So Long, R.E.M. – Leonard Cohen & R.E.M.

It’s The End Of R.E.M.

Last week, the members of R.E.M. posted this notice on their official site,

To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening.

R.E.M.

R.E.M. has long admired and sometimes emulated Leonard Cohen. On the occasion of  the band’s breakup, a retrospective look at the Leonard Cohen-R.E.M. connection seems an appropriate tribute to this groundbreaking group credited by many as the inventors of alternative rock.

R.E.M.’s Hope = Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne

The link between “Hope” by R.E.M. and “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen is intriguing because the melody of both songs is nearly identical and the lyrics, while dealing with dissimilar topics, are largely parallel.  In addition, the lyrics of “Hope” have also been lauded  by fans and reviewers as some of Michael Stipe’s strongest work.

According to Wikipedia,

The band R.E.M. gave Cohen a joint songwriting credit for their song “Hope” (on their 1998 album Up), in light of the similarity between the two songs. R.E.M. describe themselves as realising that similarity only after completing the song.

From Ask Michael Stipe: Finale!, posted September 28, 2008:

[Fan:] One of my favorite REM-songs is HOPE, because I really love the background sound, as well as the energy it transports and the rate. The lyrics are great, I especially love the line ” and you want to cross your DNA with something reptile”, so what is the song about and what was the idea about this special line? …

[Michael Stipe:] felt very futuristic/21st c. to me that someday we will use prehistoric ‘living fossil’ animal dna to bolster our own immunity; the guy in the song is facing some very difficult questions about longevity and survival, and basically grabbing at any possibility to stay alive. I obviously lifted most of the song from Leonard Cohen, along with the imagery ideas from World Leader Pretend

For a convenient comparison of the two songs, a video of R.E.M. performing “Hope” and Albert Noonan’s video of Cohen singing “Suzanne” at the November 12, 2009 Las Vegas concert are provided below. The lyrics to each follow their respective video.

R.E.M. – Hope

You want to go out Friday
And you want to go forever
You know that it sounds childish
That you dreamt of alligators
You hope that we are with you
And you hope you’re recognized
You want to go forever
You see it in my eyes
I’m lost in the confusion
And it doesn’t seem to matter
You really can’t believe it
And you hope it’s getting better

You want to trust the doctors
Their procedure is the best
But the last try was a failure
And the intern was a mess
And they did the same to Matthew
And he bled ’til Sunday night
They’re saying don’t be frightened
But you’re weakened by the sight of it
You lock into a pattern
And you know that it’s the last ditch
You’re trying to see through it
And it doesn’t make sense
But they’re saying don’t be frightened
And they’re killing alligators
And they’re hog-tied
And accepting of the struggle

You want to trust religion
And you know it’s allegory
But the people who are followers
Have written their own story
So you look up to the heavens
And you hope that it’s a spaceship
And it’s something from your childhood
You’re thinking don’t be frightened

You want to climb the ladder
You want to see forever
You want to go out Friday
And you want to go forever
And you want to cross your DNA
To cross your DNA with something reptile

And you’re questioning the sciences
And questioning religion
You’re looking like an idiot
And you no longer care
And you want to bridge the schism,
A built-in mechanism to protect you
And you’re looking for salvation
And you’re looking for deliverance
You’re looking like an idiot
And you no longer care
‘Cause you want to climb the ladder
You want to go forever
And you want to go out Friday
You want to go forever

Leonard Cohen – Suzanne (Las Vegas, 2009)

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.

R.E.M. Covers Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan”

The most straightforward link between Cohen and R.E.M. is the latter’s gritty cover of “First We Take Manhattan” on the 1991 tribute album, I’m Your Fan, produced by the Les Inrockuptibles.

