Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Guided Tour of Vitalogy: Last Exit

Continuing our Guided Tour series, which takes us song-by-song through Pearl Jam's studio albums in no particular order whatsoever, we move to Vitalogy. It should be a nice way to kick off a year in which we expect this album and Vs. to be reissued. I'dve started with Vs., but stip still hasn't seen fit to guide us through that particular album just yet.
Keep Jammin',

by stip


Full disclosure: Vitalogy is my favorite Pearl Jam record, and my favorite record of all time. Beyond that I’d also argue it is the best, and most important record of the 90s, and should be regarded as amongst the finest albums of all time by any band—not only because of the quality of the music, but because it is one of the only mainstream musical statements I can think of that addresses head on how the culture industry perverts art and destroys its emancipatory possibilities, and the record does so without any cynical or ironic detachment. It is not a record about the causes of modern alienation, but it is a record about the ways in which we are systematically denied the tools needed to meaningfully cope with that alienation.

Vitalogy is arguably their only concept album, even all the other records have certain themes running through them. This is not to say that every song on Vitalogy is directly a part of the concept—that would be a little too self conscious for the way Eddie writes—but clearly Eddie is writing to address a very specific set of questions, and this colors just about every song on the record.

Vitalogy is an album about reification, which is the process of turning a subject into an object—in particular the reification and commodification of art and artists. This means it is also an album about the loss of agency, of any sense of control over the forces in your life and the ability to infuse them with meaning. The artist is at the mercy of the industry that produces him and the celebrity culture that mythologizes him. What drops out is any sense of intimacy and connection between the artist, his work, and the people it reaches. It is all mediated through the culture industry and stripped of real meaning and value---turned into something easy to consume and reproduce for maximum profit and minimum engagement.

As an artist, dubbed not only one of the leaders of a new and vital period of music, but even named ‘the voice of his generation’ this is something Eddie would have been particularly sensitive to. The fact that he is a true believer in the healing properties of music (there is a reason his personal biography is largely a history of the music he has listened to) makes this even worse. He spent his life wishing and hoping for the chance to reach an audience with his art, not to be famous, but for the chance to establish a connection through which we can experience meaningful forms of community, solidarity, and love with one another. And for a few brief moments he was a part of a vital music scene(in the best sense of the word—a collection of musicians who all knew each other, made music together, fed off of and inspired each other) making music of real value to themselves and the people who heard it. And just as quickly that moment is gone—turned into ‘grunge,’ mass produced and distributed as fast as copies could be made, completely devoid of the sentiment and mission that made the original stuff so powerful

What do you do in that situation? How do you respond when your art is co-opted and highjacked and there is nothing you can do to stop it—when you become a symbol of everything your music takes a stand again (think of how socialists feel seeing Che Guerva shirts sold in the mall)? What is left for you when your life has lost its meaning, when you have lost your agency? This is why Vitalogy is an album about life and death. There is a palpable sense of suicide hanging over the entire record, and the death of Kurt Cobain crystallizes and gives extra urgency to what was already there. Sometimes death is the last authentic act open to us—the one gesture we can make that we think cannot be taken away from us. And so Vitalogy is written as a suicide note, but in the shaky hand of someone who has not yet committed to going down this road. It’s a last desperate chance to reestablish some sense of control over a life and its dreams. There are three paths ahead. There is the suicide of spirit that comes from accepting things the way they are, a mental surrender. There is the literal death of suicide interpreted either as defeat or a defiant act of forfeit. Or there is the choice to pick yourself up and fight back, to construct new forms of meaning and reclaim what was lost.

Vitalogy does not answer which path the singer takes, which is part of its power. The listener needs to interpret that for themselves, to read their own battles into the music and draw the lessons that they need. But the way the band answers is clear from the subsequent history. The speech at the grammys, the fight against ticketmaster, the scaling down of the fan base, the no video, minimal media exposure policy are all attempts to recapture the music and the humanity of the artists behind them. My two personal favorite lyrics in the early Pearl Jam catalog are found in Breath and Leash, two songs not otherwise known for their excellent writing. “I am lost, I am no guide, but I’m by your side, I am right by your side” and “If I knew where it was I would take you there, there’s much more than this.” This is the spirit that has always animated Pearl Jam’s work in its finest moments—that sense that while they don’t know the answers, they are troubled by the same questions, and will stand with you while we discover the answers together. You cannot adopt a position like that and remain a larger than life figure, as the former requires that you are grounded in the lives and experiences of your community and the later makes you larger than life, someone who dispenses wisdom and offers certainty, rather than someone who searches for them. And the next few records that follow Vitalogy are an attempt to reclaim their identity as fellow seekers (although ones granted a certain degree of insight and wisdom from their trials) rather than messiahs.

