Monty Got A Raw Deal

March 16, 2008

A brief list of reasons why Michael Stipe would want to write a song in tribute to Montgomery Clift:

1) Identification with his sexuality. Clift had affairs with both men and women, and though he was closeted, his homosexuality was not entirely unknown to the world.

2) Identification with his celebrity; specifically the way Clift’s desire for both privacy and commercial success forced him to live something akin to a double-life.

3) Fascination with Clift’s tragedy. After an accident scarred his beautiful face and left him impotent, Clift fell into the depths of depression and addiction. His story is a reminder that great success and beauty can be ruined very easily.

4) Montgomery Clift was very handsome. I suspect that much of Stipe’s interest in Clift is based on finding him attractive and intriguing. The song is like a love letter to a ghost.

The lyrics look to the past, but I believe that Stipe is mainly interested in divining his own future. The song conveys a powerful dread and paranoia, to the point that the singer sounds as though he cannot imagine life moving on without a taste of tragedy and defeat. This is in part due to the the bleak, solemn tone of the music, but it’s also in the passivity of Stipe’s language — he comes across like a man resigned to his fate, and can only hope to find his dignity in stoicism.


30 Responses to “Monty Got A Raw Deal”

  1. 2d Says:

    this is the best song from “automatic” for me, though that’s a difficult award to give away.

    it manages to be epic in just over 3 minutes, it’s dark and the music is just perfect for the subject of the song. from the acoustic intro to the thundering drums to the almost oriental-sounding guitars from the “pre-chorus” to the moody organ and the crunchy bassline… totally atypical song structure, and quite reminiscent of the spontaneity of “murmur” methinks.

    it’s just about the most perfect r.e.m. song for me.

  2. maclure Says:

    Like 2d, I can’t praise this song enough. It is so effortless in it’s execution, so clear and distinct. I also think this song is ESSENTIAL to AFTP, not just album-filler which is what some might say it is compared to stronger, “bigger” songs on the record. If AFTP was a wall of bricks, Monty would be the cement. It serves the themes of the album so well and bridges the front half and back half of the record equally. Sonically it epitomises the acoustic but epic feel of the record, it’s about death (strung up in a tree), it echoes Try not to breath (don’t waste your breath) and by referencing Montgomery Cliff it pre-empts Man on the Moon with mentions of other late C20th celebrities who had tragic demises (Andy Kaufman, Elvis). The spikey, picked acoustic part that Peter plays is special and unexpected… a must! unbelievable!

  3. It really sounds unlike any other R.E.M. song. Some far Eastern flourishes leading into the chorus, Bill Berry’s shout-like backing vocals.

  4. pggtips Says:

    Vastly underrated song but goes to show how wonderful AFTP is. The song could be made for Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix or Britney Spears but it was probably written about the band themselves and the price they have paid for both being famous and the consequences of trying to become huge and the strain that has put on the four of them and their families and friends. Only they have been fortunate that they have kept some of their lives away from prying eyes and their every move hasn’t been photographed. They have been Pete Sampras as opposed to Andre Agassi.
    For me the genius of the song is that the song describes self-destruction within the 3 minute pop culture, by itself being part of the 3 minute pop culture (or 3:18 pop culture).
    To me that sounds like a band knowing exactly its place in the world at that time, maybe it was inevitable they could never really recapture that magic.

  5. jft Says:

    this one is still an excellent song, but I always think this song is not as good as it could have been. that guitar intro is just perfect and suits perfectly in that moment, right behind “sweetness follows”. but when the drums kick in, they are way too fast for the gorgeous guitar/vocals intro before. I actually try to imagine “Monty” with a half-time-beat and I think it’d be better.
    it’s still an amazing song, as is the whole AFTP record (except for track 9). while the first side of the album has those instantly-beloved songs, the songs on the second side are much more subtle, they need to grow on you, especially those two, Monty and Ignoreland, I never liked Star. I think I don’t have to say anything about those final three…

  6. Ben Says:

    Great song, definitely, but also the only track on AFTP that even comes close to being the “weak link”. That album makes my short list of “Perfect Albums”, but Monty Got A Raw Deal is the only song I’ve never really been able to connect with.

