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The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite by R.E.M.

Album: Automatic For the PeopleReleased: 1992Charted:
17
  • The beginning of this song bears a strong resemblance to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by The Tokens in both its title and music, especially the first four notes Michael Stipe sings. Rather than follow industry practice and simply pilfer the song, R.E.M. paid for the rights to use it. As part of the deal, R.E.M. were asked to do a cover of the original "Lion Sleeps Tonight." That version appears on the single to "Sidewinder," released in February 1993.
  • In the chorus, what sounds like "coney jah waker," is actually, "call me when you try to wake her up."
  • When trying to name-check Dr. Seuss in this song, lead singer Michael Stipe kept saying "Zeus." The laughing that can be heard on the track is Stipe laughing at his own inability to pronounce that correctly, which Mike Mills kept trying to get him to do. Stipe says he loved Dr. Seuss as a kid but always pronounced his name the wrong way.
  • This song topped a 2010 poll, which sought out the most misheard lyrics. Four out of ten people polled thought "Call me when you try to wake her up" was "Calling Jamaica."
  • Making an effort to interpret Michael Stipe's lyrics in this song, R.E.M. bass player Mike Mills said, "Half of the song is about somebody trying to get in touch with someone who can sleep on his floor. The other half - you're on your own."
  • In the liner notes for Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, Stipe says this "holds on of my favorite lines ever, in 'their world has flat backgrounds and little need to sleep but to dream.' Cartoon characters never just get sleepy, they always have to have a dream of some floaty kind."
  • Peter Buck on the decision to include this song on the album: "We included this song on Automatic in order to break the prevailing mood of the album. Given that the record dealt with mortality, the passage of time, suicide and family, we felt that a light spot was needed. In retrospect, the consensus amongst the band is that this might be a little too lightweight."
  • The music video was directed by Kevin Kerslake but is often falsely credited to Peter Care, who directed several other R.E.M. videos, including "Drive," "Man On the Moon," and "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" The "Sidewinder" video shows Stipe singing in a room with a lone chair and flashing lights, while the camera sweeps past the rest of the guys performing in separate rooms.
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Comments: 31

The line is "Only Jah wake her" Jah being God of course. Listen carefully. The girl is dead, another OD victim. "Always had a smile" is a definite drug reference.
Great song no matter what your interpretation.
Kenny - Ny
The character in the song has someone he cares about, maybe a spouse or partner, in hospital. She has undergone some sort of serious treatment -- we don't know exactly what -- and the medical people are waiting for her to come around. The singer would, of course, prefer to be by her side or within easy reach, but for some reason (we don't know) he has had to travel far away. Maybe it's on business, maybe he just had something else he had to care of.

He's not in a good situation. He's in a place he doesn't know well, it's not where he wants to be, he doesn't have a lot of money and he's desperate for good news from the hospital about his loved one. In the song, he's musing about his plight, trying to put a whimsical slant on what is actually a pretty unpleasant situation, and musing about life and love and how he got into this position.

He's calling someone -- maybe a friend or someone at the hospital -- saying that as soon as this woman he loves comes round or they're going to try to wake her up, he wants to be notified, although the only way to contact him is via this cheap payphone some way down the hall from his rented room. The 'sidewinder' is the flexible, metal coiled connection between the phone and the handset. 'The sidewinder sleeps' means it isn't ringing, no-one is trying to call, hence there's no good news from the hospital yet.

'You can't lay a patch by computer design'. In the old days, telephone and communication systems were (more or less) worked out and set up manually, by engineers who were actually trying to design efficient systems that would allow people to communicate; also, long-distance calls were handled by human operators who could sympathise with a caller's plight and, if one way of getting in touch might not work, could try to help by patching a call a different way. There was a human element. Now, it's all just done automatically by computers, there's no human element, no-one to help. If you find you can't place a call to a particular number, there's nothing you can do (not even in an emergency).

In the 'instant soup' section, the singer is musing about his current, rather desperate situation when he has been getting by on any old junk food he can get, including instant soup, and his thoughts wander back to happier, younger times, perhaps when he and this woman in the hospital were youngsters, and they could just enjoy the simple pleasures in life like candy bars and reading Dr. Seuss stories.

