After watching a video on Earth Day today I had no idea that the event was sparked by the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River. While almost every knows of Earth Day, no as many people know about the burning of the Cuyahoga River. I only know about it because of R.E.M.
R.E.M. chronicled the disaster in their 1986 song, “Cuyahoga”. When I first heard the song when I was about 5 (I was a huge R.E.M. fan as a kid believe it or not)I had no idea about the Cuyahoga, or any idea of what the song meant. I also thought the chorus was “Puyahoga” instead of “Cuyahoga” I asked one of my older brothers what the song was about. When he told me, the idea that a river could actually burn stuck with me. Even now, I’m slightly afraid if someone flicks their cigarette butt into the Chesapeke Bay it could end up like the Cuyahoga. Hyperbole, I know.
The song begins with a memorable bass riff played by Mike Mills before the rest of the band kicks in. “Let’s put our heads together start a new country up,” Michael Stipe announces. Peter Buck sticks to his trademark chimes during the verses, but alternates between those and power-chords during the pre-chorus. The song sounds like it starts out as a normal R.E.M. circa 1986, but the chorus turns into one arena friendly rock with its plaintive shouts of “Cuyahoga!” during the chorus. Like a lot of R.E.M. songs, Michael Stipe alternates between glimpses of old memories (“We knee skinned that river you and me, We knee-skinned that river red”) and harsh reality (“Rewrite the book, and rule the pages, secured in faith. Bury, burn the waste.”) “Cuyahoga” is one of R.E.M.’s forgotten gems, but more than that, it’s also an important reminder of a piece of history.