I had plans to write a couple more posts about Pearl Jam related events in my life, but one got nixed for the sake of time, and all of my efforts to write the other just didn’t pan out into anything interesting enough to read. So I’m just going to move past them and finish off this week with a wrap-up.
Unlike Terrorfakt last week, Pearl Jam has a lot of songs tied to specific memories. They were such an important part of my personal soundtrack through high school and into college that a lot of songs from their first five albums have very specific resonances to times, places and events.
As the “Mix Tape” post discusses, the songs Alive, Even Flow and Jeremy all tie back to Kris’ mix tape. They bring me back to that summer between freshmen and sophomore year. It was summer that helped me pull myself out of the depression caused by a disappointing and frustrating freshmen year, one that brought me to the brink and had me considering awful, final solutions. That summer and that tape helped to pull me through, helped me to see possibilities and lights at the end of various tunnels.
The song Release actually makes me think of mowing the lawn. So do a lot of songs from the Vs. album. Before I would own my first portable CD player, I had a Sony Walkman that would accompany me as I mowed. I would listen to a lot of different tapes while mowing, but Ten and Vs. were the most prevalent. The first time I actually listened to the lyrics of Release was while mowing, and I thought they were so amazingly powerful that I had to stop. I stopped the mower, sat on the wooden swing in the back yard, rewound the song and listened to it again.
I remember pestering my parents to bring me to the mall the day that Vs. came out. I thought it would sell out. I had a skewed perspective on both the popularity of Pearl Jam and on the scarcity of supply of the album. Somewhere in my adolescent brain, I thought that a perfect storm would happen. I figured that a lot of people would want to buy the album as soon as it came out, but I also thought the record stores would not believe they were popular enough to stock more than a couple of copies. I was worried that I would “miss out” on the album. It’s silly, but I didn’t understand trends or supply and demand as well as I thought.
I remember thinking about the irony of the popularity of Vitalogy. Many of the people who were talking about it were the people who thought I was weird for listening to the first two albums. Pearl Jam was still not considered “mainstream” in my small corner of the world until that album, and I was angry that the people who had caused me to feel like an outsider, one of the things that brought me to grunge music in the first place, were now listening to one of my favorite artists of the genre. These were the same people who were “upset” when Kurt Cobain died, even though they never listened to a Nirvana album in their lives. I felt like the popular kids were trying to commandeer something that had been appropriately mine. The irony was that I think Pearl Jam themselves saw the same thing happening, and the song Not for You was included on the album for that reason. It made me feel better that they were on the same page as me.
I remember Dan in drama club singing Better Man between scenes and to warm up. Dan was an Adonis. He had blonde hair that was long enough to have a little wave and curl to it, and blue eyes. He was good at sports and had the body to back it up, with broad shoulders and chiseled abs. He was a sophomore, and had all the freshmen girls in drama club swooning over him. He would stand there and sing, and the girls would just sit around him and dreamily gaze at him. It was not unlike that scene in Animal House during the toga party with the guitar player on the stairs. The only thing missing was a John Belushi to walk up and smash the guitar. I always found it funny that Better Man was his go-to song for getting the ladies. You see, Dan was a bit of a player. There were not a lot of us in drama club, and like any closed society, rumors and gossip fly around pretty freely. It seems Dan was a bit of a player. He wouldn’t date, he would just fool around with a girl, get what he wanted, and drop them for the next one. He made it quickly through most of the freshmen girls in both drama club and choir, and if rumors are to be believed, was working his way through the cheerleaders for the basketball team (he played all three sports, football, basketball and baseball). So him singing a song about a woman finding a “better man” struck me funny because the girls who got all hot and bother by Dan’s performance should have spent a little more time listening to the lyrics and a little less time gazing into his pretty blue eyes.
I remember when I was going to summer school English after my senior year, it was when Pearl Jam released Who You Are (still my favorite Pearl Jam song) off of their forthcoming album No Code. My mom would drop me off at summer school (which was at the local community college on the complete opposite end of town) in the morning, but I would take the city bus home after class every day. I didn’t want to take my CD player with me on the bus, especially through the less-than-safe South Side of town, so I would just bring my Walkman that had a radio with it. There was about thirty to forty minutes between the end of class and when the bus would show up, and I would sit on the ground at the bus stop, write in my notebook and listen to the radio. Without fail during this time, the radio station would play Who You Are, and it would make me feel good.
