I Believe

July 19, 2008

If R.E.M. has a credo, it is most certainly “I Believe.” Though the song has its share of self-deprecating jokes and baffling Michael Stipe-isms, it is essentially a litany of virtues and aphorisms that inform the band’s outlook on politics and life in general. It’s earnest, but it’s also rather playful. One of the best tricks in the song is the way Stipe strings together aphorisms until they collapse into nonsense, which has the curious effect of making the listener reflect on the actual meaning of cliches that normally go in one ear and out the other. Some may take Stipe’s humor and obscure language as a sign of immaturity and a need to cling to inscrutability like a security blanket, but it’s actually essential to the piece, not simply because it keeps the lyrics from getting too Pollyanna-ish and preachy, but in that Stipe values levity and mystery just as much as change, honor, and “time as an abstract.” 

Stipe sings about his adult convictions in the context of his experiences as a little kid. He recalls childhood illnesses, outdoor adventures, and the moral codes encouraged by scouting, and rather obviously wishes to reconnect with his former innocence and curiosity about the world. At its core, “I Believe” is a song that expresses a desire to regain the idealism of childhood, and to cast off the ethical compromises that mark adulthood. The sentiment of “I Believe” is ultimately rather poignant because both the audience and the singer know the truth: Though you can draw on youthful idealism and do great things, you can’t turn back the clock and become naive again. 

A baffling Michael Stipe-ism note: The line “example is the checker to the key” makes very little sense in or out of context, but according to Marcus Gray’s It Crawled From The South, it is a reference to Michael’s car at the time — a checkered cab.

71 Responses to “I Believe”

  1. MM Says:

    I believe in coyotes…

  2. protimoi Says:

    …and time as an abstract.

    Love that line, love the song. Certainly a highlight of a spotty album.

  3. Bruno Says:

    Once again I am struck by how you take away from it your (my) own meaning. ‘Checker’ sounded to me like a flag or marker being thrown up. ‘Checker to the key’? Hell, I didn’t know what was being marked exactly but it sure sounded like something that deserved to be marked.

    I catch myself talking about my reaction to the song (and other old-era REM) in the past tense. It just fits. I remember singing along at the top of my lungs and following Stipe as he rolled out the lines and jumped across them from here to there with one thought running head long into the next. Oh yeah, I believe.

    I now, of course, don’t hear it with quite the same innocent ears. Now I hear a band whose engine was revving along and a happy, messy, playful set of lyrics on top.

    I remember reading an interview circa ’90ish. Stipe was asked for a few of his least liked REM songs. One of them was ‘I Believe’. He said something about it being a silly, embarrassing song. I thought ‘No, What? Take it back!’

  4. Bruno Says:

    When I was young and full of grace
    and spirited–a rattlesnake.

    I thought it was…

    When I was young and full of grace
    my spirit did arouse me.

    I like my interpretation more.

  5. dan Says:

    best song ever.

  6. dan Says:

    to expand upon my above comment, this recording is one of the most exuberant, joyful and just plain rockin’ things known to man. i love this song. i love how it just keeps going in circles, kinda, but building upward. not a second wasted. i would consider the lyrics some of stipe’s best.

  7. Steve Rachbach Says:

    “Certainly a highlight of a spotty album”

    I don’t think that anymore, but I did have that opinion after it first came out. After perhaps the greatest initial run of albums that any band ever had, Chronic Town/Murmur/Reckoning and Fables, Life’s Rich Pageant didn’t seem to measure up. However, with repeated listenings over the decades, I have become a big fan. There are beautiful slower songs like “Fall On Me” and “Flowers Of Guatemala”, great up-tempo songs like “These Days,” “Begin The Begin,” and “These Days”, and the rest of the songs are just fine. I think that “Life’s Rich Pageant” is in a class with “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” as they both are excellent albums with songs that have a wide variety of styles and tempos.

  8. jft Says:

    certainly not one of my favourites, still it is a great tune and for sure part of the better half of the songs on Lifes Rich Pageant (whose final four tracks I still don’t understand – but that’s another story which was discussed heavily in the “These Days” track.
    no, I learned to like it much more than I originally did. It’s a trademark mid-80s-R.E.M. and by a large distance the better one in comparison to “Fall On Me”. It’s really got a nice chord progression and great layers of guitars, above all a memorable melody. A good one.

