REM‘s darkest album rumbles to the end with another roundhouse political punch.
They had raised this kind of topicality in the 1986s Lives Rich Contest, while maintaining an inherent hopefulness that marked the band’s earliest albums. None of that remained at the dark heart of “Oddfellows Local 151,” REM’s abrasive, ultimately lament-like exploration of the homeless issue.
The setting is a local lodge of the Oddfellows social organization, “like the Mooses or Shriners,” Peter Buck says in Reveal: The Story of REM Michael Stipe created a searing indictment of those who do not uphold America’s social contract by focusing on the plight of the poor left to their own devices just outside the brotherly embrace—so close to the comforts of community, yet far, far away.
“There are more messages on this record than the last,” Mike Mills admitted in a 1987 interview with Toronto Daily News. “Michael just gets comfortable with what he’s doing, so it’s easier for him to say the things he feels. Plus, things get worse to the point where he feels like he should say something about it.”
Stipe got a personal glimpse of those left behind by the economic engine of the 80s when he regularly passed this neighborhood lodge. One of them, named Pee Wee, began preaching to his fellow drunks as well as the occasional passerby—though it was never clear what wisdom he imparted. Without hope, they turned to any anesthetic they could find.
“That song is actually about all these winos that used to live down the street from us,” Buck shared Q magazine in 1992. “They used to live in cars. We call them the Motor Club. These old guys slept in the cars and drank all the time. I think there was a guy called Pee Wee, too. Michael knew them because he used to live right next door to them. Every once in a while you’d give them five dollars or hand over a bottle.”
The eccentricities of the homeless population may boast a certain romantic quality, but they often hide a painful past defined by unemployment, addiction, ostracism and mental illness. REM’s fury at the glaring inequities is evident from the first note as Buck unleashes a wall of squealing feedback. They also emphasize a connection to these everyday figures via back image to Documentwhich reminds of social realism of the murals of the prewar Works Progress Administration.
“After a quarter, people on the ground start passing out,” Stipe says Reveal“it means that the society in that neighborhood is already going down. Not because these people are bad, but because it represents the fact that people are not taking care of their duties to take care of them.”
With this final, withering charge, REM closed out their first statement album, the first where they embraced the platform they were given and attempted to say something remarkable. At the same time, Document revealed a new complexity in their musical approach – something that would provide a bulwark for REM’s chart-topping future success.
“This one is a little more scattershot, which I like,” Buck said UPI in 1987. “Because it’s a diverse record, there’s no center to it. It’s more like a bunch of snapshots. Some of it has a sort of Orwellian feel to it. It’s a chaotic record because it’s been a chaotic year for the whole world – especially America.”
Document also completed the band’s original record deal, setting the stage for REM’s move to a new multi-million deal with Warner Bros. Soon their commercial reach would match their already heady creative ambitions.
“I don’t know if it’s a turning point,” Mills mused in a 1987 interview with Atlanta Journal Weekend. “It’s kind of the culmination of things so far: Our first radio hit, our first album with any chance of going platinum, the last year of our contract with the IRS. We’ve got to figure out what to do next. Next year should be interesting.”
As “Oddfellows Local 151” draws to a close, REM makes a final reference to the inscription on the spine of Document, which read “File Under Fire.” Stipe lets out a howling cry: “Fiiiiirehouse,” sounds like he’s crying out for help with everything burning around him – and that’s obviously how REM felt at the time.
“Michael will always be oblique about it; we’re never going to be didactic and beat people over the head – but I certainly don’t mind saying anything,” Mills said. Toronto Daily News. “That’s what he sees.”
It actually went beyond the political climate of the time. Even this early in their journey to superstardom, REM were already coming face to face with some bigger, more uncomfortable truths. The bigger they got, the more diverse their fan base became. They were no longer a niche college rock act, but the newfound fame brought its own challenges.
“I had to contend with a lot of contradictions back in the ’80s,” Stipe shared Guardian years later. “I’d look out from the stage at the Reagan youth. That’s when REM went beyond the freaks, the chicks, the cool girls, the art students and the indie music fanatics. Suddenly we had an audience that included people who wanted to kick me in the street than to let me walk by undisturbed. I’m exaggerating to make a point, but it was certainly an audience that in the main didn’t share my political views or affiliations and didn’t like how flamboyant I was as a performer – or indeed a sexual being. And I had to look at it and think, ‘Well, what am I going to do with this?'”
The answer in the form of 1989’s major-label debut Greenwas a pendulum swing back towards some degree of optimism – though it would forever be tempered by the hard truths Document and this entire period was revealed to REM
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