Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wendell Gee

Rarely has a stone classic been so divisive.

Even normally astute critics such as one Peter Buck think (or at least thought) it weak at best. Which is astonishing, since "Wendell Gee" is where Michael Stipe, always an interesting, often a fascinating, lyricist became a truly great one.

Just as hundreds could have played Miles Davis's solos on Kind of Blue but not one other person could have written them, so too with Stipe's lyrics here.

Stipe may get too much credit for REM's success, as is so often the way with a band's frontman. But not here. No, here's it's entirely justified. Stipe's lyrics, which in their early days could be nothing more than a pleasing or perplexing combination of sounds and syllables, as he has admitted, here rises to the level of a great author. Which is the key to the song.

I said "the key" to the song, but that wasn't correct, because this is R.E.M. and rare indeed is the R.E.M. song that has only one key ingredient. So too here, as Mike Mills' chord changes are delightfully if not radically unconventional, starting with a fifth in the bass, before settling briefly on the tonic and then moving immediately to the supertonic. The following change, from the dominant to the dominant seventh, is the kind of small yet vital bit of coloration that most bands wouldn't even think of—the Beatles being, as they so often are, an exception—yet which makes a huge difference emotionally, lowering and lending ambiguity to the mood ever so slightly yet undeniably. The chorus, meanwhile, is largely a IV-I-V construction, with the tonic sandwich simultaneously imbuing the section with a feeling of resolution that's almost entirely unresolved.

As far as the rhythm section goes, Bill Berry plays the role of metronome beautifully, like Tony Williams on "In a Silent Way," while vocally adding some lovely yet subtle and nearly buried if serenely soaring harmonies (in stark contrast to Mills' far more obvious and busier vocal parts). Meanwhile, Mike Mills's bass dances around Peter Buck's guitar like Fred Astaire dancing with a sentient hatrack.

Instrumentally the real star,  however, as he himself will be pleased to tell you, is Buck's banjo, providing a sonic contrast and fulfilling the function of guitar solo, as well as underpinning the song's southern roots.

As though that were really necessary. As if there were really any doubt.

It has often needed to be pointed out that rock lyrics are not poetry. They do not, generally speaking, work on the page the way poetry does, and only truly come to life when sung. That's often very much the case with Stipe's lyrics, especially (but not only) his early ones. It's not at all the case with "Wendell Gee," although even here, Stipe's lyrics are less poetry and more southern gothic magic realism flash fiction prose. To that end, Stipe's lyrics start in media res, like a good southern storyteller. "So I was down at the holler the other day..."

That's when Wendell Gee takes a tug upon the string that held the line of trees behind the house he lived in

That's the opening. What other rock song has ever started that way? (A: none more.)

He was reared to give respect but somewhere down the line he chose to whistle as the wind blows, whistle as the wind blows through the leaves

Okay. So far we've got a pleasant song about an odd but harmless outsider, a guy who was raised right but chose to live on the outskirts and go his own way—in other words, another Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables song. Which is a good thing.

And then.

He had a dream one night that the tree had lost its middle so he built a trunk of chicken wire to try and hold it up
But the wire, the wire turned to lizard skin and when he climbed inside

Before we have time to process this bizarre, dreamlike scenario, it's immediately followed by a return of the chorus, with additional lyrics:

There wasn't even time to say goodbye to Wendell Gee
So whistle as the wind blows
Whistle as the wind blows through the leaves

Peter Buck's banjo then takes over, giving the listener time to absorb what just happened, if that's possible. Then another run through another chorus, albeit one with again some additional/different lyrics:

If the wind were colors and if the air could speak
Then whistle as the wind blows
Whistle as the wind blows through the leaves

And just like that, Michael Stipe shifted from intriguing rock lyricist and inside sidled into the pantheon of southern gothic writers such as Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Fred Chappell and William Faulkner. With gorgeously evocative phrases such as "if the wind were colors and if the air could speak," Stipe sketches a character study of a mythical yet somehow relatable figure such as Wendell Gee, who disappears into a dying a tree wrapped in lizard skin. And somehow, as with a novel having a corpse for a narrator or the best magic realism, it works.

Despite appearing to hew more closely to literature than gutbucket rock and roll, "Wendell Gee" is in fact very much part of the classic rock and roll lineage. Just as there as some things which words cannot truly capture, for which only something such as "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom" or "da-doo-ron-ron-ron" or "sha-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-tee-da" or "de-do-do-do-de-da-da-da" or "hello, hello, hello, how low" can properly convey the full emotion, so too a phrase as emotionally evocative and overwhelming yet mysterious and indefinable as "if the wind were colors and if the air could speak."

It is one measure of just how weird Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables is that a song about a guy disappearing into a lizard skin tree is the absolute perfect ending. Even more, it's one measure of its greatness. But far from its only one.

And that's R.E.M. and Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables. As cerebral and defiant a band as ever existed, and yet securely in the great rock tradition while simultaneously standing outside it—which is itself part of the great rock tradition. How appropriate.

So whistle as the wind blows 

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