REM, Superman, from Life's Rich Pageant
My song choice is a no-brainer for this month’s theme; it’s long been in any number of my personal faves lists—I have a lot of ‘lists’, that cover any emotional, historic, or aesthetic and are subject to as many, probably a lot more, criteria for membership. I know—the whole list thing has been done, thanks very much Nick Hornby…But, I don’t believe there is a true music fan who does not naturally gravitate towards list making. It’s almost instinctual—a way of cataloging the music one loves and justifying the multiverse of songs, bands and genres we love. No reason one can’t have favorites in multiple arenas of music, and revel in their love of many sounds.
The song I picked for this month’s theme fits neatly under three—probably more—categories. One: it’s from a band that is at the top my personal Most Influential list. Two: it is featured on an album that is on my personal Top Albums of all Time list. And three: it is one the first songs I played live with a band (another list—bands I’ve played in), and still one of my favorite songs to play.
So, I present, in honor of “Cartoons and Comics”: REM’s “Superman”… an obvious choice. The song is originally a cover by ‘60s band, The Clique. They were from Texas, and honestly: I don’t know much more about them. REM’s version was recorded for the album Life’s Rich Pageant, and released in 1986. It received some airplay, but not as much as their breakthrough, “Fall on Me.” It is also the first time bassist Mike Mills handled lead vocals—according to the Wikipedia page, lead signer Michael Stipe did not like the song and wanted little to do with the recording. He handles backing vocals only on the cut.
Historically, it might be a silly little single, dashed off and added to the album to perhaps lift the spirit of the thing, add a little levity in an otherwise somber, yet still emotional driving set of songs.The originally is garage rock at it’s best: sludgy guitars, churning and ditzy rhythm, and full of hippy, 1960’s bounce and sunshine.
Lyrically, I like the fact that it takes an iconic story of a guy we all know (Superman), and puts him in the place of any average love sick dude, pining for a girl he probably has no chance of getting. Is it really Superman, or is this guy just bragging? I don’t know; but I do like the very human quality the speaker shows—a lot of bravado to cover up the very evident self-doubt. But, no one ever won by sitting back and letting the race come to them, right…? This guy might be a little full of himself, but, in the end, I think he definitely got the girl…
I love this song, not only for the sense of fun it still has and the infectious urge to bob along when the hear it, but also for what it represents to my own personal heritage of music. REM was one of the first ‘real’ bands I listened to: I graduated from Bon Jovi, Cinderella and a lot of other hair metal crap to their 1987 release, Document, and I’ve always felt they were my introduction to music that mattered. And certainly, they set me on a path of amazing musical discoveries. Life’s Rich Pageant is a collection of songs so integral to my early education that to go back and listen to it is an exercise equally nostalgic and educational at the same time. Nostalgic because those songs still make the same spark in me as when I first heard them and was instantly hooked. Educationally? Probably for the same reasons—good music has that ineffable sense of importance that it achieves almost upon first listen. You hear a great song and it immediately finds a place in your heart, in your personal favorites list. There is time enough for explication and analysis, to determine where the music actually fits and on which list. It’s that initial spark, that beautiful chemistry, that defies numbers and categorization. It is what, as Kant said, makes music the ‘quickening art’—something that is alive in you for the first time. Loving music brings that quickening sensation on a near daily basis. I can’t think of anything else more exhilarating, save for having a few Superpowers of your own…