    Three tracks to go. One is great, one is quite good and the third is one of their weaker tracks. The best thing would be to begin with the weakest. But as music taste is quite subjective (I think) and that’s a good thing, I suppose that order won’t happen.

    I’d end with the oldest of the tracks left…

  9. ScottMalobisky Says:

    arguably my favorite part of Tourfilm; love the part where Stipe is, like in the foreground, and you can see PB behind him in that bad-assed crouch, on the prowl and riffing during the refrain, sweaty wtih his hair blowing in the breeze. definitely having a transcendent rock and roll onstage moment there. reminds me of Keith Richards…….

  10. maclure Says:

    LRP is not spotty unless the spots and the non-spots are both excellent.

    The banjo intro – where did that come from? But, whenever I hear it, I get an expectant smile on my face and I don’t think I’ve ever pressed skip on hearing this song.

    The song is joyful, but there is a hint of sadness to it too – not resignation – more a plaintive sense of loss in light of “change”. That effect for me comes entirely down to Mike Mills’ subtely majestic backing vocal over the chorus. I always listen out for it.

  11. maclure Says:

    Changing tack (sorry) – but that new video for Man-Sized Wreath is absolutely fantastic! Easily in my top 5 REM videos already. I think those CRUSH guys really captured the humour and message of that track. It helps that I really enjoy the song, but what a top clip!

  12. jim jos Says:

    wow, awesome write up. “Though you can draw on youthful idealism and do great things, you can’t turn back the clock and become naive again.” that might be the best damn thing you’ve ever written here.

    and I Believe is one of the best damn songs that exists, for all the reasons listed. This song may have lost a little punch for me, but it is my own fault for simply turning to it so many times.

    That banjo could have only come out of the south. I am going to hate it when this board ends, believe it.

  13. ScottMalobisky Says:

    it’s not your fault jimjos
    it’s the clock’s friggin fault

  14. 2fs Says:

    “Example is the checker to the key”: I never really thought about it, but it never struck me as particularly nonsensical. If I try to parse it (even w/o knowing the bit about his Checker Cab), I come up with something like this: you should always weigh your principles against what actually happens. That is, “example” (things that specifically occur) should check (as in “check your work to make sure it’s correct) the “key” (the principle you rely on consistently, “key” because, if I unpack that metaphor, it unlocks your ethical system and thereby clarifies it).

    To simplify further: don’t abandon idealism, but don’t ignore reality either. Which fits pretty well with the gist of the song, I’d say.

  15. ScottMalobisky Says:

    friggin brilliant

  16. Dark Bob Says:

    In my opinion, I Believe is a PERFECT REM song. From the banjo intro, to the classic jangly Rickenbacher, to the lyrics, this song is REM at the very top of their game. One of their absolute greatest songs EVER.

  17. dgl Says:

    I believe … this is about the 30th time I’ve read one of these entries, been reminded of the greatness of one particular song, and thought, OK, THIS is in my all-time Top 5.

    R.E.M. may not be THE most technically skilled or influential band of all time, but NO other band has put out more great songs than them — Beatles, Stones, Led Zep — I do mean nobody.

    As for this song in particular, I love the recurring geological theme:

    “Perfect is a fault, and fault lines change.”

    “I believe … the poles are shifting.”

  18. jacob Says:

    I thought I read somewhere that the “checker to the key” lyric popped up because they were recording in Miami and they took a cab to the Keys.

  19. Heyberto Says:

    Another re-discovery for me when the ‘and I feel fine’ compilation came out. I love this song as much as ever. It’s imperfections make it distinctive (but it still sounds like / reminds me of sitting still to some degree)and also quite a bit of fun. REM is one of the only bands I’ve found that can pull that off.

    Great, odd, lovely, fun, upbeat but slightly sad song.

  20. Scott Says:

    A checker is a checkout clerk who hits price keys. (Old-fashioned, noncomputerized, nonscanning lanes were still the rule at grocery stores and everywhere else in 1986). Example punches the key that tells you the cost.

