Oddfellows Local 151

March 11, 2008

Lifes Rich Pageant, Document, and Green were composed and recorded in the span of four years, which is interesting mainly because in retrospect, it gives us the opportunity to hear the band work out how to integrate politics into their music in a fairly brief period of time. Lifes Rich Pageant masks its earnest hopefulness in obscure language; a strategy that strikes me as somewhat defensive, and a holdover of the shyness that characterized the group’s earliest work. The pendulum swings a year later on Document — the tone darkens considerably, and attitude is far more cynical, as if Michael Stipe had somehow suddenly lost the optimism apparent on “Cuyahoga,” “Begin The Begin,” and “I Believe.” And then, bam, the pendulum swings hard in the other direction, and much of Green revises the themes of Lifes Rich Pageant, with an eye towards clarity and accessibility. I certainly believe that the bookends of this little trilogy are the closest to the general spirit of the band, but you’ve got to wonder: What pushed them towards the bleakness and the cynicism on Document?

I don’t think it was any one thing so much as it was an expression of a stage most anyone goes through when developing their political awareness. You jump into things believing “Hey, we can do this! We can change the world if we want to! Let’s put our heads together and start a new government!,” and then comes some inevitable moment of disillusionment, and suddenly all the world looks grim.  This phase can last a very long time, you can go for years thinking the worst of everyone, but then the reality sets in — yes, corruption and despair are constants in this world, and even the best institutions are a rigged game, but there’s ample opportunity to give put something positive in the world if you manage your expectations, get up, and put in the work. And there you have it — Green. It’s a pretty tidy, sensible arc, and I’m sure a lot of people went through it with the band in real time.

Document is labeled “File Under Fire,” and for good reason. The element comes up again and again throughout the record, an overt symbol of destruction and purification. Even the album’s sunniest tunes have an undercurrent of apocalyptic dread, this feeling that all of modern society could crumble and burn at any moment. “Oddfellows Local 151,” the record’s  grim conclusion, starts off with a hum of feedback that evokes a haze of thick black smoke before progressing to a tense, solemn dirge that climaxes in Michael Stipe howling “fiiiiiiiiiiiire house,” as if he’s half-heartedly calling for  rescue as the world is engulfed in flames.  It’s a bitter and ironic, and the perfect way to end the song cycle.

59 Responses to “Oddfellows Local 151”

  1. drew. Says:

    Document was my growing up also. I bought Murmur the day it came out, and Document was the testament for the band feeling the way that I did. The record was their coming out of R.E.M.’s politics and sense of humor (if anyone does not know what I mean, think about releasing The One I Love followed by It’s The End Of The World (as I know it) FUNNY!! The lyrical disparity is R.E.M. at their finest. A Must!

  2. Figgy Says:

    Matthew, you’ve nicely summed up “LRP”, “Document” and “Green” – I’ve always seen them as a trilogy too and collectively make up my favourite era of REM. Unlike Drew, I wasn’t fortunate enough to make that journey in real time, only discovering “Document” in early ’89 and the other two soon after, but close enough. When I briefly played in an REM covers band with some friends we hardly played any song outside of these three albums, so much was our admiration for such a great collection of songs.

    The image that comes to mind whenever I hear “Oddfellows Local 151” is completely based on Stipe’s explanation that the song was inspired by some local wino who used to drunkenly spout his opinions. I can picture such a bum sitting on a wall outside a volunteer fire station in the middle of the afternoon blabbering away. Not a nasty person, but someone who has made bad choices and hit hard times, yet may still be able to offer some “pearls of wisdom”. There were several characters like this in my own neighbourhood when I was growing up – I’m sure everyone can relate.

  3. ScottMalobisky Says:

    the TV sits upon the walls of breach

    too much, Man , three of my fasvorite REM songs in a row in the space of a couple of days …..this thing is winding down now-what’s left?–…….kinda anti-climactic in a sense, I remember months ago really looking forward to Wolves being posted and this one , and now they’re there and I’m so tired and I really don’t have anything interesting to say (well, I have interesting things to say but they’re not sane)

  4. Figgy Says:

    I know what you mean, Scott. Wanting to write something that will do the song justice but being too tired. All I can splutter out at the moment is that I really really like “Oddfellows”, a great song from a great album.

    By the way, I like all these alternative lyrics you’ve been coming out with lately!

