Rearviewmirror by Pearl Jam (this is from their new Live on Ten Legs release). Ed Vedder -Edward Louis Severson III. The Day: I was in Colorado in a car between a trout fishing lake and Oklahoma. For Christmas that year my brother had received a Walkman and Vs. on cassette (that should be sufficient to take you back). Throughout the course of that trip, both were copiously co-opted by his asshole older brother. Rearviewmirror was the song on the cassette that immediately drew me in. An obsession was born. It was an obsession that lasted every bit of 15 years, 7 (I think) concerts, one junior year term-paper, 9 (best guess) t-shirts, the purchase of (at least) 20 albums, hours and hours and hours of listening, in my car, my dorm room, everywhere and the arguments, passionate and sincere (and correct FWIW) that Pearl Jam is America’s Greatest Rock Band.
There are numerous definitions for greatest. Just note that I don’t necessarily mean best (although I might). I mean great (in the superlative) as in “remarkable or outstanding in magnitude, degree, or extent” or “of outstanding significance or importance.” Either way, I’m still correct. Here’s why. No one has ever provided me a sufficient argument in favor of another rock band. Succinctly, no one can answer the question “if not them, who?” Aerosmith? Van Halen? I’ll even argue against The Doors or The Beach Boys. No American rock band approaches them in talent (I said it), impact, longevity and (for lack of a better term) general awesomeness.
Rearviewmirror (apropos for the summation of this entire sermon series, huh?) is very much classic PJ, rift driven, Vedderly vocaled, angst ridden. It was for the longest of times my favorite PJ song. It was surpassed (in fact I can prolly do a chronological flow chart of my favorite PJ songs. I’ll spare you). But given it was the song that began it all, I believe it to be the appropriate WD. Shortly after the day, Ten was acquired, Alive (which still has to be the single most misunderstood song in the history of rock’n’roll) was heard and the hook was set deep, and to a certain extent permanently. Many of you were witness to the obsession that ensued with the band and with Vedder. (N.B. I’ll alternate between Vedder and Pearl Jam and he and they below. I apologize, but just know I intend the same either way.) Wow. The obsession wasn’t wearing flannel and acting disaffected and angst-ridden and all that other Gen-X (and someday I will write about Gen-X or just Gens in general) bull-shit. I devoured the music, the lyrics, everything they did, processed them and they modulated my worldview. They did for years. To a certain extent and for a certain time period, all roads, things learned, things I read, things I thought even, led through Vedder. And for the most part this wasn’t bad. He seemed to be a good dude. He is a good dude, compassionate, intelligent, concerned, curious, skeptical, aware even funny. But most importantly, he was/is a helluva person to front a band. Musically, PJ/Vedder led me to The Who, Neil Young, Johnny Cash (to a certain extent), Tom Waits, The Ramones and countless others. Many of these are still the absolute bedrocks of my musical tastes. I read two “game changing” books because of them (Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.) But perhaps most importantly PJ caused me to think about their words, what they meant, what they were trying to say and why they tried to say it. As much as Stephen King taught me to want to read, that was step one. PJ taught me to want to understand. Not because they were some heady slam poetry word rock think piece, but because I loved their songs so much, I had to know what they meant. I strived for what they meant, what Vedder hoped to communicate to me, even if often it was nonsense. And sometimes it was, but sometimes it had a depth I just now understand.
I used to argue passionately that Vedder was a horribly underrated lyricist. I still beleive he is. What I’m now uncertain of is how talented of one he is. I look back at lyrics that when I was 17 or, hell 23, I thought were so prescient and insightful that surely no mortal could have crafted them. Now, I think “what the fuck could this have meant to a 17 year old?”
When it wasn’t nonsense (or I had the capacity to grasp it) and musically, the song rocked, I felt vindicated, like I’d unraveled some great puzzle, figured out something deep and poetic and, frankly, fucking awesome. Looking back, I’m unsure if any of my conclusions approached anything that could be considered insightful or even lucid. I’m certain I don’t care. Reaching for them had been the important part.
Ok, now I don’t want you to think that from the ages of 16-23 I sat in my bedroom with a thesaurus writing out sentence diagrams of Pearl Jam lyrics (it was just that one weekend). Make no mistake, I loved their music, loved, loved, loved. It, Pearl Jam, Mike’s guitar, Vedder’s bellow, are the soundtrack of my youth. The further I’m from it, the more meaningful that becomes. Their catalog of music, uneven, passionate and real as it is, always plays in my memories of being young. I will always love it. But I look at it differently now. There are things Ed said when he was 30 and Matt was 16 that I thought I understood. It took me turning 30 to understand that I couldn’t have.
For years, I wanted to associate with them. For them to be us. The band of my generation. But in the back of my head, I always feared that wasn’t the case. Now I’m certain it isn’t. While sociologists or historians may lump us together, we, Pearl Jam and I/us are not of the same generation. 15 years is too great an expanse of time. For me, I now beleive that Arcade Fire is going to be that band, the band of my generation (you all are welcome to join in this debate if you disagree.) (N.B. It might do me to consider some kind of psychological evaluation as to why I feel there must be a “band of my generation.” Something along the lines of why don’t you just say it yourself? hmmmm.)