  21. Ignis Sol Says:

    “I Believe” is one of those songs I couldn’t believe I was hearing when I first heard it. Back when “Radio Free Europe,” “So. Central Rain” and “Fall on Me” got all the attention, this, at least to me, seemed like an ignored unpolished gem. I thought, “How fucking great is this?” I instantly became obsessed with it.

    The sweeping melody and the references of youth and contemporary wonder are so appealing. Great write-up, Matthew. There is especially outstanding about the actual musical elements of this song and maybe the same can be said of the lyrics, but somehow it comes together as an amazing, evocative and timeless piece of music. Images of fevers, rattlesnakes and sore throats – odd,yes – but all make for a wonderful song. Lyrics as odd as latter day Pavement and Beck?

  22. Justin S Says:

    While in college I joined a fraternity. One of the things we had to do as pledges was provide a quote that summarized our life view, or some such.

    I couldn’t think of anything, so I threw out “Perfect is a fault and fault lines change.”

    Nobody got it. Of course, I didn’t either, so we were even.

  23. Mr Cup Says:

    One of my all time favourite songs. EVER.
    Everytime Buck riffs on a banjo I’m all giddy. Every REM song that includes a G#m has me reaching for the absorbent towels. I call it my “La petite mort” chord.

    Trust in your calling
    Make sure your calling’s true
    Think of others, the others think of you
    A silly rule

  24. Mr Cup Says:

    Oh yeah:

    The Coyote mythlore is one of the most popular among the Native American. Coyote is a ubiquitous being and can be categorized in many types. In creation myths, Coyote appears as the Creator himself; but he may at the same time be the messenger, the culture hero, the trickster, the fool. He has also the ability of the transformer: in some stories he is a handsome young man; in others he is an animal; yet others present him as just a power, a sacred one.

  25. Kirsten Says:

    I took “the checker” just as a tick (√). Meaning approval/acknowledgement. So “example is a tick to the key”. I don’t think I explained that very well, but I know what I mean. The car thing doesn’t make any sense at all to me.
    Another great one live.
    And I’ll be the one to say it – I hate the banjo. They should’ve left it off. It’s the reason I don’t listen to this song as much as I should.

  26. Mr Cup Says:

    You city folk don’t know what’s good fer ya!

  27. Kirsten Says:

    It’s just embarrassing. And unnecessary.

  28. Mr Cup Says:

    You might remember some years ago a band The Grid had a minor hit with with the banjo/techno tune ‘Swamp Thing’. My brother asked me if it was REM.

    That was embarrassing.
    For him.

    Bet you don’t like Wendell neither.

  29. Kirsten Says:

    You see what I mean then. You don’t want them to be known as a banjo group because the banjo is embarrassing!
    I am a huge fan of Mr Gee’s. The banjo sits more comfortably with that type of song. This is a rock song. Banjos don’t belong here.

  30. Mr Cup Says:

    But if rock songs only consisted of meat and three veg…

    …I don’t know where I’m going with that one.

  31. Ignis Sol Says:

    I know exactly where you’re going, Mr Cup.

  32. Kirsten Says:

    “But if rock songs only consisted of meat and three veg…”

    Then they’d all be good!
    This song just rocks so much that it seems really out of place.

  33. Mr Cup Says:

    It’s integral. Much like the accordion an glasses of half filled water that litter the rest of LRP. It’s the spoke that holds the wheel true.

  34. Kirsten Says:

    It’s the wolf that knows which route to take to save itself

    C’mon Everybody Now!

    “It’s the octopus that crawled back to the sea.”

    I’d just like to make it clear that I love this song, it’s only the banjo that bugs me.

  35. Mr Cup Says:

    root to dig!

    To the swings!

  36. Kirsten Says:

    You can’t see me now, but trust me, I am hanging my head in shame. It’s a bit cold for lemonaide, how about a nice cuppa?

    Oh well, what would I know? I don’t even like the banjo…

  37. Mr Cup Says:

    There, there.
    A nice chinese burn will warm you up.

    Deliverance, I fear, has done much to tarnish the beauty of the banjo.