World Leader Pretend – Michael Stipe’s “First Real Lift” From Leonard Cohen

From Ask Michael Stipe: Finale!, posted September 28, 2008:

[Fan:] I’ve always (well, 20 years now) been fascinated with the lyrics of “World leader pretend”. It seems pretty much a song about an all psychological “war” the character wages with himself (I sit at my table, And wage war on myself… I divine my deeper motives… This is my world… This is my life, and this is my time..). What was the inspiration for these very introspective lines? Were you coming across a self-reflective time, or was an external event that led you to write such introspective lyrics? And, it seems to me these lyrics come from a sort of dissatisfaction the character has with himself.. is this a passing and circumstantial unhappiness, as may happen at any time in our everyday life, or is it a deeper feeling of a thorough “inadequacy” he feels toward life and his commitment to it?
Grazie mille Michael, and thank you also for your extremely inspirational lyrics!
Massimo

[Michael Stipe:]  This was my first real lift from Leonard Cohen.  I took a very personal vantage point and used the language of war to describe it. 1

Michael Stipe’s “King of Comedy” Inspired By Leonard Cohen

“King Of Comedy” is a synth driven track with a  dark vocal range and cynical lyrics Stipe claims were  inspired by Leonard Cohen.2 Sample lyrics follow:

Make your money with a power ply
Make your money with a buyout bribe
Make it lie as long as you mean it

I’m not king of comedy,
I’m not your magazine,
I’m not your television,
I’m not your movie screen
I’m not commodity (all together now)
I’m not commodity
I’m not commodity
I’m not commodity
I’m not commodity
I’m not commodity

Less charitably, guitarist Peter Buck called it a “Leonard Cohen rip-off.”3

  1. World Leader Pretend lyrics:

    I sit at my table and wage war on myself
    It seems like it’s all, it’s all for nothing
    I know the barricades, and
    I know the mortar in the wall breaks
    I recognize the weapons, I used them well

    This is my mistake. Let me make it good
    I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down

    I’ve a rich understanding of my finest defenses
    I proclaim that claims are left unstated,
    I demand a rematch
    I decree a stalemate
    I divine my deeper motives
    I recognize the weapons
    I’ve practiced them well. I fitted them myself

    (chorus)
    It’s amazing what devices you can sympathize, empathize
    This is my mistake. Let me make it good
    I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down

    Reach out for me and hold me tight. Hold that memory
    Let my machine talk to me, let my machine talk to me

    This is my world
    And I am world leader pretend
    This is my life
    And this is my time
    I have been given the freedom
    To do as I see fit
    It’s high time I’ve razed the walls
    That I’ve constructed

    (repeat chorus)

    You fill in the mortar. You fill in the harmony
    You fill in the mortar. I raised the wall
    And I’m the only one
    I will be the one to knock it down []

  2. “King Of Comedy” lyrics follow:

    Make your money with a suit and tie
    Make your money with shrewd denial
    Make your money expert advice,
    If you can wing it
    Make your money with a power ply
    Make your money with a buyout bribe
    Make it lie as long as you mean it

    I’m not king of comedy,
    Grease the pig, give a squeeze (squeeze me)

    Make your money with exploitation
    Make it holy illumination
    Say a prayer at every station
    Don’t forget to ask for mercy
    Make your money with a pretty face
    Make it easy with product placement
    Make it charged with controversy
    I’m straight, I’m queer, I’m bi

    I’m not king of comedy,
    I’m not your magazine,
    I’m not your television

    Make your money, make it rich
    Make it young and make it quick
    Make your money on the jukebox, baby,
    It’s pick up sticks,
    Make your enemies, make your moves
    Make your critics fumble through
    Make it smart and make it schmooze
    Make it look easy

    I’m not king of comedy,
    I’m not your magazine,
    I’m not your television,
    I’m not your movie screen
    I’m not commodity (all together now)
    I’m not commodity
    I’m not commodity
    I’m not commodity
    I’m not commodity
    I’m not commodity []

  3. Black, Johnny (2004). Reveal: The Story of R.E.M.. Backbeat Books []

One response to “So Long, R.E.M. – Leonard Cohen & R.E.M.

  1. very much enjoyed your post today….very intersting!