E-Bow the Letter :: R.E.M. and Patti Smith
Directed by Jem Cohen

E-Bow the Letter is the first single from R.E.M.’s tenth studio album New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It was released in August 1996 just weeks before the album’s release. During the same month, R.E.M. signed its then record-breaking five-album contract with Warner Bros. Records. Although it peaked at # 4 on the UK Singles Chart, the highest any R.E.M. song charted in the UK until The Great Beyond in 2000, the song fared less well in the United States, reaching only # 49 on the Billboard Hot 100. It became R.E.M.’s lowest charting lead single since Fall on Me released from Life’s Rich Pageant in 1986, when the band was on a smaller record label, I.R.S. Records.

Patti Smith sings guest backing vocals on this song. The song’s title refers to the EBow, an electromagnetic field-generating device that induces sustained vibration in an electric guitar string (creating a violin-like effect), and to a “letter never sent” by Michael Stipe. It is believed that the letter in question was written to actor River Phoenix expressing Stipe’s concern for his friend’s spiraling substance abuse with the letter never being sent due to Phoenix’s death.

Guitarist Peter Buck can be seen using an EBow in the video for the song. R.E.M. has also played the song live with artists including Thom Yorke singing Patti Smith’s vocal part.

E-Bow the Letter was ranked # 21 on NME magazine’s list of the “Singles of the Year“. In 2003, song was placed on R.E.M.’s compilation In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003.

Maria Callas, as mentioned in the lyrics “dreaming of Maria Callas”, was a singer. She has a famously deep throated voice, and limited vocal talent, but incredibly emotive style. She has often stated that she considers the emotional interpretation of music more important than the vocal form. She formerly was the mistress of Aristotle Onassis. In an interview Patti Smith said that in her youth, Smith aspired to be an opera singer like Maria Callas.

Editor’s Note: My second favorite song, this duet is haunting and I find myself playing it over and over again. There are lyrics in the song that give me chills, and remind me of vivid memories from a time in my life where I spent much time chasing feelings and endless nights and experiences and music.

PATTI SMITH MICHAEL STIPE

 

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