Song: E-bow the Letter
This haunting lament comes from REM’s 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It’s a bittersweet tribute to River Phoenix, who had died three years earlier at the age 23 of a drug-induced heart attack at the notorious West Hollywood nightclub, The Viper Room. Mead Michael Stipe’s lyrics come across like a desperate letter too late to save his friend from a dangerous drug dependency. In a series of hallucinatory vignettes the lyrics flow in a suspended string of poetic free-associating visions. The E-bow refers to a simple electronic sustaining device guitarist Peter Buck used to give his guitar a fluid, droning tone, provide an atmosphere both morose and menacing. Balancing out all the daunting negativity are the luminous backing vocals of Patti Smith, injecting siren notes of sweet mystery and transcendant deliverance. It’s a pretty amazing tune.