R.E.M. Departs on a Fiery Note With ‘Oddfellows Local 151′: The Story Behind Every ‘Document’ Song
R.E.M.‘s bleakest album rumbles to a close with one more roundhouse political punch.
They’d broached this kind of topicality on 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, while retaining an inherent hopefulness that marked the band’s earliest albums. None of it remained within the dark heart of “Oddfellows Local 151,” R.E.M.’s grinding, ultimately dirge-like exploration of the homeless issue.
The setting is a local lodge for the Oddfellows social organization, “just like the Mooses or the Shriners,” Peter Buck says in Reveal: The Story of R.E.M. Michael Stipe fashioned a searing indictment of those who don’t keep America’s social contract by focusing on the plight of the poor left to their own devices just outside that fraternal embrace – so near to the comforts of community but yet far, far away.
“There are more messages on this record than the last,” Mike Mills admitted in a 1987 talk with the Toronto Daily News. “Michael’s just becoming comfortable with what he’s doing, so it’s easier for him to say the things he feels. Plus, things are deteriorating to the point where he feels he should say something about it.”
Stipe got an personal glimpse of those whom the economic engine of the ’80s left behind when he’d regularly walk past this neighboring lodge. One of them, called Pee Wee, took to preaching to his fellow drunkards, as well as the occasional passersby – though what wisdom he imparted was never made clear. Devoid of hope, they turned to whatever anesthesia they could find.
“That song is actually about all these winos who used to live down the street from us,” Buck told Q magazine in 1992. “They used to live in cars. We call them the the Motor Club. These old guys would sleep in the cars, and drink all the time. I think there was a guy called Pee Wee, as well. Michael knew them because he used to live right next door to them. Every once in a while you’d give them five bucks or drop off a bottle.”
The homeless population’s eccentricities boast a certain romantic quality, but they often mask a painful past defined by unemployment, addiction, ostracism and mental illness. R.E.M.’s fury over the obvious inequities is clear from the first, as Buck unleashes a wall of squalling feedback. They also underscore a connection to these every-day figures via the back cover image for Document, which recalls the social realism of the pre-war Works Progress Administration murals.
“When a neighborhood starts having people pass out on the ground,” Stipe says in Reveal, “it means that the society in that neighborhood is already on the downswing. Not because these people are bad, but because it represents the fact that people aren’t taking care of their duties to take care of them.”
With this final, withering indictment, R.E.M. wrapped up their first statement album, the first one where they embraced the platform given to them and tried to say something of note. At the same time, Document revealed a new complexity in their musical approach – something that would provide a bulwark for R.E.M.’s chart-topping future success.
“This one is a little more scattershot, which I like,” Buck told UPI in 1987. “Since it’s a diverse record, there isn’t a center to it. It’s more like a bunch of snapshots. Some of it has a kind of Orwellian feeling. It’s a chaotic record, because it’s been a chaotic year for the whole world – America especially.”
Document also completed their original recording contract, setting the stage for R.E.M.’s shift 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 talk with the Atlanta Journal Weekend. “It’s kind of a culmination of things so far: Our first radio hit, our first album with any chance to go platinum, the last year of our contract with I.R.S. We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do then. Next year should be interesting.”
As “Oddfellows Local 151″ draws to a close, R.E.M. make one final reference to the inscription on the spine of Document, which read “File Under Fire.” Stipe unleashes a howling cry: “Fiiiiirehouse,” sounding as if he’s calling out for help with everything aflame around him – and that’s apparently just what it felt like for R.E.M. at the time.
“Michael’s always going to be oblique about it; we’re never going to be didactic and hit people over the head – but I certainly don’t mind saying something,” Mills told the Toronto Daily News. “That’s what he sees.”
It actually went beyond the political climate of the era. Even this early into their ride toward superstardom, R.E.M. was already coming face to face with some larger, more uncomfortable truths. The bigger they got, the more diverse their fanbase grew. They were no longer a college-rock niche act, but emerging fame brought its own challenges.
“I had to grapple with a lot of contradictions back in the ’80s,” Stipe told the Guardian years later. “I would look out from the stage at the Reagan youth. That was when R.E.M. went beyond the freaks, the fags, the fat girls, the art students and the indie music fanatics. Suddenly, we had an audience that included people who would have sooner kicked me on the street than let me walk by unperturbed. I’m exaggerating to make a point but it was certainly an audience that, in the main, did not share my political leanings or affiliations, and did not like how flamboyant I was as a performer – or, indeed, a sexual creature. And I had to look out on that and think, well, what do I do with this?”
The answer, in the form of 1989’s major-label debut Green, was a pendulum swing back toward some measure of optimism – though it would be forever tempered by the hard truths Document and this entire period had revealed to R.E.M.
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