7 Chinese Bros. / Voice of Harold

March 22, 2008

“There are songs I wrote in the past that were gender-specific. “7 Chinese Bros.” was about me breaking up a couple — and then dating both of them, a man and a woman, which is a terrible thing to do, but I was young and stupid.”

Michael Stipe in the April 2008 issue of Spin.

Okay, whoa.

That’s pretty scandalous and all, but c’mon, it’s also not that surprising so there’s no need to focus on that aspect of this revelation. The thing that really throws me about this is how aside from an oblique reference to what I presume to be both halves of this couple in the first line of the verses (“this mellow, sweet short haired boy, woman offers pull up a seat”), there really is no way to pull that narrative from the lyrics of the song. It just isn’t there! The first line introduces the man and the woman, the second introduces a setting and suggests a conflict, and the rest of the verse is entirely abstract. The chorus botches an allusion to Claire Hutchet Bishop‘s 1938 children’s book The Five Chinese Brothers, and nods in the general direction of both guilt and renewal.

The revelation of Stipe’s motivation in writing the song does shed some light on the allusion to The Five Chinese Brothers. In Bishop’s story — which is based upon a Chinese folk tale — one of the brothers is able to hold the entire ocean in his mouth, and does so for a boy who wants to gather fish. The boy turns out to be greedy, and does not return to shore when he is beckoned. The brother is unable to breathe and is forced to let the ocean out, which in turn drowns the boy. The brother is later sentenced to death by the townsfolk. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see why Stipe would relate his sordid scenario to this tale — it’s pretty clear now that he’s the selfish little boy in this story.

It’s still somewhat surprising to me that there’s this dark, painful story is buried in the subtext of this perky, innocuous song. It makes me wonder just how much is hidden in Stipe’s early lyrics, and how of what we don’t understand in his songs actually comes down to carefully coded messages to himself. Truthfully, aside from admiring the gentle sentimentality of the opening line, I’d never given all that much thought to the words of “7 Chinese Bros.” until just now — I’ve been fixated on the sunny, chiming sound of Peter Buck’s guitar part for as long as I’ve known the song. I suspect this is the case for many people, and perhaps the band themselves. After all, they did record “Voice of Harold,” which puts Michael and the instrumental to the “I’d listen to them recite the phone book!” test, though in this case, it’s the liner notes of a gospel album. It’s very funny and cute, though I don’t know if I’d label it “a must.”

33 Responses to “7 Chinese Bros. / Voice of Harold”

  1. Rob Says:

    Wow. I’m the first person to leave a comment here. I’ve always loved this song without really worrying about what the lyrics referred to. In light of the revelations from Michael above I’ll listen again in a new light. I remember reading a quote from the band, and I’m really paraphrasing here, but you can listen to Bob Dylan songs for years and think that they mean anything and everything about your life, and then later find out its about a dead dog or something. When I saw this live in Dublin the night before the live dvd was recorded it was hands down the highlight of the concert.

  2. protimoi86 Says:

    It’s certainly one of Peter Buck’s most distinctive riffs, and it’s versatile enough to give way to a second similarly patterned song (“Little America.”)

    I had no idea the lyrics alluded to such a personal story. Did anyone else?

  3. jft Says:

    a few days ago, I read the lyrics carefully for the first time and I just couldn’t make out what it was all about. actually, listening to songs like early R.E.M. songs might be even easier being a non-native speaker, as you can just ignore any word meanings.

    a guitarist note: I agree, Little America is quite similar (both riffs are in D – well, about half of Reckoning is in D – wirh the D bass note and a repetitive melody starting with f# and a distinctive high-tone figure every two turnarounds containing a high d… well, analyzing that, these are very similar) – but still, Little America is way harder to play, whereas 7 Chinese Bros. might be useful for beginners, you at least need a bit of skill for its cousin.

  4. profligateprofiterole Says:

    maybe it’s about China swallowing Tibet….

  5. jft Says:

    btw, Reckoning has to be the album with the most parts containing exclusively of the C major and the D major chord. just look at
    7 Chinese Bros. (chorus)
    So. Central Rain (chorus)
    Letter Never Sent (pre-chorus)
    Little America (verse).
    and then, Time After Time and Pretty Persuasion are in D at least to parts. Harborcoat and Rockville are in E. haven’t played Second Guessing or Camera so far.

  6. Jared Says:

    Great review; and an new interesting take on two songs that I really, really like. I’m not sure I want to think of 7CB as dark, guilty, selfish, or anything but a happy spin on a kids’ book though.

