This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Honourable mention Song #5: Man On The Moon by REM (as Nominated by Paul Coombs).
Like many people, I am lucky to have a wide variety of friends who have entered my life at different times, for different reasons. Lots of people come and go but, the really good ones find a way of sticking around and being there for you throughout the ups and downs of life. Paul Coombs is like that for me. We met over forty years ago, back in High School in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. By a bit of a fluke, we ended up in the same series of classes as high school rolled along; getting to know each other in the process. In a school filled with athletes and fighters and misfits and weirdos, Paul and I were two of the good guys. We did our work, tried our best, were good friends to others and tried to be the best versions of ourselves at all times. Even though we were both more quiet than loud, we were both well-liked and respected for the type of person we were. That desire to be a gentleman and a “good guy” has carried forward into adulthood. I will share one quick story about Paul, which is all you will really need to know to understand and appreciate the calibre of his character. Here we go: it was almost exactly two years ago to the day that we first started to experience the lockdown brought about by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic that was sweeping the world. At the time, it was all very new and so much was unknown. A lot of people were truly frightened. We were all told to form small bubbles of people and never interact with others. We were told to stay in our homes and not leave except to buy groceries or medicine, if necessary. Suddenly, our busy lives grew very quiet. One of the biggest impacts of these restrictions was that families were separated. This was especially hard on grandparents. For me, I was suddenly cut off from my, almost 90 year old mother in Nova Scotia. I lived in Ontario, which was a twenty hour drive away and which might as well have been on the moon, for all the good it did us now. So, feeling a sense of unease about my mom being on her own, it made me realize that there might be seniors here, in my hometown, who were cut off from their loved ones, too, and may need help. So, I took to Facebook and offered my services within my hometown and surrounding area to help with errands or chores should anyone feel too nervous to go out during this time of the pandemic. I ended my message by asking if there was anyone “back home” who could the same for my mother so that I could make sure she had milk and tea and was ok. The first person I heard from in reply was Paul. He had never met my Mom but, he said that he would happily check up on her if I wanted. As it turned out, she was well taken care of by the staff at the Assisted LIving complex where she lives but, at the time, knowing that someone good, like Paul, was ready to step up and help out was very reassuring. This speaks to the type of guy Paul has turned out to be. I am grateful that he has remained a presence in my life, even though the miles separate us. I am, also, grateful that he has been willing to chime in, every now and again, during our countdown, with stories and song suggestions. When I put the call out for Honourable Mention songs, again, Paul was one of the first to reply. His song choice was a good one, “Man On The Moon” by REM. Thanks, Paul. Here is the story of this great song.
“Man On The Moon” by REM comes from an album that was released in 1992 called, “Automatic For The People”. It is a song based on a real person named Andy Kaufman. It is, also, one of those songs that you listen to differently depending upon whether you know Andy Kaufman’s story or not. If you don’t then, “Man On The Moon” remains a catchy sort of song, littered with Pop culture references that seem strung together in a willy-nilly fashion that seems to work, musically speaking. However, if you do know Andy’s story then, this song becomes something else, entirely. So, let’s spend a few moments talking about Andy Kaufman so that you can enjoy this song to its fullest extent, too.
Andy Kaufman first came to the attention of the world when he co-starred in the TV show, “Taxi”. In that show, he played a shy, innocent foreigner named Latka. Because Kaufman played a character who possessed an innocent, child-like demeanour, he was able to act with greater freedom that many of the other characters who were limited by the nature of their adult roles. But, being in traditional television comedies was not how Kaufman envisioned his future unfolding because, for starters, her didn’t view himself as an actor nor as a comedian. Some people have come to call Andy Kaufman as an anti-comic. He preferred the term, Performance Artist. A performance artist is someone who takes their Art to extremes. For example, people who go into a public square and perform as human statues are performance artists. They spend hours each day, frozen in place, never breaking character if it rains or if someone touches them nor if they have to go to the bathroom; nothing makes them break character. Well, Andy Kaufman believed in being consumed by his Art and, as such, once he left the show, “Taxi”, he refused to follow a career trajectory that would see him join other casts in other tv shows and, maybe, if he was lucky, get to star in his own show. No, instead, Andy Kaufman followed his muse and began one of the most unique careers of all-time. Here are but two examples of where his Art took him.
Andy Kaufman believed that breaking “the Fourth Wall” was the highest achievement any artist could attain. The Fourth Wall is an imaginary construct that suggests that, during a performance, there is a separation between actors and an audience. That one performs and the other observes. Kaufman believed that true Art was a communal experience and that his brand of entertainment sought to be more of an integrated, spectator sport. Thus, he would involve himself in scenarios such as this: One time, while stage, in character as a man addicted to drugs, Kaufman turned to the audience and broke character. He tore off some of his wardrobe, angrily denouncing his character and the play as being “stupid”. At the time, one of his fellow actors on stage was Michael Richards, (who would become famous as “Kramer” on the TV show, “Seinfeld”). When Kaufman broke character and began his on stage tantrum, Richards left the stage and returned with cue cards on which Kaufman’s line were written and angrily demanded that Kaufman be a professional and read his “damn” lines. Kaufman tore up the cue cards and a brawl ensued on stage. Parts of the set were broken. Costumes were torn. Punches actually flew and connected. The play ground to a halt, as you can imagine. The audience was in an uproar. And, that was that. Afterwards, Kaufman swore it was all a ruse and was pre-planned but, no one besides Kaufman ever admitted that. So, the question of whether or not the brawl on stage was real or not was never answered and remains ambiguous to this day.
