Memoir in a Melody: R.E.M.’s Ode to Andy Kaufman in ‘Man On the Moon’

Andy Kaufman © 1984 Gunther

Athens, Georgia’s retired but very-much-missed rock act R.E.M. left in their wake a catalog full of songs both incredibly catchy and deep with meaning. Former lead singer Michael Stipe is a man of many passions -- social justice, art, film -- and his lyrics reflected them.

In 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction’s "Feeling Gravitys Pull," Stipe referenced photographer Man Ray. "Fall On Me," from the band’s 1986’s album Lifes Rich Pageant, makes oblique references to an experiment by renaissance scientist Galileo in which he dropped objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. However, few of R.E.M.’s songs are as baldly biographical as "Man On the Moon," the 10th track from 1992’s Automatic For The People.

"Man On the Moon" is an homage to legendary comedian and provocateur Andy Kaufman, who specialized in surrealistic pranks and often antagonistic humor. Kaufman’s jokes bordered (and sometimes crossed over into) the realm of performance art, and some people think Kaufman’s last and most successful prank was to fake his own death in 1984.

In some ways, it’s understandable: Kaufman was only thirty-five and died of lung cancer, an uncommon disease for a lifelong non-smoker, and was infamous for utterly vanishing into alter egos like the abrasive lounge singer Tony Clifton. Kaufman was particularly committed to Clifton, and wouldn't break character when portraying him. As Andy, he would always insist Clifton was a real person. After Andy’s death, his longtime friend and collaborator continued to perform as Tony Clifton, only adding to the persistent rumors that Andy was still alive.

Kaufman’s death continues to be a subject of speculation even today, mostly due to his friends’ and family’s willingness to keep the mystery alive. In November a woman who claimed to be Andy’s daughter appeared at a comedy awards ceremony claiming that he was still alive and living in anonymity. It was later revealed that she was an actress hired by Andy’s brother, Michael.

Automatic For the People

Stipe sets the stage for telling the story of Kaufman’s last great game through references to popular board games and the literary character Mott the Hoople, who thought of life as a comedy and engaged in a variety of schemes. He also makes his first mention of Kaufman’s wrestling "career," and one of his favorite wrestlers: Fred Blassie. Kaufman and Blassie appeared in a video together titled "My Breakfast With Blassie."

Mott the Hoople and the game of Life yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Andy Kaufman in the wrestling match yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Monopoly, Twenty one, checkers, and chess yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Mister Fred Blassie in a breakfast mess yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Let's play Twister, let's play Risk yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
I'll see you in heaven if you make the list yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Stipe then compares Kaufman to other innovators, iconoclasts and geniuses:

Moses went walking with the staff of wood yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Newton got beaned by the apple good yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Egypt was troubled by the horrible asp yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Mister Charles Darwin had the gall to ask yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Stipe then turns his attention to Andy directly, referencing two of his famous gags:

Now, Andy did you hear about this one?
Tell me, are you locked in the punch?
Andy are you goofing on Elvis? Hey, baby
Are we losing touch?

Starting out, Kaufman befuddled comedy club audiences by appearing as "Foreign Man," an Eastern European immigrant with a poor grasp of both comedy and English, but a killer impersonation of Elvis Presley. Kaufman would bring this character to the comedy series Taxi under the name of "Latka Gravis."

Andy are you goofing on Elvis? Hey, baby
Are you having fun?

Later in his career, he infuriated pro wrestling fans by challenging women to fight, and then starting a "feud" with wrestler Jerry Lawler. The two threw jabs at each other, both in the press and in the ring. Fans believed their antagonistic relationship was genuine. Years after Kaufman died, Lawler confessed that it was all a joke and that the two of them were friends.

Tell me, are you locked in the punch?

Like the the assassination of JFK, the death of Andy Kaufman has become the stuff of popular conjecture, a supposed conspiracy of legendary status that is unlikely to ever be resolved. Much like there are those who continue to believe that the moon landing was faked, there are those who will never abandon the possibility that Andy still lives, a comparison that Stipe makes in the chorus of "Man On The Moon."

If you believed they put a man on the moon
Man on the moon
If you believe there's nothing up his sleeve
Then nothing is cool

Clearly, Andy is the man here with something "up his sleeve." While it’s certainly up for interpretation, the line "Then nothing is cool" could be the response of a conspiracy theorist to someone skeptical of their beliefs.

One of the last verses of the song refers to the great mystery of Kaufman’s death as being a miracle of sorts, perhaps a perfect one for a secular age. The imagery of a truck stop is an ideal final stop for Kaufman. A place between roads.

Here's a little agit for the never-believer yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Here's a little ghost for the offering yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Here's a truck stop instead of Saint Peter's yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Mister Andy Kaufman's gone wrestling yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

If Kaufman is indeed still alive, he would probably appreciate the reader’s attempt to puzzle out the meaning of "Man On The Moon." Now's as good a time as any to thank him for the laughs and the little bit of mystery he left us with.