The Infinite Jukebox: R.E.M.’s ‘Let Me In’

It surprised me to realise that, after one hundred posts under this title, I have yet to feature a track by R.E.M., my favourite band for nearly half my life. And it’s equally strange that the song that’s inspired me to write about should be off one of my least favourite R.E.M. albums of all time.
Monster was released in 1994, and a mate of mine and I went to see the band touring it at what was then the MacAlpine Stadium, the newly-built (still only three-sided) home of Huddersfield Town.
It was a blazing hot July afternoon and, in order not to fry/dehydrate completely, we took seats in the shade of the stand at the Town End, whilst the stage was set up at the open end, down the length of the ground.
To be honest, of the seven R.E.M. gigs I saw down the years, this was the least entertaining, in part from the distance we were from the band, but more for the songs they were showcasing. Monster was a deliberate reaction to the mainly acoustic music the band had made over the past two albums, and so the sound was deliberately loud, dirty, heavy, aggressive and, overall, a bit one-note. I won’t say it made the album monotonous, but unvaried would be an apt word.
So what makes ‘Let Me In’ stand out above, not only its fellow songs on this album but all the others they recorded? And why has it come to mind now? 2019 saw the 25th Anniversary of Monster and a special edition CD was issued, in two disc and five disc formats. The latter includes a complete remix of the album, which clarifies its deliberately thick and semi-distorted sound in a way that gives the album a more interesting sound overall to me.
But ‘Let Me In’ has undergone more changes than a mere remix. This was always the song that stood out for me. It was the famous song about the recently deceased Kurt Cobain, and Michael Stipe’s efforts to contact him, to offer help. It wasn’t the only slow-paced song on the album, but it was the only one of the three to be dominated by Peter Buck’s guitar, a swirl of sound, thick and woozy, feedback-drenched, in which individual notes and chords are indistinguishable, with Stipe’s vocals buried in the middle of the mix yet escaping plaintively, to plead ‘let me in’.
What he sings struggles to be heard, in its semi-abstract, abstruse form. The only clarity is that plea, a forlorn cry for help from Stipe even as it’s a cry to help, the urge to bridge the gap to Cobain as he entered the final phase of drowning in his own life.
And there in the middle of the song an organ begins to echo the melody in Stipe’s voice, a simple, one-finger two-finger, underlying the words. Until Stipe’s oak-smoked voice rises into the falsetto and the organ begins to spin out of the drench of sound, until the voice that has failed to deliver the help it so desperately wanted to deliver and which can only now mourn is supplanted by it, swirling the melody, soaring yet despairing, taking the lead until the song finally fades into silence. If I were not already drawn deeply into ‘Let Me In’, this coda completes the spell. Like Stipe but without the articulation it is the summation of the regret for what could not be done, a threnody using the minimal melody of the song to draw us into the ultimate sorrow.
The remix does many things. It separates the instruments, it releases Stipe’s voice from its half-hidden place, it brings it out into the open freeing the words for clear perception, it reduces the blur and thickness of the sound, and these are all things that, musically, I have always preferred, and which in that sense does enhance ‘Let Me In’. Yet it also removes the organ, removes the tambourine, distances the guitar, making the performance a thing of guitars only, arranged as a supplement to Stipe’s voice rather than its prison. And that diminishes the song even as it’s turned into a better vessel for Stipe’s singing.
It takes out the pain, and this is a song about pain.
And though it’s not in my nature to prefer such a sound, this once it is the thick sound, the blur and the entanglement, the inability to distinguish what Buck is playing, that is the true sound of what R.E.M. meant in recording this.
You’d expect the organ to be the work of Mike Mills but on the tribute video it is played, painstakingly, by Peter Buck. But who cares really? Let ‘Let Me In’ be the enigma it was meant to be, concealing its answers. Let it reach directly into the heart. Let It In.

The Infinite Jukebox: Neil Young’s ‘My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)’ and ‘Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)’

This time we’ll have a double-header of the same song, by the same artist, only the two songs couldn’t be more different, nor one of them more brilliant.
In 1979, Neil Young was in danger of disappearing. Since the commercial success and reception of Harvest, and hitting the British Top 10 with ‘Heart of Gold’, his albums had grown dark and dense, sales failures with only the odd highlight here and there. Punk and New Wave had threatened the status quo of the ProgRock Gods era, with its short, sharp bursts of intensity and drive and, fairly or not, Young was among those titanic icons we were looking to sweep away.
But Young still had the intensity as well, and the integrity to see Punk as a challenge, a demand to be different, be raw, and personal. He came back with the lengthy ‘Live Rust’ tour, out of which came the mostly live Rust Never Sleeps album, a set split into an acoustic side of Young, a guitar and a harmonica, up there, up front, alone, and an electric side, joined by Crazy Horse.
Young chose one song to start and end the album, to bookend it and to mark the distance travelled between the opening and the closing of the set, with words and small differences to the lyrics to mark how great a gulf lies between the two performances.
In the beginning, it is ‘My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)’. It’s clean, it’s bright. Young picks out the notes with brio, an elemental melody alternating between notes and chords. His voice, that enigmatic cracked falsetto, rises about the music. He sings about the simple power of rock’n’roll. Because the meaningless words of the title are arranged this way, he can sing/repeat that the music is here to stay, drawing into line the essential unity of the music since the beginning.
And that gives him the famous line: it’s better to burn out than to fade away, the one everyone heeds, the one that Kurt Cobain wrote in his suicide note, so understandable yet so unfitting, from a song whose ethos is life. Young’s out to tie music into everything.
Out of the Blue, though. Not the suddenness of an unexpected change, but rather the leaving of a state of sky-high magnificence. But where does anyone go who has come out of the Blue. Young has a simple answer. They go Into the Black. And they never return.
Young asks if what he sings is the story of a Johnny Rotten, comparing the already crashed-and-burned Sex Pistols with the once equally dangerous Elvis Presley, who became an icon as bloated as everything his youthful energy threatened.
Is this the story of a Johnny Rotten? Young answers himself with a harmonica solo before returning to his theme, only this time it has been reversed. Hey Hey, My My. Rock’n’Roll will never die. But already we’re seeing it in another light, the light of Death.
Seven songs intervene, at least two of them astonishingly brilliant, before Young returns to his leading song. Hey Hey, My My. The simple, acoustic music, with its brightness, its clarity, is insufficient to handle the other side of the coin, to go. Young needs the force of the band, he needs to bury the song in a crushing mountain of sonic fury, in the dirtiest, loudest, deepest and most grungy sound he and they can develop, the blueprint, a decade later, for grunge, for Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, who will not fade away.
We’ve passed into some kind of inferno. Young repeats the words that ended the first version, telling us now that there’s more to the picture than meets the eye. He repeats what happens when you go from Blue to Black. A guitar solo replaces the harmonica. Johnny Rotten is introduced but now he is ‘the’ Johnny Rotten, not ‘a’. And that line we remember is itself changed. It’s better to burn out because Rust Never Sleeps. Decay, deterioration, diminution awaits all of us unless we fight it.
For now this is a war, a war for Young to stay what we must all be, difficult, demanding, tearing down what restricts us, what makes us comfortable, self-satisfied. And Crazy Horse surround him like the band for Hell: how can only four men sound so big as this?
Of the two, my heart lies in ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’, for its sheer power, for its determination to look entropy in the eye and spit in it. For all that it is the sound of darkness, and flame everlasting, it is the sound of Life, more so even that its little brother with its openness. Neil Young met the challenge of irrelevance and threw it down.
Would that we all could do that so well.