Old Man Kensey

February 12, 2008

Much of Fables of the Reconstruction is concerned with the mystique of outsiders, specifically misunderstood or overlooked older men living in small towns.  It’s an interesting area of fascination for a young band. Whereas your average rock band full of young dudes is primarily focused on the narrow confines of their own psyches or speaking of the outside  world in broad, unintentionally condescending terms, Stipe’s mix of empathy and curiosity when investigating the lives of characters on the margins of society seems both humane, and ever so slightly sexual. (It’s not so hard to think of some of the songs on Fables as being like mash notes to their respective characters.) All of the characters are more or less eccentric, but the most important and consistent connection is that they are aloof, impenetrable and unknowable.  Stipe’s interest is exacerbated by their refusal to connect, and the romance comes from their willful separation from what the observer may believe to be the corrupting influence of modern life. In other words, it’s a young man’s search for purity and authenticity. “Old Man Kensey” can remain untainted and perfect because he’s not a man, per se — he’s an idea of a man, a concept that cannot be ruined by the harshness of reality.

32 Responses to “Old Man Kensey”

  1. John G Says:

    Hey, been appreciating the blog for a while.

    This is one of the old R.E.M. themes that I miss. Whether it’s Old Man Kensey, that odd duck Peewee and his 151-proof rum, the guy that divides his house in half, Stipe would sketch these interesting portraits of figures on the fringe.

    But if you were only to know R.E.M. from their recent CDs, you’d think they were a band that only sung about characters likely to show up at Starbucks: night-shift financial analysts; air travelers who’re psyched for seminars; people who are into Chet Baker and “just want to be”; well-to-do idlers and their beach balls…I just don’t get it.

  2. Kirsten Says:

    Interesting write-up Matthew. I’ve never really thought about it before, but one of the reasons I love REM so much is that there songs are INTERESTING. They’re not all the same sort of rubbish everyone else writes about. Interesting characters, places and times.

    As for this song, another one of my all-time favourites. Apart from the fascinating story of Old Man Kensey, there’s that gorgeous bass line that captures you right from the start. Then comes Peter’s unbelievable guitar work. Then that bridge. And don’t forget Mike’s harmonies. The whole thing is just amazing! I’ll leave it up to the boys with better writing skills to properly describe the musical brilliance of this song – as long as I’ve made it clear how much I love it.

  3. protimoi Says:

    “slightly sexual?” never thought of it in those terms.

    I only begun to like this song recently, which is weird because it really captures the dark, murky mood of Fables (one of my favorite R.E.M. albums). So mysterious, and so damn good.

  4. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I remember when I was a kid in my small town and this older guy would slip me a fin at the carnival for no apparent reason….he never spoke to me , was just this silent transaction that I being a kid never thought about. My Mom used to call him the Bad Man and I never understood her concern , and I always just took the money …but now I think I do undestand, not because of this song or this write -up I should mention…:) Something I realized years ago . Certainly were some Fables-like old men characters in my little home town of Creighton , PA. that I could have written about ….. except that I was too busy going to confession and reciting the rosary , trying to figure out why God gave me this evil pee-pee.

  5. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Kensey wanted to be a goalie .
    I was a goalie.
    Thank you very much.

    What kind of goalie would he be anyway if first he’s gotta learn to count ? Does he expect to give up that many goals ?

  6. Mr Cup Says:

    One..two of the reasons I love this album so much is that a) it was my intro to the band and b) I’m from a small town that was speckled with these types of characters that despite the size of the place, you rarely saw them and knew less about them.

    This song reminds me of a guy who used to ride around on an old bicycle with his head tilted at right angles. Turns out he had a severely crooked eye. It was unnerving as he rode past as you assumed he was staring at you, though he was looking straight ahead. Turns out he hated dogs and used to bait them. I used to think of this song as a bit sinister hence that association I guess.

    There was another guy who couldn’t ride past a bit of debris on the road. Had to pick it up, investigate it some, then dispatch it to the side of the road. He had a collection of milk cartons in his back yard the only slightly smaller than his house.

    It’s that focus on idiosyncrasies of characters that I really connect with in this song. I can’t listen to it and avoid being taken to those back roads of town, late afternoon and not see one of these people ride by.

  7. Mr Cup Says:

    What does ‘slip me a fin’ mean?

  8. Ben Says:

    Great, great song. It sounds like R.E.M.’s version of “Eleanor Rigby”, a melancholy song about the lonely old people we all see around town but know nothing about.

