Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Guided Tour of Vitalogy: Satan's Bed


Bugs ends with the main characters surrender, his resignation and acceptance that the forces arrayed against him are simply too much and that it isn’t worth fighting anymore. The accordion cuts out and you’re left with an image (or at least I am) of the main character walking off into darkness or being overrun. But either way we lose sight of him.

Satan’s Bed picks up right where Bugs leaves off. The first thing we here is the sound of the whip, ordering the slave back to work, but when the music comes back in we’re in a different space than we were at the end of Bugs. It’s dirty, raunchy, argumentative, and seems to say “I don’t feel like taking any of your shit.” The music is a repudiation of the surrender at the end of Bugs, and the lyrics advance the same theme and feeling. It’s a refusal to be an image instead of a person, a celebration of imperfect authenticity. There is a relaxed playfulness to the song that is also a welcome break from the tension on the rest of the record. The urgency is still there, but there is a confidence lacking elsewhere, but Satan’s Bed really escapes the claustrophobic feel of the rest of the record, as if by making the song’s central declaration “already in love” he’s lifted a huge weight off of his chest and can breathe easy for the first time in forever.

The first verse frankly admits the power of the temptation, the allure of giving in, of accepting the rewards that come from surrendering principles, taking the easy way out. The temptation is always there---constant (Sundays Fridays Tuesdays Thursdays the same), uninvited (you know he don’t wait/sometimes the special guest he don’t like to leave), and powerful (I always want to give in). So what stops him from surrendering?

The answer, as it tends to be in most of Pearl Jam’s music, is love, a purer, healthier, more authentic kind of love. The song doesn’t specify what sort of love, which is probably deliberate. It could be his relationship with his girlfriend/wife (I don’t’ recall if he was married yet at the time, but he was still with his pre-fame partner), it could be his love of music, or it could be the more meaningful forms of friendship and solidarity he has in his life. But in all cases these relationships predate the temptations and trappings of fame, surrender, or selling out, and however imperfect they are, are powerful because the expressions of something more authentic and pure, a relationship unmediated by the promises and expectations of others.

The second verse develops the theme of authenticity further, and is one of my favorite verses in the catalog. It rejects the social standards of a celebrity consumer culture demanding that everything in life should be easy and perfect, its superficiality and materialism, and reminds us that its understanding of happiness and contentment is not only illusory, but unnecessary, as the thing in life that is most valuable and meaningful (authentic and unmediated love) is above and beyond these illusionary standards—in fact, they may only be achievable if we actively reject those standards. And we don’t need to look to celebrity heroes and voices of our generations. It requires no fucking messiah. Love is something we can find and create for ourselves.

The bridge is a brief throwback to Bugs, almost a reminder of where he has come from. That the rewards offered from surrender, acceptance, selling out, come at a great price, an endless cycle of torture and rewards. But there is also a realization that this is inevitable—it is the nature of life, and that whether or not you surrender or dedicate your time here to trying to move the rock you’re going to have to accept that every existence will be a series of victories and defeats, rewards and punishments, joy and sadness. There is no way around this, and the best we can do is find the right kinds of love that can help us endure and if we’re lucky, find moments of triumph.

And the third verse brings us back to the Satan metaphor and reprises the themes of the rest of the song. In case it wasn’t clear there is the declaration that he hasn’t given in—that despite the temptations he has yet to shake Satan’s hand, or, if you like, suck his dick. There is a desire to accept the hardships in life for what they are, and to live it as best we can, imperfectly for sure, but in a way that is true to ourselves. If we’re going to fail we’ll jump off our own cliffs. If we’re going to rise we’ll do it on our own power. We won’t take the easy way out or conform to others expectations for ourselves. It’ll be difficult at time, and while the possibility of an angel coming to rescue us is comforting, we also have to learn to accept that they probably aren’t going to make it, and that we’re going to have to learn to live for ourselves, to save ourselves, on our own---but never truly alone as long as we are in possession of a better kind of love.