The Infinite Jukebox: R.E.M.’s ‘Cuyahoga’

Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up: as majestic and toweringly ambitious opening lines go, it’s very hard to think of something that beats that.
I was in London when the fourth REM album came out, or actually that an import copy arrived in the Virgin Megastore. I’d been filling in at London office for a month, covering the gap between one guy leaving and his replacement arriving. It was an interesting month in many ways, and I took a lot of pleasure from being able to leave work at 5.30pm, arrive at the flat I was occupying at 5.35pm, laze around and then wander down to Oxford Street for about 8.00pm and the shops still be open. It was the Thursday of the last week, I was catching the train back to Manchester the next afternoon, and this was my last chance to have a wander. What possessed me to look in the R section in case a new REM album had magically appeared, I have no idea but I did and one had.
So I bought it and brought it back to Manchester where I could play it for the first time in twenty-four hours. Those old enough to remember the days of vinyl will remember what a chance I was taking: every new album carried with it the possibility of slips, sticks, scratches and other damage to those exposed grooves, and you only knew if you’d got a playable copy once your disc was on a deck: mine was fine.
Lifes Rich Pageant is one of my favourite REM albums, despite it having been assembled out of scraps, it’s track-listing completed by old songs rejected from previous albums and a Peter Buck promoted cover version, ‘Superman’, which ended up being the album’s second single.
First single was the immediate highlight of Side One, ‘Fall on Me’, track three, but my attention was caught by its immediate successor, ‘Cuyahoga’. Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up: oh, wow!
The track unrolls with a sonorous bass introduction from Mike Mills, setting up a stately pace, before the rest of the band come in together, Stipe with that magnificent line, Berry with a rattle of drums and Buck with the first of some decorative guitar licks that glide along that magnificent bassline which is the song’s signature sound.
Our fathers’ fathers’ fathers tried, Stipe sings, taking us back at least three generations: depending on how you define a generation, are we harking back to the founding of America? When else would you say that a new country has been started up? And the next line, about how they erased the parts they didn’t like, is all too clear a reference to the removal of the Native Americans from this picture. Let’s try to fill it in, he demands.
This isn’t just a song, not even a political one, this is aiming for the epic, more than that, the mythic.
Apart from its ambition, to draw up a new country, a new covenant on which to base an association, it’s trying to gather everyone back in. To include all, this time.
The Cuyahoga is a river in Ohio, bisecting the city of Cleveland as it flows into Lake Erie, and was notorious as the most polluted river in America, having caught fire on no less than thirteen occasions since 1868, though after prolonged environmental cleansing, it has been restored. On the face of it, what relevance is this to Stipe’s vaulting imagination?
Perhaps this lies in the band’s appeal to what is, the tangible country of the river. This land is the land of ours, they sing, though my ears persist in hearing it as the land of Owls. This river runs red over it, the polluted river, the symbol of what the white man did to the native, the river polluted with the redness of skin, the redness of their blood, the clean, wide open country that turned to filth.
The connection is made more explicit, further on. This is where they walked and swam, hunted, danced and sang: take a picture here, take a souvenir, but do more than goggle at the past that we wished upon them, put our hands together, put our backs into it, put our efforts into it, into that new country, that new America in which everyone belongs, from which no-one is excluded. We are not your allies, we cannot defend.
But maybe we can redeem.
When the album was out, I was regularly able to get bootleg tapes of R.E.M.’s concerts. It was clear from these that this was not a song they favoured playing live: I came across only one tape on which they’d tried it and even them only as an instrumental. But in the band’s last decade, they seemed to have mastered the song and it was a regular in live performances. It’s one of Mike Mills’ favourite songs, as it is mine, his bass driving it forward. It is one of the largest songs I know, and yet, except among REM fans, it’s almost a secret.
Maybe one day that new country will be founded. It has an anthem ready-made and waiting for it.

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