The shadow of the 90s
Last Friday, while waiting for one of my kid’s PBS programs to begin I saw a commercial for that evening’s American Masters program. I was surprised to find that the ad was for Cameron Crowe’s documentary about Pearl Jam Twenty. I set the DVR with plans to watch the show either in real time or later during the weekend. I was more curious than excited. I was a big Pearl Jam fan when I was a senior in high school, until maybe 1995. The last time I’d chosen to listen to the band I found the music dated and stale, a snapshot of the time. So while I remained curious about the program I didn’t hold out too much hope. I wanted to watch it to watch it, but I felt no emotional investment in the program. I ended up watching the Pearl Jam Twenty that next day. It was impressive, and it revitalized what I thought about the band.
This is the band that I just was so very enthralled with back when I was 17/18 years old. I can’t remember when I first heard the band; I can’t remember when I first bought Ten. I remember listening to my stereo one morning before I went to school and something about “Even Flow,” something about that song, just captured my ears. I listened again and again to the song and eventually the whole LP. I just loved it. And I can’t explain why. It may be a combination of the sound of the voice and the sound of the music but I was just hooked. I sought out and bought the various singles with all the extra songs sprinkled on the discs.
My strongest lingering Pearl Jam-related memory is the lead up to and the release of their second CD, Vs. Wherehouse Records offered the punters the chance to pre-order the CD. It was a relatively novel concept then, pre-ordering something on hand in a brick and mortal store. I remember the price, $9.88 per disc. You bought a ticket, a physical ticket, that your receipt was stapled to which you returned to the store upon the release of the disc. I ordered two, one for me and one for my brother. And the night the disc was released I headed downtown, parked at the Bailey Community Center, and walked down to Grand River. I found myself standing at the far stairwell (bear with me if you don’t know the geography of the building) nearest to the wacky head shop. I was at the bottom of the stairs, the line stopped there. It was maybe 10 o’clock? Maybe earlier. I looked in my pocket, I was out of smokes. I looked down Grand River, maybe I could walk to the Rite Aid and spend the two bucks for a pack. (Yes, I said two bucks.) I decided to stay and wait. Good thing, as the line stretched all the way down block, past the Rite Aid, all the way down to the Taco Bell on the corner. Soon the line began to move, and I reached the door, gave the two tickets to the person at the door and got two copies of the CD. Then I left, high tailed it to the car, opened the disc and put it in the SIX DISC CHANGER in the trunk of my car. I headed home, listening to the songs on the way. It sounded great.
I remember that I was working in a record store at the time Vitology was released and I remember anticipating it. However during the short time between releases I had bought a double disc bootleg of the band in Atlanta. Contained on the two disc, 55 dollar set were many songs that were to feature on that new release. When I did finally hear the finished product over half the tunes were familiar to me. This took something away from the disc. Over the next several months of 1994 and into 1995 something happened; my ears grew surrounded by all the new music contained for sale within Wherehouse’s walls and my own ears began to drift towards news sounds, sounds from England.
Pearl Jam’s 1996 release, No Code, was something that I bought when it was released, on CD and LP, but as I listened I found it boring. Very, very boring. To this day I own the first three Pearl Jam releases and nothing more. When their inaugural bootleg series came out I bought a few, but sold them. Again, too boring, and what’s more, too dated to listen to and enjoy. My ears had closed on the band. I didn’t shed a tear.
In the end it is the human side of the band that maks the film. Having been such a big fan I would watch the MTV News breaks all the time when the band were popular, I would read all about them in the magazines, I craved information on the band and as the grew bigger and quieter the news was harder to find. Rolling Stone even ran, in the absence of cooperation, an article about the unknown side of Eddie Vedder, which really was a lame way to get him on the cover of the magazine and sell a few issues. To see these guys on the screen laughing and reflecting was so satisfying to finally see. And Chris Cornell, let me just add, is one charismatic dude. I’d watch a similar Soundgarden doc just to see more Cornell stories. Some of this comfort comes from Cameron Crowe, whose familiarity with the subjects I’m sure created a sense of ease that made the interview segments much smoother and more professional. We forget that Crowe started his career as a journalist (he wrote the authorized Pearl Jam cover story in 1993) and those skills from so long ago I’m sure informed his ability to get the band to open up. And his ability as a filmmaker informed the documentary as well. I am sure that his vision helped to create the enjoyable film experience. Crowe is the narrator; he does appear on screen to talk about his film Singles, but when it comes to his talking with the band you see his back or his side. At one point he steps out from behind the camera to tour Stone Gossard’s house in search of memorabilia only to find one coffee mug and a Grammy in the basement. Crowe’s role seems more of a confidant meant to facilitate the dialogue of the film and that helps, as the band’s reticence is still evident, even with a friendly face.
Watching PJ20 did ramp up my enthusiasm for the band and so I ventured over to the wall and pulled down Ten and Vs. I can’t remember the last time I listened to the discs, but the last time I did they had not aged well. I started with Ten (my Japanese edition with the bonus track cover of “I’ve Got A Feeling”), popped it into the car and listened. First thoughts were that I remembered all the words, even after all this time. Second thoughts were how WORDY the songs were. Man alive, it felt like there was not a syllable that wasn’t squashed into those songs. And then those lyrics, while confessional, just felt wordy and boring and sort of, I dunno, dated. It just sort of was there. I remember the feelings and rushes of euphoria I felt listening to those songs at 17/18 years old but that feeling was long gone. The lyrics were confessional and frankly, not very interesting. I moved on to Vs., a disc I waited and waited or. I put it in and checked it out. Same complaints as with Ten, really. The song “Animal,” a personal favorite of mine from the time I watched the band perform the song at the 1993 Video Music Awards, remains a strong song for my enjoyment. It is short, has impact, and doesn’t feel like a victim of the lyrical wordiness I now find in so many of the band’s songs. “Daughter” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” remain fine songs, catchy and warm and impartial. So many of these early songs are about turmoil and conflict and expressing those feelings feel like a young man’s game and hearing those words now it feel all the more apt. Even the songs about “big issues” feel stale and false now. The allusions to gun control in “Glorified G,” the Malice Green inspired “W.M.A.,” the anti-journalistic screed “Blood.” Good God, who cares you know? The disc just felt so much less than I remember. I listened to “Vitalogy” again and that too fell victim to the same issues as the first two discs. Wordy and vapid, but it held up better than the first two. Maybe it was due to my ears getting distracted in 1994 by new sounds, maybe that is why I didn’t listen to the disc as much. With less time spent listening my memories are different and somehow purer. The songs sound better and that helps.
I know that as we age and grow our ears change and what we lived and liked at one point doesn’t hold up. Pearl Jam feels that way to me.
Am I glad I was such a big fan? Sure. Am I bothered by not being one now? No. If anything now I am glad to have enjoyed their music and glad to able to see the band as adults, working adults, laughing and having had fun. That humanizing of Pearl Jam makes me enjoy my time devoted to their band all the more as behind the differing ways I viewed the band at their core they are human, just like all of us, and they seem to have found peace and that makes me happy.
Mike Vincent is a teacher, dreamer, grouch, and runner. He lives in northern Michigan and his favorite Beatle is George Harrison.