Monday, August 20, 2007

It’s a Muuuusical Journey: My 15-year love/hate relationship with Pearl Jam

I can’t point to any specific date when Pearl Jam became my favorite band, but it had to be somewhere in the “Vitalogy” era of 1994/95, because it was full-on obsession by the time “No Code” came out in summer 1996.
So over the past decade I’ve had plenty of time to continuously refine how I respond to a band so diametrically opposed to my political beliefs. I’ve written about that other places (here and here), and that’s not the point of this entry. This past month has merely reminded me with vivid clarity the dichotomy that exists between me and the five liberals from Seattle whose music I tend to adore and admire.
Let’s start with Thursday, Aug. 2, the day PJ played a fanclub-only show at Chicago’s small Vic Theatre as a warm-up for their headlining gig at Lollapalooza a few days later. One of the reasons I continue to follow, support, and love Pearl Jam is their commitment to loyal fans like me, an M.O. that goes way beyond any other band their size—or just about any size, for that matter—and continuously proved through their visceral live performances. One look at the Vic setlist will tell you this was a unique show, as the rundown eschewed the hits for a lineup existing almost entirely of rare and/or lesser-known cuts. Even for a band that never plays the same set twice, this performance was an exception; they knew who they were playing to, and they tried to provide what they thought diehards would really like. And, of course, they were right, judging by message board traffic, anyway. I’m not necessarily a rarities freak and as an outsider looking in the setlist seems a little awkward; but the attempt is the key—these guys have been treating their fans right for more than 15 years. And, of course, I would have loved to see that show.
So that brings us to Lolla a few nights later, which was webcast live via AT&T’s Blue Room. I was overjoyed to discover the show would be broadcast—for free and in its entirety—because it meant getting to see the band perform without having to visit O’Hare and stand amongst thousands of sweaty, smelly bodies.
The set was an absolute barnstormer, as PJ powered through hit after hit in a mass-appeal show. There was a bit of a dustup the day after, though, when the band discovered a snippet of its performance was “censored” during the simulcast. It is standard practice during “Daughter” for Eddie Vedder (the lead singer, for the one person in a million who might not know) to vamp his way through an extended jam, pulling out lines from other songs. On this night he chose Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” and substituted a couple lines to jab at President Bush (“George Bush, leave this world alone”). The line didn’t make it out over the web, though, because apparently the one person manning the broadcast’s “dump” button edited it out.
Just why the line was cut still isn’t exactly clear. When fans let the band know what happened, Pearl Jam started crying “Censorship!” and AT&T quickly apologized, saying it’s not the company’s policy to censor political statements, only excessive profanity. I can understand being a little irritated, but the band, as is their wont, used the edit as a way to pound home once again the “free speech is under attack” mantra Eddie has been spewing for the better part of a decade. Nevermind the fact he performed several other politically-charged songs at other times that evening—one protesting an oil company, and two others the war in Iraq. None of these were edited in any way.
To this longtime fan, Pearl Jam came off looking ridiculously thin-skinned and diva-esque, as the band usually does when engaging in this type of “commentary.” I’ve heard more of these snippets than I care to recall over the years, and except for rare occasions Eddie usually sounds like a drunken buffoon. If you’re going to protest, do it the right way by playing Dylan’s “Masters of War” (which is always excellent when they do it) or “Worldwide Suicide” (which they DID play and was NOT edited). I shook my head and chuckled at the quips during the show; the post-show drama pissed me off a bit. Give me a break: You have been engaging in anti-Bush rhetoric since 2000; everybody knows how you feel, and no one’s shutting you up, even if we wanted to. Yes, it was a stupid thing to do, but it was one guy, pushing one button, at the end of a very long weekend, who may have just thought—personally—that he was sick of Eddie’s crap. We’ll probably never know, but the Internet continues to bring us more unfiltered music than ever—heck, anybody in the whole wide world could log on and listen to Eddie protest the war. It was one line. Get. Over. It.
Of course, nothing helps me get over incidents like this than what drew me to the band in the first place: Their music.
Right around the time of the Lollapalooza show, I also discovered a batch of Pearl Jam demos/alternate takes/unreleased tracks that showed up online the last week of July. Included in this collection is “Puzzles and Games,” the antecedent of “Light Years” from 2000’s “Binaural.” Now, I really, really like “Light Years,” but after hearing “Puzzles,” I have trouble understanding just what the band was thinking when they moved away from this sprawling, swirling, epic potential classic. “Light Years” retains some elements of “Puzzles,” but—to these ears—it just doesn’t measure up to what “Puzzles” could have been—we’re talking “Corduroy” or “In Hiding” here. I’m thrilled to have this rough cut, though.
And as if that wasn’t enough of a pleasant surprise, today started streaming what I’m tentatively calling Eddie’s best vocal performance on record—ever. Yes, I know what that says—go listen to it. The song is “Hard Sun,” a cover of a rock/folk song by little-known Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Peterson. It hails from the soundtrack to “Into the Wild,” a film directed by Sean Penn, who asked Eddie to write songs for inclusion in the movie.
What this means is that we finally have ourselves an EV solo record. If the rest of the effort sounds even close to “Hard Sun” … well, I can’t let my hopes get that high just now, but this is one of the strongest reactions I’ve ever had to a Vedder song. His voice is simply perfect on this track—thick and deep and vibrant and soaring. He wraps it around and through the melody without a trace of strain; it gave me goosebumps the first time through and instantly reminded me of his fabulous lo-fi cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up” from the pre-PJ days (oh, and that’s Corin Tucker, formerly of Sleater-Kinney, on background vocals, which only sweetens the deal that much more). I could use this song as Exhibit A for why I love this man’s music so much (as if these weren’t enough). I’m now about as excited for this album as I’ve ever been for a Pearl Jam record.
So there you have it: The ying and yang, highs and lows, embarrassment and pride, distaste and excitement of a month being a Pearl Jam fan. What will next month bring?

***The batch of demos can be downloaded here***
***A lesser quality version of “Hard Sun” can be found at***

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