R.E.M.’s ‘Houston’ Underscored the Plight of Hurricane Refugees 12 Years Before Harvey
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, former First Lady Barbara Bush opined that evacuated and "underprivileged" New Orleans residents were better off in their temporary shelters at the Astrodome than they were in their old homes.
Her comments set off an immediate firestorm - and also planted the seeds of a song that would be released in 2008 on R.E.M.'s Accelerate, "Houston."
"If the storm doesn't kill me the government will," is the dark line that opens the song. But it goes on to take a more positive spin. "I've got to get that out of my head / It's a new day today and the coffee is strong / I've finally got some rest."
"'Houston' is not an angry song, in fact it's filled with sadness," frontman Michael Stipe told the Sun in 2008. "I was writing from the point of view of someone who has barely survived Hurricane Katrina and then been displaced. Barbara Bush, the ex-First Lady and the president's mother, said, 'So many of the people were underprivileged anyway, so this is working well for them.' Hello, Barbara these are people who lost everything. I know people who lost family members, their homes, everything."
Stipe put his talent where his mouth was and in 2006, with help from Chris Martin and Justin Timberlake, put together an EP entitled In the Sun to raise funds for Katrina relief. But the disaster was still on his mind as R.E.M. wrote Accelerate. "Houston" dealt with questions of faith in response to how victims were treated following the storm, Stipe told NPR's Morning Edition.
As with most of their songs, R.E.M. composed "Houston" by starting with the music. A guitar figure by Peter Buck inspired bassist / keyboardist Mike Mills to write the organ line. Then it was Stipe's turn. "I've always felt since the early days that when I'm writing a vocal part, my job is to make it sound like that's the only vocal part that [could] ever possibly go along to that piece of music."
At a SXSW performance in 2008, Stipe revealed that he also had George W. Bush on his mind when he wrote the song, adding that he was "terrified history is gonna look back on this decade and the terrible overreaction of the (presidential) administration to 9/11. We have almost two years to make this decade worth something, and I think we have the power to do that."
During an Austin City Limits performance that year, Stipe shared that the song was also inspired by the "the great American song writer, one of the greatest in my opinion," Jimmy Webb. He "wrote a beautiful song that I grew up with called 'Galveston' and what I didn't realize as a child was that it was one of the great anti-war songs of its time. ... This is our somewhat re-writing of that song and it references that beautiful song in the chorus." "Houston is filled with promise / Laredo is a beautiful place / Galveston sings like that song that I loved / Its meaning has not been erased," he sings.
Stipe may have revisited the "Houston" narrator three years later in the song "Oh My Heart," from R.E.M.'s 2011 farewell album Collapse Into Now. Although he doesn't directly reference New Orleans, the lyrics deal with a person returning home after a storm to help rebuild: "I came home to city half erased / I came home to face what we faced / This place needs me here to start / This place is the beat of my heart." He later reminds listeners, "The storm didn't kill me / The government changed."
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