As with every early R.E.M. song, it comes as a surprise that the way you thought it was payed for many, many years is not really how Peter Buck played it. So is the case for Gardening at Night.
D, Cadd9, G, A bottom string open.
I had the basic framework for this song down for many, many years–probably since I first heard it. But one thing that always eluded me was the intro. In setting out to find the answer, I found a whole new world of R.E.M.–Peter Buck used alternate tuning on certain songs. And Gardening at Night is definitely one song that used alternate tuning.
Not only does the song sound beautiful on the 12 String, hearing that droning of the high E (tuned to D) string with the B string was unmistakable–Peter Buck tuned the guitar differently for his song.
But just because we know a song or have played it for a long time does not mean that is how Peter Buck played it–so we need to confirm things with the videos.
Right away, we can see the opening is exactly how AnotherBadSpeech played it (except, note the G instead of D for second to last chord):
Another confirmation I get from Passaic is the way Peter Pays the A in the Chorus. He bars it conventionally like this (getting that high E string, tuned to D, to change its droning sound to an E).
You can’t see a whole lot here. It almost seems like in a couple spots, he moves his hand up from the Em before playing the F#m in the after-chorus bridge.
But what you can see is Peter Buck switching guitars right before 9-9 and playing the same guitar (Fender Telecaster hollow body) through Windout and Gardening at Night.
He does the same in Passaic between So. Central Rain and Gardening at Night (swapping for another Rickenbacker). He plays the same guitar without switching through 9-9 and Windout, too (for Old Man Kinsey, he switches back to the Rickenbacker with the Let’s Active button on it that he played during that era, but they edited the switch out in the video).
So the following songs use the same alternate tuning (to my knowledge to date):
Gardening at Night
Note that these are always played together and with the same guitar. Another song using alternate tuning is Life and How to Live it–but it is slightly different, being the entire open G tuning (we’ll cover that later).
Check out Windout and then Gardening at Night (you can watch and hear Peter Buck tuning the high E down–he didn’t switch guitars) in this April 1981 video–the band had been together just under 10 months at this point (go to 26:38):
So all of the above leads to this (intro played as AnotherBadSpeech does):
Per Levin Mulder in the Comments to AnotherBadSpeech‘s video:
This is what Bill Berry said about it: “We were driving at night after a show (I don’t remember where), and I was at the wheel of our old car, with a rental trailer in tow. One of my three passengers aimed a directive at me. Rather than inform me of his desire to evacuate his bladder, he instead suggested that I pull over so that he might engage in the task of roadside ‘night gardening.’ To four guys in their early twenties this was a glaring catalyst for a new song.”
“Peter explains the inspiration of ‘Gardening at Night’ thus: ‘There was an old guy in my neighborhood who would be out gardening at 2am in his suit and tie. I’d see him when I was out trying to get a beer at the Magic Mart or somewhere. I told Michael about the guy and he wrote the song.’ Michael himself adds, ‘I distinctly remember the afternoon we wrote “Gardening at Night”. We were sitting out on a mattress on the porch (of the church), and I thought that was the first real song we did.’ It also gave Peter the first taste of the problems he would encounter trying to explain Michael’s lyrics: ‘It’s basically a metaphor for the uselessness of everything, but if you didn’t get that, I’m not surprised. It’s kind of a confused song.'”
Gray, Marcus. It Crawled from the South, an R.E.M. Companion. New York: Da Capo, 1993. 60. Print.
R.E.M. plays Gardening at night at their 2007 rock and roll hall of fame induction: