Nightswimming is one of my favorite summer songs. It was recorded by the band R.E.M. and was released in July 1993 as the fifth single from the group’s eighth album, a masterpiece, Automatic For The People (1992).
Queer singer/songwriter Michael Stipe is accompanied by bassist Mike Mills on piano. The lyrics and music are credited to the whole band as usual, all the song is Stipe’s; the string arrangement by is by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.
Stipe sings about a group of friends who go skinny dipping at night, drawing on experiences in the band’s early days in Athens, Georgia.
“I never thought it would amount to much because it was just a circular thing that kept going round and round and round. But it inspired Michael.”
R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berry are absent from the track, typical of most songs on Automatic For The People, where one or more band members would not appear on a given song.
“We used to sneak on this guy’s property in Athens and go swimming in this water hole. It’d be great: 30 of us all running around naked. It was before AIDS, and whatever happened happened.”
In a 2001 Esquire Magazine article, Stipe suggested an origin of the song:
“A few years ago, I wanted to write a song about night watchmen, so I hired one to guard the R.E.M. offices in Athens. I bought him a uniform and a flashlight and everything. He turned out to be kind of crazy and called me up in the middle of the night to tell me dirty stories about the Kennedys. I wrote the song about him, but he was so paranoid he said he was going to sue me, so I changed the lyric from ‘Night Watchman’ to ‘Nightswimming’.”
Yet, Mills later wrote:
“It’s based on true events. After the Athens clubs closed at night, we’d go to parties, we’d go to the clubs and we’d go to the Ball Pump, and there would be any number of these same 50 people, so it was a very tight circle of friends. And we would all going skinny dipping late at night.”
However, Stipe says the song is about a “kind of an innocence that’s either kind of desperately clung onto or obviously lost”. Stipe said there are autobiographical elements to the song and insists most of it is “made up.”
“There’s a fairly autobiographical narrative to this one, and the part about the windshield really happened: ‘The photograph on the dashboard taken years ago, turned around backwards so the windshield shows’. That’s exactly how I saw it, I’m pretty sure it was a pickup truck. I know Jem Cohen loves that line, and he made the most incredible film as a video for this song.”
Nightswimming went to Number 27 on the pop charts, but the B-side, an acoustic live version of 1991’s Losing My Religion, R.E.M.’s highest-charting hit, reached Number One on the Billboard Hot 100.
Coldplay played the song with Stipe on PBS’s Austin City Limits. During the show, Chris Martin called Nightswimming “the best song ever written”.
In the video, directed by Jem A. Cohen, the song fades out for 90 seconds. All that can be heard are crickets and other night noises. Then the music resumes.
Automatic For The People might be the most quiet, serene rock album ever recorded.
Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago
Turned around backwards so the windshield shows
Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse
Still, it’s so much clearer
I forgot my shirt at the water’s edge
The moon is low tonight
Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
I’m not sure all these people understand
It’s not like years ago
The fear of getting caught
Of recklessness and water
They cannot see me naked
These things, they go away
Replaced by everyday
Nightswimming, remembering that night
September’s coming soon
I’m pining for the moon
And what if there were two
Side by side in orbit
Around the fairest sun?
That bright, tight forever drum
Could not describe nightswimming
You, I thought I knew you
You I cannot judge
You, I thought you knew me
This one laughing quietly underneath my breath
The photograph reflects, every streetlight a reminder
Nightswimming deserves a quiet night, deserves a quiet night
Songwriters: Bill Berry / Peter Buck / Michael Mills / Michael Stipe