    And I can’t remember where, but I know I read somewhere once that Michael Stipe thinks an appreciation of Fables is the mark of a “real” R.E.M. fan. I guess if you’ve taken the time and effort to soak in the hazy darkness and mystery (which for early-R.E.M. is really saying something) then you’ve earned your stripes, but if not… then in the words of Simon Pegg, “jog on”.

  9. beonetraveler Says:

    One of the many great things about this blog is that it always tweaks my perception of what the band may be trying to conveying in a given song or group of songs.

    Fables had been, for me, a collection of slurred impressions about seeing or missing signals and signs (cf. Maps and Legends, Can’t Get There From Here) and the notion of folly (cf. Kohoutek, Old Man Kensey). Tentative expressions of infatuation with older strangers is a theme I hadn’t considered.

    As for Kensey’s need to “count,” I’ve tended to regard the meaning as “count the cost” of being a goalie–i.e., an activity that presents some physical danger. I think the same could go for “read”–as in “read the signs of the times before he makes any signs of his own”–and “stand”–not “in the place where you live” but “stand for something” or “stand up for himself” since dog catching (which may signify something else) can be intimidating.

  10. narcizo Says:

    …of all the songs of this lp (my all-time favourite in case someone notices), this one reminds me of the Cure, especially in the beggining. Is it that they recorded it in England? Is it the fact that they had a very hard time there while recording?
    IMHO, the secret of Fables’ magic has also to do with the sequencing of the songs; a perfect 1-2-3 that grabs you inside its world, four more songs that can stand both alone and as a whole (Old Man Censey can be found there), another triplet that (at least for me) is unseparable and a final song that cannot be put anywhere else. It’s like a soccerball system, 3-4-3 (and 1), and, yes, it works.

  11. Paul Alferink Says:

    Of the “Old Guy” trilogy, (Life and How to Live it, Wendel Gee, Old Man Kensey) easily my least favorite (or favourite, if you’d prefer)


  12. You’re not going to count “Maps & Legends,” Paul?

  13. Paul Alferink Says:

    I guess my criteria were songs based on specific individuals that REM knew of. There was a Old Man Kensey. There was a guy who had a house split in half with one of everything on each side who wrote a book called “Life and How to Live it” There was a “Wendell Gee.” I don’t know if “Maps and Legends” is about someone specific. At least, I don’t remember anyone ever talking about it if it was.

    It all depends on how you look at it, I guess. Old Man Kensey and Wendell Gee are linked, partly because they mention specific people. I guess I wouldn’t know “Life and How to Live it” was about if Michael didn’t tell the story behind it.

    Maps, Wendell, and Kensey ARE all the prospective of outsiders, whereas “Life and How to Live it” is from the perspective of the subject. Songs like “Sad Professor” then, could easily fit into that catergory.

    It’s all really arbitrary. Shoving things into catergories is what we as humans do. Even if they don’t really fit. Shakespeares plays get shoved into catergories. “Tragedy” “Comedy” “Romance” “Problem Play.” People find reason why one play doesn’t really fit in one catergory, and they try and shove it into another. Or make a new one.

    Wait, is Maps and Legends about Reverend Finister? I wish I could look it up, but those sites are blocked at work.

  14. Dark Bob Says:

    Most of Fable’s songs are inspired by actual people and places in and around Athens. It has a real feeling of time and place. I think it may be due to the fact that the band was in England at this time and were extremely homesick and were singing about images that reminded them of home. Great song from my favorite REM album.

  15. adam Says:

    dont buy the sexual side of things.. this was classic REM dealing with southern identity – I miss these themes as well.. but, a band has to move on and progress…

  16. Andy Says:

    I’d been thinking about the point John G made earlier: REM’s focus does seem to have changed, and for a while, it bothered me.

    But I realized, their focus has changed in ways very similar to my own: it seems like it’s just part of getting older. Once a person gets out in the world and experiences things beyond his or her hometown, one’s focus shifts to other things. In that sense, the transition from “Driver 8” to “High Speed Train” seems natural. I can’t expect REM to employ the same old imagery when my own world has broadened to include so much more of the modern world.

    After all, these are “fables”–legendary tales that offer moral lessons one takes with them through life. (One thing this blog has helped with is accepting these newer songs on their own terms, and at the same time, I’ve been able to put some of them into the context of the earlier work.) I imagine the “characters” of the later songs reflecting back on their hometowns, remembering people like Old Man Kensey with wonder and longing.

    I grew up about 25 minutes from Howard Finster’s place. As teenagers in the late 80s, my friends and I would make visits to Paradise Gardens. Growing up in a southern Baptist church, his art came from a place I (sort of) understood. And while I’m no longer directly connected to the world from which he emerged, he’s still a part of who I am…

    …even while I stand in line at Starbucks.

