Sunday, December 14, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 348): "SWEETNESS FOLLOWS" (1992) R.E.M.

Today is the 18th anniversary of my father’s death, and the song for today, rather than being one that directly recalls him to me in some way, is one that was still fairly recent when his passing occurred. It was 1996, the year of R.E.M.’s great album New Adventures in Hi Fi, but the run of good albums that release topped off began with 1992’s Automatic for the People. But today’s song, from that album, wasn’t chosen simply because it was timely, but because it comments on family, and loss within the family, and also on “the sides” that develop in families. The song to me then—I was 37—felt full of the tug toward one’s family and the tug away. And I cite the song today as a way of attesting to the fact of dad’s death as the big landmark event in changing how we all thought of family, here in the pre-Christmas vagaries. When the patriarch goes, things change.

Readying to bury your father and your mother
What did you think when you lost another?
I used to wonder, Why did you bother,
Distanced from one, blind to the other.

Listen here, my sister and my brother,
What would you care if you lost the other?
I always wonder, Why did we bother,
Distanced from one, deaf to the other.

These first two verses sound to me like a son and brother taking stock of family ties. The “you” can be himself, wondering why he bothered with his father and his mother, or he could be a commentator on someone else’s familial relations. Either way, the loss of the parents opens the question: “what did you think”—how did it affect your life? The next two lines suggest someone not very close to either parent, “distanced from one, blind to the other.” If so, there’s a sense of regret—steely regret, maybe, but regret. The death of the parents closes off any further attempt to know them or to let them know “you.” But at the same time, there’s that recurring word “bother.” Why bother? What result do you hope for? Or, does it bother you that you are distanced from your progenitors?

Then comes the siblings, and they’re asked if they’d care if they lost each other. Here the distance and deafness suggests a brother and sister that don’t get along, that tend to make their own demands and ignore the other. We might imagine our speaker as someone caught between them. “Why did we bother” to act as though this were a functioning family or, as Lou Reed says in his song “Families”: “there’s nothing that we have in common except the name.”

The title line “sweetness follows” seems to suggest that, after this harsh look at how things stand, there will be some “sweetness,” some shared value or even a laugh to get over this darkness, or maybe it’s just indifference, but, in any case, it's about resentment within a family, it seems to me. A brave song, in that regard, since one doesn’t usually like to say that one is strangely unaffected by the loss of other people or by the fact that one has no connection to them.

The “sweetness,” I suppose is the “joy and wonder” or “joy and thunder” that the song references, noting that there is a way to live life so that others aren’t excluded or ignored, so that, as they say, “everybody’s happy.” It may be hard to imagine what that would be like, depending on how dysfunctional your family relations are, but it should be imaginable, at least, if not actual or practical. I could say more about that, on a personal level, but let’s stick to the song, shall we?

I like what I hear as ambiguity in the final line: “Yeah, yeah, we were all together, / Lost in our little lives” (the way I always heard the words) or (as the internet gives it): “Yeah, yeah, we were altogether / Lost in our little lives.”  So, English majors, what’s the difference?

“We were all together, lost in our little lives” says that all these family members are “together” and suggests that being “lost in [their] little lives” is a shared quality. In other words, it could be a vision of the insularity of family. Sure, when we get together we tear each other up a bit and there may be this or that odd man out, but we’re all in it together, these little lives we share. The other version says we were “altogether lost in our little lives” as in not seeing the forest for the trees, as in “entirely lost.” We’re shut out of this familial vision—of figuring out why did we bother—because we are “altogether lost,” which would seem to make the distance and the blindness and the deafness the prevailing situation.

Because of how Stipe says “all to gether” I’ve always heard is as “all together,” they way people are at a funeral, for instance. All sharing in the loss, at some level. But, no matter how much shared or not, they’re still “altogether lost” in their own little lives, true.

It’s these little things, they can pull you under

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