I remember listening to Binaural while working the overnight shift at Kohl’s when we moved to Columbus. Since we were locked into the store and worked pretty independently, I would bring my CD player and listen to an album a couple times through between breaks. The night I brought Binaural, I listened to it and only it for the whole eight hours. Somehow I still think about organizing decorative pillows in the stock room whenever I hear it.
For years, Nothingman was my preferred break-up song. It started the night Missy broke up with me over the phone. After a long and (what I thought at the time) emotional conversation, it was the first song I thought to listen to, and I felt it did a good job of encapsulating my emotions of the moment. I used it again after Meghan and I broke up, and again after everything went bad between Kate and I. It reared it’s head only two more times, the times that Heather and I broke up. Even though I was the instigator in those occasions, I still felt like I was losing something that I had no business trying to hold on to in the first place, so it still fit. Listening to it now still creates a sense of melancholy for those moments, but also a bit of pride that I haven’t had one of those moments for a long time and hopefully and probably won’t for the rest of my days.
I remember when Pearl Jam released Yield. During that time, they were in the midst of a fight with Ticketmaster and the RIAA over issues of anti-trust and openness in music. In the spirit of this, the local radio station decided to play the whole album the day before it was available in stores. They wouldn’t put commercials in and the DJ would step away for the whole time. They would preface it with “get your tape decks ready, and hit record to get the whole album before you can buy it in stores.” They did include one break, at the right time to flip your tape over.
This is just a sampling, but it illustrates the point well that Pearl Jam has ties to a lot of big and little moments in my life. But the smart reader will point out that these moments are heavy on their first few albums and very light on their more recent releases. That’s fair, and accurate. Pearl Jam and I aren’t as close as we once were. There are multiple factors in this. My musical tastes have expanded over the years, so that I’m not just looking for the album of five or six bands but listening to the new music of fifty or sixty bands as they come out. I no longer have to keep listening to the first two albums as I wait with baited breath for the third. I can listen to the new album from someone else in the meantime. Also, the sheer amount of music available to me, in multiple formats and ways, has increased exponentially. It’s not a matter of waiting for my parents to drive me to the mall or waiting for my package from Columbia House, music can be instantly mine from the comfort of my couch. This feeds my ADD so I can move from band to band to band and not sit here longing for one album from one artist. If it’s out, it can be mine right now. If it’s not, something else can be mine right now. As a result, there are fewer and fewer albums that get the “endless repeat” treatment that albums did when I was in high school and college.
The biggest factor, in my opinion, is the maturity of the artist or band and therefor the music. Artists that are around for long enough tend to shift their musical style over time. The Beatles’ Help sounds nothing like The White Album, nor should it. Music is influenced by the experiences the artist has. Some artist grow and evolve over time, and some do not. There is a Blackalicious song about a rapper who makes it big because his rhymes are true and accurate and resonate the attitudes of the neighborhood he’s from, but eventually the trappings of fame catch up to him, and no one takes him seriously because his wealth and comfort have taken him far away from the streets he keeps trying to rap about. He falls quickly, mostly due to his lack of perspective and ability to adapt. His rhymes no longer resonate, and just sound hollow, so people move on. I used to really like Tori Amos, but after a while her songs about the struggles of love didn’t sound right to me, since she’s happily married and no longer going through those struggles. But other bands do grow over time. Beck’s albums are very reflective of where he is in life, and Björk’s most recent album is a reflection of her current emotional state after a very emotional break up. I mean, the album art is her with her heart ripped out, it’s pretty obvious.
Similarly, Pearl Jam evolved and matured. When I was listening to them in high school, they were filled with that early nineties grunge rage towards the world and its systems and injustices and what have you. I was right there with them, pissed off at everything. But by the time they got to Yield, they had softened a bit. I’m not saying that as a bad thing, they were in their thirties by then and life was different than it was in their twenties. I was ten years behind, so I was still looking for the anger and emotion of their previous works. My life had not moved on to quieter territory, so I found my fix elsewhere. No longer were they a listening staple. But I would still check in with every album and see if we lined up again. We have not, but I still come back to them, just in case. I have found that I’m catching up, but almost at the same rate they are still moving on. As a result, their self-titled album from 2006 sounds perfect to me now, and has been a delightful surprise to listen to again this week. If the trend holds, Backspacer may end up being my favorite album of 2020. But the fact that we are no longer in lock-step has reduced their influence on my life, and the amount of memories tied to them. But that can’t diminish the power they held over my formative years, or how I still feel about many of their songs, a combination of introspection and nostalgia.