Friday, September 11, 2015

Reconstruction of the Fables

There's a great story behind Life and How to Live It, the fourth track on R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction.

Once upon a time in the band's hometown of Athens, Georgia, there lived a reclusive old man named Brivs Mekis. He hardly ever left his house, and most of his neighbours simply referred to him as 'that Russian guy'. When Mekis died, they discovered that the inside of his house was split down the middle - he effectively had two houses in one, each individually inhabitable, each equipped with all necessary facilities and mod cons.

The two half-houses were connected by a single internal door, but other than that, they were basically two completely separate properties. Mekis, it seems, had commissioned this odd feature himself; when he got bored of living in House A, he would just pop through the door to House B and live there for a while. Then, when the novelty of House B wore off and he started pining for House A again, he could go back there in the blink of an eye.

"When you tire of one side, the other serves you best."

Stranger still, the people who discovered this structural quirk after Mekis's death also found hundreds of copies of a book called Life and How to Live It stashed away in House B. The book, written by Mekis himself, was essentially the man's very own manifesto for, well, life and how to live it. If you want to read an old man's (reportedly rather sexist, racist, and all-around bigoted) thoughts on how we should all be conducting ourselves, you can actually buy a copy of Life and How to Live It on eBay, although this fascinating piece of R.E.M. memorabilia sure doesn't come cheap:

The story of Brevs Mekis and his doublehouse is just one of the many intriguing tall tales that populate Fables of the Reconstruction. But the thing about tall tales is that they change with each retelling; every time you reconstruct the fables (so to speak), you add new bricks and change things around. The truth of the Brevs Mekis business is probably very different to the story Michael Stipe used to tell at R.E.M. concerts, and my above attempt to retell the story is probably totally different again.

And what's *really* interesting about Fables of the Reconstruction is the way in which it reflects the ever-changing nature of the stories it tells. For one thing, there's the title: is it Fables of the Reconstruction or Reconstruction of the Fables? The reversible CD insert allows you to make up your own mind...

...and while I've always insisted that Fables of the Reconstruction is the 'proper' title, I'm beginning to think that the flipped-around version is more appropriate.

Because, just as every story changes slightly with each retelling, just as every Chinese whisper morphs into something completely different on its way around the circle, nearly every song on Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables has a line or two that changes as the song progresses. For example, in Wendell Gee, does Michael Stipe sing "listen as the wind blows" or "whistle as the wind blows"?

It's actually both - first one, then the other. Here are some other examples of lines from Fables that, like the album's title, seem to come in two different configurations. Try not to trip over these next time you try to sing along:

"Is he to be reached? He's to be reached."
"Is he not to be reached? He's to be reached."
(from Maps and Legends)

"But we're still a ways away."
"But it's still a ways away."
(from Driver 8)

"My carpenter's out and a-running about and talking to the streets
My pockets are out and a-running about and barking in the streets"
(from Life and How to Live It)

"When you greet a stranger, look at his shoes, keep your money in your shoes"
"When you greet a stranger, look at her hands, keep your money in your hands"
(from Good Advices)

This happens at the verse level, too: Old Man Kensey's three stanzas are essentially just three different retellings of a story (or a playground rumour, perhaps) about a curious gentleman who wants job X (goalie, sign painter, dog catcher) but, since he lacks essential skill Y (counting, reading, standing up), is going to be a clown instead.

R.E.M. had a certain vagueness about them from the very beginning, but Fables... was the first time they weaponised it, actually used that vagueness to express something. Every time you sing a song or tell a story, it will change. You might get lines wrong, or accidentally change certain details, but that's okay - the important thing is that the songs and the stories are living on, even if it's in a different body each time.


  1. This is a nice analysis right here.

  2. The album is also considered a perfect example of the Southern Gothic style (at least as far as alt-rock goes)