Friday, April 1, 2011

A Guided Tour of Vitalogy: Immortality and Stupid Mop


Although Stupid Mop is the end of the album, Immortality is the climax, where all the questions that have been running through the record are revisited and where the subject sees what he has learned and tries to resolve his issues as best he can.

It’s clear from the message from a family member in the liner notes that death was on Eddie’s mind, and the picture of the Indian Chief Big Bear, looking 80 and so young and at peace is included as a reminder that a long, happy life is possible, but Immortality is not a song about aging—it’s a song about learning to cope with life so that even thinking about aging becomes possible. On page 28 in the booklet there is an index/glossary and immortality is one of the words. Its definition is ‘ability to live by dying’ and this is as good a place to start as any. There’s a seeming contradiction in this definition as it argues that only by dying can we live, and certainly there is an extent to which the song takes this idea seriously—that we can end up being so overwhelmed and overrun with life that only by letting go of it can we find the space we need to truly exist. But we can also interpret this more in line with a more life-affirming theme that runs throughout Pearl Jam’s entire catalogue—the need to let go and emancipate yourself from the thoughts, expectations, and demands of others so that we can find the space necessary to take stock of our lives, find peace, and if need be, start over. 

As a song, Immortality (and really the record as a whole) is a battle between these two definitions. It’s why the record starts with Last Exit. The album is a last desperate attempt to create the space necessary to take control of a life that has spiraled out of control. It has to end, either by making peace with it and finding a way to cope, or by finding a new type of life, an immortality in suicide where you’ll live forever without pain, hurt, or obligation.

The music at the start (and running throughout) is heavy, loaded with a sense of both foreboding and expectation while still managing to be open enough to allow for the movement and soul searching in the lyrics. They really could not have set the mood more perfectly than they did.

Immortality opens with one of the more compelling opening lyrics in the catalogue (‘vacate is the word’) and vacate was an expertly chosen word with which to begin the song. While it can imply a sense of leaving what it actually means is empty, and the entire first verse describes the emotionally void and hollow existence that the subject is living, a life without comfort, without meaningful connections (artificial tears), that seems to chew up and spit out everyone it can get its hands on. It is nearly impossible to find your bearings in a life like this—wisdom can’t adhere. It’s a lonely verse for a lonely existence.

Moving into the chorus, the truant is clearly the subject of the song. Given the context of the album I take the ‘home’ to be the meaning found in art and music, the power that it has to heal and the community that it can create, and to live in that space is the wish that he wants to hold on, but it is abstract enough that the listener can insert their own source of meaning. The sun takes us back to the opening of the record and the chorus of Last Exit. The sun illuminates and punishes us with its light, warms us and burns us—we need it, but if we get too close to it we’re lost—a metaphor for the way in which the culture industry uses up and destroys art and artists. There’s a way out—a trapdoor in the sun and through that door immortality? We don’t know, and that’s what the song wants to find out, if the only life possible is the one granted by death, or if we can find a different type of escape.

The second verse situates the song much more squarely in the context of the record—acknowledging that the life, the fame, leave you feeling used, like you’ve lost control of the most intimate aspects of yourself. The industry is merciless, using people up and spitting them out as quickly as it can, without any concern for art or artist—all sacrificed in the name of money and trends and swept out through the crack beneath the door (it isn’t even opened to allow for a graceful, dignified exit). Earlier on the record (Bugs especially) the subject had contemplated surrender—abandoning the rock and just choosing to play the game, but it’s clear in the end that this is no real option (a myth, according to the liner notes. The part of you that surrenders, that achieves a type of immortality, isn’t really you. If you surrender you’re executed anyway, you lose the part of yourself that matters, that is authentically yours, watching your words and art lose their meaning and fade away (the scrawl dissolved….and the cigar box is allegedly the place where eddie stores his lyrics)

We have a quiet, meditative solo gradually building in urgency, the whispered thought of immortality leading into the final, frantic verse. The subject is getting desperate—he cannot stop the thought of suicide, of the need for escape. He’s utterly lost, running in the dark (ironic given the close proximity of the sun) and he realizes that he has to make a choice. He can’t stay where he is, as the longer he remains the more of himself he loses, stripped, sold, auctioned, no longer his. He can choose life or he can choose immortality. As is fitting for Eddie’s writing the choice isn’t made for us—we don’t know what he chooses or what we ourselves should do, and the music essentially freezes in place, continuing for a minute and a half without really going anywhere, leaving us stuck at these crossroads.

