Athens, Georgia sits about one hour to the northeast of Atlanta. The city boasts a population of approximately 125,000 citizens. It is home to the University of Georgia and is noted for the abundance of antebellum style architecture found there. But one of the things that Athens, Georgia is most noted for is music. Specifically, it is the birthplace of an extraordinarily large number of major bands over the years including the likes of The B52s, The Indigo Girls, Matthew Sweet, Drive-By Truckers, Of Montreal, Vic Chesnutt and the biggest band of them all, R.E.M. In fact, most members of R.E.M. still maintain homes in Athens. If you ever find yourself in Athens, Georgia, you will notice that the North Oconee River flows through the city. If you follow that river far enough through the town you will find that it passes by an intersection alongside which sits a bright, lime green building known as Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods. (You can check out their menu here). Weaver D’s is a soul food restaurant. But it is equally famous for having played an important part in the world of music. That all came about as a result of the catch-phrase that is used whenever a customer places an order. That catch-phrase, which also sits upon the sign atop the front of the building, is simply, “Automatic For The People”. It was this sign that inspired local musical heroes, R.E.M. to name their 8th album Automatic For The People as well. From that album came six singles including some of their biggest hits, such as “Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon”. But as this album has aged, many critics and fans are warming to another song on the album called “Nightswimming” as being the best the band had to offer that year. In fact, many claim that it is R.E.M.’s second best written song after “Losing My Religion”. High praise, indeed! Let’s see what all the fuss is about. Here is the story of “Nightswimming” by R.E.M. Hmmm! I wonder if Weaver D’s deliver to Canada?
R.E.M. is definitely a band that grew and matured as their career went along. By the time “Losing My Religion” was released (You can read a post about that song here), most members of the band were nearing thirty years of age. Several had married and had become fathers. Such is the evolutionary trajectory of our lives. The carefree days of our youth give way to the onset of the responsibilities of adulthood. Growing older changes most people. We start to understand that real life is more nuanced and multi-hued than we believed it to be while in our teens. We often begin to question our chosen path and wonder if there isn’t more out there for us. For some, the answer to that question can be depressingly negative. Consequently, many of us become more reflective and introspective as we age. This was as true for the members of R.E.M. as it is for the rest of us. As the band set out to accumulate a list of potential new songs for their 8th album, the idea was to find songs that were more uptempo and less slow and dramatic. The band knew they were becoming deeper in their emotions and worried about wallowing in it to the point that their music stopped being fun and filled with energy. So, they worked and worked for weeks at a time to write songs that rocked a little harder. But, when all was said and done, the songs that spoke to them the loudest were the ones they played the softest. They all recognized that “Everybody Hurts” was a hit right off the bat (You can read a post about that song here). “Man On The Moon” was slightly more uptempo (You can read a post about that song here). But then came “Nightswimming”.
“Nightswimming” is a beautifully-written song that has an incredible origin story to it. Whenever R.E.M. set about to record new material they always created the musical score for each song first and then let that inspire the lyrics that would follow. The story is that Mike Mills (on the piano) and Peter Buck (on the guitar) were taking turns playing pieces of instrumental music for Stipe to listen to for the first time. For “Nightswimming”, Mills played a piece of music on the piano that he had been fooling around with. It was soft and measured and constructed in a circular pattern that repeated lazily like a slow flowing brook. Michael Stipe listened to the piano piece once and then asked to hear it a second time. After that second playing, the legend states that Michael Stipe sang the entire finished lyrics to “Nightswimming” in an improvised fashion off of the top of his head all in one take! The rest of his bandmates swear that what he sang aloud that night was exactly what appeared on Automatic For The People a short while later.
“Nightswimming” is a song that best captures the emotional state of the band as they were about to turn thirty. It is a song about memories of the past. Specifically, it is about being young and free enough to go skinny dipping with friends who may remain as friends or who may become something more than that. However, the crux of the song is about looking back upon those times and coming to understand how distant those experiences have become. While the band has never stated what the true intent of the lyrics to “Nightswimming” are, there is a school of thought that says the song is about Michael Stipe trying to live his life as a gay man in the southern U.S. in the 1980s when doing so was still not widely understood nor accepted by society at large. Regardless of where the real truth lies, “Nightswimming” remains a beautiful, poetic song about lives in transition and the emotions that tend to accompany those times.
I wish to thank my friend Paul Coombs for nominating this song. I first met Paul way back in our high school days. Since that time, I have come to learn what a good man Paul is, and almost as importantly, what excellent taste in music he happens to possess. If you ever find yourself in my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, feel free to look Paul up. I am sure he would be more than happy to meet up in any of the many fine Cape Breton restaurants or pubs that abound back home. As R.E.M. discovered in Athens and as Paul and I know to be true in Cape Breton, there is just something about the combination of food and drink and music that works.
Thanks to those who continue to send in the titles of songs that you wish to see on Reader’s Choice. Your nominations are the lifeblood of this series so keep sending them in. No era or genre of music is off limits. Whatever songs speak to your heart will find a home here. It is my honour to tell your story. So, until we meet again, take care everyone. Bye for now.
The link to the video for the song “Nightswimming” by R.E.M. can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.
The link to the official website for R.E.M. can be found here.
The link to the official website for the city of Athens, Georgia can be found here.
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