In August, 1989, my friend Greg and I piled into my silver two-door, four-speed Volkswagen Rabbit, and drove 750 miles from Valley Forge, PA, to Athens, GA, for no reason whatsoever except to see the hometown of our favorite band, R.E.M.
As we rolled through five states, we consumed five tanks of gas, sixteen D batteries (for the boom box in the back seat), and a quarter ounce of skunk weed.
Sure, it was “So. Central Rain” the hooked me on the band’s quirky, esoteric, alternative pop sensibilities. “Reckoning” was to me what “The White Album” or “Led Zeppelin IV” was to others. But “Pilgrimage” took me places. And “Pilgrimage” changed the way I looked at — and listened to — everything.
For me, it’s all about Michael, Mike and Bill’s overlapping, echoing vocals, and Bill’s polyrhythm in the bridge.
“Pilgrimage” is the second song on R.E.M. first full-length album, “Murmur,” after “Radio Free Europe.” It begins with Michael singing like a ghost from way off in the boomy distance, “Take our time/Take our fortune.” It’s eerie. It’s different. Then Mike and Bill, just a bass and kick drum. Then, what sound like vibes soaked in tremolo. It’s a strange groove, full of space and air, but gloomy and dark. And Michael’s lyrics? Completely obtuse.
They called the clip
A two headed cow
Your hate clipped and distant
Your luck pilgrimage
Rest assured this will not last
Take a turn for the worst
Your hate clipped and distant
Your luck a two headed cow
Doesn’t matter what he says, or what he means; it works: the vowels, the melody. Especially in the chorus when Mike and Bill go off after Michael sings “pilgrimage has gained momentum.” Unlike The Byrds, or The Troggs, or any other of the band’s influences, R.E.M. didn’t just sing the chorus in three-part harmony. The background vocals are completely different words, different phrasing, and different timing. They’re not solely there to support the thesis of the song; they add an entirely new line of thinking. It’s part of R.E.M. genius (which I’ve ripped off time and time again, but — at best — half as effectively).
For me, “Pilgrimage” is all about the bridge. In most three minute pop songs, the bridge is where the songs introduces something new before its big finish. Most screenplays employ a similar device: everything changes just before the end, when, through hope, or persistence, or violence, the protagonist (and the audience) is returned to pretty much where they began. But they’re changed for the journey.
The bridge in “Pilgrimage” is musically staccato guitar, and jagged drums, but smoothed over by Michael, Mike and Bill’s descending harmonies, and what can only be described as Bill jamming out on congas. For me, it’s that section (at about 3:40, for those of you listening at home) — that extra texture, that new sound, that new place, that complete cohesion — that transports me. I want to sing, and to dance, and I want it to go on and on and on…
But it doesn’t. The band brings us safely back to earth with a final refrain.
I ripped of the “Murmur” album cover for “Bloom,” and failed. I’ve tried to rip off Michael’s non-linear, stream of consciousness lyrics numerous times (“Kathryn,” “Hollywood Arms,” and “St. Anne,” to name just a few), and failed. And I’ve tried to rip off the instrumentation and heightened musicality of this bridge as recently as “Carmelita.” And failed.
Greg and I played “Pilgrimage” once an hour every hour for two days straight. Other than The 40 Watt Club, we didn’t see a thing. We came back empty handed, save for some local music, and a few photos.
It was completely worth it.