  7. Ben Says:

    Whoops, clicked “submit” too soon…

    Maybe it’s the placement on the album that makes it not quite work for me. It’s stuck in between one sublimely beautiful song and one pretty heavy rocker, so the tone of Monty just seems like filler more than anything, or possibly a bit of a buffer zone.

    That said, I have no idea where else they could’ve put it without screwing up the flow.. I guess that says something about the brilliance of that album.

  8. milesy Says:

    Top post again Matthew, you’ve nailed this one.

    I’m going to have to disagree with you Ben because I think this is not only one of Automatic’s strong songs, but also the placement is perfect.

    I’ve always seen REM albums as wholes, so where a song comes is significant. In this case, I love the contrast between Monty and Ignoreland; the first a tragic and serious song but, as MP said, delivered with stoic dignity; the second a violent vomiting of pent-up emotion.

    For years I’ve imagined these two as a perfect concert opening pair (I’m sure it will NEVER happen). A dark stage, PB lit with white light as he plays the intro to Monty, then Bill and the others lit similarly one by one as they come in. Everything stays static throughout and at the end there is darkness. A pause. Then, with the first chords of Ignoreland, everything goes crazy, green light, red, orange, JMS flinging himself around the stage, tension released, noise, REM at their cathartic best.

    I need to go and find that album, it’s been a while…

  9. Mr Cup Says:

    As maclure says, this song just sounds so effortless. I feel the same way about Electrolite. I used to expect to tire of their apparent simplicity, yet don’t think I ever will now.

    I get a great feeling of space with this one. Almost like you can walk around in the song. Connect with each part as well as the whole simultaneously. The drums…oh the drums. And the nice bazouki. Beautiful and great. There are other songs on Automatic I can live without out but not Monty. nuh uh!

    *sidenote. Don’t call your dog Monty. I did. He had a tumor in his nose which had to be removed (including chemo treatment) and now suffers bad arthritis in one knee. A raw deal indeed.

  10. profligateprofiterole Says:

    the disfigured face of Clift after the accident and the resulting consequences in his life bringing to mind Vanilla Sky, maybe this song should have been in the film, not the preceding Sweetness Follows…..Such an intriguing song it is. One of my REM favorites although strangely I always forget to mention it when listing my favorites.

  11. Dark Bob Says:

    One of the best tracks on AFTP. Doesn’t come across as a filler track or weak link (To me, at least). Beautifully played by Peter. Love that snare shot by Bill. The backing vocals make it even better. I’d say this is REM at their finest.

  12. profligateprofiterole Says:

    was just watching 60 Minutes where they devoted more than half the show to the science of sleep, showed a big graph , “there are three levels of sleep, Light Sleep, Deep Sleep, REM.”..she said the word REM as opposed to spelling out the letters R-E-M..I always get a charge out of those situations.

  13. Kirsten Says:

    I never knew who Montgomery Clift was and, although I knew this song was about him, I never really understood the song. However, this is not completely unheard of for an REM song, so dispite my lack of understanding, I love it! The guitar is great, then those drums come beating in and I love the backing vocals. And the words are just really cool – even if I never really made much sense in them, the imagery is fantastic!
    Automatic without Monty – NEVER!

  14. Rob Says:

    Such an amazing song. Perfect in it’s placing on the album, perfect in it’s execution and “nonsence isn’t new to me” could be one of the bands most self-aware lyrics.

  15. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I love this song. It has grit, beauty, majesty, and power, all rolled into a 3 minute gem. It manages to be lyrically obscure, while not being vocally incoherent (ala Murmur) so for me its always been a nice update for the traditional REM sound and style. Although I don’t know which song it could have replaced, Monty would have been a good radio single for the early 90’s I think. I knew the song was about Montgomery Clift, but I still always think of Monty Hall and the game show “Let’s Make A Deal” – and maybe they were slyly alluding to that in the title.

  16. clare Says:

    Another example of a song being the perfect “fit” to an album, the strangest of themes, lyrics, music, yet so implicitly, umistakingly REM. As much as I love the band now (& always will) don’t know if for me they will ever reach the genius heights of Automatic again. Apart from the fact that at the time of it’s realease I had a REALLY annoying lad in my class called Monty, this song takes me right back to me being 16 & all that meant (some good, some not). Where DID that Japanese riff come from?!

  17. Paul Alferink Says:

    Hold. Your. Tongue.

