Meaning of “Gardening At Night” by R.E.M.
“Gardening at Night” was written by R.E.M. members Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry. That is the same quartet who founded the R.E.M. brand and continued to hold it down until the group broke up in 2011.
That said, I.R.S. Records released this track on 24 August 1982, and it came out as part of an extended play R.E.M. dropped on that same day titled “Chronic Town”. This song was not issued as a single, but it has proven popular enough to for instance garner its own Wikipedia page.
It was also featured on a few of R.E.M.’s their later projects, i.e. “Dead Letter Office” (1987), “And I Feel Fine: The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987” (2006) and “Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011” (2011). There are also other versions of “Gardening at Night” in circulation out there, including a number of different live renditions.
The credited producer of this track, besides the band itself, is Mitch Easter. It was Mitch, via his guitar collection, who encouraged R.E.M. to make this the first TUNE in which they overdubbed guitar tracks, with Michael Stipe going on to dub “Gardening at Night” as his group’s “first real song”.
Also interesting to note is that R.E.M. went on to establish a publishing label called Night Garden Music.
THE ORIGIN(S) OF THE TERM ‘NIGHT GARDENING’
Bill Berry recollected that the term “night gardening” originated as a comedic metaphor for taking a piss at night. However, Peter Buck has stated that the title was inspired by “an old guy in (his) neighborhood who would be out gardening at 2 a.m. in his suit and tie”.
And relatedly, the titular expression is meant to serve as “a metaphor for the uselessness of everything”.
Still yet another report posits that the title was inspired by Michael Stipe’s grandmother, who had a general affinity for gardening.
This song is highly poetic, to the point that it’s proving challenging to make sense out of all that’s being relayed. Its thesis sentiment, as apparently encapsulated in the observation that “gardening at night just didn’t grow”, is in congruence with Peter Buck’s explanation as noted above, i.e. this track being meant to speak to the concept of futility.
But with that in mind, it should be noted that permeating throughout are what can be interpreted as references to church. For instance, there is the mention of “rows” in the second verse, which has been understood as an allusion to the rows of seats you find within a church.
In the first verse, we also have the vocalist noting that “somewhere it must be time for penitence”, with repenting being a concept that is closely tied to religious devotion. And in the bridge Michael mentions “the prayer line”, in the process alluding to how such services are in fact commercial enterprises.
So even though it’s challenging to put all of the lyrics together into a concise understanding, one safe postulation, considering the observations above, is that “Gardening at Night” is ultimately meant to be critical of certain religious practices.
In other words, once again going back to Buck’s explanation, R.E.M. views such standards as being ‘useless’ in the grand scheme of things. Furthermore, the vocalist obviously views some Christian institutions, if you will, such as the aforenoted prayer lines, as being such that they are basically milking adherents, which is a discernible subtheme found within this song.