What Will We Become? R.E.M.’s “Driver 8”

In 2008 Michael Stipe introduced "Driver 8" as "a song that represents the dream of the United States of America and what it may become in the next three days." What did he mean, and has that dream come true?

In 2008 R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe introduced “Driver 8” as “a song that represents the dream of the United States of America and what it may become in the next three days.” What did he mean, and has that dream come true?

Onstage in Buenos Aires on 1 November 2008, Michael Stipe introduced the song “Driver 8” by saying, “This is a song that represents great hope and great promise, a song that represents the dream of the United States of America and what it may become in the next three days.”

I wasn’t there; I was probably huddling in fear and drinking heavily at the possibility of Sarah Palin becoming the vice-president-elect in three days. That didn’t happen, of course. Barack Obama won by nearly ten million votes, and as I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s been smooth sailing ever since.

Hearing Stipe’s words years after they were spoken, I was surprised. They seemed strange, and still do.

Maybe if I’d heard them that night in 2008, they would have seemed normal, but I doubt it. In the hundreds of times I’ve listened to “Driver 8”, I’ve never thought of it as a vision of America, only a vision of the South: the Southern Crescent rail line, farms, a woman “selling faith on the ‘Go Tell’ Crusade”. But it was more than a lack of thematic alignment, too. Rarely these days do you hear a musician, an artist of any kind, really, make such a blatant connection between his work and America, in essence saying, “This is at least one version of what America means.” That kind of pronouncement is reserved for patriotic jingoism, for awards shows and country songs (or country songs when played on awards shows) and other occasions where America is talked about as if it’s a person instead of what it is: a place and an idea made up of, determined by, and governed for the sake of many persons.

Even coming from Stipe, who does not shy away from the political, these words are strange for their frankness and scope. There’s no way to miss what he’s saying; he’s not talking about a specific issue, or even a specific candidate, though we can assume he isn’t voting McCain. No, this is a vision of the entire nation, “the dream of the United States of America and what it may become in the next three days.” That’s political talk spoken with more elegance and ambition than most politicians attempt.

So, what exactly did Stipe mean? I don’t know. I’ve never read an interview where he explained it. I’m not sure I’d want to. The artist’s intention can be an interesting path to travel down, but it’s not the only one.

What if the song’s dream is about mobility? Freedom not as an ideal, but as the tangible freedom to move about, which might also mean the ability to participate, to argue, to be heard, to vote? Someone living in cities, plugged into the circuitry of the American Wow, might scoff at the uniqueness of this, but if you live somewhere else—a small town in the South, or anywhere remote; a dusty town in Kansas or a snowbound Montana mountainside village—it might be a breathtaking idea. So breathtaking that when the opportunity arises, you jump at the chance.

That’s how the song starts: a headlong jump forward, springing from one of Peter Buck‘s signature guitar melodies. The riff begins with a heavy downbeat, then races ahead, climbing, stumbling into syncopation, and just when it seems to have reached its zenith, it reaches a little higher before tumbling, and beginning all over again. The entire song has that impulsive feel, light and fleet, shuffling along on Bill Berry‘s simple backbeat and Buck’s arpeggiation, barely weighted by Mike Mills’ punctuated bass lines and the melancholy in Stipe’s voice.

Like so many of R.E.M.’s songs ,from “Chronic Town” through “Document”, including the album this song originally appeared on in 1985, Fables of the Reconstruction, “Driver 8” entwines words within the whole of the song. Stipe’s vocals barely stand out above the guitars and his delivery is almost off-hand, as if you just happened to catch him singing. It’s not that the words’ meanings don’t matter, but if you’re looking for a clear story, you won’t find one. You’ll catch images and hear flashes of dialogue instead, and sometimes even those are willing to risk coherency, for example, “He piloted this song in a plane like that one”. We hear this for the pleasure of the sound, for the emotion and beauty of the sum.

I’ve always thought Stipe took a little too much criticism for his vocal delivery in those early IRS days—probably because he let the jackals in the press know during interviews that he was nervous about his singing, and didn’t get enough credit for the way he threaded together his lyrics. Two ideas will be married to one another, as in the song’s opening lines:

The walls are built up, stone by stone;

the fields divided one by one.

And the train conductor says,

“Take a break Driver 8,

Driver 8 take a break

we’ve been on this shift too long”

Despite the little or no obvious connection, something emerges. A filmic image, perhaps, of what the conductor sees as the train barrels along, “stone by stone” and “one by one” suggesting the repetitiveness of the landscape, only adding to the driver’s exhaustion. But that’s all speculation, a stitching together of the collage Stipe offers.

“Driver 8” suggests a story more than it tells one, and it’s probably more correct to say that it suggests many stories. The people who live them in the song speak quickly, or someone speaks for them, about them, or they say the same thing over and over—the conductor’s words to the driver, which you can hear growing more insistent—and some don’t speak at all. (What does the woman “selling faith on the Go Tell Crusade” have to say about herself? Would she call it “selling faith”?) They’re a loosely defined community, which is to say, a nation, bound together by what can seem like not much at all, but bound together nonetheless.