  5. real_pseudonym Says:

    some thoughts:

    * all three end with something bleak, since Swan Swan H is really the end of the album; I Remember California ain’t no picnic, either

    * this writer especially loves those as a trio, too (add the next two LPs for a fantastic quintet)

    * have always felt Oddfellows was rather obviously, musical and lyrically, a direct response to fIREHOSE’s “For The Singer of REM”

    love the blog, man

  6. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Does anyone here know anything about the Oddfellows club? I know it is an organization (I think) similar to the Kiwanis or Masons or Shriners, etc. but I know nothing about them specifically and have always wondered if that is why this song is so opaque for me. That said, I love it – a favorite.

  7. ScottMalobisky Says:

    No , but I know about The Strange Bird Society . I am the Grand Poobah.

  8. Mr Cup Says:

    Oh God I wish there was a 20 minute version of this song. I keep thinking it could have been their Diamond Sea, but that’s no the REM way. Buck was wailing at the end and Stipe sounds like he’s on all fours gnashing at the legs of anyone in proximity. Beautifully crafted feedback, the lumbering dirge, fantastic vocals. Ahhggg.

    Makes me think of many nights sitting around a fire drinking well into the smaller hours of the night.
    I still get excited when I see 151 anywhere -street numbers, postcodes etc.

    Oh and Mr Ignition….you know where you can find me!

  9. milesy Says:

    Yes, I’ve been waiting for this one too, and can relate to the feeling of not knowing quite what to add of worth now it’s here. I’m going to try anyway, though 😉

    I agree with Cup on the feeling that this song could just go on and on, the playout just seems to engulf you. In that sense it has always reminded me a little of U2’s All I Want is You (which does actually carry on for 6 or 7 minutes) from the same era. REM are good at ending their albums with something memorable and this is one of the best, maybe along with Electrolite, (Untitled), and (dare I say it), Around the Sun.

    MP’s analysis of the political trilogy is on the money I think. What is interesting to me is how, having moved on to that Green place, where hope and opportunity are rekindled, if not so naively as on LRP, the more mature REM have also continued to carry the grim lessons of the Document era with them. ‘File under Fire’ might not ultimately have won the day (or should it be the night), but the frustrating and painful realities that it acknowledged will never just go away again: so they run through the band’s more recent work like a scar- sometimes forgotten, but always there- Drive, Ignoreland, Revolution, I Wanted to be Wrong etc. And these songs are among the most cathartic and satisfying in the REM canon, rather like Occupation, McCarthy, Heron House… and Oddfellows.

  10. Real Pseudonym — “Swan Swan H” and “I Remember California” are grim, but they’re the penultimate tracks, those albums go out on “Superman” and “Untitled,” which are fairly light in mood.

  11. Dark Bob Says:

    It never dawned on me that this could be a response to fIREHOSE’ song “For the singer of REM”. But what a great thought. This is one of my favorites. Wish they would put this in their live shows. A real “Chestnut”

  12. Bandwagon03 Says:

    I always assumed the song was about a dog named Pee Wee that hung out around the Oddfellows Local 151 (behind the firehouse) and that Pee Wee liked to stand up on the wall and preach (bark), sometimes he scratched his head,(you know how dogs do that and fall down?) and fall down… I always thought Pee Wee would be a Dalmation since he hung around the firrreeeehouuussssse

  13. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Check out JMS neon green Obama T on HQ , the Langerado show. That one’s for you , Paul

  14. Paul Alferink Says:

    Why do the heathens rage behind the firehouse?

    If you put this album and Reckoning in a closet, does a new REM album emerge, “File Under Steam?”

  15. Ben Says:

    I like the idea of those three albums forming a “political trilogy”, and that does really help explain Document’s darkness and cynicism, something that’s always seemed a bit out of place in the IRS catalogue. After all, the second part of a trilogy is always the darkest, so I guess that makes Document R.E.M.’s “The Empire Strikes Back”.

  16. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Alright, I’m a bit of a nerd so I did a little research to see if I could shed some light on the Oddfellows – basically it is a group similar to the Kiwanis and Masons (falling sort of in between those two groups in terms of mystery and secretness). Its origins, like the Masons goes back to the medieval trade guilds and they do use some passwords and handshakes because groups such as this were once illegal in England, but there seems no current mystery surrounding them as the Masons sometimes seem to have. The Oddfellows are a British organization and seem to be much stronger in the UK than in the USA. If you trust some of the “exposed” sites the Oddfellows have largely been dominated by Socialists and Communists (which could have some truth since originally it was connected to the trade guilds) and some seem to connect a degree of anti-semitism with the Oddfellows. A few other sites connect them to the Illuminati conspiracy, but all these “exposed” site connections seen tenous, weak and/or outdated. As to the unusual name of the Oddfellows – the group themselves claim its origins may actually be lost to the mists of time, but that it likely comes from small towns where there were not enough workers or “Fellows” to form seperate guilds, so the workers united together across all trades and thus it was a collection of odd (various, not unusual) fellows or workers.

