When our kids were young they had a pretty awesome collection of storybooks which have since been given to friends as the books were outgrown. One of these was a story first published in 1938, but not familiar to either of us until we had our own children, called “The Five Chinese Brothers.” It was written by Claire Hutchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese in 1938.
Each of the five Chinese brothers has a special attribute — one can swallow the sea, one can stretch his legs to any length, one cannot be burned, etc. The brother who could swallow the sea always captivated our imagination.
He would sup it up like soup and hold it in his cheeks until they were enormously swollen, “and all of the treasures of the sea lay uncovered.” The image of the seabed revealed is captivating to us.
This Chinese brother is taken advantage of, and the following four take his place in succession. Some have said Wiese’s art in the children’s book is racist, but we have never really seen the story that way.
When this book was given to us when our children were small, our first thought was of the song “7 Chinese Brothers” on REM’s second album, Reckoning. Like most early REM songs its just another exercise in cryptic absurdism, but apparently at least partly inspired by the storybook.
“7 Chinese Brothers” is an early example of REM’s ability to captivate us even when we have no idea why we are so compelled to continue listening. What is this song about, and why is it one of our favorites on the album? Reckoning is a remarkable album in this way, for few songs are singularly memorable, but on a re-listening all are essential. And yes, there is a line about swallowing the ocean, or something. It’s so damn difficult to understand any of the words on those first few REM records.
In fact, it was so difficult to understand Michael Stipe, let alone hear and record him, that it was a problem when recording Reckoning. At one point the album’s producer, Don Dixon, gave Stipe an album and asked him to read the liner notes so he could be heard and understood. It was The Joy of Knowing Jesus by the Revelaires. This exercise took place over the backing track of “7 Chinese Brothers.”
The resulting take was so weirdly successful that it was released as the b-side of the single for “So. Central Rain” as “The Voice of Harold.” It was also included on the band’s b-side compilation (and a favorite album of ours) Dead Letter Office. In the liner notes, Peter Buck describes the alternate lyrics as “extemporaneous,” but the delivery is stunningly predicative.
From this point forward there seems to be a growing confidence in Stipe’s vocals, perhaps inspired by … “The Voice of Harold.” All we know is that it is hard to imagine the Michael Stipe of most songs on Reckoning singing “Everybody Hurts” a decade later, but it somehow makes sense when you hear “The Voice of Harold.” For us, a record store is like “the treasures of the sea lay[ing] uncovered.” There is always something to find.