Learning to Read at Seventeen

Getting the lyrics wrong, and yet learning to abide.

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once observed that people don’t strive to be what they already are. It’s an elegantly obvious point, but it’s also terrifying in its implications. After all, for the “aspiring self,” the ambition to be something else—someone else—reveals that life is marked by a yawning void. That is: life hurts. I suspect nobody intuitively grasps this reality better than an adolescent. It makes you wonder: how do these tender creatures ever survive?

They survive because they abide. I abided—and I survived—by spending a lot of time in high school deciphering REM lyrics with my closest friends Frank and Ron. Our cloistered endeavor could only have happened in the dark days before the Internet, a time when you had to lean into a boom box to reckon words uttered by a drug-addled vocalist mumbling at the floor. By my junior year our investigations were usually informed by a steady flow of cheap beer. Miller Light and homemade IDs and a few cassettes: these kept it real in 1986.

We abided in a yellow garage apartment behind Frank’s house. It was an art-cluttered studio that abutted Peachtree Street, in Atlanta. Frank’s grandmother had once lived there but, when she died, Frank moved in and called it home.

He was seventeen and, like Ron and me, a fumarole of angst. Everything about us was intolerable. We were adolescents and we barely hid our anger behind sarcasm and irony. We also thought highly of ourselves—or at least our idealized selves—when nobody else did. Frank’s parents, for the sake of sanity, were happy to have him out of the household proper but still on the premises. Needless to say, we were thrilled to have a space of our own.

Despite our collective shitty attitude, we weren’t exactly slackers. We’d been reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in Mr. Mobley’s literature class that semester. This was working out well for us. Penetrating the swamp of Faulkner’s prose complemented our effort to clarify lead singer Michael Stipe’s mumbles.

Then there was Mobley himself. Fresh from Davidson College, he’d zip around the room and regale us with tales of . . .  reading. It was all so weird that we couldn’t help but sit on the edge of our seats, transfixed by this skeletal bard who, with patched-up khakis, stood in sharp contrast to our parents, who wore suits and drove clean cars and urged us to keep our GPAs up and become medical doctors. Specialists, they advised.

We’d say things like: “What’d you do this weekend, Mobley? Big date?”

Mobley would say things like:  “I sat in the tub and read Jude the Obscure.”

This freaked us out. But it also kept us in thrall. Not so much the image of our wispy teacher in the tub grasping his paperback like a life preserver, but the fact that he made it seem as if, in failing to read serious books seriously, we were missing out on something subversive. Mobley trembled in the face of literature, and we learned to shake with him. There was a naked dependency in him that checked our wild quest for freedom. He kept us bewitched.

For the first time in our lives we not only looked forward to class, but we felt urgency in our meetings, an urgency that forced us to read not only Faulkner, but The Brothers Karamazov, Moby Dick, The Sun Also RisesThis Side of ParadiseA Death in the Family, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I’m now a college professor. But this was the most intellectually pioneering year of my life. Absolutely heroic. Hands down.

It took seventeen years. I had finally learned how to read.

. . . .

As always, our lives were surrounded by music. Listening and deciphering—The Smiths, Drivin’ and Cryin’, The Connells—remained our passion. One evening, up on Frank’s roof after winter exams, armed with beer and the boom box, Frank and I repeatedly played REM’s “Harborcoat”—track four on the album Reckoning. It’s a song with another song layered beneath it—a sort of musical palimpsest—but we preferred the top one.

Harborcoat, even by REM standards, is lyrically enigmatic. All that the band would ever say about it was that, according to bassist Mike Mills, “it was a protection against less tangible things.” Roger that, Mike Mills.

Fortunately the lyrics to the upper-layer of the song were less cryptic. The first stanza, cradled by Peter Buck’s jangling guitar, flowed like rich coffeehouse poetry: They crowded up to Lenin with their noses worn off . . . A handshake is worthy, if it’s all that you’ve got . . . Metal shivs of wood put to your back . . . There’s a splinter in your eye and it reads re-act.”

The next stanza went darker: They shifted the statues for harboring ghosts. Our theology teacher, who once bought us beer at an REM concert at the Fox Theater (I can still see this burly redheaded cat rushing to us with three brimming plastic cups, panicked and thrilled at once) explained that this line was a reference to the Holocaust. We found this to be an extremely deep observation and accepted it, as we did a lot of “deep thoughts,” without question.

The lyrics of the next line resonated with further poetic intensity: Redden their necks and collared their clothes. Got it. Farmers and stuffed suits—these were standard fixtures in the REM lyrical cast. But all progress came to a halt on the third line of the second stanza.

The moment comes 56 seconds into the song. The reason why it’s so hard to figure is that Stipe, in the original recording of Reckoning, does something strange with his throat when he sings “Then we.” It’s an effect that sends next dozen syllables tripping into a fog of confusion.

