is a track by R.E.M.
from the album Automatic For The People
. Originally considered little more than a joke track, it has ended up being the closest thing this band has written to a standard
, being covered by many other artists.
The chord changes to this song were created by Bill Berry, the then drummer of the band, during the early stages of recording for the album (the follow-up to the band's breakthrough hit Out Of Time, and widely regarded as their masterpiece). While Berry was the band's drummer both on record and in live performances, he is also an accomplished guitarist and bass player, and many of REM's biggest hits were based on music he wrote (another obvious example being Man On The Moon from the same album). However, in this case the band couldn't find an arrangement that suited them, and ended up recording this in what Peter Buck calls an Otis Redding style (think I've Been Loving You Too Long rather than Respect or (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay), and more or less dismissing it before the lyrics were written.
While Otis Redding has been mentioned most often as the primary inspiration for the track, the bare bones of the arrangement (arpeggiated 6/8 chords on guitar, with piano and organ) are familliar to anyone with a knowledgs of 50s and 60s pop music - it sounds like a million different white people trying to do doo-wop (eg the Teddy Bears' To Know Him Is To Love Him and the Beach Boys' The Warmth Of The Sun). In fact though, the song to which it bears the closest resemblance, at least to my ears, is The Mamas And The Papas' version of Dedicated To The One I Love, which I suspect was at least a subconscious influence in the writing of this song.
The arrangement of the song is one of REM's best, mostly staying stripped down until the middle eight, when John Paul Jones' strings come in, peaking at the line 'no, no, no, you're not alone', and the simple message, that you're not alone when you feel depressed and suicidal, is echoed in the arrangement by the sharing of vocal parts between Michael Stipe and Mike Mills. The vocals are among the best the band ever did, and the lyrics among Stipe's simplest, and in all, this track rightly deserves its ubiquitous presence on the radio and in best record of the 90s lists.
Or it would do, except for one line.
The second line of the chorus to this song, which is intended to comfort suicidal teenagers, is 'take comfort in your friends'. Now this may be the single most misjudged line in the history of lyric writing, for it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Michael Stipe does not know what he's talking about when it comes to depression.
When you're depressive, you have no friends. Most of the time this is only true in one's mind (as a depressive myself I know how large a part self-pity plays in people's thoughts when they're in a depressive patch, and when you feel like that it's hard to believe anyone really cares about you - many people who kill themselves actually believe they are doing their friends and family a favour), but there are times when it is literally true as well - for all too many people their teenage years are times when they really do have no friends and no-one to turn to, when they feel alone and helpless in an essentially malign world.
This song, because of the inclusion of that line, can (and apparently does) help those who might be temporarily down, but everyone who has really, truly suffered from depression that I've spoken to has said this song just makes them feel worse.
Yes, Michael, everybody does hurt sometimes, but some people have a great huge gaping fucking wound in the centre of their soul, that sometimes closes up slightly but never truly stops hurting. And by including that line in the song, Stipe has made sure that for me at least (and for several other people I know who have mentioned this independently) there are times when this otherwise great song is unlistenable, because it seems almost to be a taunt, and it opens up that gaping wound even wider.
But I'm probably making too big a deal out of this. It's a good song on a technical level, and it's well intentioned, and it's by a genuinely great band. It's not their fault it missed the mark and hurts some of the people it's trying to help. And I don't want to sound like a self-pitying poor-me imbecile who wants some cheese with his whine - we all have our crosses to bear and mine is a lot lighter than many people's.
But I wish they'd changed that line...