A quick word on the album art. Vitalogy is an aptly chosen title, as the record is a record about life, its value, and what it can do when the forces that sustain it are tainted. The Vitalogy book aims at a life of purity, offers rules for ‘life prolonged indefinitely’ and identifies the forms of corruption and self-pollution that threaten it. But it is also clear that while the book makes promises, they are ultimately a lie—the life they offer is an illusion, the methods to achieve promise not life but the annihilation of the self and the passions that make us human and make life worth living. In the end the book and its promises need to be rejected, and we need to accept that the life we have may be short, and may be bitter, but it will be honest, and it will be ours.


Last Exit has always been my favorite of the album openers—not simply because of how good the song is but because of the way it sets up the entire record that follows. It’s not just the first song on the record—it begins an entire experience

It is clear from the discordant tuning that begins the song that there is something new happening here. Once opened with Master/Slave to set the mood, and Go had its own ‘tune up’ sequence but in both cases they were fully realized pieces of music. The tuning process before Last Exit gives it (and with it the record) a sense of immediacy that what came before simply lacked. Those songs may have been heavy, and they may have been urgent, but they didn’t have that sense of capturing THIS particular moment in time. It is almost like Last Exit (and with it the record) pours out of the band—as if they walked into a room, picked up their instruments, and the record spilled out of them.

Musically Last Exit is a desperate, almost violent song. The crashing drums, the jagged lines of the guitars—it’s a song you can cut yourself on—and the various peaks and climaxes of the song lack any kind of clarity, mirroring pretty much perfectly the desperation and confusion in the lyrics.

Last Exit is the first half of a suicide note, written in confusion, anger, and commitment—the issue at hand, what the record will try and work through, is whether the commitment is to life or death

The first verse makes it clear that a life has spiraled out of control—“Lives opened and trashed, look ma watch me crash, no time to question, why’d nothing last?” This is not the cry of a person dying of depression or apathy, but a flame burning itself out—one that doesn’t know how to slow down and take control over the frantic pace of his own life, of events quickly spiraling out of control (the parallels to the rise of the band, the destruction of Eddie the human and the birth of Eddie the symbol, should be obvious) This comes across just as powerfully in the set of lyrics that didn’t make the song, although these are perhaps a little more resigned than the set of lyrics ultimately included.

“Die on a hilltop, eyeing the crows, waiting for your lids to close but you want to watch as they peck your flesh…Ironic that they go for the eyes first…”

It’s a wonderfully evocative image—a body exhausted, watching the crows circle and descend, refusing to grant the morbid wish to watch your own destruction. Of course you won’t know how the story ends if you walk out on it.

The second set makes the suicide theme even more prominent:

“Once resigned, dictating your demise seems only fair Built in effect of the system…control If one cannot control his life, will he be driven to control his death”

The use of the words system and control is important here. There is a sense of being trapped by forces that are beyond our own ability to master—the way in which events spiral out of control seemingly without any input from the people who live them. In the end the only act of control, the only act of agency, open to the person involved may be choosing the circumstances surrounding their death.

And that’s what the rest of the song is about—death. The question becomes what kind of death. Clearly death as suicide is present as subtext throughout the song, especially with the 3 days lyrics—the image of a body lying for days waiting to see if the body is discovered, if the act itself has meaning. But death can also be interpreted as a moment of rebirth—a phoenix dying to rise again, and the elemental imagery present in this part of the song (the sun, the ocean, the idea of purification, masks burned away, past burdens drowned, shedding skin) gives one a sense of hope and optimism, although all of these processes will be painful. A life is at a crossroads—and either the person will walk away stronger than they were before, or the journey is going to break them, but clearly a choice must be made—things cannot go on as they were before…for better or for worse.

Vitalogy is a time of reflection made standing at that crossroads—reviewing the circumstances that led the singer to them and weighing which path to take. At the end of the record a choice will have to be made. Eddie’s plea to let his spirt pass is a cry for some form of closure. Life simply cannot continue in this state. This is his last chance, the possibility of healing through music—the last exit on a road heading inexorably towards destruction.