  17. adam Says:

    we can still enjoy these fables, while we accelerate into the future with our favorite band

  18. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I think that the change of character types in REM songs is largely due to the success of the band and the people they know. Hard to be around reclusive, eccentric, older men and quietly observe them when you are one of the biggest stars on the planet. They’re lives today ARE filled with bankers, accountants, analysts, travelers, and people that work in the travel and music industry. That is who Michael sees and observes, he’s not an unknown kid living in a Bohemian southern college town hiding behind his hair.

    As to this song, I have always loved it. The bass line is (along with Circus Envy) the most driving of any REM song and I love the dark mystery and mystique. Easily one of the faves from FOTR, and another great example of the “southern gothic” REM sound that I miss.

    Also must admit that the more I listen to Supernatural Superserious the more I like it. I am excited for Accelerate!

  19. Andy Says:

    I guess that’s part of what I was getting at, BWD. Although if it’s just because they’ve become famous rock stars, then it would be hard for me to relate. The last thing I want to listen to is some privileged celebrity singing about his accountant!

    I think it’s a bit more universal. It seems the process of “growing up” is a process of “leaving.” As Dark Bob suggested, Fables resonates in some ways because it’s about being homesick at a moment when you realize you are leaving home behind (physically, mentally, emotionally…). I feel like Fables is an album that documents R.E.M.’s “youth” just as it was beginning its slow recession into memory. The world was expanding for them, partly because they were becoming rock stars, but also because they were simply “growing up.”

    (OK, I’ll shut up now…)

    To quote Thomas Wolfe: you can’t go home again.

    Or, to quote the band:

    “Everybody here comes from somewhere…”

  20. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Good thoughts Andy.

  21. jim jos Says:

    the cheap two cents would be that Stipe was idolizing these types of people, Kensey, Finister, Gee, the author of “life and how to live it.” and now he is sort of on his way to becoming one of them. They all seem to share the common thread of being an elder outsider, eccentric, artistic and willing to live life on their own terms and creating their own rules, not to be reached, to be reached.

    Other than that connection between the other three songs on this record, and somehow the feeling of following the unique theme of Fables, I must admit that this is one song that, lyrically, I have no idea what its about.

    I mean I have a better idea of Harborcoat and Moral Kiosk than this song.

    I mean what does “drink up the lake” or who signs up a letter in sopped up tar? and who are John, Bill and Ted (excellent)?

    One of my favorites from Fables, of course.

  22. jim jos Says:

    oh, and one of the most attractive things about this song is the southern gothic kind of quiet menace. Where I sometimes think the band is always at its best.

  23. Ignis Sol Says:

    One of the finest benefits of R.E.M. songs are that they are evocative of other times in my (our) lives. “Old Man Kensey” reminds me of the strange and mysterious old men from my childhood. The unknown owner of the plot of woods behind the house where I grew up. The vines of concord grapes growing in near his garden seemed more delicious than the ones in the other parts of the woods, which he let us roam freely. “Touch the shed and run!” and “I hear he buried his own old man in that field…” They are sweet summer memories that faded as we graduated to adulthood and moved away from such nonsense. “Wendell Gee,” to me, has a similar feel.

  24. Kirsten Says:

    John, Bill and Ted? I thought it was “Child villain dead”. Ha! Not even close….

    Must admit, it’s more fun NOT having the internet telling you all the correct words.

  25. ScottMalobisky Says:

    just to clarify , I was certainly not suggesting that Kensey was a pervert

  26. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Hey, I know this would pre-date REM’s “political” period, and the words are incredibly opaque, but as I’ve read all your thoughts I increasingly have wondered if this song isn’t possibly about Reagan. Some of the allusions seem to fit him and his conservative policies very well. Just a thought.

  27. Andy Says:

    BWD–you can’t just tease us with that.
    Tell more!

  28. Kirsten Says:

    Listened to a live version of this song last night from 1984, absolutely haunting.

  29. Kirsten Says:

    Listened to a live version of this song last night from 1984 – absolutely haunting.

  30. ScottMalobisky Says:

    I bet , Kirsten, would love to get a listen to that.

  31. Kirsten Says:

    Sorry about the double-up. Computer issues.

  32. Andrew Says:

    The real Kensey was an assistant to the Rev. Finster. According to ealy interviews with Buck and Stipe, he used to do lots of odd things, like hide in a coffin on the back of a truck, then jump out of it to frighten people. He also used to kidnap dogs.


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