Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Reflection on Pearl Jam Twenty

I have finally finished the Pearl Jam Twenty book, and managed to make it to the movie. I sat down this morning to write a review of them and discovered I couldn’t really do it—at least not right now. There are things I could praise, there are things I could criticize, there are moments whose inclusion I could pine for, but these would just reflect my own idiosyncratic desires—asking that they be even more customized for my experience of the band. And I am not sure I can make any sense of Pearl Jam Twenty beyond that experience. The book and film were less an in-depth account of the band’s history, their music, and more an opportunity to reflect on the journey we’ve taken together. This was part love letter and part old photo album, a renewal of marriage vows, a reminder of how hot fire can burn. It is easy to forget because, above all else, Pearl Jam is so familiar, such a constant, a part of the canvas I’ve lived my life on, and a part of who I have become.

I discovered Pearl Jam in a fairly circuitous way. I was a sophomore in high school. It was the spring of 1992. I was not a serious music fan, listening to hair metal and late 80s hold overs. It just wasn’t very important to me. The one musician I really cared about was Weird Al Yankovich, who I had loved growing up. I had heard of Nirvana but had no idea what their music sounded like, and when he released his Smells Like Nirvana video I thought it was one of the funniest things I had ever seen. But besides loving the video I actually really liked the song, so I went out and bought Nevermind on tape, so I could hear the original. It was an epiphanal experience. I had no idea music was supposed to sound like this. I listened to that tape nonstop, probably 3-4 times a day, for the entire summer. I am not sure I played anything else.
In the fall of 1992 I decided to get a CD player, which meant I needed cds So I joined Columbia House and got Nevermind, Madonna and Prince’s greatest hits, and some Poison records. I was vaguely a fan of some of R.E.M’s hits so I thought I’d get Out of Time, Automatic for the People, and Eponymous. I had one CD left, and I had heard that Pearl Jam was similar to Nirvana, so without knowing a single Pearl Jam song I thought I’d give them a try.

I was in my bedroom doing my math homework the first time I played Ten, and it was all over. This wasn’t exactly the bolt of lightning that Nevermind was. Nevermind destroyed my understanding of what music was, and opened up the possibilities of what it could be. Ten felt more like fate or destiny—that this was the record I was waiting my whole life for, and that going forward there would be Pearl Jam and then everything else. Almost twenty years later this is still the case.

Even today, for all the time I have spent listening to these albums (I have been listening to those first three records for over half my life now), it is still hard to put into words exactly what moves me about them. I was never a depressed or alienated teenager. I couldn’t really relate to the lyrics. But there was something so elemental, so primal, about those first albums—there was a story here that had to be told. If it didn’t get out someone was going to get hurt, but if we took the time to listen somewhere in that story was salvation. There was a fierce urgency about the music, and a sense of power and conviction. It was magnetic. It still is. And it was intimate and communal at the same time, something intensely private yet still universal. As amazing as those records sounded, it wasn’t just the music (although these are all tremendous songs) or the vocals (although Eddie during this period is untouchable). I could not have articulated this back then (and don’t know that I can do it now), but these songs fulfilled a deeply spiritual and deeply human desire to be a part something greater than yourself, to belong, to know that you are not alone, that we are all in this together. These records taught me that the struggle has meaning.

And through that they helped shape who I am. I can’t say that Pearl Jam was the soundtrack to my life, since that calls into mind specific memories attached to specific songs (for the first date we play this song, for graduation we play this song) and I never made any of those specific connections. The music was more background than soundtrack—something ever present that touched everything without ever moving itself to the foreground. Maybe I was reluctant to pin one of the songs down, since once it belongs to a memory it belongs to that moment, and not to me. Even the most critical experiences of my life (my first crushing breakup, my wedding, the birth of my child) aren’t associated with a particular Pearl Jam song. I have always looked elsewhere for music to help me get through or celebrate those moments. Pearl Jam was too internal for that, too much a part of me, and I couldn’t separate them enough (or didn’t want to) for those songs to provide some kind of external reference point.

