sloan…

    and my personal favourite Revolution Blues by Neil Young.

  42. pggtips Says:

    San Francisco by Scott McKenzie would be my favourite from such an album.

  43. milesy Says:

    Listened to I Remember California today. It reminded me that when I first got Green in 1989, I wondered for ages who Edward Trees was, and why Michael Stipe remembered him…

  44. ScottMalobisky Says:

    that’s cool as hell, jimjos !

    yeah , kinda interesting how Orange County and the San Diego area are seperated by the huge Camp Pendleton , about 35 miles long north to south along the coast , which creates this formidable barrier physically/geographically (obviously) and “state of mind wise” between the Orange County-LA vibe and the SD vibe. it’s quite striking to me having lived in both areas.

    San Diego county is very unique in the sense that it is surrouded on all four sides by an unusual topographic or man-made circumstance ; to the north camp Pendleton, to the west the ocean, to the south Mexico , to the east desert and mountains. this sense exists of a special isolated Eden. favorite California bumpersticker—Welcome To California , Now Go Home

    I wanna go to NYC so badly !!! Simply , cannot believe that I’ve never been to NYC especially considering that I grew up relatively close to there and I’ve been to and lived in places much further away AND I really am very much the NYC type (whatever the fuck that means )…I can see myself living there and there was a time when I planned on just moving there, winging it without a job or place to stay , but those plans never got off the ground . Who knows where I would’ve ended up ?

  45. ScottMalobisky Says:

    a few years ago my twin bro and a friend were in the middle of one of their annual baseball sojourns wherein they would go to a Major League game in three different cities over the course of , like , three or four days by car..Cleveland–Detroit–Toronto , for example ..that year was Baltimore , Philly , and NYC..my friend had never been to NYC and my bro had been there once (The Wall concert way back in the day but that’s another story),..anyway , they get there , have a few cocktails and lunch at a Hooter’s in Manhattan , and when they are coming out the door of the restaurant a window washer falls out of the sky and splats right in front of them on the sidewalk! no embellishment here, I swear !! Hello. Welcome to New York City.

  46. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Ryan , Revolution Blues, love it . “I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars but I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars.”

  47. ScottMalobisky Says:

    oh wait, right ,it wasn’t a window washer but it was a real live (dead) person , wanted to get my facts straight . thanx

  48. jim jos Says:

    thought you might like that one, Scott! Thank you Kristen, thanks Milsey. Sings for Milsey “Mi, Mi, Mi, Mi,”

    Revolution Blues is a great song. When I was in Athens GA in 2003 (after seeing the concert with Scott at Philips Arena) I went into Wuxtry Records as a Pilgrimage to R.E.M., and the one Cd that I bought was Neil’s On The Beach, which had just been released on CD. If I am ever lucky enough to be in a band again I want to cover the hell out of Revolution Blues.

  49. Paul Alferink Says:

    Listen, I don’t think there is a Chili Peppers album that doesn’t have at least one song about California

  50. ScottMalobisky Says:

    shakin all over

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