    In all, I am more informed generally but still don’t feel much light has been shed on the REM song unless the apocalyptic tone of the song is meant to connect to the potential Illuminati, one world government, giant conspiracy pseudo-connection. In that case REM may have chosen the Oddfellows as their symbolic whipping boy because of the strangeness of their name, although choosing a group like the Masons would have made the point more clear since apparently few people know much about the Oddfellows (although REM does not mind being obscure and they had recently been in the UK to record FOTR). Maybe this helps.

  17. ScottMalobisky Says:

    now , who are the Stringfellows?

  18. Paul Alferink Says:

    There was an Oddfellows lodge in Athens. They talked about it in an interview once.
    I think they just like the name in it’s other context; that there are these strange people, colorful characters, in towns all over the world. Pee-Wee would just be the Athens chapter of the “Organization”.
    In a way, this really fits in with the Fables songs about Old Man Kensey and Wendell Gee, et al.

  19. lenny Says:

    BWD: Choosing “Masons” for the song would have been less interesting, less lyrically vague, less R.E.M. Plus, the eerie sound of the song just demands a longer, more intriguing name than the Masons.

    Ben: I like your theory of the 2nd part of a trilogy being the darkest. Works for Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones (though a 4th is on the way). By the way, there’s a line that Yoda says to Luke in Empire Strikes Back that really sums it up, and can apply in many situations, if you think about it. Luke asks what is in the cave on Degobah — and Yoda says “Only what you take with you.” Part of the darkness of Document might just be what kind of baggage Michael was carrying around at the time.

    Mr Cup: (this goes back a ways in the post, but bear with me) Your quote: “Stipe sounds like he’s on all fours gnashing at the legs of anyone in proximity”. Careful, Cup, or you’ll get Kirsten all excited!!

  20. milesy Says:

    Of course the problem with Star Wars, if you’re of a certain age (OK, my age) is the abysmal set of prequels. So, I’m thinking; Up as The Phantom Menace… etc… Which makes it all the more of a relief that we’ve got through it and Acelerate is almost here.

  21. Ben Says:

    Ironic you should mention Up and The Phantom Menace, since my memories of Up and the autumn of 1998 are completely linked to my rabid anticipation of that movie.

    And I still love that album AND that movie, so put that in your pipe and smoke it!

  22. 2d Says:

    sorry to break the chain but, while i like this song for the experimentation and weird sounds stipe makes (miss that on more recent records), i don’t think it’s that special. it works well in the context of “document”, as the second half is full of experimental tracks, and i never choose not to listen to it as it makes a creepy closer, but i’ve rarely actually had the desire to listen to it as a standalone track.

    also, i prefer its distant cousin – atmosphere-like – “i remember california”.

  23. 2d Says:

    it does have a good bassline. however, “old man kensey” beats it. 😛

  24. jim jos Says:

    I have always thought of Document being closest to Lifes Rich Pageant. I think because they come from the much the same place. The tone is addressed by one being most about youth and the environment (LRP) and the next about the government. If it seems like they went from a sunny outlook to more cynical, I think it is because they are about two different subjects.
    I think of Green and Out of Time being more of one piece. (both as newly signed act to a major label, biggest hits, band wore a lot of vests at the time, etc.) Actually, if I grouped them:

    Chronic Town, Murmur, and Reckoning. (the most pure college band phase)

    Fables is a lone wolf (southern goth shot through London alt)

    LRP and Document (songs about the weather or environment, songs about the government)

    Green and OOT (I see this as kind their “hippie” phase and the most well known by the casual viewer)

    Automatic, Monster, Hi Fi. (yes, despite different themes, and with very different textures) I see them as all being of one family.

    Up, Reveal and Around the Sun are the next group. Up is the depressed album. Cured by some time in the summer sun. I am still puzzled about Around The Sun. Perhaps it is most about life after event. You have left new york, London has fallen, you saw someone at the street fair, where does this leave us,etc).