To Kaufman, blurring the line between what was real and what was fake was the end goal. Changing the role of an audience from by passive spectators to people involved in the middle of an event, experiencing a visceral reaction was an end goal, as well. So, when Kaufman debuted his wrestling act, it was simply the very next level of Art in his repertoire. Kaufman wanted to explore the world of wrestling which is something that works hard to appear real but, to those in the know, is actually quite staged and fake. In Kaufman’s mind, he wondered if it was possible to take something that appeared real but was fake and then, make the fake seem real. So, he started challenging members of his audiences to wrestle him. However, being a wrestling heel, he only accepted challenges from women. So, he would bait a female audience member into coming into the ring with him and then, he would proceed to beat her up. Kaufman pulled hair, slapped his opponents and so on. The image of a boorish man physically dominating a woman seemed abhorrent and repulsive and caused that visceral reaction from his audiences that Kaufman was seeking. They would boo and call him every foul name in the book. Men in the audience would threaten to come into the ring and show him a thing or two but he never accepted those offers, which only served to rile his audiences up even more. As successful as this new Art was becoming, Kaufman wondered if he could blur the lines between fake and real even further so her started a “feud” with a real professional wrestler named Jerry “The King” Lawler. Lawler performed in the WWE and was a big, strong man who had wrestled as the main event on many championship wrestling cards. Lawler and Kaufman’s feud centred on whether it was right for Kaufman to mock professional wrestling as he had been doing and that, if he was a “real man” then he should accept challenges from men; especially men like Jerry “The King” Lawler. This feud worked its way all the way on to “The Late Show” with David Letterman. On an infamous episode, David Letterman invited both Kaufman and Lawler to sit down together and talk out their differences. Well, one thing led to another, an argument erupted and then, in the heat of the moment, Lawler struck Kaufman, knocking him down, all the while Letterman struggled to regain control. Kaufman got to his feet, screaming about lawsuits and then, stormed off stage. To this day, no one admits that it was all a hoax, leaving the impression that maybe Lawler and Kaufman actually did hate each other. Again, the lines were blurred between fact and fiction…..just the way Kaufman envisioned.
Andy Kaufman had many other characters who challenged audiences. It got to the point that when it was announced that Andy Kaufman had passed away in his thirties from lung cancer, many people thought that it was simply another Kaufman bit and that he wasn’t really dead at all. It has been almost twenty years since the announcement of his death. In those intervening years, there have been no confirmed sightings of Kaufman anywhere, nor have there been of Elvis, either. But, that hasn’t stopped some people from believing that Kaufman is simply waiting people out and is set to re-emerge, alive and intact, soon.
The legacy of Andy Kaufman’s career is that he was one of the first….and best…..at causing people to mistrust their own eyes. In a world of “fake news” and media spin, we have become used to having to view our world through a filter provided by others. But, Andy Kaufman was really one of the first to actually show us all that it was possible to make fake look real and vice versa and to do it in a way that defied future revelation. He altered our perceptions of reality and invited a level of participatory interaction with his audiences that pre-dated social media and the Internet. As such, there are many who credit Andy Kaufman with being one of the most legendary and authentic performers of all-time.
Which brings us back to “Man On The Moon” by REM. This song is rife with references to aspects of Kaufman’s career, as well as, to other, real life “controversies” such as to whether Elvis is really alive and were the moon landings real. This song is not so much revealing any grand philosophical mysteries, as it is paying homage to the world of doubt that Kaufman helped to create that has left us living in a world where conspiracy theories often are given more weight by people than real, credible information from accredited experts in their fields. In a way, it is an easy leap to make the connection from what Kaufman was doing with his Art, to what the song, “Man On The Moon” is singing about, all the way to the disinformation campaigns of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
In any event, when you listen to “Man On The Moon” by REM, listen for all of the conspiracy theory mentions and for the references to Kaufman that populate this nice sounding song. As for videos, I will post the one where Kaufman and Lawler appear on Letterman. You can go down the Andy Kaufman rabbit hole on YouTube on your own time, if you wish, There are dozens of videos of him wrestling women, of him appearing on talk shows as lounge singer, Tony Clifton, of Kaufman’s work on Taxi and much, much more. For now, let’s hear a great song that was nominated by a great friend of mine, Paul Combs. Thanks, Paul, for being part of this musical countdown journey of ours. I appreciate all of the comments you made and stories you have shared along the way.
Here is REM, with the Andy Kaufman-inspired, “Man On The Moon”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Man On The Moon” by REM, can be found here.
The link to the official website for REM, can be found here.
The link to the video for the Late Show with David Letterman episode in which Andy Kaufman and Jerry “The King” Lawler both appear, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Andy Kaufman, can be found here.