I think we can draw some conclusions though, especially given the evidence we have after the fact, and it is worth drawing them here as I think this is the real climax of the album. The entire record is utterly empathetic to the choice of suicide. Not endorsing it, but understanding the feeling of being trapped, claustrophobic, like you’ve lost complete and utter control over who you are. And it understands that many of the things in life that give us meaning, music, art, passion, love, are tenuous and easily corruptible, and that in their perversions they become a source of weakness, not strength. But throughout the record there are these moments of, if not hope, at least fight and determination. While it understands the motivations behind suicide it rejects it and chooses life, choosing it because the struggle for authenticity and for love has meaning, and because the purest forms of happiness require the kind of love and solidarity you cannot find alone. Immortality cannot be the answer as it is a move we have to make by ourselves, and the lesson in Vitalogy, and throughout their catalogue, is that even while no one can create our standards for us, or move the rock for us, even though we have to do these things ourselves, we cannot do them alone. The possibility of love makes the struggle, no matter how difficult, worth it in the end.


Originally I looked at Stupid Mop as just a weird art piece, a sort of fuck you to the music industry—“Look what the biggest band in the world is sticking onto its latest album” It is hard to imagine a piece less commercial, less prone to commodification, than that one. The singer who made the band famous isn’t even on it. And I still think there is some truth to that. It’s not the only story, but it is one. I also think that’s one of the reasons why Supid Mop is the last track on the record. In a time before CDs were the exclusive vehicle for listening to music I don’t think they wanted to interrupt the flow of the record. Stupid Mop was there because there was nowhere else to really put it.

But I also think Stupid Mop serves a purpose, although I don’t think it is about Eddie. It’s the road not taken, in a sense. There is nothing said in Stupid Mop that hasn’t really been said elsewhere on the record, in Eddie’s own voice. I described the end of Immortality as a crossroads, where he has to choose suicide/immortality or life. We never learn the choice but the clues are there throughout the record that he’ll choose life in the end, even if it is the difficult choice. And he does that because despite it all he has art and meaning in his life, inspiration and love. And as long as those are there, as long as he has outlets like this record, he’ll make it in the end. The subject of Stupid Mop lacks these things. In fact, what makes the song so creepy is the desperate, sad, almost pathetic desire of the main character for the love and clarity that she lacks. The closest she can approximate to love is violence (shades of Betterman) as any contact and any connection has become meaningful and intimate. The closest she can come to expressing her trauma is her inane ramblings about her mop and her ability to clean the floor. It’s also a cold, clinical song, and I think that’s also deliberate—Ed’s disdain for the way we treat emotional and psychological distress—the lack of empathy and compassion. The pictures in the booklet there are telling. Two Victorian looking men preparing to lecture young people about the straight and narrow life (tellingly, the last thing listed under the lecture subjects is ‘On industry and economy the highway to wealth and fame’ exactly the bloodless worldview that the record rails against).

And so Stupid Mop is not about Eddie’s state of mind. We saw his state of mind in the rest of the record, and I think if this was meant to reflect Eddie it would have been in his voice, and likely in song. Vitalogy is already such a nakedly personal record that it’s not like the thoughts conveyed in Stupid Mop would have been too much. It’s a character study---where anyone could end up without the kind of support that we need to make life meaningful and worth living. The ‘would you kill yourself, yes I believe I would’ is too hamfisted to be a cry for help, and his description in an interview of Stupid Mop as the ‘most moving song we’ve written to date’ makes more sense if it is Eddie writing about someone else, as he historically places his own experiences as secondary to those of others. I think it would have worked even better as a hidden track a la master/slave, but unfortunately for myself I wasn’t the one arranging the record. It adds some interesting flavor at the end—where Eddie could have ended up without love and music, without Beth, Pete Townsend, the band, and Vitalogy—his last exit.

If you made it to the end thanks for reading and thank you to everyone who participated!

* For a take on Stupid Mop as one of the truly essential tracks on Vitalogy I can’t do better than to refer you to Angus’ piece in his SOTM thread, which is as close to a definitive pro-stupid mop take that you’re gonna get. But since I don’t entirely agree with his take I can’t fully endorse it either, for all its excellence.