This song has been giving me fits! It’s quite a telling song and video, problem is, I’m still somewhat confused as to what it’s telling. I’ll give it a shot.
Bittersweet Me is the second single off R.E.M.’s 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Told mostly from River’s perspective, it includes a repeated line that sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. If my interpretation is correct, it answers the question as to why River drank the poison that killed him.
“I couldn’t taste it. I’m tired and naked.”
As we will see from the video, Bittersweet Me is yet another R.E.M. song that describes River’s last night alive. It begins with River describing his rise to stardom. “I move across, innocence lost. All flashing pulsar. I move across the earth in my new pattern shirt, I pass satellites.”
The next lines are in reference to his mother. Heart Phoenix complains that he’s just being bitter about Hollywood and everything it entails, to which River replies, “I don’t even know who you are anymore.”
“You’re so bitter,” your complaint
I can’t give you anything
I don’t know who you’re livin’ for
I don’t who you are anymore. I’d sooner chew my leg off
Than be trapped in this
How easy you think of all of this as bittersweet me
River would sooner chew his own leg off than submit to Hollywood and drink the tainted water. How easy his mother thinks of his death as bittersweet. River didn’t want to die, nor did he plan his own death, he simply couldn’t taste the poison in his drink. Tired and naked = Death.
I couldn’t taste it, I’m tired and naked. I don’t know what I’m hungry for, I don’t know what I want anymore.”
The next stanza places him at the Viper Room. The candy floss is his poisoned drink.
“I move across, candy floss, I move like a tank. I move across the room with a heart full of gloom, I’m stronger than you think.”
The next line has been driving me absolutely crazy, but here’s my tentative interpretation. His peer is Michael Stipe. In many of his songs, Stipe reveals that River could always see right through him, could read him like an open book. The reference to a veneer is Stipe’s facade. In dentistry, a veneer is a thin layer of material placed over the teeth to protect them from surface damage. The Surface is Stipe’s mean cat alter. The Underneath is either Heart Phoenix or Stipe. Still not sure but I think the point is that River’s foundation, his support system, was lacking.
The mean cat informs the kingship that Heart Phoenix is on board with the plan. (I think :/)
“Oh, my peer, your veneer is wearing thin and cracking. The surface informs that underneath, the underneath is lacking.”
You move across, innocence lost
All static and desire
You’re blue in the face from navel gaze
You set yourself on fire
After the repeated chorus, the song’s perspective switches over to River’s mother. She accuses him of navel-gazing which is the excessive contemplation of oneself or a single issue. He’s all static and desire meaning he’s unyielding, unchanging and intent on his desire to be free from the kingship. She puts the blame on him.
“You set yourself on fire.”
You strip down and lay yourself out
I know you can’t fake it
But are you tired and naked?
Are you tired and naked?
Heart knows he can’t handle lying, playing the movie star and attempting to be someone he’s not, but is he willing to die to be free?
Yeah, I’d sooner chew my leg off
Than be trapped in this
How easy you think of all of this as bittersweet me
I couldn’t taste it
I’m tired and naked
I don’t know what I’m hungry for
I don’t know what I want anymore
At first glance it appears the video has nothing to do with the song lyrics or River’s death. Shot in the style of an Italian movie entitled Stanco E Nudo (Tired and Naked), the most damning bit of evidence is the movie poster hung on the wall in a key scene towards the end. Although the name of the movie is difficult to make out, the director’s name is easily decipherable: Federico Fellini. The significance? Fellini also died on October 31, 1993.
Though I’m still hazy on certain areas, overall, the video correlates with the working theory of this website. The kingship wanted River killed, Heart Phoenix was complicit and Michael Stipe was the mind-controlled patsy who gave River the poisoned drink.
Cast of Character:
The woman wearing the yellow shirt is Heart Phoenix.
The balding man in the beginning who’s staring up at the airplane is River.
The older man with the sunglasses (Richard Edson) represents the kingship.