    Of course there are the three main groups. IRS. Warners with Bill (as one of the biggest acts in the world) and Warners post Bill and kind of post fame. Five by Five by Five.

    Anyway, that proves nothing other than I think about the band way too much, that my theories border on the laughable and despite them Everyone hit the nail on the head for this song. Great, great comments (some of my favorite ever) and another excellent review.

    The name Pee-Wee makes me laugh.

    Accelerate officially begins stage 7.

    Really looking forward to the Stumps BBQ show tonight.

    2008 R.e.m’s most recent finest hour.

  25. Mr Cup Says:

    2d, I think they used the same string section for Oddfellows and California. There’s a cut and paste similarity.

  26. Diane Says:

    I’ve always wondered if the Firehouse refers specifically to the package (liquor) store of that name in Athens or just generally to a firehouse. The liquor store’s been there at least since the mid 90s. Anyone out there know?

    • doug Says:

      Firehouse Liquor was definitely around in the 80’s and most likely was the inspiration for the song. It is near campus, and always had vagrants hanging out in the parking lot.

  27. ScottMalobisky Says:

    funny when you think of how different it would be if the songs in this popsongs posting would have been posted in a different order , like , what if this had been the latest posting one year ago and that song from a year ago was today? how different the comments would be in both quantity and quality, I woulda went off on this song back then I think ,still fresh to this thing and all, but now , Man , I’m outta gas . Ready for the Big Sleep.

  28. ScottMalobisky Says:

    oh , the first posting was March 26 of last year
    I think I’m already asleep

  29. 2d Says:

    mrcup, i think that the reason why “oddfellows” is not that special to me is the similar -and better- songs from the rest of the r.e.m. catalogue that make this one feel “half-baked” and “redundant”.

    r.e.m. have their fair share of dark & creepy songs: “old man kensey”, “i remember california”, “low”, drive”, “sweetness follows”, “you”, “lotus”, “high speed train” etc. so it’s pretty difficult to stand out among so many great tunes with an undercurrent of eerieness.

  30. Ignis Sol Says:

    I have to agree with 2d and when once asked my least favorite song from Document, I admitted to the song with the lyric “fire” in it. Of course, I was joking, but my least favorite (if you can call a pretty damn good song that) from Document is “Oddfellows Local 151.”

    At this point on the album the fire theme, political overtones, crunchy/cranky guitars, moaning lyrics are a bit redundant. This is unfortunate because I am basing this solely on the placement of the tune in this album’s track order. Should they have ended the album with “It’s the End of the World…?” Maybe. Thoughts on this?

    The song itself is wonderfully composed and does properly belong to the “creepy songs” in the R.E.M. catalog. Radiohead is another band who achieves this (Nice Dream, Climbing Up the Walls).

    I am enjoying the comments on this song.

  31. Imitation of Life Says:

    Just to bring up a topic from the initial comments: actually, I thought everything major had been done, but having gone round and checked, I realised something quite surprising. “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” – still not done. Ooooooh.

  32. Jared W Says:

    Imitation of Life: there’s more than one major song that remains here. Aside from your namesake (which is borderline major), and “Kenneth” there’s a huge radio hit that’s probably in REM’s top 3 most famous songs, and of course one sparkling gem that is a consensus fan favorite despite not being a single.

    I’m avoiding names in case people enjoy the spontaneity of new posts, which I actually do.

  33. Imitation of Life Says:

    Ah damn. How didn’t I notice that?

  34. Paul Alferink Says:

    Um. . .
    We still have:
    Fall on me
    So. Central Rain
    Everybody Hurts

    I’d say those are fairly major.
    And Feeling Gravities Pull, which, while never a single, is a fan fave.

  35. Paul Alferink Says:

    And “Shining Happy People” which I know Matthew likes and is pissed didn’t make it on the Warner Brothers Retrospective.

  36. Paul Alferink Says:

    And yes, the illistrous fan Favorite REM song.

  37. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    It’s crazy what you could’ve had . . .

  38. Ignis Sol Says:

    Why are they always forcing “Country Feedback” to be the “fan favorite?”

    Is their some hidden message? Is it a ploy, a scheme of some sorts? A joke? One has to wonder.

    It is a good song, but I would rather hear So. Central Rain or Stand or Oddfelows… just sayin’

  39. milesy Says:

    With you on that Ignis, but thought it was taboo to say so…

  40. Paul Alferink Says:

    I really like Country Feedback. It grew on me. Mostly the Peter Bucks soaring, despairing guitar over the top and Micheal Stipe desperate “It’s crazy what you could’ve had. I need this.” Magic. Really. It’s not clever, just raw, relatable emotion.

