A Lifetime

- Wade

And I know it wasn't right
But it felt so good
And your mother didn't mind
Like I thought she would
And that R.E.M. song was playing in my mind
Three and a half minutes
Felt like a lifetime
-Better Than Ezra, "A Lifetime"

I'd imagine it's pretty rare to find two of one's favorite bands intersecting lyrically, like R.E.M. and BTE do above. It'd be like Martin Zellar referencing the Refreshments, or Toad singing a song about Fountains of Wayne. (Or, for wadE, Metallica writing lyrics about Weird Al Yankovic.) So, the question is: What R.E.M. song are they referring to? Does anyone know the answer? Would Kevin Griffin, the lead singer of BTE, let us know or keep it secret? Some research is in order. If you're OCD about music and lyrics like me, come along for the ride.

First, a little disclaimer. Lyrics, when done right, are like.. um.. clouds. Different people can see different things in them. BTE could be referencing a song that I don't consider. The three-and-a-half minutes might not be referring to the song length at all. Or, like the people here, the line actually could be That Aryan song was playing in my mind / Three and a half mixed nuts / Felt like a lifetime. Who knows.

What's Kevin thinking?

A little background on the song itself. Thee above snippet doesn't necessarily indicate how well-written the song is; the full lyrics are available here. It's Griffin's twist on the real-life (and really interesting) story of Gram Parsons, a former member of the Byrds and one of the fathers of the modern alt-country movement (think Wilco, or the Jayhawks.) Parsons OD'd in 1973 at age 26; a couple of friends stole his body from the airport, took it to the beach, and set it on fire as the sun came up. In the BTE version, the victim is Allie; she'd already been cremated, so the ashes were stolen and taken to the beach at dawn.

Unique, but straightforward. One of their better slower songs; the acoustic version sounds fantastic on the recent Cities 97 Sampler. But that R.E.M. song...

Which one?

When I first heard the song two years ago, I naturally assumed it was "Everybody Hurts." Seemed fitting in the context, and it's pretty low-hanging fruit as far as coming up with R.E.M. songs goes. But "Everybody Hurts" is longer than that; it clocks in at five minutes and twenty seconds. So, again... Which one?

Decent guess...

There are a couple ways I can go about finding the answer, assuming it exists somewhere outside of Kevin's head. First, make an educated guess, based on hardcore, no-holds-barred research. Second, try to find the answer online. Sure, it's a little silly, but I'm not above trifles when it comes to music, and I've got some time to kill on a three-day weekend.

So... let's find the universe of R.E.M. songs he could be referring to. Thanks to the beauty of iTunes this is pretty easy-- segregate all of their songs into a playlist and then sort by length. (In case you're wondering, I've got 128 R.E.M. songs on my iPod. Waaaayy too many.) We'll give some wiggle room and look at all songs between 3:20 and 3:40. Amazingly, that's 20 songs.

Whew. Well, maybe some logical assumptions can pare it down. First, we'll assume that this isn't an up-tempo song that they're listening to after their high-school classmate was killed in a car accident.

That helps. But not enough. More than a few candidates on that list. So let's pare it down again, this time looking at the writer. Kevin Griffin was born in 1967. Do you really think he'd make a reference to a song that came out when he was in his 30s? Me neither.

We can easily eliminate some of these. "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" is a pretty blatant request for sex. I'm also yanking "Talk About the Passion" from the list-- decent song, but too peppy for the context of "A Lifetime". "Time After Time" is about as lyrically complicated as a Wendy's commercial, so I'm hoping that's not it. And, finally, "The Wrong Child" gets the axe because it's widely acknowledged as the most difficult R.E.M. song to listen to; banjos, screechy harmony, it's just awful. Yuck.

That leaves us with three really strong possibilities. Each one seems viable, with pros and cons:

  • "Let Me In": at face-value, this seems pretty logical. Michael Stipe wrote this for Kurt Cobain after Cobain committed suicide in 1994. It's a textbook dirge, with Stipe lamenting that he couldn't (or didn't) do anything to stop Cobain's destructive behavior ("I had a mind to try and stop you"). But is that really the song you'd think about if a friend got killed in a car accident? I don't think so. Plus this one came out in 1995, well past Griffin's formative years. This one's out.
  • "Half A World Away: Hmm. Not the type of song that I'd pick-- organ, mandolin, strange time signature. To me the song has always been about the strains of a long-distance relationship ("My hand's tired, my heart aches") but that might be too obvious. It's definitely about loneliness, even if the reason for the writer's hurting hand isn't so PG-13. Could this be the song that keeps playing in the minds of the survivors in "A Lifetime"? I really don't think so. It just doesn't seem to fit.
  • Leaving us with...

  • "Perfect Circle": You've probably never heard this song, which is too bad. Check out a clip here. Despite claims that this song was written about a football game, which might be possible given the first verse. I don't think so, though-- it's Stipean-vague enough for it to mean just about anything while (for him) being about something specific. The tempo and mood are right, the timeline works (Murmur came out when Griffin was 15), and it's the only song that's *exactly* three and a half minutes long.

So, that's our choice. Now the hard part (maybe): finding the right answer. Of course, we start with Google. I consider myself a bit of a Google master-- I got my technique down and everything, no ticklin' or nothing. Let's see... construct our query intelligently... and... voila! A link to an interview with Griffin from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, dated June 26, 2002:

Q: chris of milwaukee -- In the song lifetime you talk about an r.e.m. song and 3and 1/2 minutes felt like a lifetime are you referring to the length of an r.e.m. song or not and if so which one?

A: Kevin Griffin -- both

Crap. That's no good. Um... Google's looking like a crapshoot. So is allmusic.com. Same for wikipedia. In the end, I could only find a couple of places where I found the topic: songmeanings.net (normally worthless), and the message boards on the band's official site..

Glad to see I'm not the only person who's wasted more than a minute thinking about this-- several entries at songmeanings on the subject. Lots of guesses, including "Talk About The Passion", "The One I Love", "Everybody Hurts", and...

HERE'S THE REAL STORY - I saw an interview with the guys and this is straight from the horses mouth. The song is based on a story he heard about another music artist (can't remember who), anyways, the mystery artist and his friends stole another friends casket and set it on fire on the beach. The REM song is - A Perfect Circle. It's an incredible song, and thats the real deal.

GIS for "winner". Don't ask me.

Woo! Of course, it's possible that this person is just blowing smoke. Even likely, given the response from Griffin above and the "official" word from betterthanezra.com:

In the song "Lifetime", the lyrics reference an R.E.M. song. What song are they talking about? Kevin has been asked this question before and his response has been that itís a general REM song reference. Fans have guessed that itís several possibilities: Perfect Circle, Shiny Happy People, Drive, Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite, etc.

So it's possible that we guessed right, and it's possible we didn't. (As far as planning this article out, we certainly didn't assume we'd be right-- it's oddly anticlimactic.) In the end, it really doesn't matter. For me it can be "Perfect Circle", for someone else "Losing My Religion", and, hell, "Shiny Happy People" for someone else, and the song still means something unique to each person. Which, despite the efforts detailed here, is fine by me.


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