R.E.M.: Voice of Harold
The first time I heard “Voice of Harold,” which is a version of “7 Chinese Bros.” from R.E.M.’s second album, Reckoning with completely different lyrics, I assumed that it was simply a joke by the band. But it turns out that the story is a bit more interesting.
I’ve always had a sense that, like many great artists, Michael Stipe was a bit high maintenance. (It turns out that Mike Mills, is, too—he took exception on Twitter to something that I wrote on another blog about The Baseball Project). Apparently, when the band was working on Reckoning, which was recorded after a long, exhausting tour, Stipe was having a bad day, and his attempts at laying down vocal tracks for “7 Chinese Bros.” were inaudible. Don Dixon, one of the producers (and a fine songwriter in his own right), was killing time, poking around the studio, and was on a ladder when he found a pile of albums that had been tossed away. He pulled one off the top and threw it down to Stipe, hoping that it would inspire him.
That album, The Joy of Knowing Jesus, by the gospel group The Revelaires, would have been totally forgotten, had Stipe not started singing the liner notes on the back of the cover over the music for "7 Chinese Bros.” Done in one take, Stipe essentially sings, word for word, the laudatory notes written by the wonderfully named J. Elmo Fagg, described as the “Founder and Leader of the Blue Ridge Quartet for 23 years.” A few times, Stipe starts singing on one line, then jumps to the next line, and back again, because he was cold reading the small print and probably lost his place. He even sings the production and art direction credits and the catalog number (“LST 390”).
For some reason, it is charming. Like many of the band’s lyrics at the time, the fact that they sometimes made no sense is immaterial to the reality of the mood they created.
I’ve been a fan of this band for many years, almost as long as it was possible to hear their music in New York, and although I knew that they were from Georgia, I initially never really thought of them as a “Southern” band, in the way that bands like the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd flaunted their Southern roots and used stereotypical Southern symbols and imagery. But as time went on, it became more obvious that R.E.M. came from a different Southern tradition, one of mystery and kudzu and fog, of outsider art and eccentricity. Much of which can be seen in their early album covers.
And maybe that is why “Voice of Harold” resonates. It connected the band to the gospel tradition, and the liner notes that Stipe somehow shoehorned into the music are oddly religious, evocative and proud—for example—
Chill bumps appear and I am frozen in the web
They weave as they reveal their innermost selves
With the outpouring of their hearts
According to Dixon, after doing this take, Stipe was able to successfully record the vocals for “7 Chinese Bros.” I don’t know if The Joy of Knowing Jesus is, as the esteemed Mr. Fagg asserts (and Mr. Stipe repeats), “a must.” But to fans of R.E.M., “Voice of Harold” sure is.