That’s the extent of any single narrative in the song, and it works more like a painting: George Bingham’s The County Election (1851), comes to mind. There’s no narrative center to this work, no surefire focal point. Your eye wanders as much as you like across a busy, even chaotic scene. Two boys play a game in the foreground; to their left, a destitute man hangs his head, and to their right, a jolly fat man has come to drink, not vote. In all, it’s a complicated, journalistic image, and while it brims with the energy of a country having recently discovered itself, it reminds us that not even on election day is everyone there for the same purpose, or even for much of a purpose at all. What else would you be doing?

George Bingham’s The County Election (1852)

One base commonality, though, is place. In The County Election, the town itself takes center stage, specifically this porch of what could be someone’s home or a courthouse. America’s earliest artists—poets, essayists, novelists, painters—were keenly aware of the importance of place, and fascinated by the country’s expanse, seeing a parallel between the country’s sheer size and abundant natural resources and the ideal of what America could become. Bingham’s contemporaries, men such as Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Frederic Edwin Church who comprised the Hudson River School, painted landscapes of startling gorges and dramatic river valleys that seem much bigger than their canvases. There’s as much fear as romance in those paintings, as much shadow and awe as there is godly light.

Like those men, the people in “Driver 8” are put into context by the land around them—by the walls and divided fields, by the “treehouse on the outskirts of the farm” and “the power lines” that “have floaters so the airplanes won’t get snagged”. And yet the song doesn’t document a rolling expanse; this is no travelogue, and there’s little if any drama. I imagine that normally, for the people in the song, the view ain’t bad, but they’re stuck in town or on a farm. An ordinary day is relieved by a train:

Bells are ringing through the town again,

Children look up, all they hear is sky-blue bells ringing

You can see those kids stuck somewhere, eagerly looking away from a boring exam, or the game they’ve been playing all afternoon, and imagine how vast and full of possibility those bells at the train crossing must sound.

The train is potential. It implies not just escape, but the ability to wander; instead of running from home, you can ride to wherever. The train cuts through the land, across it, overcoming the obstacles of nature and tempering the fear of that vast countryside. “Locomotive eight, Southern Crescent, hear the bells ring again,” Stipe sings, referencing the passenger train now operated by Amtrak simply as The Crescent. Traveling from New York City to New Orleans on much the same route it ran beginning in the 1890s, the Crescent passes from north to south through more than thirty cities. The song expresses the openness of spirit and community such routes create. If you can see more of your nation, you might begin to think you belong to it as much as it belongs to you.

In the tucked-away corners of the country, in the overlooked and forgotten parts, there are people who want to escape, sure. But there are also some who want the freedom to come and go as they please, and as they need to. They live in cities, too, forgotten there, as dispossessed in suburbs as they are on flatland farms and coastlines. Anywhere, really, where the American dream has passed over them, and passed them over.

Mobility is freedom, and the ability to move freely about the country—to paraphrase the airline advertisement I can’t get out of my head right now—is one of the ways we know how free we are.

But that mobility has a price, especially for the poor. A 2008 Brookings Institute report, “Commuting to Opportunity: The Working Poor and Commuting in the United States” indicates that “[t]he working poor spend a much higher portion of their income on commuting”, nearly twice as much as other workers. Increases in the price of fuel shocked airline passengers when those costs trickled down to their tickets, but that’s a relative luxury compared to the necessity of work-related travel, whether by auto or mass transit such as light rail or bus.

In our digital age, information moves more rapidly and affordably than a person, and we overlook the necessity of access to public transportation, be it trains, buses or planes, or the health of our roads. Why? The topic is boring. We assume there’s no problem, or that the problem lacks significance. We’re in love with individualism, with privatization, with the “me” so addicted to and never satiated by consumerism, and the idea of a collective good—be it a healthcare law or the need for better mass transit—is a distant thought.

The train in “Driver 8” is the train for everyone, the promise of inclusion, of mattering; it’s the deliverance of “The Gospel Train” sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the lyrics of which course through American song, into Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams”. With its chugging rhythm, ambiguous lyrics and modest dramatics, “Driver 8” is a subtle cousin of those songs and that tradition, but it’s still related.

That night in Buenos Aires, what did Stipe mean? Probably he was alluding to the metaphorical version of mobility, the dream that anyone can become a national leader without being handed the keys to privilege, wealth and power as a child. He probably meant, too, the potential for the United States of America to take another step away from its past inequities and the gross injustices of slavery by electing a black citizen to the office of president, making good on the promise of “all men are created equal”, the negligence of which is so evident in Bingham’s The County Election, wherein the only African-American present is serving the drunkard his booze. (There are no women pictured, either.)

But what if Stipe also meant the dream of an America open to all, where the price to move across the country, to change one’s circumstances, is fair for everyone? If that’s the question, the dream, then despite what progress has been made the past five years, we’ve fallen short. Like the conductor says to the driver, “We can reach our destination, but we’re still a ways away.”