What would replace the rent with the stars above?
Replace the need with love?
Replace the anger with the tide?
Replace the ones that you love?
One of the least important things about this song is intimately connected with one of the most significant. Life’s funny that way. Laura was the first person to play it for me. In the days of my earliest infatuation with her, we were sitting on the floor of her room, listening to music, and fiddling around with her guitar. She was practicing a variety of things (many of them from Sarah McLachlan’s “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” album, which I had also just heard for the first time). At the time, I had no idea who the Indigo Girls were (1), but I did know and love R.E.M. Every member of R.E.M. performs on this record, but none so spectacularly as Michael Stipe. (2) Now, as anyone who will have heard old recordings of band practice will know (3), I once had the uncanny ability to sound just like Mr. Stipe when speaking into a tape recorder. So, naturally, Laura thought I would be able to sing this song with her. And, naturally, that I’d be able to play along with her.
Unfortunately, I could not. I mean, sure, I could “sing.” But I could not sing and play guitar at the same time. And, let’s be honest, here. By “play guitar” I mean to say that I couldn’t manifest the handful of chords that I knew while within earshot of anyone else. Laura, however, had no such problem, and she played for me, and she sang along, and it was lovely. It really was. And I’ve never stopped wishing that I could play and sing guitar at the same time. I’ve made some progress, but it haunts me. (4) At any rate, that’s not really what I want to discuss. It is important to keep it in the back of your mind, but it’s not essential. Sort of like Calculus, the in-field fly rule, and the right way to eat a reese’s peanut butter cup.
No, what I really want to talk about is those lyrics above. I used to have them taped to my bedroom wall, and, every now and again, I’d stop and I’d ask myself that set of questions. When I hear this song, I’m taken back to a few different places. To Laura’s bedroom floor on a beautiful spring day full of music I’d never heard, and absolutely nothing else to worry about. To a car ride with Julie where I finally got to hear someone sing the prettiest alto line in all of pop music. (5) And I think about the moment when my father discovered the song, and our lives intersected again after being so long apart. And usually, by that point, the chorus comes in, and I ask myself: “Are you on fire?” And I realize I am. And that that’s how it’s supposed to be. (6)
“Why?” is a reasonable question to ask. And we’ll get there. I suppose I should explain a little bit about the way in which I mentally categorize my record collection. Apart from associating songs with certain moments in my life (as this site demonstrates), I also find that certain songs and albums encapsulate the spirit of a season for me. For instance, the Lemonheads album “It’s a Shame About Ray” is the perfect album for April/May in New England. I think of it in relation to the first warm day of the year, and the feeling of the breeze on my face as I set out in nothing but a t-shirt for the first time in a while. When it comes to driving on a carefree summer day, “Molly” by Sponge is the perfect song. (7) And for Fall, my favorite season, “Mayonaise” by the Smashing Pumpkins is the perfect song for setting off alone in the crisp air for a walk under falling leaves. So, there’s a sense of season, and a dimension of experience, and then there’s one other thing: people.
Everyone I’ve ever met is, in one way or another, identified in my mind by a soundtrack. What’s weird about “Kid Fears” is that it seems to apply to quite a few people. Laura, obviously. And Julie. And Andy (who actually played it for me on the only occasion I’ve ever had to be in his room. Yet another time that I desperately wanted to be able to play and sing.). Anyway, returning to the original point, “Kid Fears” is a spring song. It’s for overcast days when a fine mist blows through a screen window while you’re laying next to it. For me, it calls to mind a sense that change can, will, and does happen. Which is why, I suppose, it’s a spring song. Yet, even as it brings a sense of change, it asks about the value of change. (8)
The first three of those lines above present beautiful prospects. Give up material concerns for the stars. Give up loneliness for love. Give up anger for the ability to accept the ebb and the flow of life. But then it asks: “What could replace the ones that you love?” And you realize that those first few things are a part of them. That it’s all mixed together, and you don’t get utopia. And then the song asks: “What would you give for your kid fears?” And I think that has a lot to do with this moment of realization. Because it’s hard to look imperfection in the eye, and to know that you’re saddled with it forever. To give up that sense you had when you were a kid that everything could be made right if you just wished hard enough. And yet, I don’t see this as a song without hope, and neither should you. For one thing, when I hear the final three-part harmony, my eyes close and my heart skips a beat – and I know that I’m alive. (9) Burning with something other than the years and their emotional chaos. Burning, indeed, with a sense of beautiful possibility.
