“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” by R.E.M.
“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is one of those types of songs that isn’t really that metaphorical as one might assume. Outside of the title and third verse, the lyrics appear to be more or less literal. However, there seems to be some debate as to what’s actually going down here, with Michael Stipe alluding to the notion that even he, the vocalist and co-writer, doesn’t understand half of it. But taking all of our associated research into consideration, the basis of the narrative is pretty clear.
Subject of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
The subject of the song is homeless – or more specifically someone who is living a hard, itinerate lifestyle. That reality is alluded to from the onset of the lyrics, as the ‘place where he will be staying’ is not such that you can call him directly but rather through “the pay phone”.
As such, the second verse seems to imply that if you call said number looking for him, someone else may pick up instead. What is also insinuated is that the person he is telling to call him is a female. And if one of the other motel residents or what have you were to answer the phone instead, they can verify that they’re speaking on his behalf by telling her to ‘kiss his a-s’ but then clarifying that they are “only kidding”.
Then in the third verse, we see that this lifestyle is depriving him of the nutrition he needs – or in the very least the food that he wants. And in closing out the passage, he gives a shoutout to “Dr. Suess”, whose works seem to form the basis of the aforementioned fourth verse. But what this passage is actually meant to point to is that unlike the fictional, cartoon characters of Dr. Suess, human beings actually need to sleep, or something like that.
And as we can gather from the title, ‘sleeping’ is actually an important part of this story. What has not been definitively ascertained though is what the titular “sidewinder” actually refers to.
Since in the first verse it is noted as “sleeping in a coil”, it has been reasonably postulated that said “sidewinder” is a type of phone – or more specifically that metal-laden cord that connects the receiver of a pay phone to the machine’s main unit.
But all things considered, the “sidewinder” can also be alluding to the vocalist himself. Or for all we know he can literally be referring to a sidewinder, i.e. a certain type of snake, as that term is most often applied to. However, that last theory isn’t likely, as the real-life on-the-road adventure Michael Stipe went through which inspired this song was apparently done in his home state of Georgia, where such snakes are not present.
To reiterate, this is a piece that isn’t meant to be taken too seriously anyway. In “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, R.E.M. intentionally set out to create a “light” song to be featured on the otherwise serious “Automatic for the People” album. And from the title to the lyrics, it can be gleaned that they didn’t intend for anyone to really overanalyze this piece.
But that said, one last thing that should be noted is that this song definitely possesses what can be defined as a romantic undertone. Without overanalyzing things ourselves, we can say that the lyrics read as if while out on the road, Michael’s thoughts were preoccupied by a special someone. And that said, perhaps the ‘sleeping sidewinder’ is a reference to a certain part of his anatomy, if you know what we mean.
Facts about “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
This track is from R.E.M.’s 1992 LP “Automatic for the People”. From a commercial standpoint, the album can be considered their most-successful one. This is a project which Warner Bros. put out on 5 October 1992. And “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” was also issued a few months later as the third single from the album. Other notable singles you can find on “Automatic for the People” project include “Man on the Moon” and “Everybody Hurts”.
This track made it onto the top 20 of the UK Singles Chart. It actually had its most impressive showing via the Íslenski Listinn Topp 40, topping said Icelandic listing. But even though “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” may not have, all things considered, had an amazing chart run, it is still a R.E.M. fan favorite. For example, it featured on their 2003 compilation project “In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003”.
As can be clearly ascertained from its title, this song was influenced by the early 20th century classic African tune “The Lion Sleeps Tonight“. And in fact on the B-side of “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” can be found R.E.M.’s own rendition of said tune.
The music video to this track was helmed by director Kevin Kerslake.
This song is infamous for possessing a number of commonly-misheard lyrics.
The Great R.E.M.
R.E.M. is a band from the Southeastern US city of Athens. From the late 1980s into the mid-1990s, their albums regularly achieved multi-platinum status. The group eventually disbanded in 2011 but throughout its active years were held down by the same four musicians since its formation in 1980.
That quartet are the ones who wrote “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”, and they also collectively produced it with Scott Litt.
The members of the aforementioned quartet are:
- vocalist Michael Stipe
- guitarist Peter Buck
- bassist Mike Mills
- drummer Bill Berry
“Dr. Suess” was the pen name of Theodor Geisel (1904-1991), who stands as one of the most famous authors/cartoonists in American children’s literature history. And Michael Stipe has reportedly admitted to, as a child, being a fan of Suess’s work.