'The cat in the hat came back'. Cartoon characters live in a different world. They have no cares or troubles. It might be nice to be part of that world, but then again they will never know real feelings or have real dreams. Meanwhile, the sidewinder is still asleep on its back, i.e. still resting in the cradle on the phone: there's no call coming through, no information about his loved one. And he's all alone, worried and scared, in a place he doesn't want to be, hoping they'll call him when they try to wake her up.
James - Vanuatu
My source is extREMely goodBobcat - Uk
The song is about drugs! The sidewinder is the (COILED) line from the phone to the handset. When the sidewinder sleeps on his back it means the phone is off the hook. "Tell her she can kiss my ass then laugh and say your were only kidding" IS THE CODE USED TO LET HER THE DEALER KNOW it was him. I can always sleep standing up meaning he can sleep in the phone booth waiting for her to call! Get it yet?Bobcat - Uk
I don't think these lyrics are correct, "Call me when you try to wake her up" is too long for the line in the chorus, I always heard it as "Calling to wake her up".
The verse containing "Lay a patch by computer design" actually refers to the telephone network. I believe the entire verse to be about being in a public phone booth.
"There are scratches all around the coin slot" is fairly a straight forward description
"Like a heart beat baby trying to wake up",
"but this machine can only swallow money" - these two lines are the beeping of the phone while its waiting for the money before giving a proper dial tone
"You can't lay a patch by compiter design"
"Its just another stupid stupid sign" - refers to a poster in the phone booth from the telephone operators advertising the computerised nature of the telephone network. (A network patch being a connection fromthe phone to the exchange).
Pete - Leeds, United Kingdom
I've always pictured the woman being a homeless woman, sleeping outside. Then in the part where she's talking about food she's saying what she'd rather have (as opposed to the same old soup) and the reading from Dr. Seuss (as opposed to a reading from the bible at the shelter). Whatever it is, it's a wonderful song off of an amazing album.Brian - Chicago, Il
The song is actually about a couple who are both in rehab, however he is in a different one self explanatory first verse talking to her councillor/guide, the line If I don't pick up, pick up... the sidewinder sleeps, sleeps, sleeps in a coil simply means keep trying to call him and being on drugs refer to objects with different perspectives. the chorus is as it is. the second verse as if he is speaking to her and the trouble he has had trying to get through both the line and the withdrawals. Third verse as it is he wants her to know he still there for her. fourth verse again simple being on drugs, loss of appetite and now the need to eat, the line a falling star, or a reading of doctor seuss; he is struggling needs good luck (falling star) or divine inspiration (dr seuss). fifth verse bit difficult this The cat in the hat came back, wrecked a lot of havoc on the way, Always had a smile and a reason to pretend. this is the demon tempting relapse the reason to smile meaning their winning and pretending not to be to passify demons. But their world has flat backgrounds and little need to sleep but to dream. The sidewinder sleeps on his back. the most difficult line of the song, the world of user i think no need to sleep but dreaming sidewinder (not a ordinary person) wasted sleeps on his back. the line I can always sleep standing up, recovering drug addict something brought to the real world from the drug world and constantly by the phone waiting. last but not least the line Weve got to moogie, moogie, move on this one. desperate need to stay clean. sorry so long just my own thoughts based on some of your comments for understanding.G - Peterborough, United Kingdom
The sidewinder is a slot machine that swallows money. Its about an addiction to gamblingArthur - London, United Kingdom
This is a really cool song. It's one of my favorites. I believe it's about a girl and a good friend of his. In the first verse it seems to imply he's staying somewhere obviously with no phone in his room. He tells her to let it ring a very long time because he might not be able to hear or if he does hear it will take him longer than usual to get to it. But the things is that she never calls. So he tells his friend, who has her number, to call him if he decides to call her and wake her up. Obviously there's a friend involved because he tells his friend to tell her to kiss his ass then laugh and she'll know that Michael is somewhere near while the friend is talking to her.
Sidewinder is the coil of the payphone. So the sidewinder sleeps tonight means that she didn't call. The line "you can't lay a patch by computer design" he can't just dial the operator and ask to patch him through like the old days. Instead with modern phones (which are computer automated) you have to use money, which he doesn't have. The part that's tricky is the later verses about "instant soup really doesn't grab me" I believe implies that he's not just looking for a relationship with no mean, instead looking for substains. And the part about the Cat in the Hat, I believe he's talking about her. And I believe this girl is look to hook up with someone famous. In this case, it seemed to be his friend at first but now it's him. The reason I say this is because of the line "but their world has flat backgrounds (meaning nothing)and little need to sleep but to dream (of being with someone famous). And the last line "The Sidewinder Sleeps on his back" implies he took the phone receiver off the hook so she doesn't call.
Devalle - Houston, Tx
I think "can't lay a patch..." as a drug reference is way off. Laying a patch is what you do when you floor the accelerator on a car and the spinning tires leave rubber on the pavement. Some cars have throttle governors which prevent this hence "by computer design" you can't lay a patch.Ez - Charlotte, Nc
I have read somewhere that it is about a time in Stipe's life when he was addicted to drugs. He spend a long time waiting for his drug providing friend to call and tell him that she had his drugs. The part about "call me when you try to wake her up" is to a common friend of Stipe and the drug provider. The part about laying a patch by computer design is a drug-reference (to lay a patch). You can't get drugs out through the telephone. The think the part about that she can kiss his ass is some way for the drug provider to know that the song is about her.Kasper - Bogense, -
Hmmm..... sorry to disappoint but its actually a song about, ahem, erectile dysfunction.... poor guys sidewinder ain't waking up for his girl when she calls... all the allusions to disatisfaction and inability to get through are about failing to make that connection.....Alex - London, United Kingdom
Nobody posting has kids, I suspect. If you did, you'd know that the "sidewinder" is not a reference to a snake, but rather to a child, most probably an infant. Hence the references to child-related stuff like Dr. Seuss. The sidewinder is a missile, and kids can be too!David - Denver, Co
Stipe was quoted in the R.E.M. "Behind the Mask" book as saying this song as an "homage to redneck life".. The "Nescafe and ice" "candy bar, a fallen star or a reading from Dr. Seuss" says this character thinks he's worldly and sophisticated.John - Port Washington, Wi
My Best Friend has been an REM fan since their garage band days, she got me into them in the late 80's and we spent a lot of time listening to their music and going to their concerts. She said one of Michael Stipe's vocal "trademarks" was that no one could make out what words he was singing (particularly noticeable in their earlier songs. In fact when REM became extremely popular, some fans accused him of 'selling out' because all of a sudden there was a lot more articulation in their songs). I think "Sidewinder" is really pretty, 'specially some of the background music (violins etc) but in true 'stipe style' the lyrics aren't very understandable. Michael Stipe is also a rather odd person and a lot of REM songs don't make much sense. If I were to take a guess at some of the symbolism in the song -I agree that the payphone receiver-to-phone coil that often gets tangled is probably the 'Sidewinder'. That he (the guy in the song) can sleep standing up sounds like a reference to a)waiting next to a payphone for a call that he really, really wants to get, and b) there's some uncertainty of what will happen once the phone rings (the sidewinder waking up). I almost want to draw a reference to what happens when the cat in the hat returns (mischief abounds and it isnt necessarily a good thing) that maybe once he gets his phone call it might not necessarily be a good thing either. But my head is beginning to hurt now and this post is long enough.Yvonne - Teaticket, Ma
Try listening with headphones. He laughs immediately after singing "Dr. Seuss".Stu - Fife, Scotland
where does stipe laugh in the song? I cant hear any laughing.Jak - New York, Ny
I'm convinced he's singing "Call me Tom Baker". He's a famous British actor and one-time Dr. Who;-)Stu - Fife, Scotland
I always heard it as "Don't even try to wake her up" ... I have assumed parallels between the lyrics to this song and Stipe's recording with Kristen Hirsch, "Your Ghost", which also deals with telephones and lost loves.Ekristheh - Halath, United States
I've got the sheet music for Automatic for the People, and it definitely includes the repeated line "Call me when you try to wake her up" in the chorus, which, I treckon sounds more like "Call me Jamaica" than "Coney Jah Waker"!Richard - Newport, Isle Of Wight, England
I think Mike got it exactly right- the person clearly doesnt want to be reached by the girl, so they give a payphone number that will not be answered.Amy - Monaghan, Ireland
i thought the song was about suicide but i cant figure out where in the song it says it maybe "call me when you try and wake her up"? anyway great song from a great band.Frustratedmystic - Sydney, Australia
i think it's meant to be a pile of bull. maybe a joke you old stipey cloud read and laugh at forums like this when us fools try to work out a meaning. candy bar, falling star and a reading from doctor seuss? what can that mean?Josh - Pontypridd, Wales
This has one of my favorite lines written in a song,"tell her she can kiss my ass and laugh and say that you were only kidding, that way she knows that it is really really really really me, me...Peter - Fort Worth, Tx
The Sidewinder is, of course, a name for a rattle snake. It's also possible that here Michael Stipe is referring to a telephone, the very old kind with the wheel on the side you had to crank up to call the operator. Don't look too hard for a deeper meaning, Stipe has said that this song was purely written in jest, and sometimes he just likes the way certain words sound together.Michael - Kearny, Nj
I belive that this song is about a fight in a relationship. The sidewinder coiled up in the corer asleep, is symbolic of their relationship, its a mess and its dormant after the fight. And the guy in the song is trying to revive the relationship.Epp - Pittsburgh, Pa
Im not so sure that this is a tale about a relationship in vain. My initial interpretaion goes like this:

