It is so easy to get caught up in your impressions of a song by what is being said in the lyrics. It’s also an unreliable way of interpreting a song. I think there is no greater example of this than What’s the Frequency Kenneth. You can plug “What’s the Frequency Kenneth” into any search engine and find that the title references the story of Dan Rather being mugged on the street in New York City. The assailant punched him repeatedly asking, “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” While I am sure that the title and concept is inspired by this event, I am sure that this isn’t the whole story. I don’t know what that story is to R.E.M., but I don’t think that matters.
I listened to this CD frequently in 1996 at work. I had a dumb job in the Medicaid billing department located in the basement of Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain, MA. I lived in Boston. Lemuel Shattuck is a state mental facility as well as acute care for the state correctional units (prisons). I sat at my little desk in the basement with my stacks of paper from various agencies, my monochrome monitor and all the other trappings of my tenure as a bureaucrat. I don’t know how old that hospital was, but it felt like it was at least 100 years old. I don’t think I have ever had a more depressing job. Working in that basement office made me a likely candidate for the state mental inpatient ward on the 8th floor.
I split my home life in Boston between a room I rented in a house that a friend of mine owned in the South End and my girlfriend’s apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay. Both of these places were way out of my league. I couldn’t afford the rent on the parking places really. I was really trying to build something. My forays into creativity were always lame and characterized by initial successes followed by dizzying bouts of failure. I couldn’t hold a job. I couldn’t get up on time for work. I couldn’t pay for most of my meals. I felt like I owed money to everyone. That was mostly true, but I really didn’t owe as much as I felt like I did. I didn’t even own the Monster CD. It was my girlfriend’s. Most of my life was really trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.
I can’t even begin to describe how exhausted I was most of the time. It was summer and the office in the basement was hot. There was this window unit air conditioner that was behind my desk. At some point in July when it first got hot enough, someone stepped behind me to turn it on while I was on the phone with my girlfriend who was having a depressive meltdown. I used to go down to the cafeteria pay phone to continue these conversations because they were just too bizarre to have in a quiet office with a bunch of co-workers. I hung up the phone and stood up to go down to the cafeteria. I fell forward into the filing cabinets. I was too dizzy to stand. My stomach was doing somersaults. My co-workers were concerned for my well-being only in the sense that they wanted whatever was wrong with me to be over. As I looked up at the rotating image of my blonde co-worker, whose name escapes me, my only thought was, “I have to leave this job.”
It took me another month to figure out that I was allergic to mold, and this allergy manifested itself by making my inner ear swell. So I left that job for a much cushier job in Wellesley at a women’s health practice where I continued doing medical billing to insurance companies. Essentially a bureaucrat again. And I still listened to Monster on my CD player. For some reason, What’s the Frequency Kenneth made me cry.
So one day in November or something I left for work without a hat. It got cold and started raining around 3pm. I left work at 5pm. By the time I got off the commuter train in Copley Square, the sleet was coming down hard and horizontal. The temperature must have dropped from 65 to 32 or lower over the course of the day. Just cold enough for sleet but not yet cold enough for snow. That would come later. I was crossing the street and I got blown back. I struggled in the wind and wondered what the hell was wrong with me. I looked up and barely got out of the way of the people crossing in the opposite direction who were flying toward me and struggling to stay on their feet. The sleet was beating on my forehead. The walk to my girlfriend’s apartment was painful.
When I got there, I buzzed her apartment. She buzzed me in. I made it halfway up the flight of stairs to the second floor and I fell over. My stomach lurching. My inner ears must have frozen or I walked into a pocket of mold spores or something. So I am lying on my back waiting for some sense of equilibrium to return and I see my girlfriend lean over the railing to ask if I am all right. And right then with the world spinning, I could hear quite distinctly:
“You said that irony was the shackles of youth.”
There is nothing worse than your best efforts resulting in failure and being misunderstood. I am a talented person. I like to think I am pretty smart too. But everthing I did up until I was about 27 left me with nothing but experience. Here I am lying on my back after quitting a job to get away from an allergy that had me lying on my back in the basement of a state corectional facility hospital. Every time I hear Michael Stipe’s voice in What’s the Frequency Kenneth, I hear his exhaustion. I don’t know where it was he thought he was going, but I hear the sort of bitter irony in his reflection on Dan Rather’s misfortune. Here is Dan Rather, one of the biggest journalist’s of his time, and he is being beaten by a crazy man on his way from work. Not only that, but then the very media for which he was an icon was blowing the incident into an international event with speculation about KGB involvement. I get the sense from the Monster CD that Michael Stipe was having an exhausting experience with his celebrity.
“You wore a shirt of violent green, uh huh…”
Then there is this glam rock feel. I just spent 20 minutes trying to verify whether Peter Buck used a Fender Vibrolux amplifier to create that crazy sound in the choruses. In my narrative, that’s what it is. It’s so perfect, it hurts. There’s this twisting bass melody that reminds me of the world spinning. And thinking about that reminds me that it was during the recording of this song that the bassist discovered he had acute appendicitis and had to immediately go to the hospital. There is apparently a tempo change as a result of this pain that was never corrected. That’s perfect too.
“I never understood the frequency, uh huh…”
No I never did understand the frequency. I couldn’t understand a fucking thing. I went from one thing to another with this giant question mark over my head. A beating from a schizophrenic might have brightened my day. And that makes me return to the staircase with my girlfriend. We would be breaking up in a year or two. I feel a genuine affection for the suffering that was our relationship. Nothing was going right for either of us, but we couldn’t relate to the nature of each other’s misfortunes. There was a complete disconnect. She helped me up the stairs, gave me some coffee and rubbed my head with a towel. Despite our differences, we were a genuine comfort to each other in a time of distress. Everything was out of our control and changing. Even the timing of our relationship couldn’t have been worse.
“You said that irony was the shackles of youth.”
That may be one of the greatest lines ever uttered in a rock and roll song.