Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
I'm pretty much precisely the right age to love Pearl Jam, and understand why some others don't. I was fourteen when Ten came out, Vs seemed to come out immediately after, and had a different feel, then Vitalogy. They released three albums while I was in high school, and I loved all three, and convinced the record store I was working for that we should do a midnight opening for the release of No Code. It was not a huge success. But I still loved the band.
They faded out of my interest in the 21st century with less frequent albums, and less-focused writing. Their music sounded blander to me for a few years, returned to interesting, and then disappeared completely from my radar.
When the first track from their impening release showed up on Youtube, I was excited. I'm a little less excited with their second pre-release single, but I'm intrigued to see what they do with this album. In that spirit, I decided it was time to give a bit of a primer for people who loved the band but lost track, or people who are curious why so many GenXers still care about a grunge band in 2020.
The first album is way extended. I owned all the singles from the album, with all the B-Sides. I bought a bunch of Pearl Jam Bootlegs from record stores, including the legendarry Bad Radio Sessions of Eddie Vedder. I certainly haven't included all the material from that era. No weeping original version of "Betterman" or the Oh So 1991 "Bee Girl" song. But they had some fun non-album tracks, ad some interesting outtakes from Temple Of The Dog (which would be on my Chris Cornell discography, not Pearl Jam's).
This album is my version of a story hinted at by Vedder's lyrics. It starts from the idea of the song / video for "Jeremy" but takes it in different directions. It's not a story I would consider writing now. It's peak Angsty Teen In The 90s. But that was the album Ten. It was so suicidal. So contemplative. So what happens next. So the problems in my life aren't women's faults, and yet women and fathers are at the crux of them.
The bookending of this album is pretty essential to how I hear albums, and how I reorganize them. So I have preserved Once as the opening track, with it's slow climbing intro before the guitars crash in. If you want to read Vedder's story of the songs on this album, there are plenty of articles. That's not what I'm going to do here. This is a reimagining based on his lyrics. This opening track is our narrator, a teenager absolutely at the end of his tether. He's looking for anything to latch on to and get himself under control, but it is not happening. It's not hard to imagine the angry destructive sequences a video for this song would have.
There's a lot on this kid's mind as he gets on the bus to school, and he and his friends (not all sociopaths are loners) joke around about Dirty Frank the bus driver, saying that he's a serial killer and probably a cannibal. They don't seem to suspect what the main character of this story is up to.
State Of Love & Trust was one of the first Pearl Jam songs I heard, as it was on the Singles Soundtrack that my roommate and I each bought. It's how I was introduced to Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, The Smashing Pumpkins, Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, and Screaming Trees. The narrator is thinking of the awful things he's done, and listening to the voice inside (his) head. He's considering ending his own life instead of going through with massacring his school. And he decides to live.
One of the voices that helps him get through the situation is from a girl he met when he was briefly institutionalized. He doesn't even know what her name is. They talked once. She told him about being abused by her father, and how when she lashed out, her mother had her committed. How her mother wants her to "get better" and go home, but Why Go back, knowing she'l just be abused again? She decides her version of "getting better" will be different. Neither he nor we ever find out what happens to her. But he loved her, and imagines being with her again, and that keeps him moving forward.
"Why Go" fades beautifully into Black on both the original album, and this reimagining. Here the narrator imagines a romantic encounter with the girl from "Why Go", and gets flustered. So he goes outside to get some fresh air to clear his head. But it doesn't quite work, as he remembers that the second time he saw her, she didn't acknowledge him, and he doesn't know why.
Wash is still walking outside. Still thinking. Still wishing. Still will he. Still won't he. Still hormonal response to girl he doesn't really know, and yet knows her most intimate secret. Still isn't sure anything he's ever done is right. Still. Still.
Still walking. He reaches the school's Garden. How has he not run into everyone on his little walk around the school? How is he still thinking about this girl who probably hasn't thought of him in months? He decides the way back to her is violence. And he heads back towards the school.
