The Meaning Behind “So. Central Rain” by R.E.M. and How a Real-Life Weather Event Inspired It

On April 9, 1984, R.E.M. released Reckoning. The album’s first single, “So. Central Rain,” is a darker version of the Athens, Georgia, band’s jangly rock and roll. Though it’s now a classic song, it’s not exactly what their record label wanted.

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When singer and lyricist Michael Stipe intoned the song’s refrain “I’m sorry,” he may have inadvertently apologized to his record label.

Their first single, “Radio Free Europe,” is a post-punk pop song that reached No. 78 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, the record company hoped for something commercially bigger from the second album. More hits, more hooks, maybe some clearer singing from Stipe.

But the band refused to chase fleeting pop trends of the time. Instead, they made the music they wanted to make. Most artists wind up buried in history’s footnotes, but R.E.M. ended up in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  

All Apologies

Stipe is famous for his early indecipherable lyrics, which leaves many R.E.M. songs open to broad interpretation. Though he was exhausted following the band’s nonstop touring to support their first album, his writing became more focused.

“So. Central Rain” is about the weather causing a communication failure. So, the narrator becomes paranoid when they don’t receive an expected call.

Did you never call? I waited for your call
These rivers of suggestion are driving me away
The trees will bend, the cities wash away
The city on the river there is a girl without a dream
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry

The song came about from a real-life weather event in Georgia. According to Craig Rosen’s book R.E.M.: Inside Out: The Stories Behind Every Song, the band was in Los Angeles touring in support of Murmur when a storm caused flooding in their home state. Guitarist Peter Buck tried calling his parents, but the phone lines were down, and he couldn’t reach them.

Buck said, “The weather report was, ‘South Central Rain, all the phone lines [are] down.’”

The ocean sang, the conversation’s dimmed
Go build yourself another dream, this choice isn’t mine

Music First and Inspiring Pavement

R.E.M.’s writing process typically begins with Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry writing instrumental music for Stipe, who takes the music away to write lyrics. When Buck finally heard the words, they moved him profoundly.

Meanwhile, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus was inspired, too. In the Pavement song “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence,” Malkmus namechecks R.E.M.’s second album Reckoning and the songs “South Central Rain”—sounding out the abbreviation—and “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.”

Malkmus then references Sherman’s Civil War march through Georgia, which ends with: And there stands R.E.M.

The Record Label Wanted a (More) Commercial Album

For Reckoning, the band worked again with producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, who produced Murmur. They recorded both albums at Reflection Sound Studios in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The band’s label, I.R.S. Records, told the producers they wanted a commercial album. Label co-founder Jay Boberg sent creative comments to Dixon and Easter throughout the recording process. Meanwhile, the producers told the band to ignore the label’s requests.

R.E.M. wasn’t interested in pop trends and originating from Athens gave them the space to develop their sound outside the industry’s centers in New York and Los Angeles. Eventually, the band’s underground alternative sound dominated mainstream pop culture.

Reckoning charted higher than Murmur, and R.E.M. became a leading band on college radio. With subsequent releases and Stipe’s vocals and lyrics becoming sharper, R.E.M. continued to climb the charts. They quickly became the trend by stubbornly avoiding prevailing trends in popular music.

Communication Breakdown

R.E.M. titled their first single after the United States’ anti-communist radio broadcasts. Leaving the CIA and politics aside, it’s a communication device. The band’s early singles dealt with communication in abstract ways. But on their defining hits “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts,” emotional connections replaced the nonfigurative broadcasts.

I thought that I heard you laughing. And: Don’t let yourself go / ’Cause everybody cries.

Early on, music fans reached their own conclusions about what they thought or felt Stipe was singing about. By “Shiny Happy People,” the ambiguity was gone. When critics wanted Stipe to decode his words, he wrote them in a way a child could understand.

Shiny happy people holding hands. Even the happy furry monsters on Sesame Street understood.

“So. Central Rain” was born from both a flood and the resulting communication failure. It parallels Boberg’s botched attempts to influence the band while they recorded Reckoning. Unlike Buck’s phone calls to his parents, Boberg’s messages were getting through, technically.

But R.E.M. ignored his instructions. Then Stipe wrote a hook where he repeated, in clear, unobstructed, unambiguous prose: “I’m sorry.”

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Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

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