And that’s why it’s so important that this song makes me think of springtimes past, and of that aching desire to be able to play and sing. Because in that moment, I conjure up the scene of Laura’s room, with us both in our youth and the mist coming in from the outside, and I feel that same boyish desire to sing and play – just to participate for the love of the thing itself. And I also think about the freedom I have to set off in the car at night towards the beach with Julie, listening and singing as we go. And when I think of my dad, and of all the strife he had in his life – the bills, the pain, the sickness – I cry.
And sure, I’m crying now for the obvious reason that he’s gone. But I’m also crying fondly – because, despite all this, he was beautiful. And we can all be beautiful, too.
And, so, even though it’s far less majestic than the original, (though it vaguely recalls my sense of watching the performance from the floor), I leave you with this (10):
- “I mean, c’mon, they’re a girl band” – I would have said [Back]
- Honestly, has any other band ever done so much mentoring? Eddie Vedder discussed this when he inducted R.E.M. into the rock and roll hall of fame, and you can find that here, here, and here. But seriously? Peter Buck contributed great things to albums by The Replacements. Michael Stipe shepherded Thom Yorke in his time of crisis. Then Eddie Vedder. And a host of other bands from the Athens, GA area – including the Indigo Girls. And I’ll never stop thinking about what might have come out of the “acoustic” stuff he was working on with Kurt Cobain. The man really is a dynamo… [Back]
- And yes, I realize this represents a small, miserable population of people who will likely never speak to me again. [Back]
- The other moment that comes to mind is a birthday party I attended for Sean Seaman at Amanda Wagemaker’s house. She’d gotten everyone to pitch in and buy him a new guitar (he was in a band that I liked, and we occasionally had lunch and talked about distortion pedals, etc). Anyway, while hanging out by Red-who-played-guitar, I was introduced to the concept of bar/power chords. My hands were/are smallish, and I had a really hard time. Needless to say, I was a bit sad that I couldn’t play with the cool kids. Red did, however, eventually teach me to play “Wish You Were Here,” and I’ll never forget the power that I suddenly felt. I’ll always see that patio, and feel that sunshine, when I pick up a guitar. [Back]
- And, honestly, it is. I’m referring to the melody that weaves its way through the final part of the song, just after Michael Stipe has begun singing. [Back]
- To quote Dar Williams: “I’ll burn as I grow.” [Back]
- Certain other people I know have claimed that this would be “Joyride” by Roxette. They are clearly wrong. [Back]
- To hopefully help elaborate, I would say that “To Sheila” (a winter song) by the Smashing Pumpkins is this song’s emotional brother. Where this song questions what could replace the ones that you love, “To Sheila” is at least a little bit about saying: “Well, I don’t know… but this will have to do.” Among other things, it encapsulates that sense of having had to move on, even while working through some misgivings about direction. “Kid Fears” is about those misgivings, and even invites us to “hold on.” Starting to get a picture of my convoluted brain, yet? [Back]
- This, I suppose, goes right to the heart of debates I’ve had with certain other people I know about the value of lyrics versus the value of melodies. To me, songs rise and fall on their lyrical content. I honestly can’t understand how people can not listen to lyrics. I mean, sure, I like a good toe-tapper just like everyone else, but nothing is ever truly beautiful to me without that synergy of melody and content. This song, more than any other I know, makes me question that sentiment. [Back]
- If you’d really like to hear the original, you can click on this. I wouldn’t watch the video at the same time as listening for the first time, as it’s really not very good, but it may be intriguing for “Lost” fans. [Back]