He reaches the Porch and uses a payphone (Hey, it's 1991 here), and checks the messages on his machine (ibid). There are none. He decides he's going to go for it. Go into the school and make the news.
But he doesn't. The crux of this idea. The crux of the album. The video that changed how seriously kids myage watched videos was Jeremy, and in that video an abused kid decides to bring weapons to school and ends up killing himself in front of his horrified class. Things happen differently there. Our narrator isn't Jeremy, but he's in class with him. And they're not friends. But they're similar people. Only this Jeremy doesn't kill himself, but reads a story about killing himself in front of his class. I can't imagine that won't, at least, end up with him in the guidance counselor's office. He's not our concern, though. Jeremy goes off to live his best life. Meanwhile, the teen we've been following decides not to do anything. Today. Tomorrow is not a promise. But today, everybody lives. Nobody has to know what he never quite planned.
The kid goes back to the porch after class, debates whether it would be worth getting in trouble if he smoked a cigarette, and decides against it. He's thinking about that girl again. He's imagining them meeting outside of the hospital. A beach would be great. Yellow Ledbetter has him pndering whether (he's) the boxer or the bag.
He writes her off. In his head, of course. In real life, there's no real way to write off someone who probably hasn't thought of him. He grabs a bus, not a school bus, a city bus, to the beach to blow off some steam, and to Not Be Home. He needs to be on the beach so he can't hear her voice or her Footsteps in his head anymore. Instead, he ends up with the voice of his hospital assigned therapist talking to him. He confessed things to her that he wishes he hadn't but she'd been kinder than anyone else in the hospital. Still, she'd reported some things back to his family that he wishes she hadn't.
He walks into The Ocean to be dramatic. Not suicide dramatic. Floating in the ocean dramatic. Thinking about her again dramatic. But it's deliberate now. It's not voices. It's not hoping for any actualization. He's just drifting, and letting his mind unravel.
When I was in high school, my roommate had a mixtape from a friend called Windowsills. It was songs to listen to while being melodramatic and dreaming out a window. There were many references to suicide. And, while not being suicidal at all myself, I asked a bunch of people on my floor, what song made them think of suicide. That this didn't get me sent to a therpaist myself is remarkable. Deep was on my mix because it even references windowsills. For the purpose of this album, the kid is still in the ocean, diving down and swimming under water for as long as his breath holds. Then gasping back up into the air.
Breath is not about the gasping in the ocean. But about going home. About having skipped the last half of school and being pretty sure his horrid parents know. It's about it now being past curfew and his not having even done anything bad. No violence. No alcohol. He didn't even smoke. Just cut classes to calm himself, and take a dip in the ocean. And then he just walked home instead of taking a bus.
We leave him at the door, and see his father's view of the day Alone. His girlfriend has left him. Just like his wife left him. Because he's awful. And he knows he's awful. And he knows he's a lousy father. And he was an awful husband. And he might just be a awful person. And he walks around the town, and the beach, the same way his son did. And he saw him cutting class. And he saw him doing nothing destructive. And he went home. And he got there first. And he's just as suicidal.
The story that the teenager told the therapist? He knows that his father is not his father. That the guy that's been poorly raising him is just some guy his mother married. Some guy that was better than his real father was. That his real father is no longer Alive, that he will never get a reconciliation there. He remembers the conversation with his mother. How she left. How she left him with the man who doesn't know how to raise him.
The album ends here as the original album ends. Though I don't like how it flows out of "Alive", Release brings us to the kid sitting on a windowsill. (Which once again gets referenced in the song.) Once agan, he's considering suicide. He's considering the legacy of his dead father. He's considering the legacy of the man who's raising him. He's considering the mother who left, the stepmother who left, the father who left, the acting father who he wishes would leave. We don't get an answer about what happens to any of these people. We fade out to credits. Because it was the nineties, and everything was edgy and ambiguous, and dark.