Although it’s another fast moving, high energy song , Johnny Guitar explores a different aspect of Backspacer’s emotional and thematic space. Johnny Guitar celebrates not taking yourself so seriously, and in that respect it’s one of the more mature songs in their catalog—despite , or possibly because of, the juvenile lyrics.
With a handful of exceptions Pearl Jam’s approach to fun could probably best be summed up as FUN=SERIOUS BUSINESS. It’s like they were people who looked the word fun up in the dictionary, were aware of its technical definition, and were going to attempt to reproduce it without actually ever having had experienced it. There were moments in the past that came close. Who You Are becomes a much better song if it’s not meant to be taken so seriously. Black Red Yellow and All Night want to let themselves go, but they can’t quite manage it. It’s like there is a part of themselves that’s watching them, prepared to judge if they enjoy themselves too much . And the No Code attempts were probably the best of the bunch. They’re clearly having a great time with Johnny Guitar, and like a few other places on Backspacer the apparent simplicity in the crude lyrics and the puerile story told can make it easy to miss that the song has something important to say, critical to the overall message of the record.
Although this may not be obvious at first, Johnny Guitar is a companion piece to a song like I Got Shit—the opposite side of the same coin. The subject matter in both songs are the same—the main character’s response to a heart breaking, life shattering, unrequited love. I Got Shit plays it straight (there’s no way Pearl Jam could have played it any other way in 1995, and it’s not a problem that they did. These are emotions and experiences that demand voice), and so we’re left with this devastatingly sad portrait of a wasted, pathetic life thrown away in pursuit of someone who has no idea how this person feels, or even that they exist. It’s a totally emo song in the hands of someone else, but the sincerity of the delivery and the credibility earned from the previous records turn it into something more moving and profound.
Johnny Guitar takes this same set of circumstances and goes in an entirely different direction. It tells the story of a life long obsession about a girl—a fantasy in the most literal sense since she’s not even anyone real. She’s just an image on a poster, and so the subject can basically make her be whatever it is he wants her to be. This guy focuses on her innocence—the fantasy is about all the things he’s going to do to her when he awakens her sexuality—Sleeping Beauty being awoken by her handsome prince but filtered through ZZ Top instead of Disney.
He’s jealous of Johnny Guitar, who possesses the woman (any woman he wants it would seem—this guy is in awe of Johnny’s secret, seemingly forbidden knowledge—the ability to get a girl to sleep with you) and he’s envious of the ease with which he does so, but he has faith that someday she’ll be his. He hopes for the future even as he despairs in a present that extends on for decades. The little details in this song are sharp, like the image in the bridge of the guy sleeping with the lights on. Ostensibly it’s so she can find him (although what kind of fantasy can’t navigate the dark), but it’s probably more that he just falls asleep starring at the poster. And the bridge transitions into his dream (I picture him nodding off to sleep as he extends the second ‘in case she…’ going out of the bridge.
But finally, after thirty years of failing to even dream about this girl (that’s how pathetic this guy is) he has the moment he’s waiting for. Like the subject in I Got Shit the dreams are more real (or more important, anyway) than the reality since this is the one place their love isn’t unrequited. And his moment finally comes—after thirty years of patient devotion he has his reward. She slinks over to the bed in her red dress, leans over…and asks (almost certainly in a husky voice) if he’s seen Johnny Guitar. This guy is such a loser he can’t even win in his dreams.
But what makes the song work is that there’s no judgment here. There’s no warning. Johnny Guitar is not the cautionary tale that I Got Shit is. Instead it’s playful and celebratory, full of double entendres and filthy innuendo delivered in a rapid fire and extremely accomplished vocal melody that doesn’t give us time to take any of this very seriously (and without the awkwardness in a song like soon forget when Eddie trips himself up over the word horny). The faux desperation in Eddie’s voice gives the song a ridiculous sense of self-importance that’s poking fun of itself at the same time.
Musically they set the scene perfectly, with the muscular swagger of the guitar the soundtrack for how this guy no doubt WANTS to see himself. If the mournful guitars in I Got Shit sound like a heart breaking here we have the sound of guy trying frantically to strut since that seems to be what gets Johnny Guitar his ladies. The filthy guitar in the bridge encapsulates this best, but it’s present throughout the whole song.
Pearl Jam often ends their emotionally intense songs with a cathartic breakdown, and like everything else in this song Johnny Guitar ends by spoofing this tendency within their music. The singer is trying to stay strong “I hide my disappointment” but he can’t quite manage it and loses it at the end. But the music can’t keep a straight face and instead of suffering with him it affectionately cheers on this pathetic loser and his hopeless fantasy.
The song is ridiculous (or as ridiculous as Pearl Jam can ever really get) and that is in part the point. It celebrates our silly dreams and recognizes that a life without play, without nonsensical ambitions, one that cannot laugh at itself and its occasional ridiculousness, is not a life that’s really worth living. One of the key milestones in really growing up, really maturing, is learning how to be able to take life seriously and laugh at yourself at the same time. Pearl Jam knew how to take life seriously from the very beginning. It’s nice to see them get comfortable enough in their own skin that they’re able to laugh too.