  38. milesy Says:

    Thanks Kirsten; I was scrolling down the comments thinking, how am I going to point out that the song is just fine without the banjo (‘And Peter Buck takes the opportunity to share his latest banjo lesson with the world’, as Marcus Gray puts it): and you’ve done it for me. And yes, it works just fine on Wendell Gee; I think we’ve been there before…

    Terrific song, though. ‘I believe the poles are shifting’ is one of those soaring transcendent moments that REM hit from time to time, a bit like that piano moment somebody mentioned in Find the River. It’s even better in the tourfilm version, when Michael sings that line higher, in harmony with the main melody. Great stuff.

  39. milesy Says:

    PS, what I do like about the intro is the way it is not quite in time with the song itself; it’s the same with Fall on Me: that first drum beat comes momentarily before you would have expected it based on the guitar intro. These little things add to the real organic feel that REM always had, which was a real contrast to the synthetic, produced sound so typical of the 1980s.

  40. Mr Cup Says:

    Drn’d city folk!

  41. lenny Says:

    Wow — where to begin? I can’t BELIEVE that I let a day and a half pass by before checking to see whether this was the next song Matthew would put on. Dammit — now I’m way behind…

    1st things 1st — Best song ever, Best R.E.M. album ever. Period. To call it “spotty” or compare it to “Hi-Fi” feels like an insult to the effort. It’s way, way better. Nothing on Hi-Fi even approaches the youthful energy and excellent songwriting done on Pageant.

    Good point about the effect that Deliverance had on the banjo, Mr. Cup. Maybe the band was trying to put the banjo in a different light. By the way — the banjo fits quite nicely on a current pop-rock track by Jack Johnson — the title song from his latest album, “Sleep Through the Static”. You want to talk about a catchy tune that is very political — that’s a good one. (But Jack Johnson’s use of the banjo is a little more subtle, because it doesn’t come in until late in the 1st verse — and he uses an accordion on the intro instead!)

    One last thing — why does Matthew use the quote from Marcus Gray about the “checker” referring to a cab, but still doesn’t give his explanation for what that means? Maybe he still doesn’t have a guess… but I like some of the interpretations on here so far… 2fs had the best one, in my opinion.

  42. Paul Alferink Says:

    I’ve gone on record saying this is my favorite REM album ever. The begining, as I’ve said before, is fantastic. The middle would bog down if not for this song. A joyous celebration of youth.

    I believe my humor’s wearing thin.

    I believe my throat hurts.

  43. lenny Says:

    WOW, we found an example where a Cubs fan can agree with a Cardinals fan. (Favorite REM album ever)

  44. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I Believe is a very good song, not great, but still necessary listening. It is upbeat and uplifting, without being preachy or too silly. It always makes me feel hopeful for a better tomorrow and resigned to life being as it is and not being likely to change. I Beleive is sort of the last rallying cry of the band for me as wide-eyed innocents before the band generally shifts to a more world-weary and cynical tone in their music. Not that all the songs are that way, Stand and Shiny Happy People for example are positive, but they feel more tongue-in-cheek than serious, whereas I Beleive, while somewhat self-depracating seems honest in its intentions.

    In another note, went to Cleveland this past week and happened to go to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame on Friday. When I arrived there were cameramen and reporters milling about all over so I asked an employee what was going on and it turns out that the 7 millionth visitor was going to come in that day. I thought, that’s sort of cool, turned the corner and went in and boom! balloons cascade down and noise everywhere, the person in front of me was number 7 million, its my lot in life to be 7 million and 1. Still, I likely was in the backgriound for all of the TV shots.

  45. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    I could be 7,000,000…

    I could be 7,000,000…

    I could be 7,000,001…

    (To the tune of 1,000,000)

  46. Bruno Says:

    Let me add a little banjo to that Beethoven…

  47. Bruno Says:

    I mean “Dern! Let me a-pickin’ some dang banjo to that thar ditty you is yoddlin’ there, feller!”

  48. adam Says:

    one of REM’S greatest songs on maybe its finest record. I wish they still found a place for this live. One of them must have really tired of this song.. as it would go well on the current tour, I think. when the album first came out there was a contest at record stores to write a story based on lyric fragments – “my throat hurts’ etc.. and a line from each song.. this was a concert staple on the pageantry and document tours and always a highlight.