The dark-haired woman shown talking to the kingship is Michael Stipe (the mean cat alter)
In the very beginning of the video notice how Heart’s character seductively sucks on a lolly pop and wraps her arms around the man symbolizing the kingship. (Kingship gives it to her for me, Soul Removal)
River’s character leaves the airport and hops into a blue car that drops him off at a hotel. The hotel is the Viper Room. Although it looks small from the outside, the Viper Room actually has two levels–a private downstairs lobby and the upstairs bar where the stage is located. The woman in yellow (Heart) sits up, nervously takes notice of his arrival and hurries up the stairs. Notice the red flowers directly behind her. Blossom castle scents. River’s character watches as she twirls and disappears upstairs. We see the red flowers again behind the kingship as “Heart” sets down an empty wine glass. He’s arrived, fill her up.
In the next scene we see a young dark-haired woman sitting on the kingship’s desk–Michael’s alter, the Mean Cat. She’s an informant for the kingship. Michael Stipe reaches down and touches the floor during this scene possibly symbolizing that he’s The Underneath. Either that or he’s tagging the scene saying, “yup, that’s me.” Unfortunately, this goes back to that key line in the song that I’m just not sure about.
The woman in yellow appears passed out on the couch with her hand over her heart as River’s character ascends the stairs. This is the scene that convinced me the woman does in fact represent Heart. As River’s character pulls a Mister Rogers, grabs a jacket from the closet and switches out shoes (as if preparing his escape), the woman is seen with her hand on her stomach (a mother’s womb) and then pulls the top of her shirt down as if preparing to breastfeed. We can also see a heart on her face created from her hair.
Again, we see the typewriter with the words, the underneath is lacking, hinting that Heart is The Underneath. River’s character kneels down before her and remains static and unaffected as she runs her fingers over his lips. This gesture may represent the poison he drank at her approval. It also hints at the sexual abuse he suffered under her care.
The kingship and the Mean Cat arrive and the video flashes back to a scene on the balcony. The kingship is holding a full glass of wine as the woman in yellow turns her back and walks away. We then see the young woman in black (the mean cat) talking to the kingship. Heart couldn’t serve it up herself so they used Stipe as a patsy. (Blossom castle scents has her guest, a gift described, disguised as my rival, Soul Removal) Notice the woman in yellow and Stipe strike the same pose.
The kingship, Heart and Stipe bicker and point the finger at each other as River’s character stands idly by with his hand in his pocket. The Kingship turns his aggression towards him and River’s character flees downstairs. Notice the Fellini poster on the wall.
River’s character tries to hop into the blue car he arrived in but the kingship beats him down in the street. The women run outside and throw various objects at the two men but the kingship is winning. An unknown man wearing a red helmet (death) arrives on a motorcycle and pulls the kingship off River’s character. The woman in yellow grabs the red helmet and places it on “River’s” head. She seals the deal. The kiss of death. He rides away from the scene and passes a yellow fire hydrant and a water treatment plant before reaching the beach. He stretches his arms toward the sky as he looks out at the ocean.
The kingship, dressed in blue, sits in a blue chair as a barefooted woman lays on the couch. I’m guessing this is the Mean Cat going through a sort of debriefing, a watering down of events, Hollywood’s amnesiac Kool-aid. Notice the kingship’s hand briefly rests on his temple.
The motorcycle’s side mirror is shown at the very end of the video. We see the same symbolism in the video for Strange Currencies as well as the single for E-bow the Letter in which River’s name appears in the rear-view mirror.
I’ll be the first to admit that my analysis of this video may not be entirely accurate but one thing is for certain, it’a about the murder of River Phoenix. Like most of their songs and videos released after River’s death, R.E.M. has once again given us clues to decipher. They want the truth to be known just as badly as River’s fans want to know the truth. Michael Stipe has done a superb job. As for me, I’m still getting the hang of it.
Note: Stipe was an art student before joining R.E.M., and recently taught classes (photography I believe) in New York. He knows what he’s doing. It’s only natural that he would express his message through his art.
Up next, E-bow the Letter