Thursday, September 10, 2015


"Who will stand alone?"

A dying comet briefly shoots across the sky, bringing none of the explosive wonder that had been hoped for, and then is quickly and quietly gone forever. Thus becomes a metaphor for love and loss in "Kohoutek," another in a series of Side 2 deep cuts on Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables and one of the first songs about romance R.E.M. would ever record.

In real life the Comet Kohoutek was a bit of a disappointment. In the early 1970s it was supposed to awe us lighting up the nighttime sky. Instead it broke up too early and left in its wake something underwhelming, unfulfilling. And leave it to R.E.M. to turn a pop culture anomaly into the impetus for its first true love song. Though better it was Kohoutek than, say, Al Capone's vault.

"Kohoutek" stands as a big bright shiny example of the respect R.E.M. always afforded its fans. The song is written and performed without explanation or any glaringly obvious exposition. It's called "Kohoutek," for crying out loud, a pretty innocuous and dated old American curiosity, yet it's not about the comet or the fascination that ensued around it. It's a love song, and an oblique one at that.

But Berry-Buck-Stipe-Mills think enough of the audience to not have to spell anything out for them. Not unlike a half a dozen years after Fables the band would score its biggest (and arguably best) hit with "Losing My Religion," another song where the title gives away little to anything, R.E.M. didn't mind giving its listeners a little something to think about when they put their music on. And therein lies one more not-so-subtle secret to their success--they trusted the fans to trust them. Well done, boyos.

As a song, "Kohoutek" is fairly standard. It starts right in, almost mid-beat, which is rare for a Fables song; no melodic lead-in or off-center intro to start things off. In fact it would be a fairly middling song all the way through were in not for three rather critical components:

1) Some of the sweetest lyrics of their early career. My oh my did they write this one:

She carried ribbons, she wore them out,
Courage built a bridge, jealousy tore it down.
At least its something you've left behind,
Like Kohoutek, you were gone.
We sat in the garden, we stood on the porch,
I won't deny myself, we never talked.

Good grief that is pretty. Downright poetic for a band whose lyrics in the early years were never exactly a priority. Throughout Fables of the Reconstruction we see a lyrical evolution with the band, something bigger growing. That they could knock off a line as gorgeous as "We sat in the garden, we stood on the porch, I won't deny myself, we never talked"  in one of the more obscure tracks on the album speaks to the chops they possessed.

2) Peter's guitar at the end of each verse, including that lovely little mini-solo he plucks out right in the middle. The former, just a lilting two-note climb, gives the song its tenderness. The latter leans back on the band's estimable folk roots and could easily have found its way into a Mamas and the Papas song (a band R.E.M. frequently covered in those days) 20 years earlier. Peter Buck never considered himself a traditional rock guitarist, and certainly never considered himself a balladeer. On "Kohoutek" he is both.

3) Michael's stunning falsetto at the end of each verse. Peter's guitar fills are the yin, Michael's voice is the yang, drifting up, up and away with a tenderness he was only now becoming aware he possessed. All of those concluding half-lines("We never talked," "Who will stand alone?" "Will I stand alone?") are the lasting trump cards of "Kohoutek" and instill the song with a sad sweetness that seems totally at home for both him and the band behind him.

Again, in a lot of ways "Kohoutek" is unremarkable, drifting into the vast woodwork of a rather amazing canon the band would assemble. But listen to those little things, consider the subject matter and maturity of it all. And then thank R.E.M. for having the confidence in its fans to present things that so often were never as they first seemed.

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