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.
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.”