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File Under Conversation
“9-9” just might be my favorite R.E.M. song . . .
I’ve always felt that the dissonant, offjointed “9-9” was the secret key to just how great Murmur was. Sticking it in the middle of side two, after all of the beauty of the first side and the rumble that started the second was like a statement of purpose: “yeah, we can do the soaring jangly songs, and we can do the lushly melodic ballads, but we can also do this weird-ass tone poem of utter incoherence.”
Oh, and I found out recently that I’ve been mispronouncing the title this whole time.
Back in the day, I always pronounced it as “Nine Minus Nine,” or maybe “Nine Nine” and if I was feeling like a smart-ass, “Nine Dash Nine.” But according to Mike Mills, when somebody (not me, as I don’t randomly tweet at famous people) asked him on Twitter (@m_millsey) about it, he said that it was “Nine To Nine.”
And’s it’s Mills’ bass starts “9-9”, burbling out of the ground like molten lava, and after a few seconds countered by a circular Peter Buck guitar riff that is clearly going in the wrong direction from the bass and a kick-drum heavy beat that is accompanied by random tom whacks.
Then, with Buck playing off-beat, dissonant chords and Berry playing a backwards beat that seemingly rises and falls with Buck and Mills, Stipe joins in, at first muttering like a madman, and then screaming like one:
Not to punch
Right on target
Twist in tongues
Got a stripe
Down his back
All nine yards
Down her back
That’s pretty much it for the verses, lyrically. And except for that point in the final repetition of the verse where someone else — Mills? Berry? Buck? Mitch Easter? — shouts “right on TAR-GET” and “got a STRIPE” with Stipe, much of the fun of “9-9” lies in what the rest of the guys are doing during and around Stipe’s words: the quick bass runs, the jumpy beats, the crazy-ass chord shapes; everywhere you turned in “9-9” there was something cool going on, right down to the totally singable chorus that didn’t really have any words until the very end.
Give me a carpet tongue give me a couple of pointers turn to lies in conversation fear
That chorus is accompanied — ok, smothered, really — by a shimmering Peter Buck guitar that is so bright you almost have to cover your eyes, but eventually disappears into outer space.
And then in the middle, “9-9” deliciously spins away from anything resembling a song, heading into a long kick-drum fueled bridge featuring about 700 Michael Stipes mumbling, muttering and, yes murmuring totally unintelligible things. When I used to play “9-9” on KFSR — something I did a lot, I tell you what, and always turned up the studio monitors to uncomfortably loud — I would sometimes joke that what Stipe was saying was “twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun,” and to this day, I dare you to prove me wrong.
One of the things that “9-9” established was that while R.E.M. where never going to be fully weird and experimental, artists like The Velvet Underground and Patti Smith, who did, were in their DNA, and it meant that future albums would have songs like “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” or “Underneath The Bunker” or “Belong” or pretty much the entirety of Up.
So it’s not just a crucial song for Murmur, it’s a crucial song in their whole history, which isn’t why I love it so much. I love it so much because it’s also physical — a dance around my apartment song for sure — and well and truly cathartic, especially at the end when they double the chorus and Stipe screams “ahhhhhhhh, haaaaaaa, hoooooooo” starts repeating “conversation fear, conversation fear, conversation fear until “9-9” finally collapses under its weirdness.
“9-9” live in Passaic, 1984
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