To me it seems that the singer is in a place (or state of mind) were he can not be reached easily, the only way to get through to him is to use a " pay-phone". I believe that the "her" in the song refers both to a girl (in the verses) and the pay-phone (in the chorus).

Some other thougts:

The "kiss my ass" part of the songs makes it unlikely to me that there's a glitch in the relationship (if any) to the spouse.

The part about instant soup a.s.o. could maybe be interpreted as someone who's not looking for a onenightstand but rather a more serious relationship.

I would be very pleased if someone could fill me in about Dr. Seuss. From what I learned he wrote a story about the "cat in the hat" but I dont know what happened in that story or what it is about.

I also wonder if someone could tell me the official source of the line: "Call me when you try to wake her up". I find it very hard to believe that that is what he's singing. I got the Automatic for the people record but no lyrics is enclosed...

Thanks.....
Falun - Falun, Sweden
The phone is a payphone as the song states. If you question why one member of the relationship has given a number to a call box then you will understand the song.Mike - Glos, England
The Sidewinder is a reference to a coiled snake. The coil between the phone ear/mouth piece and the phone itself. The Sidewinder Sleeps meaning that when he calls the girl, the phone sits still.Ian - Burton On Trent, England
i think it's about trying to get through to a girl who's giving you the cold shoulderMarvin - East Brady, Pa
A very strange song... but does anyone know what it's about?Jen - London, England
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