This is the first of what I hope will be a series of essays written on behalf of the album, Reckoning which will be rereleased to celebrate it's 25th Anniversary on June 23rd.
It started with an innocent enough phrase (or maybe not so much now that you think about it) in a pop song and turned my life into something completely different. Looking back at that moment it was not entirely special or spectacular. I did not see the an apparition of the Virgin Mary nor did I know of it at that time that 20 plus years later I would be writing this here.
But the song had resonated with me deeply as a prepubescent teenager. This was a challenge when dealing with early R.E.M., as anyone who was listening before Al Gore invented the Internet can attest to. Michael Stipe was not competing at the “Enunciating” World Championships because if that was the case, the East German judge would have quit on the spot in disgust.
The only reference I had to the song was the fact that 'The Five Chinese Brothers’ was a familiar fable that I had read/been read in my early youth about boys that each had a supernatural power.
Realize at this time I was just a silly suburban kid with bad acne and was not at this point involved with investigating the deeper meanings of songs. For example, there might be literary criticism existing somewhere of Van Halen’s “Jump”, however, at the time these types of songs were clearly more vested for me in terms of watching music videos or hearing them on the radio. My music world contained songs that didn't derive much more than what was on the surface.
'Seven Chinese Bros.' put me somewhere else. Rarely would songs I listened to would dig up old memories of childhood and yet still be very inconclusive of their deeper meaning.
‘Seven Chinese Bros.’, was one of those first steps that I took. That fork in the road took a different path than listening to bands like Poison and Bon Jovi. It led me into a new realm of music that I would have not appreciated if it were not for a song such as this.
The lyrics had me initially. “She will return”. Return from what? And who is the “She” that is represented in ‘The Five Chinese Brothers’.
Okay, maybe they ripped that page out of the book in Kindergarten as it might have been too racy to make the ‘5 Chinese Brothers’ a love story. I started questioning my upbringing. What other lies have these teachers been feeding me? What about these other two Chinese Brothers that were left out of the book? Would this be as symbolic as some of the missing gospels out of the Bible such as Mary Magdalane, Thomas and Judas? Was District 200 censoring me from these most revered points of the story as to make them Child-Friendly. Was this lyricist named “Michael Stripe” responsible for a new level of thinking that I had not pondered yet?
(Of course only now am I aware that there was a book entitled “The Seven Chinese Brothers” written by Margaret Mahy, however, the lyrics don’t match this story as much as they do with the children’s classic “The Five Chinese Brothers” written by Claire Hutchet Bishop, which was also the one that I was familiar with. I thought I would also mention now that these books have been slammed by some as being Politically Incorrect for how they represent Chinese people but that is another story and an entirely different essay.)
So as you see, I am confounded by this lyricist but at the same time brought in deeper by the music. Is there anything more simple than the beautiful signature guitar work in the opening sequence played alongside Bill Berry’s drumming, and I mean real drumming btw, not something that is buried in the background or lost in the mix. The all held together with Mike Mills bass playing.
Unlike some other R.E.M. fans out there, I have not tried to ponder the idea of getting too deep into the head of Michael Stipe. I will let him ponder and write the queries and filter out some of the garbage to see the end result rather than digging too deep and losing myself in the process. If it was necessary to have a blueprint of the lyrics at our fingertips then essays should be contained in the liner notes by the band explaining each and every song to the listener. And if this was the case life would get a little boring. Music is not objective. At the end of the day, liner notes are better served by announcing that the band was loaded during the recording process and this was the end result.
For a simple kid like myself, Seven Chinese Bros. allowed me the first steps in truly analyzing the music through my own eyes.
What is even more fascinating was that ‘Seven Chinese Bros.’ was not even a single on the Reckoning. Now it would probably be considered the third or fourth most known song on the album behind songs like ‘So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry), or (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.
Now the song could be described as a "Love" song although not ripping your innards to shreds such as 'Losing My Religion'. If we look at the fable, 'Five Chinese Brothers' the first Chinese Brother swallows the ocean in an attempt to do good, only for harm to come of it. We could look at it in the context of love that sometimes our actions are intended to be good and yet they ultimately fail us in the end. When we "Swallow the Ocean" we forget the limits of these actions and the potential dangers.
'Seven Chinese Bros.' has a brother as well called 'Voice of Harold'. This song was a B-Side that also ended up on the Dead Letter Office compilation which contains Michael Stipe reading the liner notes of a gospel album on the direction of the producers to work on showing more emotion on the singing portion. I mention this because on the 25th Anniversary Edition of Reckoning there will be a second cd containing a live concert from July 7, 1984, the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, IL which includes Seven Chinese Bros. with lyrics from Voice of Harold intermixed in the song. It was fairly common during this period that Stipe would sing it in similar fashion. This was also the show in which Peter Buck was propositioned by the infamous Cynthia Plaster Caster who wanted to get a cast of a very prominent part of Peter's male anatomy. While you might be tempted to search for a photo of this cast on the Internet, in fine fashion, Peter turned down the proposal.