“…and that R.E.M. song was playing in my mind. Three and a half minutes. Felt like a lifetime.” ~Better Than Ezra
I always wondered what “that R.E.M. song” was, which one from their vast catalog made such an impression on a young Kevin Griffin (lead singer of Better Than Ezra) that he immortalized it in his own song. The song is about the death of a young friend, who after graduation had a car wreck and died, the lyrics a poignant reminder of the brevity of life, and how quickly it can be taken from any of us.
With that in mind, I began to dig deep into what could possibly be the mystery R.E.M. song from the lyrics. It’s a good thing, then, that I own the entire R.E.M. catalogue, because it would take a hell of a lot of digging to arrive at the ultimate truth. For starters, here is the full list of the band’s songs that hit 3:26 – 3:34 on the scale (prior to 2001, when the Better Than Ezra song was written)…
Gardening At Night (3:30)
Disturbance At the Heron House (3:34)
Good Advices (3:30)
Begin the Begin (3:28)
What If We Give It Away? (3:34)
I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (3:28)
Let Me In (3:28)
Moral Kiosk (3:31)
Perfect Circle (3:30)
Low Desert (3:32)
Half a World Away (3:28)
Time After Time (3:34)
That’s an awful lot of songs, so I tried to break them down by lyrics, by which ones might be depressing. I realized as I was doing this that most of R.E.M.’s catalogue is full of depressing, sad songs. Kevin Griffin literally had his choice of songs to complement his own, just by the sheer volume of sad songs to choose from, even from this relatively small list.
For a very long time I thought the song he referenced was “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream,” from the Monster record. It fit nearly every aspect of a depressing song that would hearken back to a premature death. “I’m looking for an interruption. Do you believe? Some medicine for my headache. Hooray.” The only thing that didn’t fit was the length of the song, because while I thought my range was pretty good, the lyric of the song was “Three and a half minutes,” and if I was being literal that one would not fit.
In fact, the more I thought about it the more I thought the song I was looking for was exactly 3 minutes and 30 seconds, which left me with Departure, Perfect Circle, Good Advices, and my personal favorite, Gardening At Night. In fact, the lyrics of “Gardening At Night” are very compelling. “We fell up, not to see the sun. Gardening at night just didn’t grow. I see your money on the floor. I felt the pocket change. Though all the feelings that broke down that door just didn’t seem to be too real.” Something about the shifting reality, the yearning to do something that seems right but doesn’t have positive consequences, it clicked in me.
But that wasn’t it. Here is the full lyric of the verse from the Better Than Ezra song from earlier…
“And I know I wasn’t right, but it felt so good
And your mother didn’t mind, like I thought she would
And that R.E.M. song was playing in my mind
Three and a half minutes, felt like a lifetime.”
That part of the song has always hit me like a hammer to the gut, the idea of something feeling so good but not being right, of approval out of nowhere, not for the means to an end, but for the end itself. It’s almost like it is a eulogy, not for the person who has died, but instead for the enterprise itself, for being adventurous. That R.E.M. song felt like a lifetime because when it ends the glory of a life lived for adventure ends as well.
The song was “Perfect Circle,” by the way, the idea that life is indeed this circle. We are born to die, but in the space between the wails of birth and the silence of death we either truly live or we go through the motions. “Perfect Circle” is all about truly living, taking the moment and wringing every ounce of glory from it so we can live on the nostalgia of that moment for years to come.
“Pull your dress on and stay real close. Who might leave you where I left off? A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends…”
Three and a half minutes. Felt like a lifetime.