    It’s not Fall On Me, but of all the songs that were not singles, that CF is probably my favorite.

  41. Andy Says:

    Regarding potentially weak R.E.M. theories: I had a friend who swore that one song on each album was the foundation for the album to follow. He was very explicit about the connections…

    Now if I could only remember which songs they were…

  42. jft Says:

    talking about left songs and perfect album endings:

    Find The River.

  43. Mr Cup Says:

    A rattlesnake.

  44. Timb Says:

    Must admit I’m looking forward to the remaining Monster tracks particularly King of Comedy and I Took Your Name both in my Top Ten and of course ITEOTWAWKIAIFF 😀

  45. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Scott, in case you did not notice I answered your question about the Live song on the Wolves, Lower thread.

  46. Kirsten Says:

    Wow, look what I’ve missed! I’v been so busy at work that I’m actually doing overtime just so I can read this post. And Lenny, yes you’re right – Mr Cup did leave me with a fantastic image!

    Oddfellows is one of my all-time favourites. The creepy bass line, the feedback and the great guitar part. Musically, I have always sort of linked it to Old Man Kensey.

    Although I’ve also heard what Figgy said about the song, I always thought that the ‘oddfellows local 151’ was a local church group and that PeeWee was infact a drunken priest (or priest equivilant). I also heard the line as “peewee sits apon the wall OF preach”, not on the wall TO preach and the second time, I thought it was “sits apon the wall of Breach”. Once again, a little disappointed that the real words aren’t quite as good (imo) as what I thought they were. Still, it’s absolutely the BEST song on Document – so take that Ignis!

  47. Jared W Says:

    And one more album-closing track that I just can’t wait for.

  48. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Jesus Guys , you’re taking me way too literally. Well aware that there are a few things of note left.

    Oddfellows is also one of my favorites from Document , Kirsten, so interesting and perfectly weird..Love the ending and love Cup’s comments about what Stipe sounds like there.

  49. Andy Says:

    I listened to this on the way home from work today. The best part is how Stipe holds the “s” when he sings “Fiiiirehoussssssssssss”.

    It’s the sound of a sizzle. Like water hitting a fire. Love it!

    (…to borrow from Paul, file under “Steam”)

  50. profligateprofiterole Says:

    Yeah , Cup , Stipe is yelping there, like Kramer in the coffee shop when he sees DiMaggio 🙂

  51. profligateprofiterole Says:

    not really —LOL—now that I listen to it

  52. Tim Says:

    It leaked

  53. jim jos Says:

    yeah, Tim. Heard that it leaked today. I am going to wait a little over two weeks and get the official.

    (chanting to myself)
    I will be good, I will be good, it will be worth it…..

  54. jft Says:

    the www makes it so hard to wait for an official release. but I decided to wait. good for me living in germany, it’s only 12 days left.

  55. Andrew Says:

    I always thought Pee Wee was a homeless guy who Stipe used to know. Maybe he used to get drunk and “sermonise” behind the Odfellows lodge.

    I seem to remember reading this story in some magazine interview or REM book or other (if the latter, it would be Remarks or It Crawled From The South). However, without having the reference, I suppose this story may have been the author’s speculation rather than based on anything Stipe ever stated.

  56. Andrew Says:

    Found the reference: REM Inside Out, by Craig Rosen:

    “There used to be Oddfellow’s Lodges all over the town, just like the Mooses or the Shriners”, Buck explained to Roy Wilkinson. “The song actually is about these winos who used to live down the street from us. They used to live in cars – we called them the Motor Club. These old guys would sleep in the cars and drink all the time” I think there was a guy called Pee Wee as well. Michael knew them because he lived right next door to them. Every once in a while you’d give them five bucks or drop off a bottle.”

  57. Brian Says:

    Diane got it right. The “firehouse” is Firehouse Package store on Broad Street in Athens. It’s a run down part of town with lots of vagrants. This is about the drunks that hang out behind the package store.

  58. John Says:

    Okay, guys. Try this on for size. I think maybe “Oddfellows Local 151” (a/k/a “Firehouse”) is deeper than you are giving it credit. Think of PeeWee as Humpty Dumpty, sitting on the “wall of breach.” Note that the Humpty story goes back to the English civil war, and the Oddfellows movement came a little while after it. What do you think?

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