  18. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Oh, also have to disagree completely with jft above, it IS the drums that make this song great. Rather than being another moody ballad in an album full of them it is a moody ballad that is propelled and given guts and strnegth by the tremendous crashing drums – very Document in its feel. I love them.

  19. Ignis Sol Says:

    I always knew who Montgomery Clift was, but took special notice of him after watching Red River (directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne) for a film class assignment a couple years before AFTP. Clift has a very attractive radiance on the big screen and was immediately intrigued by him. Once I learned more about him I realized I was kind of picking up on his vibe he was communicating on film despite being dead for many, many years. It is oddly inspiring and I can now see why Michael would write a song about him or for him.

    After his horrible car accident, he was not the same. His beauty was gone and the charisma had faded. The woman in the song I imagine to be his good friend Elizabeth Taylor (Hold your tongue?). In the tragic story that is his accident (according to his biography), Clift’s car had veered off an embankment after coming from a party at her house. Taylor had to remove his teeth from his throat because he was chocking on them. Another famous gay actor – Rock Hudson – was on the scene assisting but decided to flee because of the “gay stigma.”
    “Monty Got a Raw Deal” is a wonderful composition. It is a poignant reminder of life’s tragedy and glory.

  20. Paul Alferink Says:

    I like the drums. They convey the underlying anger.

  21. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Paul, my patragraph did not say what I meant as well as your one sentence. Bested again!

  22. ExcessStrausses Says:

    The Clash also did a song about Montgomery Clift, “The Right Profile”. That song trades “Monty got a Raw Deal”‘s tension for a sort of drunken swagger, as it paints a vivid portrait of Clift on a drug-addled bender. R.E.M.’s super-taut take is pretty much the opposite, but I withhold judgment as to which is the better song since we’re talking about two of my favorite bands here.

  23. jim jos Says:

    Monty did a get a raw deal. I recently saw a Raisin in the Sun, and it is a great film. I do not find Monty to be all that attractive though, but that is neither here nor there.

    I think the drums come in very nicely and elevate the song to a great deal. Having that good pounding sound throughout adds much to the songs dynamics, which is another testament to the musical feel of Bill Berry.
    the lyrics are a little more abstract than pure tribute, but they work very well. The melody is top notch and the backing “waste your breath” is absolutely perfect.

    This is a key song of Automatic for the People, It is only when there is such tracks as Find the River, Nightswimming, Drive, Sweetness Follows, that you could even consider it filler. It’s not. It’s just a damn good song in the midst of some really incredible ones. Monty the song, gets kind of a raw deal, similar to Monty the actor. But upon closer inspection, both show you their greatness.

    I also am reminded of the Clash song, from London Calling. There is no better song between the two. One is a great R.e.m song and the other is a great Clash song. I think that every great band should write a song about Montgomery Clift.

  24. Mr Cup Says:

    I’ve never heard it as a Japanese riff. Being a Greek instrument (bouzouki) just lazily hear the echoes of Zorba or Baltic folk music.

    Oddly, I see cherry blossoms in the moonlight when I hear this song – yet still don’t hear the riff as Japanese.

    ?nonsense isn’t new to me.

  25. Kirsten Says:

    Those drums make it a great song to walk to.

  26. beonetraveler Says:

    The movement, the periodic reverberation of lyrics, the delicate sense of tragedy. A big sound in an intimate song.

    “You don’t want this sympathy” was a lyric that gave me chills. Chills, I say. It’s stark and haunting. A warning. A must.

  27. clare Says:

    Mr Cup, every time i hear the song i hear that instrument as eastern, not having known what the instrument actually was. I will listen again with my new found enlightenment!

  28. Chris Oliver Says:

    I always thought of this as the throw-away on the album, but I also always thought it was about Monty Hall. I guess there’s an intentional pun in the title. It’s fun reading this blog, because there are so many songs that I heard the words wrong for years, or had no idea what the lyrics might mean.

  29. Kirsten Says:

    That’s funny to see you write that, Chris, because that is what I dislike about this place! All my beloved lyrics which I had made sense out of are all suddenly wrong and I have to re-think the whole thing!
    Turns out I might not even like REM afterall….

  30. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Some say the ghost of Montgomery Clift can still be heard late at night playing the trumpet in Room #928 of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.

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