The Night Is Yours Alone
R.E.M., soul food, and death.
Sometimes you are maybe old, but not as old as the people around you insist you are. Sometimes you have seen some things, but not nearly enough to know that you’ve seen enough. In 1992, R.E.M. was already seven albums into a career that had made them wildly successful and considered one of the greatest bands of their era. On the wings of a mandolin riff, the single “Losing My Religion” soared up the Billboard charts in 1991, expanding R.E.M.’s original fan base and making their album Out of Time a massive success. But also, in the same moment, the sound of alternative rock, as they had become comfortable in it, was shifting: With the inception and then rapid popularity of grunge, guitars became murkier; singers — even those who found themselves inspired by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe — became raspier, more hard-edged. R.E.M., by comparison, were no longer new, fresh, and as unique as they once were.
What to do, then, in the fall of 1992, but dig up Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, drag a bunch of string instruments into a studio, and create an orchestra of loneliness and isolation. Automatic for the People takes its name from Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods in Athens, Georgia, where the band originated. Weaver D’s is hard to miss — a lime-green shack where fresh soul food is served. Dexter Weaver cuts the bananas for the banana pudding fresh every morning. He still works in the kitchen, which, at least the single time I’ve been present in the restaurant, is buzzing, loud but jovial. The slogan “Automatic for the People” hangs outside, underneath the restaurant’s name.
On the night in 1992 before Michael Stipe, along with a lawyer, approached Dexter Weaver to ask if the band could use the slogan for their next album, Weaver D’s had been robbed. The restaurant was on hard times, and Dexter Weaver — a soul man — didn’t know much about this skinny white man’s band, or how big they were, but he granted them the rights anyway. Before he knew it, his restaurant was a hot spot, a tourist’s dream drop-in.
While Weaver D’s got back on its feet during the ’90s, in the 2010s it grappled with potential closings. In 2012, Weaver posted an abrupt message to Facebook, telling patrons that Weaver D’s would be closing for good, that he was selling everything inside the restaurant. With a push from the community, the restaurant stayed open, holding on for two more uncertain years, until 2014, when the restaurant threatened to close again amid an uncertain economy and a growing distance from the R.E.M. album that made it notable. But the community rallied again, donating money and — more important — bringing in new customers. Weaver D’s celebrated its 31st anniversary in late July of this year.
I think of the Weaver D’s story as an intricate part of Automatic for the People’s story: the part about resilience in the face of a changing tide that might prefer it if you were swept away. Automatic is the album about staying alive even though you might experience times when you don’t want to. When recording the album, Mike Mills told interviewers that the band members found themselves surprised that it was coming out as dark and midtempo as it was. Peter Buck stressed the emphasis on real instruments coming through the mix—a lot of acoustics, and strings, and pianos. Stipe wasn’t present during the initial recording sessions. The band was, it seems, building a full and complete emotional atmosphere for him to step into when the songs arrived to him. Part of this was due to the inclusion and influence of John Paul Jones, who was able to strip the band to its bare elements and use the bones to create pulsating and melodic orchestral arrangements that homed in on a landscape of vast feeling. When everyone else around them was getting louder about their angst, R.E.M. turned the volume down and let the songs speak plain.
It is perhaps an easy reading to say that Automatic is about death, but it is also a reading that cannot be ignored. To go deeper is to say that it is an album about death in all its forms: wanting the escape of death, wanting to keep death at bay, coming to terms with death. Stipe had just crossed over into a new decade of life when he wrote the album’s lyrics. He was only 30, but there is something about being still young, but not young in the way that youth is young. Not young in the way that people talk about when they talk about freedom. It can make one reconsider their time on this spinning rock, and how to make the most of what they have left — not just for themselves, but also for everyone they love. And so, on these songs, Stipe comes to terms with a type of mortality that is both honest and longing, and sometimes still playful. “Try Not to Breathe” is about a man who, fed up with his own suffering, makes a path to his own end. It’s a song about leaving the world so you might no longer burden others with your presence. “Sweetness Follows” begins with the line: “Readying to bury your father and your mother / What did you think when you lost another?” The song unfolds from that question. Even the more upbeat moments, like “Man on the Moon,” with its swelling chorus, are elegies, with that song being an ode to the departed Andy Kaufman.
And this was the trick of it all, really. I don’t know how sad Stipe was or was not during the creation of this album, or even if he was sad at all. I do know that he was, it seemed, done with reaching backwards. The past is most valuable in the moments where you can’t come to grips with your present. Automatic for the People is the album where Stipe considers death and realizes that it is not only a sad, grief-ridden thing. That there might be some joy in someone you love finding peace from whatever torments the world has placed on them. The band was fiercely political and socially engaged before this album and would remain so after it. But for this song cycle, they were most interested in the politics of grief. The slow-moving battleground of sadness that takes hold of the body and doesn’t let go. There is “Ignoreland,” a song that dances near the political, with Stipe taking brief aim at George H.W. Bush with the line “These bastards stole all the power from the victims of the us v. them years.” But largely, the album finds a new political interest, and it’s all about emotion.
Automatic for the People was released on October 5, 1992, and rapidly ascended to the top of the charts. Its songs were hits, fixtures on college and pop radio. It was a triumph, showing how a band could change and not sacrifice itself. Showing, especially, how a band could look at the changing times and have very little interest in adapting to them. Charting their own path toward something greater.
People play “Everybody Hurts” in the moments where they know you should be sad. It’s played in commercials that show abused animals, or starving children in other countries. It’s played during retrospectives of some horrible violence that has taken place. Just last week, it played in a video tribute for the victims of the Las Vegas terrorist attack. It is one of those songs that has taken on its own life outside of the life that was intended for it. The band wrote it as a song aimed at teens, which is why the lyrics are so simple, straightforward, and pleading. The band looked at the high suicide rate among teenagers in the year leading up to the album’s recording and wanted to write a song that might keep someone alive. At the end of the song, Stipe repeatedly croons the words “hold on,” with an intensity that seems to multiply each time, so that it seems like he is pleading with himself as much as he is pleading with any listener. “Everybody Hurts” is the kind of song you make if you know you have friends who need it—and I did, and I’m sure I still do. I’ve heard it played at funerals for pals who didn’t know any other way out but darkness, and I’ve heard it played in bedrooms while someone was trying to force their way out of some grief that had been dragging them down. I will go on record as saying that I don’t think it is R.E.M.’s finest song — maybe not even the finest song on this record — but it’s the one I know I’ve needed to hear in more moments than I can count.
Kurt Cobain wanted to make an album like Automatic for the People. In 1993, he insisted that Nirvana’s next album would be acoustic and ethereal, like Automatic. He, maybe, wanted to talk about pain and survival as plainly as Stipe found his way to doing over the orchestral melodies on Automatic, a quiet but layered offering. Stipe and Cobain were close friends and inspirations, and Cobain wanted to make an album that sounded like Nirvana’s Unplugged album, recorded in the fall of 1993 but not released until the following year, after Cobain was already dead.
Kurt Cobain killed himself, which isn’t news to anyone reading this. His body was found on April 8, 1994, nearly a year to the day after “Everybody Hurts” was released as a single. He had been obsessed with Automatic for the People in the moments leading up to his death. When I hear the song played now as the soundtrack to all grief and all survival, I think of Cobain. How maybe this is the album’s message above all other messages: that even when you want to save the people closest to you, you sometimes can’t. You can build a million lifeboats, but sometimes the water will always be too much to survive.