Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Guided Tour of Ten: Jeremy

[A Guided Tour of Ten]
Like Alive, Jeremy starts out with what has become an iconic riff—rich, full, and laden with expectation. You listen to those first few notes and you know you're going to hear an important story, but unlike a song like Alive, the music quickly takes a backseat. It grabs your attention and then recedes to the background so the story can be told

As per just about every other song on the record, Jeremy is a song of betrayal and intimate isolation—of being abandoned by the people who are supposed to look out and care for you. And Jeremy is utterly alone, shunned by his peers and ignored by his family. The song is a juxtaposition between the powerlessness he feels in the real world and the fantasy he has to create for himself in order to feel like he matters, like he has some agency and control over his world. And as the images that begin the song make clear, the isolation is taking a toll on him. His fantasy is a fantasy of dominance—of revenge and a need to harm others before they can harm him. There is no love to be found here, but there is power, the coiled and unhinged power of prey about to lash out at what it fears

There is some wonderful ambiguity in the lyrics, which can be easy to miss in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward story. In particular I love the King Jeremy the wicked ruled his world lyric. Since eddie doesn’t write with punctuation (ellipses don’t count) we never know quite how to read it. Is King Jeremy wicked, tormenting the people in his (imaginary) world, or does Jeremy have no way out—even in his fantasies where he ostensibly rules it is the wicked, the people who shun and isolate him, who are still in command (King Jeremy, the wicked ruled his world). My take is that it is both, although the later dominates, which sets up the resolution of the song (or at least its famous video)

Like Black and a number of other songs on the record, Jeremy has an extended outro meant to be a musical accompaniment to the complete breakdown of a person, the shattering of a life—the music is urgent and pounding, but featureless and unfocused. The narrator is trying to both get his mind around Jeremy's final actions and figure out what could have driven him to say what he did. Unlike the clarity of the storytelling in the verses the vocals are pure emotion, the moaning of someone lost trying so hard to find his way home and the desperate attempt to understand, all leading up to the ominous outro and, thanks to the video, the moment we all know is coming

Jeremy's chorus is brilliant, for all its seeming simplicity, and one that is far too often ignored. We already have the picture of Jeremy as the quiet, brooding outsider—cut off from everyone else. One day he finally decides to speak, and it is obviously an event, or it would not be worth commenting on. But what did he say? The video makes it tragically clear, although there is enough ambiguity in the lyrics for there to be competing answers here. The only way he could express the trauma of his isolation was to take his life, and to do so in public, in a place of safety and innocence, to sear it into people's minds. In a sense, his final act, what was said, was a sacrifice of sorts, and a warning. Isolation is amongst the cruelest things you can do to another human being, and there are consequences to denying them warmth and love. Jeremy's was a warning because the next time the bullets might not be turned inward, as we see in Once and in the real life school violence we've seen since.

The blackboard is the iconic image of school and education—but what is ironic about this is that while knowledge is supposed to be permanent, a blackboard is completely disposable. Something is written, discussed for a time, and then erased to move on to something else—and as we all know, once the knowledge is erased it is rarely remembered. We move on to the next disposable moment, and the blackboard becomes a symbol of impermanence, the words written on them in some way diminished by their disposable presentation. 

Jeremy understood that and sought to leave a message, written in his blood, that try as we might, we will be unable to remove, or forget.

Even Flow 
Why Go 

No Code 
Riot Act 
Pearl Jam