Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 203
Tues. Aug 27, 2013
“Find The River”
I used to believe that this closing track from Automatic for the People was Michael Stipe’s ode to Mississippi River inspired majesty of Mark Twain’s prose. But yesterday while listening to “Find the River” with new more refined years, I finally realized the subject of one of Stipe’s more personal songs is none other than Michael’s old friend River Phoenix. How could I have missed this? Being English major and a Rock ‘n’ Roll scholar in training, instead of looking at the obvious, I always searched for the more symbolic meaning in R.E.M.’s songs.
Not only did I not know that Phoenix was the lyrical inspiration but did you know that it was Mike Mills who came up with the musical idea for “Find The River?” According to Peter Buck, in Craig Rosen’s R.E.M. Inside Out: The Stories Behind Every Song, “[Find The River”] was done completely before we went into the studio. Mike [Mills] put almost every instrument on it and, after that, we just added vocals.” Looking back, Mike Mills was R.E.M.’s George Harrison, the unsung Dark Horse of the band. Like Harrison in the Fab Four, Mills rarely gets the recognition the bassist deserves for the contribution he made to the band. This is probably due to the fact that the songwriting credits were shared between all four members Buck, Berry, Mills and Stipe. So fans and critics alike always assumed it was Peter and Michael who came up with the ideas for each of the tracks. You’d be surprised to know that Mills wrote the music to some of R.E.M.’s most poignant songs like “Nightswimming” and the much underrated New Adventures in Hi-Fi’s “Be Mine.”
In David Buckley’s R.E.M.: Fiction: An Alternative Biography, Mike Mills explained how “Find the River” came to life, when he said, “It’s pretty much the demo of the song. The thing about us is that we try and make the verses as interesting as the choruses. One thing about the way we wrote was that, since we were writing without lyrics and melody first, we always wanted the song to be interesting without the lyrics and melody. We had to be happy with what we were writing before we have it to Michael. […] Musically, the songs on [Automatic for the People] were already constructed and vibrant before Stipe overlaid his lyrics and melody. With such care and attention span on the musical weave, it’s little wonder many of these songs are timeless.” I respect the fact that Mills always talked about the songs in the “we” as a band and never tried to take credit for the song that he created. This shows how and why R.E.M. endured for so long and many other band of their era, i.e. The Replacements, 10,000 Maniacs, Hüsker Dü, broke up before their time.
Another unsung hero of R.E.M.’s “Find The River” was drummer Bill Berry. Did you know that it was Berry and Mills were the sung the backing harmony vocals on “River?” Mills talked about how he and Bill came up with their harmonies in Johnny Black’s Reveal: The Story of R.E.M. when Mike explained, “I had the idea that Bill and I would go in and do some harmonies without listening to each other. It’s great because mind is this incredibly, angst-ridden, high, emotional thing, and Bill’s is this really low-key ambling part. They’re two opposite ends of the spectrum but their both on there and it’s a beautiful song.” Like two streams meeting in the middle, next time you spin this closing number from Automatic, listen closely to Berry and Mills’ backing vocals that bring wonderful vocalized layers to Stipe’s very personal “Find The River.”
Although, musically, Mills and Berry were the behind the scenes stars of “River,” lyrically, Stipe has never acknowledged that his old friend Phoenix was the subject of “Find;” but all you have to do is read the lyrics and the words literally bring the former American actor’s presence clearly into the song. If you’re wondering why Michael has never talked about the meanings of songs like “Find The River” you have to look to a quote from Tony Fletcher’s amazing biography on the band R.E.M.: Perfect Circle, Stipe talked about the ambiguity of his songwriting when he said, “Any wife or husband, any lover, can tell you the importance of mystery, what a large part it plays in life, and how important it is to leave a little bit for people to work out for themselves.”
Stipe is right, even though River Phoenix might have been his lyrical inspiration by not telling us what he was writing about gives his audience the ability to fill in the blanks and create our own personal narrative for his songs. This is the power and everlasting magic of R.E.M.’s legacy as one of the greatest American rock bands of all time. Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe might provide the musical and lyrical canvas but we are the ones that bring the colorful meaning of songs like “Find The River” to life. Take a dive inside the warm and beautiful confines of this closing epic number from Automatic for the People; maybe this time will swimming within this beauty, of Mike Mills creation and River Phoenix inspired lyrical number, you will rediscover your own meaning of “Find The River—” and live within the splashing glories of this R.E.M. classic.