Over time the music changed. The songs lost their car crash desperation, but this makes sense. That kind of intensity is not sustainable. It makes sense to miss it, but not to mourn it, nor to resent its absence. Instead Pearl Jam’s music became less elemental and more organic. There was something more gentle and spacious about it as it sought to figure out how to belong to the world instead of rail against it. If those early albums are defined by the tragedy and frustration and rage at being uprooted, the records since then are characterized by their attempts to find the ground. If those early records sought to define a problem, everything after Vitalogy is an attempt to offer a solution—they try to show us how to live. Some albums are more successful than others, but answers are a lot tougher than questions. Wisdom comes not only from experience, but also from no longer wanting to be a child, from letting go of your innocence, and Eddie in particular seems reluctant to do that. Some people would rather be students than teachers. But that uncertainty, the longing, the reluctance, the wish that someone else could come along and just hand us the answers so we don’t have to come up with them ourselves, that’s what gives the willingness to go out there and try to find the answers anyway its character and its power. In their own ways each of these later albums are tragic heroes.

One of the things that have kept me following the band for so long is that their growth mirrors my own. They came along at a perfect time in my life because (and despite the age difference) we grew up together. We railed at the injustice of the world at the same time, we had to learn to make our peace with it at the same time, and together we had to figure out how to do so without burying the part of ourselves that was, and still is outraged by the need to make peace. That was what I needed. I never wanted someone to blaze a trail for me as much as I wanted someone to walk beside me as I traveled down the path that was already there.

And so while I never looked to Pearl Jam for answers, I did look to them for inspiration, not to tell me how to feel, but to figure out how to express what I was feeling, in a way more passionate and more pure than I could ever do myself. I remember how stifled I felt in the early 2000s, and how desperate I was for Riot Act to be an angry, howling record that could counteract my own sense of powerlessness. Instead I got a record that felt as defeated as I did. Four years later, the first time I heard World Wide Suicide (and then later when S/T came screaming out the gate) it is almost impossible to describe the feeling of relief, the weight that was off my chest. I could breathe again. I was in graduate school at the time, and I knew how to describe exactly what was going on in the world, why it was tragic, and why I hated it. But I still felt like I couldn’t find my voice until Pearl Jam found theirs.

In a lot of ways I am a bad fan. I do not read the bios (I actually learned a lot of history from the PJ 20 book), and care little about their personal lives (although I hope they are happy). I share their politics, but that is just a coincidence. I don’t follow most of the side projects. I don’t like a number of their most significant musical influences. Hell, I rarely listen to the bootlegs. But there is no other band I have such a deep and personal relationship with. But I suspect I am not alone. The fierce loyalty and intense criticism they engender amongst their fans, the way that a song you love feels like a personal triumph and a song you don’t feels like a betrayal--this is something you can only direct at something you love as a part of yourself.

The Pearl Jam Twenty movie was a visual representation and reminder of all that. Sometimes all I listen to is Pearl Jam and sometimes I don’t touch them for weeks or months. Sometimes the fire burns hot and sometimes it lies waiting, simmering, waiting to roar back to life. I have the same relationship with my best friends from college. We spent every moment of four years together. I can no longer see them that often, but when we get together it’s like we never left. They helped shape who I am, and so I always carry them with me. The relationship ebbs and flows but it is foundational, and always there.

And so when I walked out of Pearl Jam Twenty what I felt more than anything else was a profound sense of gratitude. For Mike and Stone and Eddie and Jeff. For Boom and the drummers. For the people who process my ticket orders and press the cds. For the person who sent me that awesome surfboard logo fitted hat that I lost on my honeymoon. For anyone who has played a small part in the last twenty years shaping who I have become and will continue to play a role in who I am becoming.

Thank you.
Thank you for the gifts you have given me.
Thank you for the debts I cannot repay.
Thank you for everything.