  49. Kirsten Says:

    See, Bruno gets it.

  50. Mr Cup Says:

    I got me a fever and the only prescription is more banjo, drn’d it!

    Could this be used as the theme song for the X files movie?

  51. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Scully was hot in the day.

  52. Paul Alferink Says:

    Certainly would be better than REM’s contribution to “Songs in the Key of X”

  53. Rob Says:

    Just wanted to speak up in defense of the banjo on this track. I don’t know why I like it but I do. It’s those little touches that make REM who they are. Much like re-recording one of their most beautiful songs only with William Burroughs sounding like a drunk and letchy Abe Simpson for an X-Files soundtrack album. I can’t always pretend to understand these things, but I’m gl

  54. Rob Says:

    …glad that they exist, is how I meant to finish that comment.

  55. Bruno Says:

    The banjo gets my vote too Rob.

    It’s a little funny thing that kicks the song off and because they recorded it and added it in, well then it deserves to be there I say.

    Yeesh! I mean what next? Maybe the song would be better if there was no bridge. Or how would it sound if we got rid of the chorus? No drums too. Lets pull Michael out of the mix as well! Wait, I know… “OK, ready? When he presses ‘Record’ everybody just be really quiet”.

    Then again, the banjo does make you squeal like a pig doesn’t it?

  56. Bruno Says:

    I just realized there is no bridge on I Believe. OK, got rid of that then. Maybe they should have put a banjo bridge in there somewhere.

  57. Paul Alferink Says:

    I love the banjo so much, I’m going to re-mix the song with the banjo solo from Wendell Gee acting as the bridge!

    So whistle as the wind blows through the leaves!

  58. Bruno Says:

    I heard that REM plan on doing a kind of retrospective collection of their hits. But not with the expected guitar/bass/drums approach.

    Instead, Peter will play banjo. Mike’ll play banjo too. Stipe plans on playing banjo as well. And Bill’s gonna come back and play… banjo.

    Should be good.

  59. Paul Alferink Says:

    I’m starting an REM Tribute Banjo band. You’ve never heard “It’s the End of the World as We Know it” until you’ve heard it as a banjo instrumental.

  60. Bruno Says:

    I’ve heard it. Me and the boys played it during the banjo marathon last week at the Rusty Tractor Festival (RTF 08).

    Maybe when you got that tribute band together we can tour the farmyard hoedowns and do us some cow tipping on days off.

    Now we be talking banjo!

  61. lenny Says:

    Bruno and Paul — if you really want to insult the band with that sorry retrospective, or a so-called tribute — you ought to be more original…

    Peter on the banjo
    Mike on the fiddle
    Bill on the washboard
    Michael plays comb and tissue paper

    “…in the mood…awwwl-roight”

  62. Bruno Says:

    OK,sounds good, but who’s gonna play the Jew’s Harp?

  63. Mr Cup Says:

    C’mon aboard, there’s lots of room for you on the Banjowagon.

  64. Bruno Says:

    Jefferson does a crazy solo on the Jug!

  65. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Bruno – John Cage already did that, “composing” a symphony with no music at all – just silence.

  66. Bruno Says:

    Ah yes, blessed silence.


    But what good is silence when you can fill it with… yup, THE BANJO!

    Now we’re talking, Beethoven.

    Cage missed one there.

  67. Paul Alferink Says:

    Silence is golden

    Silence is gray

    When you die, you turn into dust

    If I had a gun. . .

    Stop Singing Stop Singing Stop Singing . . .

  68. Kirsten Says:

    Sorry I brought it up now.

  69. 2fs Says:

    I can’t believe I neglected to notice that when you write “If R.E.M. has a credo…” you’re being (intentionally?) redundant: “credo” comes from the Latin for “I believe…” (I think because it’s the first word of some Christian thingy…)

  70. ScottMalobisky Says:

    Christians don’t have Thingies, those are The Satanic Protuberances…

  71. themanbeyond Says:

    I like the overall jangliness of this song. Makes me feel good, and maybe want to accomplish something.

    The banjo thingy is a prelude to the song, no? Not ‘in’ the actual song, right?

    And what do YOU do between the horns of the day?

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