In the prickly and cunty (how I have longed to deploy that word…) world of Serious Music Critics, Pearl Jam are forever excoriated because they were never to be Nirvana, but instead capitalized on their success while at the same time leaving Post-Grunge (Creed, Nickleback, Bush, Our Lady Peace, 3 Doors Down) in their wake. There are no bands that can rip-off Nirvana, even if they attempt it. There are a decade full of bands who ripped off Pearl Jam and did a fine job of it and made millions doing it. I still don’t know what this means in terms of comparing the two. The easy answer, however, I still believe to be incorrect. According to the SMCs Pearl Jam capitalized on everything that was new and fresh and awesome about what Nirvana did, corporatized it, sanitized it and made it more palatable. To the SMCs PJ was always for the masses and Nirvana was always for them. To the SMCs Nirvana was born of the singularity of Cobain, PJ was conceived in a board room. Over time, this perception has softened (but fuck them for ever having it). Make no mistake, for a time though, it was widely held. Today, the reflective criticism seems more level headed. E.g.
I read recently in a review of the Ten deluxe edition released last year something to the effect of “If you love Pearl Jam, it’s almost assured that you overrate them. If you don’t it’s almost assured that you underrate them.” Had I read this 10 years ago, there’s no way in hell I would have agreed with it. Today, I think it’s probably correct.
Jim DeRegotis, I music critic I respect greatly had this to say about them which has less to do about their music than it does who they are: “[Pearl Jam] proved that a rock band which isn’t comprised of greed-heads can play stadiums and not milk the audience for every last dime… it indicated that idealism in rock ‘n’ roll is not the sole province of those ’60s bands enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
In 2006, Esquire said of them that they are “the rare superstars who still play as though each show could be their last.” That I do agree with.
As a fan, to know them is to see them in concert. The first time I saw Pearl Jam, after years of late teenage adulation, was simply one of the greatest nights of my life. I’ll never forget it. Ever. I can wheel out the cassette I made of it and listen to it on occasion. It’s still special. I will never again go to another concert like that. The anticipation can never be duplicated. No band at any point in my life is ever again going to mean that much to me.
I’ve read reviews from even the most cuntish (yes) Radiohead consumed talentless Pitchfork critics laud them for what they are able to do on stage in front of the Jamily. Yes, the Jamily, those who know which side is Mike’s side and which side is Stone’s. Those who get giddy with excitement over what the tag to Daughter will be. Those who understand how rare it is to hear In My Tree or Hard to Imagine or Who You Are. Those who know who Dave Krusen or Beth Liebling or Boom Gaspar are. Those who understand there were never any words to Yellow Ledbetter and there were never supposed to be and that’s why it’s saying something important. The Jamily. It was/is odd to feel that in-tune with a group of people. When you first meet someone and then learn they’re part of it, it’s special. You immediately assume a lot of things about them. They almost always prove to be correct. And then you become friends with them (and then you have kids one day apart, huh Spike?). Could another band be capable of this?
Now for this bargain store music critic, their recent albums (Pearl Jam and Backspacer) are good solid rock albums made by good solid rock musicians. They both have moments of brilliance (Marker in the Sand and Unthought Known), but perhaps lack…….something. Pearl Jam are the elder statemen of all things I consider rock’n’roll. Now they make music which bespeaks that. They seem comfortable as they should. The Jamily (of which I guess I’m still a member) is a great and passionate fan-base. They will buy any album they put out and will follow them anywhere. Maybe it’s OK to lose your edge when that’s the case.
But to me what they’ve lost is their lean toward experimentation found in Vitalogy, No Code and Yield. Knowing their biography prolly better than I do most of yours, I assume they would claim this lean was necessitated by a need to get ahold of themselves, or their careers, their popularity. They were successful. No Code did a Buster Douglas on their claim to Biggest Rock Bank in the World. Only the hard core fans survived those three albums. But the thing is, those are by far my three favorite PJ albums still. In fact, I’d say that no band since has put out three better albums in a row (well, maybe now Arcade Fire) (alright Lee/Ford, (sighs), The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A). Now to me, PJ is on cruise control and I can’t help but be disappointed. It seems to me that if they’ve reached their artistic/personal/career comfort level, now is when you take some chances, now is when you try to again achieve something truly great (which I know they still can.) But maybe they’re bored with it. Maybe they just want to churn out these good not greats, play concerts in front of fans that worship and get paid. I can’t find anything in me that can fault them for that. But that Pearl Jam, the Vitalogy/No Code/Yield Pearl Jam was my favorite Pearl Jam. The Best Pearl Jam. America’s Greatest Rock Band.
About half-way in I realized the futility of this. (Let’s see what we can’t do to get that etched on my tombstone, huh?) PJ’s impact on my life is such that it will never be easily extracted or even cordoned so that I could hope to analyze it separately and fully. So I’ll stop and just say they’re the soundtrack of my life. But they’re more than that they’re……………….Sorry. I’ll just leave you with Ed.
“Nothing’s changed but the surrounding bullshit – that has grown.”
“I wish I was the messenger….and all the news was good.”
“Do you see the way that tree bends? Does it inspire? Reaching out to catch the sun rays, a lesson to be applied.”
Yeah, those will work. Thank you, Ed, Stone, Jeff, Mike and Dave/Matt/Dave/Jack/Matt. Enjoy.