The House In Order in R.E.M.’s ‘Wolves Lower’.

TSOM bassist Brett Houston-Lock ruminates on the subtext of Michael Stipe’s enigmatic lyric

Our decision to cover R.E.M.’s song ‘Wolves, Lower’ this past weekend for a bit of fun got me thinking. It isn’t a particularly difficult song to play, but what is hard is figuring out what the lyrics are all about. Especially with their earlier songs, Michael Stipe’s lyrics seem embedded in his own stream-of-consciousness and there are few, if any, literal clues as to what the song’s words mean. I think they are meant to convey a feeling or generate an emotion.

Sometimes songwriters throw in what we like to call “Hail Mary words”, that is to say, when a songwriter can’t think of anything clever, they insert a common word that elicits an uncritical emotional response in the listener.

But I don’t think that this is what Michael Stipe does. I think he writes in riddles. And, as a gay songwriter myself who began in the 80s, I know full well why: you simply couldn’t say what you wanted to say. Your brain censored your heart.

I can’t speak for Stipe, of course, because this is something most Gen Xish songwriters prefer not to talk about, and Baby Boomers have even less enthusiasm. Perhaps we simply don’t want to admit that we chose safety over bravery, or worse, that we chose a chance at popularity over potentially alienating a part of our audiences. Whatever the case, what’s done is done. Songs are frozen in time. They are what they are. And some are genuinely great … like this one. Even if we’ll never know what it is really about.

Anyway, before going even further down that rabbit hole, suffice it to say, when I know a songwriter is gay or lesbian or bisexual, I keep an ear out for the familiar coded language, the lyrical Polari of popular song, if you will. And ‘Wolves, Lower’ is full of it,

The very opening “Suspicion yourself, don’t get caught” resonates with any gay guy stuck in the closet in the 80s, especially when coupled with the impotent demand of “Let us OUT!”.

Who are these wolves? Is it a metaphor for our animalistic side, our sexual side, unrestrained by the brain admonishing “don’t get caught”? I think these “wilder wolves” are the braver gay men who explore their sexuality.

An article about “The Body Language of Wolves” notes: “In a wolf pack, order is regularly reinforced by displays of dominance and submission through a complex mix of vocal and physical communications.” Sound familiar?

Why is the refrain the reassurance to an unknown third party that this house is “in order?” I think this provides the strongest clue. Consider this from the abstract of scholarly paper Conspiracy to corrupt public morals and the ‘unlawful’ status of homosexuality in Britain after 1967, by Harry Cocks (no, this is not a joke):

“The common law offence of conspiracy to corrupt public morals has a long though controversial history in English law. It was a charge mainly employed against obscenity, procuring prostitution, keeping a disorderly house, public indecency and public mischief. These could be interpreted by the courts as facets of a single offence known as conspiracy to corrupt public morals. The charge was used intermittently in the twentieth century, mainly against the arrangement of prostitution and ‘disorderly houses’ used by homosexual men. It was applied again in 1960 in the Ladies Directory case and was subsequently used against gay men who advertised for friends and partners in the underground magazine International Times….”

The same “disorderly house” terminology of English Common Law is echoed in US law. Gay bars could be denied a liquor license on the basis of being “a disorderly house” until a court challenge put an end to this in the 1950s.

So it makes perfect sense for someone wishing to allay suspicion upon themselves to protest that their house is “in order”.

The odd phrase “suspicion yourself” is also worth exploring. It is a grammatical oddity. But to me it makes sense. As a young gay man growing up, uncomfortable with my own identity, paranoid, afraid (of getting caught out) I was the most suspicious of myself, always wondering if this gesture, or that mannerism, or talking about this subject or professing to like that thing might bring suspicion on me. I had to be more suspicious of myself than I believed others to be.

Other lines are simply evocative of “cruising”. What are these wilder wolves doing in the corner of a garden (park?), who is this threatening posse, and why the renewed urgency of the warning not to get caught? Are there gay-bashers about?

That leads into the mysterious breakdown of the music into a violent cacophony. In the official music video, Stipe can be seen punching an imaginary object on the ground, arms flailing, while drummer Bill Berry swings his sticks as if wielding a baseball bat – the chosen weapon of bashers everywhere – as the thumps his snare. It ends with a howl of screaming feedback as we are cautioned for a final time: “suspicion yourself, don’t get caught!” What can it all mean?

Questions, questions, questions! Few answers, only the admonition to keep an orderly house and and not to get caught, Sage advice, but for whom?

No one except Michael Stipe himself can provide a definitive answer – with the caveat that even songwriters are cagey and evasive when it comes to explaining their lyrics – but I believe my interpretation is not only logically consistent, but may be the only way the song makes any sense.

But then, by nature, I’m very suspicious!