It was at this point that we called Ron. Ron had recently learned that he scored a perfect 800 on the verbal portion of his SATs. Plus he read poetry and knew Latin. Plus he had access to pot through his older brother Steve. It suddenly seemed very logical to call Ron, the bastard.

It was as if he was waiting for the call. He showed up within minutes riding a skateboard and wearing a pea coat and holding a nickel bag with a wedge of grass stuffed in the corner. Several beers into our work—plus a puff or two of weed—everything began to clarify. We had committed to Frank’s literature notebook the “official” lyrics of Harborcoat. As for the contested third line of the second stanza, we narrowed it down to three options:

a) Then we danced with boys at the minister’s house. We had heard Stipe was gay and, in the minds of idiots like us, we thought gay men in the South would naturally want to spend time, you know, dancing with boys at the minister’s house.

b) Then we dished with Bush when his man had cut out. An elliptical reference, for sure, to Vice President George Bush. “His man,” naturally, signifying Ronald Reagan, whom we hated because we knew that Stipe hated him. That was about the depth of our political thought in 1986.

c) Then we doused the Bushes with a menstrual towel. I’m pretty embarrassed about this one. For several years afterward, this distortion of lyrical decency is all I heard when I listened to the song, which is a payback of sorts for even thinking such a phrase to be remotely possible.

When we climbed down from the roof, Ron and Frank went into the studio, lit a fire in the fireplace, and stayed up all night talking about girls. I ended up on the front lawn, rolling around with an actual girl– Frank’s younger sister Helen, to be exact. Frank found out about a month later and was so pissed he didn’t talk to me until graduation. Ron, for his part, discovered an authentic girlfriend and stopped returning my calls.

I spent my senior year listening to REM’s Fables of the Reconstruction and reading a pile of books that Mobley said would prove to be the best company I could expect under such circumstances.

. . . . . . . .

“Mr. Stipe”

Six years later—1992–I had graduated from college and gotten a job teaching literature at a private high school in Washington, DC. I was now reading Milton and Chaucer with the ninth-grade progeny of DC’s power elite. One of my students had a father who was one of Bill Clinton’s lawyers. Bill Clinton had a lot of lawyers then.

Pleased that I had gotten his son to read serious literature (I was plagiarizing all of Mobley’s tricks), he gave me two tickets to the MTV Ball, an A-list inaugural event that demanded a tux. At the event, Michael Stipe walked right past me. I tapped him on the shoulder and froze. He turned and looked directly at me as if to say, “who are you, pal?”  I winced, but managed to say, “Mr. Stipe, thank you. Your music got me through high school.”

Yeah, I called him Mr. Stipe. But Mr. Stipe’s sweet green eyes actually lit up. And then he thanked me and, to his everlasting credit, he did so with a posture of sincerity that suggested that we were just two dudes in tuxes chatting at a party. We shook hands. He then made a beeline to the stage and sang a duet with Bono. I sat down on some steps, gulped a glass of scotch, and cried.

Because it was true: Stipe had saved me. Without his addled vocals, there would have been no need for any of us to seek lyrical precision and, in never finding it, realize, if only embryonically, that what might give us sublime pleasure as adults had nothing to do achieving goals or finding solutions or “making it.” Perhaps: the void best remained a void.

What would sustain us was a rare desire spawned by the unthinking decision to stay radically open to the ambiguity of narration. To revel in the beautiful unknown of stories, to not have answers—to be frustrated and unsure—this was what REM did for us. Little did we know that there was no better preparation for reading serious literature–and to live life–than to allow oneself to be betrayed by those commonplace arrangements we rely on for certainty and clarification and definition: words.

The garbled phrases that chagrined so many REM listeners were no different than the swampy stretches of Faulkner that Mobley negotiated with his pensive empathy for adolescent confusion. Both were meaningful for the emotions fired by their ambiguity. Both motivated us to leap headlong into a dark void and see what might happen next. Both mocked simple answers because there are no simple answers. There’s only the rich pageantry of seeking what will never happen. Adolescents understand this idea better than anyone, which I suspect is why learning to read at seventeen is a charmed kind of magic.

. . . . .

The other day I asked my daughter, who is ten, what she would do if she couldn’t figure out a Taylor Swift lyric. Stupid question. Of course she’d just “Google it.” And that’s exactly what I eventually did to confirm the final answer to that elusive third line of Harborcoat.

It turns out to have nothing to do with gay ministers, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, or menstrual towels. It has to do with books. What Stipe sings, according to a site called The REM Project, is this:  Then we ditched the books with the middles cut out. A live 2012 recording from Ireland confirms it. Back in 1986 we might have gotten the lyrics all wrong. But we were right about the books. The middles were intact; we read them; everything blurred; the void stayed a void, and we became at once deeply frustrated and fulfilled by the primal ambition to be something other than what we were.

Still are.

–James McWilliams is an historian and writer based in Austin, Texas.  His books include Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong andHow We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little, Brown) and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press). His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, Harper’s, Slate, The American Scholarand Texas Monthly. Follow him @the_pitchfork and james-mcwilliams.com