  7. profligateprofiterole Says:

    great write-up , BTW, probably the one so far where-in I learnt the MOST new stuff, I had no idea !!!

  8. jim jos Says:

    I just don’t see it. I am a bit thrown by this at the moment…ummmmm…..

  9. profligateprofiterole Says:

    what don’t you see ?
    take your shades off

  10. profligateprofiterole Says:

    wrap your heel in bones of steel, always loved that lyric

  11. jim jos Says:

    I just don’t see what the song is about within the lyrics of the song. I agree with Matthew, it just does not seem to be there.
    Next Mr. Stipe will say that Moral Kiosk is about how he once kicked a small puppy.

  12. profligateprofiterole Says:

    right on

  13. 2fs Says:

    I think one reason I love the first few R.E.M. albums so much is the way they uncannily communicate emotion, regardless of what the words might literally say. Part of that is, of course, due to Stipe’s singing: if anyone knew what a song was about, it was him – and even if he didn’t know, per se (something about the phrasing suggests that at the time, Stipe wasn’t fully aware of the way 7CB reflected the situation he describes), that still comes out in his singing. And even if the musicians didn’t know what the song was about, Stipe evidently was able to convey enough about it, either via his singing or in discussing the song, so that their contributions almost always fit.

    I’m surprised some commenters think the song is light or carefree; it’s never felt that way to me. Most of the lyrical references, even if they seem bright in some way, end up shadowed by subsequent lyrics…and of course the whole framing story of the brothers and the ocean is a bit dark and threatening, as are phrases like “bones of steel.” And the wistful way Stipe sings “she will return…” – it was clear that, no, she probably wouldn’t, and that the narrator wasn’t all that sure that would’ve been such a good idea if she had.

  14. 2d Says:

    this is quite an unexpected explanation for this song i must say… i would have never figured something like this out in a million years!

    i always thought it was more like an abstract string of images, but now that a search area has been disclosed, there is some room for interpretation.

    “It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see why Stipe would relate his sordid scenario to this tale — it’s pretty clear now that he’s the selfish little boy in this story.”

    i think i’d rather say that he’s the chinese brother who drank the lake and has caused the relationship to drown (especially sorry for the woman – his earnest desire that “she will return” to shore), and now has to live with the guilt (“seven thousand years to sleep away the pain” / “seven thousand years the communi did reign”) of what he has done (“i guess we lost that battle”).

    intriguing. and i must say it flows seamlessly into “so. central rain” with its plea for a sign from someone lost in a flood…


  15. I didn’t include this part of the quote, but Michael says “So. Central Rain” was about the same situation.

  16. Brian Says:

    Michael’s story brings up an interesting point – to what extent does the “story” behind the song matter? Sure, it gives insight into the emotions that inspired the song and the imagery that he constructs.

    I remember reading about the song at the R.E.M. lyric annotations page ant thinking that the song fit in with that idea of repentance, atonement, and “reckoning” that runs through the whole album. Like 2D, I don’t think I would have come up with this story if I had an infinite number of guesses. However, I don’t think Michael wanted the story to come across in the song and wanted to convey how that whole ordeal left him feeling.

    It’s really fascinating to hear JMS talk about the inspiration, and its clear to see the link between that story and the song, but ultimately I think the power of his words lies in the ability to emotionally connect with his abstract imagery.

    And as for “Voice of Harold,” I wonder if that was an attempt to distance himself from the emotional weight of “7 Chinese Bros.” It seems like this story still weighs on him 25-ish years later, I could see why he’d try to come up with alternate words having nothing to do with the original.

    On a completely unrelated note, noted Reckoning/R.E.M. enthusiast Stephen Malkmus performed a nice medley of early R.E.M. songs for Vincent Moon’s Take Away Show recently. I thought that “7 Chinese Bros.” was a particular highlight of the video.

    http://www.blogotheque.net/Stephen-Malkmus,3953

  17. Andy Says:

    I’ll admit it: I actually heard “Voice of Harold” first. I’ve always loved Stipe’s phrasing in this song, much more so than in 7CB.

    By the way, those little regional gospel albums were everywhere in the south back then. It seemed like any family that had two or three people who could carry a tune were putting out gospel albums–maybe punks’s DIY aesthetic originated with the Revelaires!!

  18. profligateprofiterole Says:

    that’s pretty fucking cool there, Brian …

  19. Mr Cup Says:

    Wow!
    Raises more questions than it answers. Does this make him a better lyricist than we gave him credit for? Does it change anything given we had no idea in the first place. Does discovering the real story diminish from our own personal interpretations? Is it all illuminating?

