Saturday, February 6, 2010

R.E.M.: Find the River

SONG Find the River

WRITTEN BY Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe


APPEARS ON Automatic for the People (1992)

NOTE Michael Stipe invented "rose of hay" because he needed a rhyme for "way" and "naivete."

The best R.E.M. songs typically feature oblique, apparently indecipherable lyrics supported by hook-ridden melodies and meticulous production. "Find the River" is no exception, a soaring ballad with lush harmonies augmented by simple, less-is-more instrumentation. But the very simplicity of of the instrumentation lends an uncomplicated eloquence to the proceedings and forms an organic whole vital to the song's theme.

In literature, rivers have long represented both a life force and, because of their eternal movement to the sea through an immobile landscape, questing and searching. T. S. Eliot wrote of the novel Huckleberry Finn that
A river, a very big and powerful river, is the only natural force that can wholly determine the course of human peregrination.
Eliot thought Mark Twain's vision of the Mississippi River transformed Huckleberry Finn from an adventure story into a great book. Thus, the river is life-giving artistically ("river poet search") as well as thematically.

"Find the River" is best understood as a mystical tapestry of imagery and symbolism about a lifelong quest for meaning not found in "...the city/Where people drown and people serve." The accumulation of varying spices infuses the song like incense, lending a sort of holiness to the journey. The nearly poetic imagery supplies the same sense of transcendence:
Me, my thoughts are flowers strewn
Ocean storm, bayberry moon
At the same time, the drive to light out ahead of the rest (as Huck Finn put it) --
I have got to leave to find my way
--is as quintessentially and stolidly American as a town hall.

In "Find a River," the journey must be the reward. The uncertainties and disappointments of life ("Nothing is going my way") guarantee no destination other than the finality of the ocean. After the long trek charted in the song, the only promise is that someday
All of this is coming your way
It may be a harbinger of hope, but it's just as likely a prediction that the same striving awaits -- who? a lover? a child? a listener? But at least this striving is a search for something transcendent, an escape from the daily grind of "task in the city." That's why we have "got to find the river," for it is there that our humanity awaits.
Hey now, little speedy head
The meter on the speedmeter says
You have to go to task in the city
Where people drown and people serve
Don't be shy. Your just dessert
Is only just light years to go

Me, my thoughts are flowers strewn
Ocean storm, bayberry moon
I have got to leave to find my way
Watch the road and memorize
This life that pass before my eyes
Nothing is going my way

The ocean is the river's goal
A need to leave the water knows
We're closer now than light years to go

I have got to find the river,
Bergamot and vetiver
Run through my head and fall away
Leave the road and memorize
This life that pass before my eyes
Nothing is going my way

There's no one left to take the lead,
But I tell you and you can see
We're closer now that light years to go
Pick up here and chase the ride
The river empties to the tide
Fall into the ocean

The river to the ocean goes
A fortune for the undertow
None of this is going my way
There is nothing left to throw
Of ginger, lemon, indigo
Coriander stem and rose of hay
Strength and courage overrides
The privileged and weary eyes
Of river poet search naivete
Pick up here and chase the ride
The river empties to the tide
All of this is coming your way

Click here for the official R.E.M. video.

Until a few years ago, R.E.M. rarely performed "Find the River." I met Peter Buck at party back in the early Aughts and asked why, since it is such a beautiful song. He agreed, and then told me that while "River" was challenging to play live, they were considering working it up for the next tour. "Find the River" has been on their playlist ever since, so maybe he listened to me!


  1. Love this post! Beautiful music and song! Thanks for coming by, cher! Wish you were here!

  2. A beautiful song. Mills' background vocals are just amazing. For some reason, I threw this CD into the player this weekend, and this song has just captured me. Again. Lovely in so many ways.

  3. Nice to hear that someone else likes Find A River as much as I do! Not to take any credit for anything, but some years back I met Peter Buck at a get-together and asked him if REM ever performed Find A River. He told me it was difficult, but that they had talked about it. All I know is that they put it in the rotation on their next tour! (BTW, I don't usually hob-knob with rock stars. This was sheer luck.)

  4. Beautifully written. I heard this song for the first time yesterday...where have I been...I love it. I like the reference to Henry Miller in the video (written on the wall) - The happy man ..loses himself and leaps into the dark, spontaneously without the advantage of experience, to grow. Perhaps the river leads him to the ocean.

  5. Thank you for your beautiful exegesis of this beautiful, haunting song! A+!

  6. Beautiful song and post here...

  7. I first heard this song today in the film "The Unbelievers" and had to go online to find it. Now I'm going to try to learn how to play & sing it myself.

    1. Good luck playing this beautiful song. It's fun and not too difficult. It sounds great on my 12 string acoustic..
      REM lives on.

  8. I wish that I played music and wrote lyrics so that I could truly appreciate this wonderful song. All I can say is that it captivated me in 1993 and has been my favorite R.E.M. song ever since. I agree that in many ways it is haunting. I also agree that the lyrics can at times be "indecipherable", which almost gives you license to interpret the song however you wish. I was taken by the River's meaning and the journey in search for love. Just a beautiful song!

  9. He could have gotten away with "rolls of hay". I think he does say "life *will* pass" rather than "life *that* pass" - seems clear the first time he says it, and makes more sense.