When the overarching themes of R.E.M.‘s Automatic for the People are discussed, the first two things that come up are death and youth. Some songs feature a woman on her deathbed (“Try Not to Breathe“), a mourning family (“Sweetness Follows“), a dead movie star (“Monty Got a Raw Deal“) and a person nearing the end of existence (“Find the River“). And then there are messages for the kids (“Drive,” “Everybody Hurts“) and lyrics wrapped in notions of childhood (“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” “Man on the Moon“).
“Nightswimming,” Automatic’s penultimate track, exists near where these two themes meet – not quite at the intersection, but maybe a few blocks over. That’s because the song doesn’t deal with death exactly; it focuses on loss – the passing of youth. R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe doesn’t sing from the perspective of a teenager (as opposed to the similar “Perfect Circle”) but the vantage point of an adult. He employs the only known way to time-travel: memories. His DeLorean is a “photograph on the dashboard.”
This song, so wrapped in memory, appears to inspire conflicting recollections among R.E.M.’s members. There are some things on which they agree — such as, in an instance that ran counter to the band’s usual workflow, Stipe had the lyrics for “Nightswimming” written before the sessions for the previous record, Out of Time. While the singer usually wrote words to demos made by guitarist Peter Buck, bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry, this time the process was reversed. This time, he asked Buck and Mills for music that fit his lyrics.
“Being competitive bastards that we are, Mike and I started auditioning chord changes and tunes for Michael,” Buck wrote in the liner notes for In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003. “The two tunes of mine that Michael rejected eventually became ‘Drive’ and ‘Try Not to Breathe.’ Mike had a piano instrumental that he played to Michael. He listened once, nodded his head to hear it again, and on the second pass he sang the lyrics. It was ‘Nightswimming,’ exactly like the record we would record a year later. I was standing in the corner dumbfounded.”
While everyone seems to agree that this is what happened, Buck and Mills don’t align on where this took place. Mills remembers demonstrating his “circular” piano piece in February 1992 at John Keane’s studio in R.E.M.’s hometown of Athens, Ga. But Buck thinks all of this happened a bit earlier, in late 1990 as the band was completing work on Out of Time at Prince‘s Paisley Park Studios outside Minneapolis. Other sources appear to back up Buck’s story.
But even assuming that “Nightswimming” – or “Night Swim” as it was originally titled – did first come together at the Minnesota studio, there is a discrepancy regarding if the song might have been considered, even briefly, for inclusion on Out of Time. At times, Buck has said that R.E.M. was not thinking about adding to their seventh LP, only recording ideas for future B-sides or album tracks. But he also has remembered that others, including Scott Litt, who produced both Out of Time and Automatic for the People, were open to finding room for “Nightswimming” on the former.
“That one was finished,” Buck told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Scott Litt and everyone’s like, ‘Gosh, should we put this on the record?’ But the record felt done. So we just kind of went, ‘Well, this is a good place to start with the next one.'”
Watch R.E.M.’s ‘Nightswimming’ Video
So “Nightswimming,” along with early versions of “Drive” and “Try Not to Breathe,” laid the foundation for the Automatic sessions. But again, memories complicate the truth. R.E.M. told multiple writers, both journalists and authors, that the final rendition of the song that appears on Automatic used the demo that Stipe and Mills initially recorded.
But Buck (as mentioned above), remembers recording the song again “a year later” – after the final Out of Time sessions. Mills recalls a key detail that, if his memory is correct, would suggest the album version was tracked in May 1992 at Criteria Studios in Miami, one of several locations R.E.M. visited to make Automatic. Mills’ memory sticks out because he recalls recording “Nightswimming” on the same piano that Derek and the Dominos used for the epic coda to “Layla.”
“It was tricky. It’s a great-sounding piano, but it’s, uh, not in the best shape of any piano I’ve ever seen,” Mills told the Sun Sentinel in 2016. “But it had the provenance that you like in an instrument, and it was a thrill to play it.”
No matter if it was made in R.E.M.’s hometown, in Prince’s studio or on the “Layla” piano, “Nightswimming” went from a simple piano-and-vocals composition to something grander when the band decided to adorn the recording with some orchestration. To do so, the guys got in touch with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who agreed to arrange symphonic parts for the song (in addition to “Drive,” “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and “Everybody Hurts”). At the end of May, Jones and R.E.M. met in Atlanta, where the accouterments were performed by members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Deborah Workman played the oboe solo that comes in near the end.
The recording was completed, then mixed at Bad Animals in Seattle, and released as the 11th track on R.E.M.’s eighth studio album in October 1992. As Automatic for the People received an enthusiastic reception from fans and glowing notes from critics, journalists asked the band about the inspiration for these songs, specifically if “Nightswimming” was rooted in truth. Buck and Mills, who did not write the lyrics, felt that the song was based on the band members’ youthful indiscretions.
“We used to go swimming at night after rock ‘n’ roll shows in Athens,” Stipe told Melody Maker at the time. “We’d all go see Pylon or the Method Actors, then pile into a bunch of cars and go swimming in this pond. I think it was on private property, but we never really got into any trouble. It was all very innocent; we were only 19 or 20 years old.”
Watch R.E.M. Perform ‘Nightswimming’ Live in 2003
And that’s not even taking into account Stipe’s 2001 claim to Esquire that the song was first called “Night Watchman” and about a real man, but the singer changed it because he didn’t want to be sued. Caveat emptor: That same article carried a preface warning that half of the piece was made up. It seemed true enough for Wikipedia.
If “Nightswimming” is – to paraphrase the title of a R.E.M. compilation – part lies and part truth, that’s all the better for a song about memories. “It describes something that I touched on a lot later on the record Reveal,” Stipe said, “which was kind of the summer as an eternity, and kind of an innocence that’s either kind of desperately clung onto or obviously lost.” In this song, the situation falls into the latter category. “These things they go away,” Stipe croons, “replaced by everyday.”
This bittersweet view of the past seemed to resonate with a wide range of R.E.M. fans, both casual and die-hard. Although the piano ballad wasn’t a big hit when it was released as Automatic‘s fifth single in July 1993 (it did rise to No. 27 in the U.K.), it steadily built a reputation as one of R.E.M.’s most beloved works. “Nightswimming” has appeared on both of R.E.M.’s best-of collections that feature their Warner Bros. era work – nudging out fellow Automatic tracks that were, technically, bigger hits – showing the affection that the band and the fans share for this song.
Memories might not be perfect, but, many R.E.M. devotees would argue, “Nightswimming” is.
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