    The flood imagery from both 7CB and So. Central certainly point toward the emotional (suppression/outpouring) that dream analysts suggest.

    For what it’s worth, I love the Voice of Harold. Buck’s riff = a must!

  20. Mr Cup Says:

    Lyrically I assumed there was some connection to Harborcoat too, with ‘metal shaves’ and ‘bones of steel’, Lenin and communi reign.

    Now I’m wondering if the lyric is ‘7000 years of commune, I did reign’.
    I recently saw a doco about sexual ‘utopias’, which exist outside mainstream society and are usually started by self serving gurus after a buffet of flesh. OK – I’m probably stretching it a bit.

    How do we now interpret Fretless?

  21. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I always liked Voice of Harold more than 7 Chinese Bros. largely because I heard it first and is seems more expressive in the way JMS sings it. It took MANY years for me to fully appreciate 7CB. With age and time I now love 7CB and enjoy it as a very favorite from the early period.

  22. Paul Alferink Says:

    So the story is Michael wasn’t singing 7 Chinese Brothers with any sort of “umph.” So Mitch and Don toss him the “Revelaires” album, which had been recorded there, and told him to sing that. He did. Then he re-sang 7CB right.
    I always ignored 7CB. It really gets losted in that album. Voice of Harold sticks out more. It’s really fun trying to work out what he’s really saying from the awkward phrasing.
    A must!

  23. Paul Alferink Says:

    Also, So. Central Rain is a Carol Levy song, as is, appearantly, 7CB. I never saw that before. Still not sure I do. But oh well. Every other song on the album seems to be about Ms. Levy. Michael must have had it for her bad. Or maybe it was just the first person you love who dies. Just resignates with you for a long time. . .

  24. Figgy Says:

    For those of you who haven’t seen the cover of that infamous Revelaires LP, this is a must…

  25. Kirsten Says:

    Hmmm, interesting news, and write up and comments from everyone. But at least I’m not the only one who had no idea for a change! I’ve just read the words to the right – struggling to see it, but will listen to it with this in mind from now on and maybe it will click one day. And, dare I say it – maybe, just maybe Michael is just telling this story ’cause it sounded good and it’s not actually true. I think half of what these boys say is bullshit. (Still love them though!)

    Matthew – it is definately a must! How dare you! And for the record, I wouldn’t mind hearing them read from the phoneboo- I’d pay for that. “I stay up late, just to hear your voice”

    I thought So. Central Rain was about not being able to call friends back home after a flood. That comes back to what I was saying before. Unless they’re not deliberate lies, maybe Michael doesn’t even know what he’s on about most of the time!

  26. Alicia Says:

    I’ve gone six years believing it was about Michael’s first piano lesson as a child… didn’t he say that once?! I think I prefer this interpretation. (Though I did spend quite a few of those six years thinking the lyric was ‘Seven thousand years will come United Rain’.)

  27. narcizo Says:

    …everybody here has covered me completely in terms of interpretation and commenting, as always. Especially MP’s writeup gives to the song a completely new meaning, thank you.
    I would like to make a silly and rather OT remark: I always thought that the structure of the song’s ending is also seen on Smashing Pumpkins’ “Rhinoceros” from the Gish lp. Any suggestions?
    By the way, Accelerate truly KICKS ASS!

  28. Mr Cup Says:

    Thanks Figgy. I’d not seen that album before. Brilliant.

  29. Figgy Says:

    Cheers, Mr Cup. I knew I’d stumbled upon the album cover when I was reading some other REM website a couple of years ago, I just couldn’t remember which site. Anyway, thanks to Google I was able to find it again quite quickly. Happy to direct other fans to it. And let’s face it, it’s the type of thing regular readers of this blog will appreciate. Much more so than my wife, for example, or 90% of my friends!

  30. Kirsten Says:

    Thanks Figgy! I’ve been able to print it out and add it to my collection of crap!

  31. Figgy Says:

    Hi Kirsten. Have you ever seen that movie “The Castle”? Being Aussie, I presume you have. I’m picturing a pool room in your house proudly displaying all your REM odds and ends.

  32. Kirsten Says:

    No, my husband won’t let me display it. All my REM junk is in the spare room. Hidden. The upside is he doesn’t see half the stuff I buy, so he doesn’t know how much money I waste!🙂

  33. Mr Cup Says:

    As long as he keeps his Skyhooks novelty siberian jukebox hidden, all is fair.


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