R.E.M., “Wendell Gee”

There wasn’t even time to say
Goodbye to Wendell Gee
So Whistle as the wind blows…
Whistle as the wind blows…
With me.

Closing R.E.M.’s “Fables of the Reconstruction” album, “Wendell Gee” is one of those perfect examples of what Michael Stipe and Co. do so very well – that is, reify the mundane into these revelatory narratives that pull meaning from your subconscious mind. (Sounds simple, right?) Last night, I had a series of nightmares. Only, I wasn’t quite asleep. The crux of it is that when I think about everything that’s happened with my dad, and how I lost him, I feel horribly derelict for not being there for him in his final moments. “After everything he gave me in life,” I think, “how could I not have given him the comfort of knowing he wasn’t alone?” And, of course, I had no idea. It was a perfectly normal day – a little rainy, a little cold – but nothing terrifying. Typical November in New England, and, as such, I was typically lost in my little life.

Still, it’s irrational to the extreme, but it feels like a complete shirking of the single-most important thing I could have ever done for my dad.

Which naturally leads on to “Wendell Gee.” And I can’t quite explain how it’s happening, but it’s making it all right – saving my life, even. It’s not about me. Or my dad. But it’s about a sudden, mythic loss. And it seems like it understands what it feels like to lose in way that’s otherwise violently incomprehensible… And more than that, it seems to know the impossible fervency of the wishes that follow… (“If the wind were colors / and if the air could speak…”) And somehow, I know I’m not alone (in an emotional sense).

You can’t equate the loss of one person with another. You just can’t. You might argue that the loss of an Einstein is far worse for Man than the loss of a random actress. But Heddy Lamarr gave us radar (really) and Einstein gave us quantum mechanics and the A-Bomb. Who knows where things would have gone had either of them lived? And what about their families and friends? Do you think you could convince either party that the other was worse off? Yeah. Me, either.

Anyway, back to my original point, I think that the most important thing when you’re wounded is to know that others have lived through the same wound. (And, obviously, people have. You and I are reading this, and I’m not the only one to lose someone. (Well, along with the Lamarr and Einstein families, that is.)) You need to know that the road you’re traveling has an end, and that there are probably going to be snacks, and that you’ll get to sleep in a nice, soft bed. (Or tree, even.) This song puts its hand on my shoulder and… well, I understand.

Which is not to say that there haven’t been helping hands along the way. It’s just that this song provides a point of crystallization – and, honestly, that’s the truly transcendent thing about music, isn’t it? I can finally understand because I’m primed to understand. I think the best things in life stem from this total integration of art and life – it’s like being able to dream out loud. Beautiful.

And so, I’m telling you this after closing my eyes, holding my mp3 player to my breast, and crying a little… because, just now, a song saved my life. And if you’ve ever had to talk to me about this subject, and been frustrated, you have something to thank for finally making your words go in the right boxes. Art’s a better tomb for my grief than my own soul. I’ve been looking for a way to memorialize my dad – to enshrine those feelings of loss, grief, and doubt – so that I’ll always be able to recall the single-most visceral experience in my life. And, I suppose, as a banner of what I’d like to do better… And I’ve found it… not in my father’s songs, but in my own.

There wasn’t even time to say goodbye to Wendell Gee. And there wasn’t time to say goodbye to my dad. And even though a dark cloud may come from time to time, and the wind may howl, I know that I can whistle as it blows, and that one day it will speak in colors…

10 thoughts on “R.E.M., “Wendell Gee”

  1. I always related this song with the death of my dad as well-never had a chance to say goodbye to him either. This post moved me in many ways.

  2. It’s so strange that I stumbled upon this site today… I’ve been thinking a lot (too much) about my father’s passing and to know that others equate this song with that particular “type” of loss blows my mind.

    Thanks for putting this out there… it’s a really beautiful entry on a very beautiful song.

  3. Im glad I stumbled upon this as well. I’ve always loved the song and now just about every time I hear that chorus it brings tears to my eyes, but in a beautiful way. I lost my girlfriend about a year and a half ago. She was killed in a car accident, taken from us so quick and at such a young age. It’s so hard to describe the pain of not being able to say good bye.

    Thanks for posting this, I love the song even more.

  4. I wanted to thank you all for sharing here. I know that I’m woefully behind on my return to this site, but it’s so touching to know that there are others who look at this the same way. I must say that I’m sorry that this means so much loss for everyone, but I hope that, like me, you will find comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Thank you.

  5. I was fortunate enough to have years to say goodbye to my dad — and incredible gift within a brutally unfair and premature end to a life well lived.

    Among all REM songs, this is the one I wonder about most. First, I love the song. When the band wants to remind us about Southern roots, it can, in powerfully understated ways like Wendell Gee. Rather than retirement,or the end of a life’s journey, I’ve always tended toward the suggestion of a man losing his grasp on reality, sliding toward at least deep depression if not outright insanity.

    I read an obituary on Wendell Gee a few years ago. The most interesting notation — he was preceded in death by a son. Perhaps that event, the loss of his boy, started a downward spiral he was unable to stop. In any event, a quiet, poingnant, haunting piece.

    Here’s to our dads.

  6. Right now it’s February 2013. You posted this in 2007. My Dad died in my arms March 11, 1998. I have been drawn to this song since the late 1980s, when I first heard it. Never did I appreciate it as much as I did after reading your post. Thank you.

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