Today’s song was chosen because today marks the end of two weeks in Ocean City, MD, where my family has vacationed since my mother was a child, though it only became a yearly event beginning in 1968. Those facts, of course, have nothing to do with R.E.M.’s “Cuyahoga” from Lifes Rich Pageant (1986), their first gold record.
The song is in tribute to the Cuyahoga River around which Cleveland, OH, was built, and which suffered much pollution. Famously, the river caught fire a few times, particularly in 1969, which inspired Randy Newman’s song “Burn On.” R.E.M. seem to be trying to use the example of the polluted river as a way of getting at the depredation the land has endured since the time of the Iroquois who named the river Cuyahoga (“crooked river”). The Iroquois, I suppose, are the “they” who “walked, swam, hunted, danced, and sang,” making the song a way of paying tribute to the tribe as well, as figures for the unpolluted land and examples of all that’s “gone.”
So, why is the song relevant to our departure from Ocean City? Because, coming here since 1968, we’ve seen many changes and back in the mid-Eighties when R.E.M. released this album and was probably our favorite current band, my youngest brother, Eric, chose to cite it when we were doing some video taping of the old beach—at 65th Street—that we had stayed at yearly from 1970 (when he was four) till 1982. So, it was still a recent change. It’s not that we were driven out by pollution or development, per se, but the way the city has changed in our lifetimes is notable. It was once a place with much more open space—sand and dune grass—but since the late Seventies it’s been increasingly developed, so much so that at times there was a real threat to the continued stability of the beach itself as there was no natural buttress against beach erosion. In the later Eighties and after, there have been concerted efforts to improve that situation. Which is why, when we visited 65th street this year, we were amazed at how built up the dunes and grass are there. Quite different from the street we stay at now.
Anyway, in the late Eighties, we had the sense that the resort we knew was changing for good and not for the better; we videotaped some of it to preserve our sense of what it was like—and Eric selected the verse “This is where we walked / This is where we swam / Take a picture here / Take a souvenir.” It was fitting, and typical of the way we—my brothers and I—tend to bend lines from songs and movies to suit occasions to which they are completely unrelated. The “Cuyahoga” reference isn’t entirely out of place, I would say. Though Stipe is singing about a river, the kind of mourning one can have for its fate can be echoed in how we feel about the way the beach and ocean once were.
“Cuyahoga” was one of the songs on Lifes Rich Pageant that first connected with me—along with “Fall On Me”—because it had the morose but stirring feel of much of the earlier R.E.M. With Mike Mills’ hypnotic bass line moving the song through its paces, sometimes sounding like a lead instrument, and the instrumentation of the song felt “vintage” enough to be consistent with what I’d come to expect from R.E.M.: songs that jelled by degrees as one became familiar with them. The part that takes the song toward some statement—marking the bridge—is: “Rewrite the book and rule the pages / Saving face, secured in faith / Bury, burn the waste behind you.” There we have not only a gesture toward the way history is recorded and the future sealed as the inevitable outcome of the past we want to claim, but we can also say we have an exhortation to move on. The song is elegiac in its sense of “Cuyahoga, gone,” and critical of the easy way we change the past to suit us.
No doubt we’re all guilty of that—especially aging guys reflecting on the fun they had as kids, and the times they’ve shared for almost five decades. There’s a lot of waste behind us, no doubt, and a lot of wasted time too. But it was our time to waste.
Take a picture here, take a souvenir.