Passing glances: Where Leonard Bernstein meets R.E.M.

This blog has been on vacation. If I had a greater sense of responsibility, I would’ve hung a sign over the image at the top of the landing page saying, “Gone fission—back sooner or later,” but making that look right would’ve taken some work, which is just what I’ve been trying to avoid lately. Are we still on vacation? The Magic 8 Ball prognosticator says, “Ask again later.” Meanwhile, there’s this.

Over the weekend I found myself thinking of how R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe gave a shout-out to Leonard Bernstein amid the rapid-fire, seemingly random patter of the band’s song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” released in 1987. Here it is, in context:

The other night I dreamt of knives, continental drift divide
Mountains sit in a line, Leonard Bernstein
Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs
Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom!
You symbiotic, patriotic, slam but neck
Right? Right!

It needs to be said that opinions differ on the exact wording in this song. In the section above, some people hear “I tripped a nice” rather than “I dreamt of knives” and “Mount St. Edelite” instead of “Mountains sit in a line.” No big deal; the sound takes precedence over the sense here. What Stipe—who apparently crafted the lyrics—may be aiming for is neither sense nor nonsense but something like the sound of sense, a rattling, clattering collage of verbal constructs. I wouldn’t call it “stream of consciousness,” though many do, because it’s more jumble than stream, but that too doesn’t matter. As for the four men whose initials are L.B., the Wikipedia entry for the song reports that Stipe dreamed of attending a party where those guys and everyone else possessed those initials. If you ask me, the words don’t read particularly well, but they’re not intended to. What matters is their role in the music—a critic once argued that many of Stipe’s vocal lines serve as merely another instrumental line, which isn’t exactly right but isn’t exactly wrong either—and this effect, while far from anything I know in Bernstein’s work, is something he might have appreciated.

I thought I’d mention this because Saturday was the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth. If you haven’t heard the song, I suggest you give it a spin via the official music video, which includes a telltale nod to a conductor. And if you want a stellar example of Bernstein’s vocal writing, try “Glitter and Be Gay” (a worthy BBC Proms version is here), which comes from Candide, and which sticks in my mind even more tenaciously than R.E.M.’s nifty ditty.

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