For the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing?yes, it really happened?there?s probably no more appropriate song than R.E.M.?s ?Man On The Moon?.
Of course, the song ?Man On The Moon? had nothing at all to do with the escapades of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Instead it was written as an affectionate tribute to the late actor, comedian and performance artist, Andy Kaufman.
While I knew the song was about Andy Kaufman when it came out?not least because his name is mentioned several times during the course of the record?the only thing I knew about Andy Kaufman at the time was that he played one of the characters in ?Taxi?, a sitcom I?d enjoyed as a teenager.
It seems I wasn?t the only one. R.E.M.?s Michael Stipe was a big fan too.
He?s a little bit older than me?and certainly a lot more talented?so he was aware of Andy Kaufman?s somewhat wild and crazy work before (and indeed during and after) he became famous for his role as Latka in ?Taxi?.
So I was more than a little puzzled at first to hear references to Elvis in a song I knew was intended as R.E.M.?s tribute to Andy Kaufman.
Things didn?t get much clearer as the song progressed. The lyrics for ?Man On The Moon? wove in references to Mott The Hoople?a great British rock band from the early 1970s?Monopoly, Fred Blassie (I had no idea who he was), Isaac Newton and Moses (both of whom I had heard of?).
Andy Kaufman passed away in 1984 so, by the time ?Man On The Moon? came around on R.E.M?s 1992 album ?Automatic For The People?, there had been plenty of time for the Andy Kaufman story to percolate into the public consciousness.
The lyrics for ?Man On The Moon? are deliberately anarchic, just as Andy Kaufman was throughout his life and career. The song does its best to capture the essence of someone we might charitably describe as ?a complex character?, someone possessed with a much greater range of personality drivers than most of us could ever imagine.
Andy Kaufman, for all his success?or perhaps notoriety, more accurately?was famously self-sabotaging and probably unnecessarily provocative in his stage act.
He pushed his boundaries so far ahead of what most of the population would regard as boundaries that most people had trouble keeping up, even those who had paid to see his act.
Perhaps all you need to know is that Andy Kaufman was friendly with the similarly anarchic?albeit much funnier and marginally less self-sabotaging?Robin Williams.
Around the same time Andy Kaufman was starring in ?Taxi? Robin Williams was starring in ?Mork and Mindy? (another favourite show when I was a teenager?I seem to be drawn to these anarchic characters, somehow?).
Something of that spirit of barely-constrained anarchy is captured by Michael Stipe?s lyrics?
Mott The Hoople and the game of life (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)Andy Kaufman in the wrestling match (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)Monopoly, Twenty-One, checkers and chess (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)Mister Fred Blassie in a breakfast mess (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)Let?s play Twister, let?s play Risk (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)See you in heaven if you make the list (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
Even by the standards of Michael Stipe?s lyrics for an R.E.M. song, that?s quite a collection of different concepts all swimming around together in the same verse?
I won?t try to unpick all the ideas in there, except to say that Michael Stipe works in references to his memories of Andy Kaufman by mentioning Andy Kaufman?s over-the-top staged wrestling matches and his surreal?putting it politely? film ?My Breakfast With Blassie?, in which he appears with professional wrestler Bill Blassie. (Don?t ask?and probably don?t try to track it down on DVD for that matter either?)
The trouble with anarchic characters is that they often don?t know where to stop. Where to draw the line.
Fame and fortune usually doesn?t help either ? it just means the stunts have to get bigger, more elaborate, more dramatic and more disturbing to keep the audience on edge.
When that?s the path you take, it?s hard to find your way back again. At some point the elastic that?s been keeping you, however tentatively, in touch with some form of reality snaps. Then you?re gone for good?
Now, Andy, did you hear about this oneTell me, are you locked in the punchAndy, are you goofing on Elvis? Hey, babyAre we losing touchIf you believed they put a man on the moon, man on the moonIf you believe there?s nothing up his sleeve, then nothing is cool
Given how he lived his life, it?s perhaps not too surprising that people speculated whether Andy Kaufman?s passing at the very young age of 35 was itself some elaborate prank from someone who?d pulled some pretty bizarre stunts in his time.
Not unlike the actual Moon Landing 50 years ago, the conspiracy theorists got to work.
For what it?s worth, I think Andy Kaufman really did pass away in 1984. Given his personality type, I couldn?t conceive him being able to remain silent for the last 35 years without giving in to the temptation to say ?gotcha!? to the world.
Although, by the same token, remaining completely silent would be the biggest hoax of all. Maybe Andy Kaufman had the last laugh after all?I couldn?t completely rule it out.
In this day and age, we strive for certainty?for firm answers?for facts and data.
Humanity has never been worse at dealing with uncertainty?enjoying the ambiguity not knowing can bring?and using judgement and intuition to make progress when data doesn?t exist to give pat answers to your questions.
For that reason alone, I revel in R.E.M.?s ?Man On The Moon?.
It?s the song equivalent of a video director?s fast cuts?a blizzard of images which only register for a fragment of a second before the next one comes along, challenging your perception about something else and taking your mind in a completely different direction.
Which, incidentally, is pretty much the approach the video for ?Man On The Moon? takes?in a sort of art imitating art imitating life triangle.
Although ?Man On The Moon? wasn?t R.E.M.?s biggest hit (a US Number 30, UK Number 18) it?s certainly had a lot of love over the years and is now seen as one of their classics.
A fine example of Michael Stipe?s lyric writing, ?Man On The Moon? is one of my favourite R.E.M. tracks. I feel I?m being taken into a parallel universe where nothing is quite as it seems.
Which, in a song written as a tribute to someone as famously anarchic, unpredictable and perspective-shifting as Andy Kaufman, is a very satisfying place for Michael Stipe to leave me.
I?m never any the wiser after listening to ?Man On The Moon?, but I always enjoy the experience.
I hope you do too?all the more so as we celebrate the actual, real Moon Landing 50 years ago.
Maybe that?s where Andy Kaufman has been all this time?nothing would surprise me?and perhaps that?s the finest legacy he could have left.
Here?s R.E.M. with their affectionate tribute to the late Andy Kaufman, ?Man On The Moon??
If you?ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today?s track here? https://open.spotify.com/track/4jLv3tDBu8ww2R07DvL12s