‘Monty Got a Raw Deal’ Takes R.E.M. Down and Out in Beverly Hills: The Story Behind Every ‘Automatic for the People’ Song
There’s a famous quote from a movie. No, it’s not from a Montgomery Clift film (that would be a little too perfect), but it did star one of the famous method actor’s former co-stars, cinema icon John Wayne. The movie was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and the often-repeated line was, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Legend vs. fact. Reality and the silver screen. What goes on behind closed doors compared to what the public perceives. These are some of the themes of “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” the seventh track on R.E.M.’s 1992 album, Automatic for the People. We’ll get to Clift and the Hollywood gossip in a bit, but let’s take a look at the song’s sonic origins, which have their own entanglement with facts and legends.
In 1992, as R.E.M. were starting to record their eighth studio album, guitarist Peter Buck began to fiddle with a Greek stringed instrument called a bouzouki. Buck had already become enamored with mandolins, employing them on the band’s two previous LPs (1988’s Green and 1991’s Out of Time) before he began playing the bouzouki, which has a similarly stinging – but fuller, deeper – sound when plucked. He used the instrument to come up with a new tune.
“I wrote the main riff on my bouzouki in the hotel room in New Orleans,” Buck told Rolling Stone, recalling that it happened in the middle of the night when a particularly affectionate couple were conducting business one room over. “I don't know what the couple next door were doing," he added. "It sounded like an orgy.”
The legend is that Buck came up with “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and, the very next day, R.E.M. recorded the basic foundation for it at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studio in the French Quarter. But the facts appear to diverge from Buck’s memory.
R.E.M. made Automatic in a number of far-flung locales and one of them was the Crescent City. But the band made its way to New Orleans in March, a couple of weeks after they had already demoed a huge batch of tracks in their hometown of Athens, Ga. – at a local haunt, John Keane Studios. And back in Athens, R.E.M. had already tracked an instrumental called “Bazouki Song” (sic) that would turn into “Monty Got a Raw Deal.”
Now, it’s possible that Buck further fleshed out an already existing idea in New Orleans or that his passionate neighbors helped him distill the song’s dark sound. But his story just sounds better. Print the legend.
“I was up late, couldn’t sleep,” Buck repeated to Melody Maker in 1992. “We put it down in one take and [singer] Michael [Stipe] said, ‘Oh, that’s my favorite song.’”
It was only fitting that when Stipe created lyrics for the instrumental track that he’d do his own mythmaking – in this instance, regarding the movie business. He was inspired to write about Montgomery Clift after a photographer who had worked with the late film actor visited R.E.M. during the band’s creative process.
“The Montgomery Clift thing came because there was someone who was a photographer on the set of The Misfits who came by the studio,” Buck said. “He had photos from it and he was talking about it. … We saw those pictures and, while we were recording it, Michael was talking about it.”
The Misfits, released in 1961, featured one of Clift’s last film roles (and the final screen appearances of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable). It followed the Clift’s fall from grace. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, the Nebraska native had become one of Hollywood’s young stars, emerging at the same time as fellow method actors Marlon Brando and James Dean. Film studios began to market the good-looking, but brooding, star as a sex symbol – an identity further enhanced by his role opposite Elizabeth Taylor in 1951’s A Place in the Sun.
The gossip mongers spread rumors that Clift and Taylor were an item off-screen too. But the two Hollywood hotshots were just very close friends. After all, Taylor revealed later, Clift was more interested in romantic relationships with men. But being openly gay – or bisexual, as people close to the actor have claimed – in '50s public life was not a viable option. Like many others, Montgomery Clift concealed his sexuality.
That was only one of the tragedies of Clift’s relatively short life. In 1956, he fell asleep while driving, crashed into a telephone pole in Beverly Hills and smashed up his face. Although he underwent plastic surgery, Clift’s looks were forever changed (part of his face was immobile) and he entered a depression. He coped with the pain with alcohol and pills, became an addict and began a long, slow decline that ultimately ended with his substance abuse-related death in 1966. He was 45.
R.E.M. weren’t the first band to write about Montgomery Clift in a rock song. The Clash depicted the disaster of the actor’s final years in “The Right Profile” on London Calling. But Stipe took a more empathetic approach with his lyrics, finding obvious parallels between his present life as a bisexual rock star and Clift’s time as a closeted film star. Each had endured the harsh light of celebrity.
“Monty Got a Raw Deal” doesn’t dispute the power of the movies or the allure of fame, even if he regards the latter with a jaundiced eye. “The movies had that movie thing / but nonsense has a welcome ring,” Stipe sings, before warning, “and heroes don’t come easy.” Perhaps the idea is that you can’t be a hero unless you suppress a part of yourself to live up to what the popular notions of a hero might be.
The song goes from film noir (“mischief knocked me in the knees”) to European expressionism, as he sees Clift lynched in a tree and buried in the sand – conjuring images of From Here to Eternity – even if that was Burt Lancaster, not Clift, rolling on the beach with Deborah Kerr. Our narrator is implored to stay mum, leading the chorus: “Don’t you waste your breath for the silver screen.” As the song continues, “Monty” becomes both tragic and mythical. The character becomes bigger, more representative of the marginalized, seemingly surviving torture, death and being outed. “Raw deal,” indeed.
Bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills is unsure whether the title of “Monty Got a Raw Deal” is an accidental double reference to Monty Clift and Monty Hall (who hosted the game show Let’s Make a Deal) or a particularly wry joke by Michael Stipe. Mills is more confident speaking to his role in the song, strengthening the recording’s noir-ish feel with the Carter Burwell-like wheeze of a melodica and a lumbering bass part.
“The bass is actually an old Guild electric bass that’s only about two feet long. The strings are rubber surgical tubing. When you play it, you get sort of a sound like an upright bass,” Mills told Stereogum. “For me, that’s what I think of when I think of that song. It looks like a lap steel with surgical tubing on it. It’s very strange.”
It wasn’t the only offbeat, but effective, choice made when recording and doing overdubs for the song. In addition to Bill Berry’s steady, sharp drums, “Monty Got a Raw Deal” features intermittent industrial crashes – startling bursts of background stomping that suggest the hazards of Clift’s story, Stipe’s experience or other tragedies.
“How much of the song is real, how much of it is about Montgomery Clift and how much is about home?” Buck asked in 1992. "I couldn’t tell you."
Choose your own story, then print the legend.
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