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Monday, May 2, 2011

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite/R.E.M.

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, from R.E.M.'s 1992 album Automatic for the People, features one of the great misheard song lyrics of all time: Call me when you try to wake her up. Delivered in a rushed, compressed style, the line has inspired a variety of incorrect interpretations, from "Calling Jamaica" to "Coney jah waker" to "Come and eat your bacon now." In fact, it ranked as the #1 misheard song lyric in a poll conducted in the United Kingdom last year.

The song also features a shoutout to beloved children's author Dr. Seuss. "Automatic for the People finds [lyricist Michael Stipe] in the attic, opening boxes containing all the souvenirs and reminders of his childhood and adolescence," writes Marcus Gray in his 1997 book It Crawled from the South: An R.E.M. Companion. "Among the paraphernalia he rediscovers, in 'The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,' is Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Published in the late Fifties, it is the second in the Doctor's Beginner Books series, and a relatively modern example of the anthropomorphic fable."

The song's narrator, who has fallen on hard times and appears to be living in a phone booth, sings about some things he'd like to have, including A can of beans or blackeyed peas, some Nescafe on ice/A candy bar, a falling star, or a reading from Dr. Seuss. The song then goes on to reference the specific book featuring Seuss's best-known character:

The cat in the hat came back, wrecked a lot of havoc on the way
Always had a smile and a reason to pretend.
But their world has flat backgrounds and little need to sleep but to dream.

On the recording, Stipe can be heard to laugh following the mention of Dr. Seuss. Gray quotes bandmember Mike Mills explaining the levity: "I kept trying to get Michael to say 'Seuss' [hard s], not 'Zeuss' and he couldn't do it."

Stipe used the 1961 Tokens hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh) as a jumping off point for the song, though little of the original survives ("To acknowledge the debt, Michael yodels a brief snatch of the melody during the introduction," Gray writes). There is a lot of conjecture regarding the meaning of the song, with theories ranging from drug use to a soured relationship to telephones. In his 2004 book Reveal: The Story of R.E.M., Johnny Black quotes Stipe on the subject: "I have no idea what the song is about. It's a little bit of a cartoon song to me and it took place in a world of flat surfaces and clear delineation of no depth of field, it's all about cartoons. That's what I saw when I wrote it."

If the song really is nonsense, there's no better way to signal that than with a reference to the master of nonsense himself, Dr. Seuss.

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