Life and How To Live It
July 22, 2008
1. The opening guitar figure of “Life and How To Live It” is like a lit fuse in slow motion. The fire gradually consumes the wire, and when the song kicks in all at once at the 30 second mark — KA-BOOM.
2. The opening line is “burn bright through the night,” which may help to explain why I can only imagine this song visually in terms of hot light contrasted with total darkness. In addition to the fuse imagery, I have long associated “Life and How To Live It” with a county fair or amusement park at night. I have no idea how this ever got in my head — some of you may recall that I have a similar though somewhat more literal interpretation of “Carnival Of Sorts” — but it’s in there, and it’s probably never going away.
3. The first time I saw R.E.M. perform this song was at Madison Square Garden in 2003. It was the first song in the encore. I remember the lights going out, then some flicker of strobe light as Peter Buck began the song. I’m not sure if that’s actually accurate, but it’s what I remember in my mind’s eye. When I think of this moment, I see it in black and white. I didn’t realize what Peter was playing right away, and it had never occurred to me that it would be in the setlist. I was stunned.
4. “Life and How To Live It” reveals itself in concert. It gets wilder, faster, and more cathartic. The moments of the composition that feel euphoric on the studio recording sound absolutely unhinged in live performance. Whereas the version of the song on Fables of the Reconstruction capably simulates the manic state of the song’s deranged protagonist, its live incarnation finds the entire band taking a method approach, and fully inhabiting his ecstatic madness.
5. “Life and How To Live It” is based on the true story of Brev Mekis, a schizophrenic man from Athens who split his home into two sides, each with a totally different set of furniture, books, clothing, pets, etc. He would live on one side for a while, and then switch to the other, and back again. After he passed away, it was discovered that he had a few hundred copies of a book he had written outlining his philosophy published by a vanity press hidden away on one side of his house. The book was titled Life: How To Live.
6. The majority of the songs on Fables of the Reconstruction are concerned with older, unknowable men who in some way retreat from the world around them. Whereas the other tracks describe a man’s actions from the outside looking in, “Life and How To Live It” is written from the perspective of its subject. I doubt that this was a deliberate decision, but it would make sense that Michael would relate to Mekis’ radical compartmentalization of his life. Most obviously, Mekis’ lifestyle is roughly analogous to that of a touring musician — time is split between two distinct ways of living, each accentuating a different state of mind. Ultimately, both sides feed into the other, arguably giving the person a more varied and rich life experience. (Also, one could make an interesting argument that the song reflects Michael’s sexual confusion as a young man, and the intentionally separated home represent life in and out of the closet.)
7. It helps to think of the song’s arrangement in the context of its lyrics: Michael is singing about a man running around and hollering as a structure is being built. Bill Berry lays the foundation of the building, and holds the piece together as Peter’s parts give it substance, color, and shape. Mike Mills’ bass part is the most dynamic element — it darts, climbs, and leaps around and through the form of the song, as if to represent Mekis’ frenzied state as his vision of an ideal life takes shape before his eyes. Mills’ bass lines in the song are crucial to the success of the composition, and are essential to its feeling of constant frenetic movement and elation.
8. All four members of the band get at least one moment in the song when their respective contribution seems to pop outside the bounds of the composition. (For one example, consider the way Peter’s guitar part seems to bounce up dramatically in the chorus.) This is brilliant, not simply because it makes for a ridiculously exciting piece of music, but because it allows each of the musicians an opportunity to channel the character’s joyous lunacy. For a song about a bizarre loner, there is not even a trace of alienation or condemnation in “Life and How To Live It.” Truly, every aspect of the song respects its subject’s skewed vision, and throws itself headlong into his creativity, pleasure, and unwavering faith.